Archive for March, 2005

Counting to 1

Mar 31 2005 Published by under borderland

I’ve been working with my 4th graders on fractions during the last week or so. They LIKE fractions. The reason they feel this way is that I started them off with a game that they made themselves out of paper that they tore into halves, fourths, eighths, and sixteenths. It always surprises and delights me when I hear the “aha!” that emerges spontaneously. When you hear that, you know you hit the bullseye with one of your magic darts. I got to smile a few times last week when one of the boys, after we’d made these things and worked with them for about 45 minutes, said, “Hey! I just noticed something! These things go by 2′s.” Sometimes the teacher has to allow the experience to simmer before the soup is right.

Today I had another chance to lead them into territory on the edge of the map. Decimals. I had them use graph paper and color in the squares in a 10 by 10 grid. We discussed the relationship of decimals to fractions. During the lesson I got one of those good ideas that over the years I’ve learned to trust. Thinking that they needed to learn to trust these numbers and not just identify .25, .47, .50, etc. I decided that they may appreciate learning to count to 1. I had them start out writing 0.00, 0.01, 0.02, 0.03… by the time we got to 0.12 one of the resident geniuses spoke up and announced, “This is just like normal counting.” Aha!

When we were on the way to the Music teacher’s class, several of them told the third graders they met in the hall, “We just learned how to count to 1! By hundredths!”

Some days things work out better than others. At the end of the period I asked them to write down what they learned today. My favorite response was, “I learned that besides 0 there is a lower number than 1.”

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One Step Forward

Mar 29 2005 Published by under education,technology

This morning when I opened my email at work I found a message from the school district’s tech director informing all of us that there were two polls online that we were being asked to complete. This is the first time that we have ever been asked to respond electronically to a poll. I liked the idea, but I wonder how many teachers are going to bother to respond. The polls are posted in a password protected directory that contains a slick PHP file sharing application that few teachers know how to use. One of the polls is about technology usage and the other was about time management in the classroom. These are two very big issues for me.

The time management survey asks for information about factors that influence instructional time, and how we feel we can affect change where needed. Things like students who get pulled out for special programs, equipment – like copiers – that routinely malfunction, and crowded curriculum requirements top my list. And they are all listed in the survey as items to comment on. There is also a text field where we can comment on other issues not listed in the dropdown choices. That’s where I get to tell about reinventing the wheel due to lack of support materials and books to teach science and math. We have math books, but they are not very helpful. I spend the bulk of my time at work creating materials for the students to work with, not necessarily because we don’t have anything, but because the materials we do have don’t work for the kids in my classroom. So I do it my own way. Like I always do.

The other survey was interesting, too. We’re asked about the various ways that we use computers, the level and department in which we teach, and software and hardware that we currently use – both administratively and instructionally. Teachers are also asked to suggest training that they would like to see. This is really tough. It is extremely difficult to get teachers together for training sessions. Most technology requires both knowledge and practice before it can be usefully applied. In the past when we’ve had training like this it has been a single session that lasted several hours and then no further support. Of course, by the time we get back to the classroom and try to do something it either doesn’t work or half the people have forgotten their passwords and can’t remember how to get to square 1. It’s cynical of me to say this, but I don’t think teacher training will work unless it is ongoing and during the work day. That is expensive.

The administration is discussing hiring technology specialists. That may work if they put one in each building for at least half a day. But even there, we need to have software tools that support legitimate learning outcomes. Two of the best tools that I have in my classroom are an LCD projector, which essentially multiplies one computer so that it becomes a truly instructional tool. These are not common, but I think they should be in every classroom. The kids get a lot out of simply watching someone operate it, much less learning about whatever is being discussed. We have access to a library of instructional films that I show with that projector. Students learn a lot from those movies, and there are hundreds of them. They download very quickly over our network. The other thing that I’ve been using for a couple of years are some tough little keyboards called Alphasmarts. The kids can use them to write with, and then plug into a computer to download to a file. They can drop them, too.

My fondest hope for technology development is that I will be able to get a blogsite going that enables kids to use those little keyboards to dump their writing into a database/weblog cms rather than simply press “print” and be done with it. They could then begin to build electronic portfolios that they could keep for their school careers. It would be excellent to see their growth over time this way. Not only that, they could form expressive communities joined though literate activity, and see immediate and authentic purpose in reading and writing at school. This idea is being discussed by only one person in the Fairbanks public school system that I know of – me.

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Two Steps Back

Mar 29 2005 Published by under education

There was an article in the News Miner today about the public employees retirement system. (PRS/TRS) It’s messed up, apparently. And Rep. Kelly wants to try to fix it.

The problem: The fund is about 5 billion dollars in the red! Fairbanks alone owes its teachers over 230 million. The state wants our school disctrict to pay 4 million a year for 25 years to repay the money. That money will come out of our instructional budget.

The solution proposed:

  • Restructure the PRS/TRS Board to include people with financial management backgrounds;
  • Create a new tier for future employees in which there would be a defined contribution, and not a defined benefit;
  • Charge current employees a higher contribution each year until we are paying 20% more ( I think that’s what it says);

I predict that if these bill pass, large numbers of teachers will walk away from their jobs. According to Dick Solie, TRS board member, three-fourths of the debt is owed to current retirees. The proposal Kelly is making asks current workers to pay for the retirements of those who are already retired. So why not retire!!

How did this happen? Higher health care costs, longer life expectancy, economic reversals in investment markets.

My gut reaction: My job is becoming increasingly thankless and impossible. I’m going to have to work forever. I need to find something else to do. Between NCLB, Special Ed, and Title 1 regulations, a crowded curriculum and kids with personal lives that are way too complicated, teaching has become a profession for either fools or martyrs. I don’t consider myself a fool. And I’m not sure about the other. I was raised Catholic, after all. I believe that the future of public schooling is in serious jeopardy.

The people who want to see revolutionary change might get their chance sooner than they know. I’m not saying that change isn’t warranted. I see the need maybe more clearly than anyone. But I also know that a vision for change has not been clearly articulated. If there are any lessons in recent history that can be applied to this proposition look no farther than the liberation of Baghdad. Rather than watch the system crumble like a house of cards and have to be rebuilt, I would consider it far more constructive to see it fragment and decentralize so that local systems (very small nodes) could begin to form and educate people to participate in discreet communities of practice. This sounds like the formation of street gangs, and that may not be such an outrageous model if we could apply the principles to legitimate ends. Guilds might be another way to think of alternatives to the behemoth that we currently feed. Guilds that are supported by technology and real-world experience. A decentralized system, much like the internet, supported by the internet.

One of the problems with calls to reform the school system is that it is viewed distantly as a system, rather than as a community. I think that we should try to preserve community as much as we can while transforming the structures. The federalized model that we have allowed to evolve is NOT the way to go. Privatizing education will create inequity. There lies the crux.

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Lists and Literature

Mar 27 2005 Published by under borderland,literacy

William Gass is my current read. I’ve been slowly wandering through his 2002 collection of essays, Tests of Time. He’s kind of hard to follow in many places because he seems to consider himself a writer’s writer and makes way too many references to things that I’ve not (and probably never will) read. But nevertheless, I enjoy the stimulation of reading something more challenging than the newspaper, Time Magazine, and the journals of fourth graders. I go off on little mental side trips – free associations where I put new ideas together. Writing this stuff down makes it more real for me. Whether anyone else can use it is a different matter.

In “I’ve Got a Little List,” Gass muses on the place of lists in literature and in the modern psyche. The reason this caught my attention has a lot to do with this weblog. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about blogs as a literary genre – what kind of writing they are. I believe that the form is open to interpretation right now and that blogs can be anything we want them to be. Poetry, essay, journalism, commentary, letters; it all works. I came up with the idea a while back of using Lists as a category for some of my blog posts. I didn’t give it much thought, but it seemed like they might qualify as a literary form in and of themselves. And then here comes Gass with a 10 yard shitload – going on about lists, their meanings, and their uses. He has a whole lot of fun with the topic, and gets altogether carried away. I enjoyed the silliness because I love to play with logic and reasoning. I can’t go into more detail without getting bogged down. So I think it’s time to make a list of the things that Gass has to say about lists. In order:

  • Lists ought to head the list of rhetorical forms;
  • Lists are purposeful assemblies – like shopping lists, the 7 wonders of the world, and old girlfriends ;
  • Some lists are ordered hierarchies and some are neutral itemizations;
  • Lists detach their members from their normal contexts;
  • Most lists are minimal and terse;
  • Punctuation on lists is limited;
  • For every list, there is another list of things that are not on that list;
  • Crossing a listed item out does not really take it off the list;
  • All lists have requirements for membership;
  • Lists may be open (stupid things that I will do in my life) or closed (the number of beers I drank last week);
  • Lists are fundamental to narrative descriptions. You find them in books, newspapers, magazines, etc;
  • Because of the structure necessary for linguistic representations, lists impose an order on our perceptions that may not actually exist;
  • Lists are used as a literary form to suggest abundance, magnificence, grandeur.
  • It is impossible to make a complete list of lists;

There are several other facets of lists that Gass examined in this essay, but they don’t fit on my list.

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Just Like Harry Potter

Mar 26 2005 Published by under technology

This little desktop blogging tool, Ecto, just became a magic wand for me. It’s funny how you can have a tool sitting around for a while and not quite see all the things it can do. I think about how Harry Potter and his pals learned to use their magic wands. Their initial efforts are clumsy (except Hermione, she’s the real geek in the crew) but soon one of the rest of them – Harry usually – pulls off something truly useful.

What just happened for me is that I have been trying to keep a local copy of my blog on my iMac. I’ve got the MySql and PHP running on the Apache server tucked inside this little 6 year-old relic of a computer. I use the local copy to work out design and writing experiments. But it’s been a pain remembering to copy and paste every time I post – especially when I post to the blog from somewhere else. Ah, but now….

I realized this morning that Ecto might have a feature that allows me to post to more than one blog. Sure enough! It grabs all the posts off of a remote server. And with the click of a button you can redirect a post from one account to another. “Lumos!”.

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The Safety Thing

Mar 26 2005 Published by under politics

Yesterday the principal came on the horn for the morning announcements. Along with all of the usual business such as the lunch menu, schedules for choir, and so on, he ended the session with a warning about taking food onto school buses. He reminded the students that there is a rule against food on the bus. And then he said, “It’s a safety thing. The bus might suddenly stop, and someone could choke.” I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. Then, because I am a heretic by habit, I said to the kids, “That’s not the reason! It’s because of the trash everyone leaves on the bus.”

For several years now, I’ve noticed that adults use safety concerns to justify their directives to kids where respect is really the issue. As in, “Don’t kick each other, it’s not safe.” Or, “Please ( I hate that word when it’s followed by a command) don’t climb on the bathroom stalls, you might fall and hurt someone.” I told the kids – and the older I get the more I preface my stories with: “When I was your age (recognize that?) safety wasn’t even invented.” They look a bit worried. (Huh?) Then I said, “I was allowed to take off from home in the morning and be gone all day long withhout anyone knowing where I was.” A quick-witted little boy responded, “But there wasn’t as much danger then.” True enough.

I wonder, though, how these safety messages affect the kids. And everyone else! Here’s the big question: Isn’t the Homeland Security Department like the mother of all mothers? Since 9-11 the American public has been cautioned into compliance with an unprecedented assault on our rights to privacy. Instead of learning to live bravely in a dangerous world, we are being programmed with health advisories and safety alerts, and searched in airports. The safety discourse will produce a fearful – easily controlled – population. Kids are getting this message from a young age, and are being taught that danger is the reason to respect authority. Meanwhile, popular media bombards us with graphic imagery, suggesting that the world can be every bit as deadly as we’re told.

When my kids were all little, I handed them scissors and pins while I changed their diapers. It kept them from squirming around because they were fascinated by these “forbidden” tools. And taught them about “Sharp.” I also invited them to touch the woodstove when it wasn’t too hot so that they could feel it when it wasn’t dangerous. I wanted them to learn about danger without scaring or hurting them. I wanted them to trust me to look out for them, but not out of fear. Love and respect are the rule in my house. We recognize fear as a danger in itself. Danger has been a fact of life for as long as humans have been around. The simple fact is that there’s shit out there that can get you. And sooner or later it will. Guaranteed. We can use danger to live bravely. Danger and risk has always been a part of living.

All day long after that announcement I justified my directions with, “It’s a safety thing.” As in, “Pick up that pencil off the floor. Someone could trip.”

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Mar 23 2005 Published by under education

I am continually amazed at the passivity of certain learners. Today I asked the group to use cursive handwriting to copy some words off of a spelling list. I gave them fine-point markers and a list that I copied with the copy machine so that they would have a model to work from. The task for them was to use the markers to trace the words, and then pencils to rewrite them. After that was finished they were supposed to use the portable keyboards, Alphasmarts, to write a paragraph that included several of the words. The words were semantically related, easy to use for this assignment: healthy, vitamins, product, etc. I went around watching the group. A few of my least skillful readers were busily writing the words in cursive with the markers when I checked to see if they were making meaning of the task. What word are you writing? I asked. Blank stares. After this many years in the classroom, I should not be surprised by this. But I feel astonishment at the willingness of people who do not take responsibility for, or even bother to try, finding out what they need to know to make sense of what they are doing. These kids were content to simply “color” the words. Shortcuts. Clearly, my definition of the task was different from theirs. This happens more than we like to think.

Why does this happen? Part of the reason is that the curriculum dictates what material students in a given grade level are to learn. Of course, teachers who are on the ball know that one size does not fit all. But our ability to differentiate instruction to a vast range of abilities is limited. The solution for the word-colorers today was that they should have been given easier words this week. But I didn’t forsee this need because I don’t have time to plan for every single student. The problem works the other way, too, but is not as evident. There are plenty of kids for whom the work may be too easy. It’s harder to determine who those kids are, though. So a lot of really talented kids are simply maintained while we struggle to Leave No Child Behind.

What is the answer? We – teachers – discuss this all the time. As if it would actually make a difference. Next to student discipline, it may be the biggest challenge we face. I think that we could do a lot more for kids by having them grouped for instruction according to what they know, as opposed to how old they are. We have two separate organizational schemes working at once, and not in concert. There is the content-scheme which calls for presentation of the same content to each group of kids. And we have the socialization-scheme which recognizes that children at given ages share certain awarenesses. The piece that is not recognized institutionally, though, is that children at given ages do not necessarily share the same knowledge. So it’s apples and oranges, or peanuts and popsicles, or whatever combinations of things that don’t belong together that you care to name. We group the kids together because they understand each other and we have them listen to a teacher who asks them to do things whether they are ready to understand them, or not.

Teachers are expected to recognize each student’s strengths and limitations and to adjust the presentation of the lesson so that each student’s needs are met. We can do the first part – the recognition piece. But the adjustments are problematic given the enormity of the need. Problem-centered learning attempts to address this condition by allowing students to make choices as to how they will approach a given learning objective. This only works, though, when kids have the background to understand how to organize the demands of a task and manage their time, seeking input when they reach an obstacle. The kids who want to simply fly on autopilot, like my word-colorers, don’t operate that way. They expect the teacher to tell them what to do every step of the way, and to make them do it. Differentiated instruction is a challenge for all participants, and it requires a high level of cooperation within the group. Without active participation from everyone, there needs to be a whole lot more of me, or a whole lot fewer of them.

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Mar 22 2005 Published by under literacy

Some new things have happened to me since I started keeping this blog. I think it’s changed me a little bit. I suppose that every new venture we try has that power.

The first thing that I notice is that I’ve been writing more. I’ve tried to keep journals, but they always get lost or abandoned. This one is different. Having an audience, even a silent audience, or even something as tentative as a potential audience, makes the writing seem more important than if I was simply writing it in a notebook. One of the things that happens when people write more is that they begin to think more about writing, which means that when you aren’t actually writing you might be thinking about what you could write. Planning. It’s kind of like cooking. If you have to prepare meals for other people on a regular basis, you need to start thinking about what you are going to feed them. When I’m not near a computer, I have a little notebook that I write things down in. It’s interesting to me because I’ve become more conscious of what I’m thinking about as I go through the day, instead of just going through the day. So blogging is causing me to become more reflective.

After doing a broad survey of what other people are blogging about, I began to consider which blogs I like to return to and why. The main thing for me is the voice of the author. To a certain limit, I don’t really care what anyone writes about. I do read some for the content alone. But other blogs are compelling because the author has a good way of saying whatever is important at that moment.

From that little thoughtwave came the idea that blogs are really a lot like essays. Blogs may actually be a new literary genre. When people describe blogs as “online journals,” that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of what a blog can be. I don’t know if blogs can be easily characterized with a comparison to conventional literary forms.

Because of this thinking, my reading habits have shifted a bit. I went to the library and started looking for personal essays. I wanted to soak up the styles of different authors who are accomplished essayists. So I’ve been reading essays. I even read the Declaration of Independence all the way through a couple of weeks ago because I ran across it in an essay anthology that I found at Gullivers. Not exactly the coolest thing to read, but I thought about how it must have sounded at the time. I was imagining that Jefferson wrote it as a blog post. In that light, it gained some of what I imagine may have been its original punch.

It even looks a little bit like a blog – a long skinny web page.

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A Little Piece of My Heart

Mar 21 2005 Published by under borderland

[I need to say goodbye to a friend. If this seems too sentimental, skip it. It's personal.]

Summer 2004 You had a rough go your whole life. I’m sorry about that.. We did our best, and it wasn’t good enough. The whole way driving down to Anchorage last week, I thought about what I would write about you. I was pretty sure you wouldn’t make it and I wanted to say something. I had an old Allman Brothers CD playing as we were getting near Girdwood. “Trouble No More.” I wondered if I could use that as the title of my piece about you. Ah, but that would sound mean. You were trouble, but you were so much more than trouble. You shared it, though, for sure. And now you’re free. But it still feels bad to us. We loved you so much. We miss you.

You were sicker than a dog (sorry) when we brought you home from the shelter. All paws, legs, and fur. We thought you were just getting adjusted to your new food or something. But by Day 3 when you were limp as a mop, we knew that it was serious. You’d pooped and vomited everything we gave you. So off to the vet you went. Pneumonia, and enteritis was Doc’s diagnosis. She took blood and put you on an IV. I took your blood sample over to the lab at the hospital. When I told them it was k9 blood, a tourist who overheard me said, “Now I know for sure that Alaska is a special kind of place.” That was a bit of a treat. It cost us 600 bucks. What a deal you were!

Then there was the housebreaking thing. You never did get it. You were so submissive that you pissed every time someone greeted you. That made it rough whenever anyone walked into a room, or came home from somewhere. We were all on a hair trigger, taking you outside constantly to make sure that your need was minimal. For nearly a year! I named you The Project.

You were full of surprises. You chewed the custom birch stair treads. We’ll have your tooth marks there for a long time. You couldn’t come down those stairs very well, either because your big hairy paws were too slippery. Man, you crashed down those things sometimes. And other times you’d get part way down and freeze, not wanting to slip.

The other big surprise from you was the day Amy came home from work and found that you had a 2-inch twig poking out of your left eyeball. Yeah, that was something. How the hell did you get that in there while you were at your doghouse all day? The best we can figure is that it happened while you were tearing around in the woods on your way up from putting the kids on the bus that morning. Nobody noticed it in the dark when you got chained up for the day. You were so tough. Your heart rate was normal when you got to the emergency vet care clinic. Turns out it wasn’t really in your eyeball; just stuck in the socket behind the eyeball. Close enough, I’d say. We were awed by your toughness. You weren’t even bothered by it. Another couple hundred bucks.

My only regret with that incident is that I wasn’t around to take your picture. I think you’d have been famous all over the internet!

There were good surprises, too. In the Fall, when the kids got on the bus to go to school, you walked them down the driveway and we discovered your beautiful singing voice. You howled for them every single morning when they rode away on the bus. But the craziest thing was the way you sang with Peter when he played his trumpet. At first we thought maybe you were complaining because Peter was learning how to play. But as the months went by, you’d drop anything you were doing and rush to the room where the trumpet was, and sing sing sing. That was pure joy for all of us. I’m glad I recorded that with the digital camera.

We loved to pet you. You had the most beautiful thick coat. You felt like a giant teddy bear. What a prize! And you were so big. You were big enough to send Peter to the emergency room with smashed ribs the day you accidently plowed into him. More doctor bills. Not yours, but you did cause them.

The most charming thing, though, was your absolute devotion. Most of the other northern breed dogs we’ve had were somewhat aloof. Not you. You were never more than a few feet from any one of us. You even rested your head on our feet when we were busy in the kitchen. That made it hard to get much cooking done. But it was so nice.

I’m sorry we couldn’t help you out of this final jam. We tried. But nobody knew what was wrong. Maybe it was something that you’d been carrying all the way from that puppy time. You certainly never could gain weight. Even with all of your fur you were too lean.

It’s been a hard month for you. We didn’t like to see you so sad. Olaf, you were one of the very best. We miss you so much.

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Wasting My Time

Mar 20 2005 Published by under technology

It is the final day of my spring break. I am sitting at the desk with my attendance records, going over the official copy and justifying it with the record that I keep in my grade book. It’s a simple chore. Profoundly unrewarding. I have been doing it for many hours because I don’t stick with it.

I have also been trying to figure out how to group the feeds in Shrook so that I don’t have to look through hundreds of feeds – Shrook calls them “channels” – to find the ones that I want. Shrook comes preloaded with many feeds already activated in what it calls a “library.” It’s a lot like iTunes. Even though the program has a Groups item in the file menu, and enables the user to create a group, there does not seem to be any way to actually add a feed to the group. When I try to drag and drop the channel icon into the new group folder icon I get a persistant ghost image of the icon and associated text that sticks on the screen no matter what I do. It stays on the screen until I quit the program. And nothing goes in the damn folder. Some fun! Another promising feature permits the user to create what are called “Smart Groups.” This is potentially very useful. It’s like an email filter. You can apply rules to the folder so that certain kinds of content will be included in it. Great idea! I had a folder based on the titles of the blogs that I wanted to include from the Shrook library. It actually worked. But when I realized that there was apparently no way to add more items, to make the group smarter so to speak, that feature became a bit less attractive. I could have the smart group, but I would have to recreate the whole thing if I wanted to change it. So it’s not really that smart. I explored an Import/export opml function. So I went to my Bloglines feeds and found the export link. It doesn’t exactly export anything. All I found was a web page with the xml tree. I copied and pasted that into a text editor and saved the file on my computer. Then when I tried to import it, I got an error message from Shrook that says Shrook will only import valid xml data.

Ok, then I got serious. I exported an opml file from Shrook, the whole library, the only file Shrook will cough up, to see what kind of file it likes to make. I renamed it and imported it back into Shrook to see if it would choke on its own file. It swallowed the thing and set it up as a new group. Well…I then spent a good little while copying and pasting the data from the bloglines opml document into the proper xml format for Shrook with my text editor. It works. I saved the document and now if I want to expand the folder I can edit the text document and reimport it. This seems like a huge pain in the ass for a simple organizational task.

I probably didn’t need to do any of that. But there are no help manuals on the Shrook promotional site. is down due to server upgrade complications. I don’t know if there is a manual there, anyway. I may find the easy way to do this. But what fun would that be? I’d have time to finish those report cards. Exploring new technologies involves much, much time that I used to spend doing…I wonder.

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