Archive for August, 2005

Oil-Spot Strategy for Education Reform

Aug 31 2005 Published by under borderland,politics

Just making a connection here. School has been in session for 10 days now, and the pressure to work miracles on a daily basis has me fired up.

NY Times columnist David Brooks, and Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly both recently noticed Andrew F. Krepinevich’s, How To Win in Iraq, published by Foreign Affairs. Krepinovich argues that the US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq is flawed, and will require a new approach that brings security to Iraqi citizens. This approach, he argues, should replace the current strategy of hunting down insurgents. Nobody needs to tell me that our current policy is both a political and military disaster. I read the paper. I listen to the news, and I think about alternative courses of action that we might consider – reflective activity that does not seem to be occuring in the places where some new ideas might make a difference. But Krepinevich is making a case for this point of view in those places that matter – the White House. The Pentagon. The change of course Krepinevich advocates would provide an alternative to the positions argued for by those who have framed our choices as being either stay-the-course, or pull-out:

Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an “oil-spot strategy” in Iraq, which is essentially the opposite approach. Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort — hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success. But it would require a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq…

From the oil-spot-strategy proposed for Iraq, I began thinking that maybe we could use the oil-spot-strategy to improve schools. I don’t know what Krepinevich would make of what I have to say here, but at the moment I have the unique opportunity to watch what happens when working class and low income elementary school kids begin studying in a state-of-the-art new building. Everyone seems to be pretty jazzed to be there. I feel it, too. Compared to our old cinderblock bunker, the new school is a palace. We are surrounded by glass and color. It’s clean. Our lobby (We have a lobby!) is a three-story echo chamber of tile, glass and wooden celing panels. Huge Japanese fish kites hang from high overhead. There is a balcony at the top of a wide stairway, and from up there, everyone below looks very small – even the people that aren’t. The school population is not generally considered privileged in a socioeconomic sense, but I sense that almost everyone feels being part of this moment is a privilege. And I wonder how much that sense of privilege is going to carry over to academic gains for these kids. Is this what it might feel like to be in the center of one of Krepinevich’s oil spots? I think that all schools should be clean and comfortable, and should nurture feelings of safety and community while providing opportunities to creatively exercise the imagination. How much better would it be, I wonder next, if the oil spot was encouraged to spread and the whole neighborhood was renovated.

The idea of the spreading oil spot begins a cascade of associations that I can not resist. I imagine bulldozers and social workers converging on, not only schools, but abandoned buildings and run-down housing projects throughout the neighborhood, and eventually all over the country. I imagine community planners and architects and bankers having meetings to discuss current standards and guidelines. I imagine community meetings in which the residents are asked about their preferences for landscaping design and greenspace in the neighborhood. I imagine grocery stores and clinics springing up where weedy vacant lots once served as nothing but storage yards for dead vehicles. I think about how much better all our schools would be if the kids who came to us each morning felt safe and optimistic about the future.

The current educational reform effort is a seek and destroy mission. Test and sanction. We are assailed with propaganda about “best practices,” “ressearch based” programs, and standards, standards, standards. We have armies of aids and support staff who push paper and pull kids out of class for testing and tutoring. We have copy machines that spit out reams of worksheets and exercises. We have computers with microwave connections to the internet. We have leveled books and manipulatives. But is all of this going to make a difference for the kids who lock their bedroom doors at night because they are afraid of somebody who lives in their own house? Who come to school an hour early and wait outside the school for their free breakfast when the cafeteria opens? Who ask to see the school nurse every day because they have a stomach ache? Who don’t know where their mothers are?

The current educational reform effort is a passing thing, fueled by political whim. Ironically, unlike the oil-spot-strategy, there is no research or historical precendent to support NCLB. Come to think of it, are there standards for education reform? NCLB will be replaced by another big idea; it will die when its ideological baggage finally bogs it down and squeezes the enthusiasm out of the researchers and politicians who want us to believe that we can ultimately teacher-proof schools and make educational delivery the market-driven process they themselves would like to believe it is. It will be over when researchers and politicians are ready to admit their career paths will not be advanced by supporting this fiction as it’s unrealistic plot finally climaxes. The current reform strategy is as reactionary as hunting down insurgents. When we confront social problems item by item, we never defeat them. They each morph into a new form of virus which we don’t yet have an educational pill to cure. The problem with schools is not teachers. It’s not students. It’s not parents. It’s the messed up world that schools are a part of.

The kids in our classrooms come from down the block. They are not foreigners. We can’t isolate the school from the school community any more than Iraq can shoot it’s way to civil order. We need to address ALL of the needs of the community and develop an “oil-spot-strategy” that will eventually envelope the entire population if we expect to see any real progress in education reform. The US has to recognize that a constructive commitment to community and social justice will generate long term benefits for any population whose needs we target.

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High School Online Collaborative Writing

Aug 27 2005 Published by under education

High school teachers looking for a place that students can publish their work might want to consider High School Online Collaborative Writing. In any event, it’s interesting to browse. The site has been up since January ’05, founded by a teacher from New York, Paul Allison. The mission statement says:

High school collaborative online writing is a Wikicity for use by schools. This wiki has the aim of promoting collaborative writing and providing a test area where students can do that. Teachers are invited to set up school projects within the wiki. There are no set criteria for the content.

One of the interesting things about this site is that there seems to have been an attempt to have teachers and kids publishing alongside each other. The kids wrote the kinds of things that kids write about at school. The teachers wrote a few articles about the kids’ writing. I don’t get the “collaborative” part, though. Maybe somebody can explain it to me. When I think of collaboration I imagine a joint undertaking in which goals are mutually shared.

An authentically collaborative website might be set up by students for their own purposes and then somehow a bunch of adults would have to be induced to participate with them…to…uh… Forget it; cancel that. It’ll never happen.

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The Daily Log

Aug 25 2005 Published by under borderland,education

daily log

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Blogs and Genre

Aug 22 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

One of the things that I’ve noticed about blogging is that many different types of writing seem to have emerged as millions of people have begun to participate in this social practice. It seems to me that the initial wave of bloggers may have set a tone, but have certainly not defined blogging once and for all by any means. As we look around the internet, it is easy to find examples of various kinds of blogs that people have started.

The question, “What is a Blog?” has been addressed by many others. My question, “What could a blog be?” is a question that can never be completely answered. When we look at blogging as a phenomenon, we see that the form has certain conventions that make weblogs recognizable as blogs. These conventions are more a matter of form than substance. Categorizing blogs according to content is difficult. I’ve tried to impose some order on these unruly websites with my account, but have largely been unsatisfied that I’ve really accomplished much with my tagging habits.

John Evans recently developed a scheme for categorizing blogs by looking at the motivation of the blogger. This provides a useful distinction between different types of blogs without regard for specific content. In many ways, this is a more useful method for understanding blogging as a discourse, since it focuses on the intentions of the blogger and provides some context for the reasoning behind the existence of the weblog and the point of view of the author. Evans identifies 3 different types of bloggers. In a post called Are There 3 Blogospheres?, John identified 3 different types of blogs. Rather than differentiate them according specific content, he looked at audience as the primary identifier.

This is a powerful analytical perspective. Motivation is key to understanding any media message, and if the media values of what he called the “Tertiary Blogosphere” are as diverse as the population that is using blogs as a publishing platform, large media is bound to be left in the wake of every cultural trend because monolithic corporate structures can never react as quickly as independent entities.

Perhaps coincidentally, Duncan Riley at the Blog Herald posts The Demise of the Geek Bloggers in which he looks at blogs from a cultural standpoint and sees them going through periodic generational transformations. Without regard for whether the geek blogs are, in fact, in decline it’s interesting to note that his post differentiates blog types according to something other than content, as well.

How can this analytical perspective inform us about participating in literate web communities? Genre studies are an important way of gaining access to any body of knowledge. When we understand the conventions and purposes of any expressive media, we can begin to use that media for our own, perhaps novel, creative purposes. One of my primary interests as a teacher these days is to prepare students to participate in emergent literacies. I see these understandings as crucial to my educational practice in which the definition of literacy has been expanded to include any interpretive act.

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Transparent Teaching: Wiki as Lesson Planner

Aug 17 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

Tomorrow is the first student contact day for the school year. I’m sitting at my desk and wondering what I’m going to do with all of the eager energy that’s about to walk through the door. I wonder, “What do I usually do?” Good question. Then I wonder, “Why do I have to ask that question?” I should have it written down somewhere. But I always turn my planning book in to the office each spring and never bothered to keep a copy of it.

Well, that’s about to change. I decided to use the wiki I set up last spring as a lesson planner as well as a project documentation tool like I originally intended. But I feel a little bit exposed. I’m not used to publishing this side of my work-life. I’m surprised I feel that way since I’m also blogging about it, but I guess my planning has always been kind of a personal thing. I use an abbreviated-personal note style of writing when I plan that may be rather cryptic to other people, and it feels a bit strange to think that strangers might read my notes. I don’t want to have to spend a bunch of time revising them for publication. I hope to get over feeling self-conscious because I think the benefits will outweigh the “risks.”

What’s so great about this:

  • Other teachers that I collaborate with, like the special ed teachers, will know what I’m doing each week so we can coordinate our planning (and might resolve some communication problems);
  • Parents can check in and see what the class is up to.
  • Parents might also learn something about education from reading other content on the site.
  • I can upload files that I need for each lesson. Now, no more searching around for the test, focus questions, graphic organizer…
  • Kids who are absent can check the plans from home.
  • Absent students will be able to download the assignments.
  • I will have a record of my planning from this year that will be available to me next year.
  • I can leave notes about how particular lessons went for future reference.
  • I might think about doing a better job of planning knowing other people might be looking over my shoulder.
  • Impromptu plans for substitutes when I have an unplanned absence will be simple.

Possible downsides: Frequently I don’t actually implement all of the plans that I do in a week and they get recycled into the next week. That might be confusing to parents. In most cases, though, dialog is healthy so I’m not going to let that bother me. If need be I can set the Access Controls to permit only certain people to view individual pages. But right now I’m publishing my life. Transparent teaching is how I’d describe it.

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The Weather Here Stinks

Aug 16 2005 Published by under borderland

Don’t visit the Alaskan interior now if you expect to see wide open spaces. We’ve got thick smoke from forest fires to the north, south, and west. Rainfall we normally expect in August has not happened now for two summers in a row. Health respite centers have been opened for people with respiratory ailments. We’ve all been advised to stay indoors. But to do that with the windows closed is hot and stuffy. It’s either sweat or eat smoke. It’s been like this more or less for a few weeks, and may be clearing out soon. We can hope.

Interesting to note, an article in the local paper tells us that

This week, four U.S. senators–Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.–are expected in Alaska after traveling through Canada. The four are reportedly on tour to gather information about global warming.

I wonder if they are going to stop in and “see” what’s going on here. Someone should tell them to bring their gas masks.

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The Real Pay

Aug 15 2005 Published by under borderland,education

I was in the hall breaking down some boxes from the unpacking a couple of days ago when a woman I’d never met walked by and said, “Are you Doug?” She introduced herself as the new half-time kindergarten teacher. Then she told me that a friend of hers told her to say hello to me, and that I was the “most favorite teacher her daughters ever had.” Kind words like that don’t come too often. It’s amazing to me when I hear things like this. In this case, I taught those girls when they were in second grade over 15 years ago.

It’s humbling to think that people remember me for such a long time. (I hate to think about how many bad things people might also remember for a long time!) Teaching isn’t easy. It’s getting harder for all kinds of reasons. Every year I am more conscious of my limitations. The kids’ lives merge with mine as the months pass, and I invest a great deal of thought and energy into helping them move toward whatever it is that I see as the next imperative for them. I seldom feel satisfied that I’ve done justice to the need. So when I receive an affirmation like that it gives me courage to go back and try to get it right one more time. I’m not sure what it takes to be a good teacher. All I know is that it has less to do with methods and content than it does with how you make them feel. All of the knowledge and technique and professional development won’t matter if the teacher never makes the crucial connnection. That’s where the magic occurs.

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Space Management

Aug 13 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research

classroom tables

The rooms in our new school are fabulous. They’re clean and bright. We have lots of drops for fast internet connections all over. There’s even a port to plug in a computer to a LCD projector and a sound system that has a circular array of speakers in the ceiling. Right now I’m listing to KUAC, the local Fairbanks public radio station, which has great Saturday programming. You can listen to it, too, because they stream their programming. I’m getting ready for kids to walk through the door in 5 days. Still have a lot of work to do to get organized.

The classrooms are a bit smaller than the ones we had in our old building, which was built to hold classes of 40 elementary-aged kids in the 1950′s. We’re supposed to anticipate groups of about 25, I’m told. I have 6 computers in the room. They need tables. If I put 25 desks in the room, too, that would leave little space for anyone to move around. So I’m trying an experiment. (Every year I try new things.) I decided that I would create the space I need by not giving the kids desks. Kindergarten teachers and a few elementary teachers have done this. I rounded up a bunch of small tables, and I’m going to sit 3 kids to a table. That leaves a lot of empty floor space for them to spread out when they don’t need to be seated. We’re going to have communal supplies, and their personal stuff will go into little individual cubbies near the coats. It’s going to take some getting used-to, I think.

The big question here is whether this arrangement will encourage more *productive* collaboration among the kids. They may see it as a free-for-all. My goal is to teach more small group lessons, and to keep the kids busy on projects. If I gave them desks, I’m afraid that there would be no room left for them to do anything but sit at a desk. I’ll give each of them a clipboard to work on the floor if they want to. This way we can have meetings and groups working on different things throughout the day. And (the best part) they have nowhere to lose their homework, pencils, scissors, books, notes home, etc. It should feel freer to them once they get over the shock of not having a nametag on a desktop. I hope I can work out the various management issues because it feels like the kind of classroom I’ve wanted to set up for a long time now.

One thing I know for sure, it’s a lot easier to do this job before the kids show up. ;)

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Classroom Chaos

Aug 12 2005 Published by under borderland,education

classroom chaos

There are a lot of unknowns for teachers moving into a new building. One of them is whether all of the things you kept in your old classroom will fit in your new work location. This room *might* be smaller than the room this teacher used to have in the old building. (She didn’t think it was funny when I took this picture.) School starts in less than a week. Some of us showed up a few days early to organize our teaching materials.

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Moving On – slightly left

Aug 11 2005 Published by under borderland,education,technology

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” – Edsger Dijkstra

When I began this (Borderland) project about 9 months ago I had no idea what I was doing. Since then I’ve learned about some exciting new internet authoring technologies. And so, like a person sending out postcards from an exotic vacation, I wrote about that. But it’s time to move on. I revised my About Borderland page. I think that I’ve crossed the chasm and that my interests lie more with the pragmatists than the visionaries. Yesterday I found this statement:

When it’s 30, I expect it to be much more stable, something that people don’t talk about. Really when you talk about an article, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to write an article on paper!” The fact that we use pen and paper is sort of rather understood.–Berners-Lee on the read/write web

And I thought, “That’s right!” The cutting edge people are already doing a fine job of envisioning the revolution, but without a methodology that is geared for transformative change, people are going to only do the same old things with different tools. There has to be a deeper rethinking of education as a social process before socially enabled software is going to make much difference.

I want to explore the possibilities and practical limits of constructivist methodologies, the contradictions between what people want and what they ask for, the power of personal knowledge, and the notion of lifelong learning as a public policy agenda item. This all has relevance to technology, but also to culture, psychology, history, philosophy, sociology, linguistics, politics and I’m not sure what else. And because I can’t separate who I am from what what I’m doing, I’m going to talk about what I know best – my own experience.

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