"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's the curriculum, stupid

There was a remarkable story in the New York Times yesterday about a 4,000-student school in Massachusetts which has had spectacular results in raising student achievement across the curriculum by simply requiring students to write across the curriculum. Even Phys Ed (which some of the teachers complained about). There were no mass firings, no technology gimmicks, no alteration of the work rules. Time ordinarily spent in routine administrative meetings were spent in retraining teachers and getting everyone on board with the goals and the plan.

Incidentally, the focus on writing confirms my own long-held belief, confirmed in law school, that organized writing requires organized thinking; that one way to calm down the chaotic thinking in our students' brains is to make them habitual writers.

The success story comes from a report presented in June 2009 at the conference for The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. Here's an excerpt from the abstract [emphasis mine]:
The main lesson from the presentations was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction...Leadership teams succeeded initially because they used their positional authority effectively to jump-start the change process. Then they built trust. More specifically, they demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours; they studied research-based literature to expand their knowledge and competence; they persevered to follow through on the promises they made; and they found ways to remain respectful of peers, even when asking them to improve their performance. In these ways, leadership teams earned the respect of their colleagues and the authority to push people outside their comfort zones. With cultivated competence and earned authority, they were able to help their colleagues overcome the types of fear and resistance that so often prevent effective reforms in American high schools.
Gee, I thought the thing was to threaten to fire teachers and completely demoralize the faculty!

The gazillionaires all claim that small schools and charter schools are The Answer. But apparently, they're not. Like everything else in education, it all comes down to curriculum.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wrong "Superman"

A few years ago, someone wanted Nicholas Cage to play Superman. Would you believe that? Would you believe Nicholas Cage was Superman? Not very convincing.

Evidently, the producers of Waiting for Superman haven't made a convincing case either. I wrote a while back about the anticipation of this film. Now that it's here, it seems that it has built its argument about school reform around a bag of discredited and failed ideas which are described in this piece appearing on the Washington Post's education web page.

To give you an idea, here are the bold headings in the story:

*Waiting for Superman says that lack of money is not the problem in education.

*Waiting for Superman implies that standardized testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress.

*Waiting for Superman ignores overall problems of poverty.

*Waiting for Superman says teachers’ unions are the problem.

[Executive Summary - the school systems the film touts as successful are unionized with tenure.]

*Waiting for Superman says teacher education is useless.

*Waiting for Superman decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement.

*Waiting for Superman says charter schools allow choice and better educational innovation.

*Waiting for Superman glorifies lotteries for admission to highly selective and subsidized charter schools as evidence of the need for more of them.

[Executive Summary - Admission to the good life in America should be distributed by chance. Forget about opportunity for everyone.]

*Waiting for Superman says competition is the best way to improve learning.

*Waiting for Superman says good teachers are key to successful education. We agree. But Waiting for Superman only contributes to the teacher-bashing culture which discourages talented college graduates from considering teaching and drives people out of the profession.

*Waiting for Superman says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore. . . This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.”

[Executive Summary - It’s the market, and the disproportionately high salaries paid to finance specialists, that is misdirecting human resources, not schools.]

*Waiting for Superman promotes a nutty theory of learning which claims that teaching is a matter of pouring information into children’s heads.

[I thought this had been proven wrong at least 30 years ago.]

*Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world.

*Waiting for Superman says federal “Race to the Top” education funds are being focused to support students who are not being served in other ways.

[Just. Not. True.]

*Waiting for Superman suggests that teacher improvement is a matter of increased control and discipline over teachers.

*Waiting for Superman proposes a reform “solution” that exploits the feminization of the field of teaching; it proposes that teachers just need a few good men with hedge funds (plus D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom) to come to the rescue.

What a disappointment. Teachers and kids are going to have to keep waiting until the so-called grown-ups in charge realize that educational disparity is part of a systemic structural economic problem in our country, not something to be fixed with whiz-bang magic-wand solutions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How to say everything exactly right

Working on a long post about a pretty interesting topic, but in the meantime, here's this:

What do I think about this? Don't axe me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teaching plays with audiobooks

English teachers are divided among themselves about the use of audio books for reading assignments. Many feel that offering audiobooks permits students to avoid the hard work of deciphering text visually, a skill they will need to acquire. I am of the school that listening to a story still requires deciphering and interpretive skills; I encourage students to use audiobooks while following in the book; and in many cases this is simply the only way many struggling readers will acquire the material at all. (I also believe there are more undiagnosed cases of reading disabilities than we know.) I have been known to distribute CDRs with Mp3 files of audiobook versions of books we're studying when I believed it would be of genuine assistance to the student.

There are a lot of audiofiles out there, but many of the free ones available (such as LibriVox) are made by volunteers, so you should check out how they sound before recommending them or supplying them to students.

The one less disputed use of audiobooks is in studying plays. Most of the time, my students are enthusiastic about reading aloud when they can take specific roles (as contrasted with reading ordinary prose). Sometimes, however, classes are shy or students are reluctant to read expressively. Also, Shakespeare can be very daunting to read alone, especially when reading "cold." And I usually pass over the text several times in the classroom to insure students have maximum exposure to this challenging material.

Often I used my own or borrowed recordings to rip Mp3 files. But I have located some links for free downloads of some plays, which I thought I'd share with you. As I find more, I'll share them with you. Most of the files are in compressed format and will require expander software. For Windows users like me, I like 7-zip, which is free and has been completely reliable. Some of these downloads are in Mp3 format.

Let's start with one that's on a lot of syllabuses--I've been teaching it almost my whole career: The Crucible.

Then there's Hamlet, and there are several versions to offer. First is the BBC Radio Version featuring Kenneth Branagh leading the Renaissance Theatre Company. It may not be absolutely complete, but it's about as complete as you can find. The files have been uploaded in three sections, which we shall refer to as one, two, three and four.

Next we have the recent production seen on public television here, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and The Ghost. It is in a single Mp3 file.

And just for an exotic difference, here's the Nicol Williamson Hamlet of the late 1960s with Marianne Faithful as Ophelia, Anthony Hopkins as Claudis and one of the first angry-young-man interpretations. Again, this is an Mp3.

While we're on the subject of Hamlet, some Honors and AP teachers work with Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. There is no audiobook of it yet, but here's a rip of the soundtrack of the film, which, while visually dull, tracks the text of the play very closely. Also, it has Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, who are perfectly cast as the title characters.

Speaking of honors classes and absurdism, there are two good recordings of Waiting for Godot. One is with Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall and the original American cast, in two parts, one and two.

The other is a starry BBC Radio version with Ian MacKellan as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, also split into Act I and Act II.

Meanwhile, back with Shakespeare, the next most popular play in the classroom has to be the (shhh!) Scottish Play. This is a BBC Radio version with Richard Eyre directing Kenneth Stott and Phyllis Logan, again split into sections one, two and three. (BTW, can't wait to see the television production later this year with Patrick Stewart as an unspecified Eastern European despot sporting a 20-something hot trophy wife Lady Macbeth. Interesting interpretation.)

Another fairly common play in the classroom is Othello, which can be heard in a production starring Anthony Hopkins, with Bob Hoskins as an inspired Iago, again split into parts one and two. The text is virtually complete.

I remember well reading King Lear during my senior year in high school, and I wish I could have heard John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and company. Files are divided, like Lear's kingdom, into parts One, Two and Three. The text is virtually complete.

If you crave novelty, you can also check out Sir Alec Guiness's Lear here, somewhat abridged.

Many schools teach The Tempest, which can be downloaded here with a cast led by Sir Ian MacKellan.

In my first school, I initiated the teaching of Shakespeare in our middle school. Reasoning that I wanted something readily understood, and that most high schools in the area taught Midsummer's Night Dream or Romeo and Juliet in the freshman year, I opted for Taming of the Shrew, which can be downloaded here in parts one and two.

It's a shame more schools don't teach Richard III, because for a history (or is it a tragedy), it's rollicking good fun. You can go with a complete rendition by Kenneth Branagh and cast, posted in parts one and two; or you can go with the abridged soundtrack from the film starring Laurence Olivier. (Branagh just spends all his time catching up with Olivier, doesn't he?)

If you're really intrepid, this is not very clearly marked, but there is an entire archive of all of the Arkangel Shakespeare recordings here, arranged so you can download just what you want. I'm sort of lukewarm about this library, as they don't boast as distinguished casts as most of the productions I've posted here, but it may be the only place to find a free copy of some of the lesser plays, in case you're teaching Measure for Measure, Titus Andronics or Two Noble Kinsmen.

I wanted to post audio versions of those all-time favorites, Julius Caesar, Midsummer's Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice, but I'm still looking for excellent free copies. If I find them, I'll post them. Meantime, you could use the Arkangel versions posted above.

And for a lighter touch, you can introduce younger students to Shakespeare with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the Reduced Theater Company. The DVD is probably better for the classroom, but if you want an audio version, maybe for yourself to listen to in the car, the entire radio series of six half-hours can be found here in parts one and two.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Still trying to bell that cat

No teacher with any professional pride would argue that we shouldn't try to assess a teacher's competence, and determine who is effective, who isn't, and then increase the level of effectiveness. (One would hope that we would try new learning and training to make teachers more effective before we just toss them onto the curb, but that's another discussion.)

The problem is that we still can't figure out how to measure it. And the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan research tank has concluded definitively that the system of tying teacher compensation directly and mechanically to student test scores called "Value-Added Measurement" doesn't work.

Here are the final paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the report (emphasis mine):

Evaluation by competent supervisors and peers...should form the foundation of teacher evaluation systems, with a supplemental role played by multiple measures of student learning gains that, where appropriate, could include test scores. Some districts have found ways to identify, improve, and as necessary, dismiss teachers using strategies like peer assistance and evaluation that offer intensive mentoring and review panels.

These and other approaches should be the focus of experimentation by states and districts.

Adopting an invalid teacher evaluation system and tying it to rewards and sanctions is likely to lead to inaccurate personnel decisions and to demoralize teachers, causing talented teachers to avoid high-needs students and schools, or to leave the profession entirely, and discouraging potentially effective teachers from entering it.

Legislatures should not mandate a test-based approach to teacher evaluation that is unproven and likely to harm not only teachers, but also the children they instruct.
The biggest problem is, as any middle school science student will tell you, is that we cannot hold all the factors in student learning--other than teaching--constant. The study doesn't say this, but I can say it from experience, experience which has been borne out by colleagues I've discussed it with. There are two and only two reasons for student under-performance. One is an actual identifiable learning disorder or disability. In most cases, there is a way to work with or work around such a problem, provided is correctly identified. The other reason is problems at home. That phrase encompasses a whole heck of a lot of different things, from problems in the parents' marriage to financial difficulties to bereavements or dislocations--the list goes on and on. But the larger point is--problems at home are things that no teacher can do anything about, idealistic TV shows and movies to the contrary. You can't fix a kid's family, and you have no business trying.

This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out who the good teachers are and why. (Incidentally, another study I read this week found that they could find no common factor of teaching style among effective teachers. So that means it goes deeper than questions of style.) Certainly, teachers can tell by observation who is teaching and who isn't. And by the way, students can tell, too.

And here's the dirty secret of teacher evaluation that no politician or administrator is going to tell you: when we come up with a good system, it's going to cost more than whatever we're doing now. Then, I suspect, all the angry taxpayers will have less interest in teacher accountability, and perhaps the professionals will be left alone to determine the best methods.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shirley Shirley bo Birley, Banana fanna fo Firley...

One year I was paired in a team-taught course with another former lawyer, about my age, in his first full year of teaching. As the first day began, he turned to me and said, "I'm terrible with names. I've never going to learn all those names." I said, "It's part of the job. It might be the main part of the job. You have to let each and every kid know that you know who they are and that you would never confuse them with anyone else."

"How can I do that?" he said. "Fake it," I said.

When I was a student, each year I arrived at school afraid that I had forgotten how to take notes, how to study, how to prepare how to think. This went right through the fourth year of night law school. Happily, I was wrong.

In similar fashion, I am convinced each year of teaching that this is the year my ability to absorb 100 to 125 new names (not including the kids I see in extra-curricular situations) will break down completely. It doesn't help that researchers tell us we have more difficulty identifying persons of races different than our own. (This has nothing to do with racism, just biology.)

One thing one can't do is to categorize students. Sooner or later, you will pull out the wrong name from the right category, and it will become obvious just how you see that student. "Oh--she's the Indian kid." "Oh, he's the science nerd."

There are tips all over the Interwebs about remembering names. I like these. There simply is no substitute for looking each kid in the eye, saying their name, and, as soon as possible, figure out the means by which you are going to connect that student to your content. If a student is excited about vampires, Camaros or lacrosse, that is a handle a teacher can use--especially in the humanities--to make a connection to the material to be taught.

I do like to latch onto interesting and unusual names--given or family--and see if there is some kind of story. Once I've stood and talked with a student and shared a story about themselves with them, they are much harder to forget.

Until next summer, anyway! :)

Monday, September 6, 2010

New goal for the school year - a mile past SPLAT!

Jules Feiffer. Just finished his fine memoir, Backing into Forward.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How smart is book smart?

I am hitting the books these days, not only to get ready for the school year but to prepare for another Praxis test in order to be certified as highly qualified in a field in which I worked, off and on, for 25 years, and which I have taught in the classroom for a number of years, by virtue of my two other subject-area certifications. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz:
Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity! Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have. But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D..Doctor of Thinkology.
With one hand we denounce this passive process in favor of "authentic" that is, real-world learning, with the other hand we base our educational credentials (and compensation) system on the conventional (and supposedly discredited) system.

The irony is that the field for which I am doing some book-larning in order to pass the test, theater, is an apprenticeship-based system, and has always been. New technologies and social structures have some impact on the the way theater is conducted and its subject matter. But the knowledge required to create theater is and has always been passed to the next generation on a one-to-one basis. There is no way to learn theater other than to do theater with experienced practitioners. Yes, you could start up all by yourself and be an auto-didact, but you will be doomed to re-invent a lot of wheels.

And that's what we do with new teachers. We make them re-invent wheels every day of the week. I was fortunate in that the among the first courses I taught was two double-sections of a team-taught course (Humanities--combined Social Studies and Language Arts). And as a matter of circumstance, I was teamed with four different teachers in four years. From two (luckily the first two) I took great positive lessons in classroom effectiveness; from the second two I mostly learned negative lessons and gained an opportunity to become a leader, at least in a small way. I have since gone on to teach in more conventional situations, and I realize how lucky I was. If I had been put out into the ocean of teaching in a boat by myself, I probably would have sunk long ago. But in most middle and high-schools, alone is what you are going to be most of the time. And teacher's room lunchtime anecdotes is no substitute for working with an experienced teacher and gaining a sense of what works and what doesn't.

And my career as a lawyer required some apprenticeship as well. A large firm handles this in a formal way. The place I started handled it more casually, but everyone involved understood that new lawyers must learn every day from more experienced lawyers, especially since rookie mistakes can be costly to clients and to the firm. Translated into educational terms, rookie mistakes can be costly to students and to the school. But we more inclined to laugh about those and treat them as inevitable, when they are so easily avoided.

We don't see the value of this passing-on of experience in schools, and so we won't spend the money to apprentice new teachers to more experienced ones. I don't mean meeting with a mentor from time to time; I don't mean professional development, in which we sit on our tails for hours at a time except for breaks to do a worksheet or to talk with each other (bleaah); I mean actual teaching in a classroom side-by-side for months at a time.

Oh well, back to the books. Let's see if they teach me anything I don't know.