"[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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

See the music

One of the greatest challenge for teachers of music to children above primary school age is helping them become accustomed to reading music and feeling fluent in its written form. The challenge is even greater if a student becomes interested in composing or conducting. This could be a valuable tool -- animated scores synchronized to a recording, to help forge the direct connection between the visual and aural centers in the brain which is essential for those of us who deal with written music. Whether or not it's educational, it is kind of fun. Here's the first track in Miles Davis's great Kind of Blue album, "So What?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Google+ the solution to school social media problems?

Most thinking administrators and teachers agree that there is tremendous power and reach to be harnessed and put into the service of education in the new social media. My former boss, Eric Sheninger of New Milford High School, with over 13,000 followers, has emerged as a national leader in the use of Twitter in connection with education. But the same group has to acknowledge there are problems and pitfalls aplenty.

The biggest problem is that of one's online identity. Or should I say, identities. As you can learn from watching Sesame Street, we have different identities for different people. We are sons or daughters AND parents AND aunts and uncles AND neighbors AND friends AND teachers AND classmates AND advocates AND hobbyists, ad infinitum. Google requires all those identities and circles of friends to rub up against each other rather indiscriminately. Thus, I get unsolicited comments from friends of friends about topics on which I may have no common ground with the commenter. Unless you want to spend all your free time micromanaging your privacy arrangements on Google, everything you do there will be tossed into one common pool.

Personally, I have elected to refrain from, for example, political comment, other than to defend my profession (which has become a political hot potato). But I like to able to share pictures of my family events, vacations and all those cute pet pictures that cause the InterWeb to break down from time to time from the sheer volume. And I don't care for my students to see that. Nor do I want to know what "crazy party" they are at and what they are doing there. When I first joined Facebook I told students I would friend them because I never went there or looked at anything there. But once I started using Facebook actively in early 2010, I unfriended all my students, rather apologetically. (That is a hideous verb, based on the misconception that the people you "friend" are your friends."

Google Plus steps neatly around this by organizing your friends into separate, discrete circles and giving each member complete control as to what circle or circles see what content. I can see the savvy teacher forming a specific circle for each course she teaches, each extra-curricular activity, with some circles sharing content, such as for all-school communications, and others being directed just to individual groups. And none of these people have to see each other with mayonnaise smeared on their face at a family picnic or playing with the family ferret. Obviously, I need to discuss this with my principal and pilot the idea, but I am really hoping that this can be a useful mode of communication before, after and outside the class.

Infusing Poetry into Language Arts Instruction III

Continuing my long slow series on integrating poetry into an overall language arts program, which I began with my anti-Poetry Month post, I urge you and your students to create personal anthologies of poetry and verse to intensify your personal relationship with poetic expression that is of real personal meaning.

If you're reading this, you're probably a savvy teacher and you don't need me laying out all the specifications of the project. I simply want to share what I've learned about doing such an assignment, based on what I think it should accomplish, as contrasted with what usually happens in most high school and middle school English classes.

First and foremost, as I've been trying to emphasize in all of my posts on this topic, poetry should be an all-year, every-week topic, not an isolated unit hastily scrabbled together toward the end of the year. ("Poems are short -- the students are tired...") Do not shuffle it off to a sideshow, or it will become a meaningless waste of time. Poetry works on the mind and the soul incrementally. It needs time and prolonged exposure to work its magic and it does not demand those the way a novel does. So it is up to you to provide those.

So first of all, your anthology project is too small and too short. I see teachers assigning 8 or 10 poems. I can scoop that many up in less than half an hour. I would suggest no fewer than 40 poems -- about one per week for the year, and even that it is a bit cautious for my tastes. It's really easy to find poems one likes.

Second, the poems must be hand-written in the anthology. I know how to cut and paste, so I expect my students have figured that out, too. And cut-and-pasted material is rarely read. To write a poem out by hand is to have a personal physical relationship to it. Quite a palpable physical relationship, for that matter, because one has to plan the use of the available space -- if a line has to be split, or a poem stretches over more than one page. Every word that passes through the pen has passed through the mind, and as many actors and public speakers know, the act of writing something down aids the memory.

Which brings up the next point. You MUST assign memorization. A lot of teachers are shying away from this, either from fear of student opposition, which is fierce on this point lately; and also from a sincere conviction (which I share to some degree) that in the era of easy access to information, memorization is a less important skill. This is certainly true of known and static facts. But there are still things we need to carry in our heads, such as diagnostic information or procedures to accomplish things.

And there is a special relationship between a person and a poem he or she has memorized. If you have any doubt about that, look at this video:

Some grammar school teacher of blessed memory made her students memorize something, and not just anything, but in this case, one of the richest verses in the English language, and that memory provided sustenance in a time of trial, and has remained with him his entire life.

If you really want to see how someone can live completely infused with poetry, see The History Boys. Wouldn't it nice to always have poetry at your mental fingertips for every situation?

Back to the anthology project. The memorized poem really shouldn't be the only one all year. You should do it at least once per quarter and give your students detailed, kind critiques which can help them develop and improve in the aural presentation of verse. Nobody learns much from anything they only do once, or even only occasionally.

All the usual specifications should apply to your anthology project. Have them illustrate and decorate the books, be sure they write a personal reflection of a reasonable length for each verse, and, given that your project will stretch over many months, there should be periodic progress check-ups. You may want to have the students select a theme or some other organizing principle, so that the anthology is less general and perhaps scattered. But you know how to do all that.

I just ask that you stop segregating poetry from the rest of language arts and let it out of its box to play with all the other literary forms - essay, short story, journalism, dramatic work AND full-length fiction, and see what it contributes to the general conversation. I think you'll be happily surprised.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

This story in the Washington Post starts off with some good news:
School leaders in Virginia and Maryland said they are likely to seek exemptions for the most stringent requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law after an announcement Monday that the Obama administration will offer flexibility to states willing to modernize their accountability systems.
Sadly, this is not prompted by the realization that the accountability systems don't make sense, but that most states will not reach the 2014 goals set in the original act. Education officials have got it partially right, saying they want to focus on improvements in performance, not on predetermined proficiency goals.

But the bigger problem is that there is no proven, reliable way to measure what has been learned. We can monitor what teachers intend to teach, we can measure the amount of information that has been memorized, but we still don't know how to measure learning. Which is not to say we should give up. But we need to stop pretending that standardized tests, especially multiple-choice and short answer tests, measure anything valuable at all.

I hope all 50 states apply for waivers to provide for time to figure out new, sound and reliable ways to measure what students are learning, and even better yet -- how the heck it happened...Link happened...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Maybe if a movie star says it...

Matt Damon says a lot of what I've been trying to say here, but maybe people will pay attention if a movie star says it:

By the way, stupid interviewer lady, actors don't do good work just to get their next job. All professionals do good work because they're professionals. They can't help it, or at least they can't help wanting to do their best. Probably not a factor for the hacks at "reason.tv", whatever that is.

Tip of the hat to Rob Lockhart, game designer extraordinaire for highlighting this link.