Archive for October, 2005

Tagging Photos – Experiment and Discovery

Oct 31 2005 Published by under borderland,education,science

I found an old pile of interesting photos in the bottom of my file cabinet the other day. They were given to me years ago by a teacher who spent a lot of time cutting up old magazines and calendars. I’d forgotten about them. They’re interesting pictures and they’re laminated so they can survive rough handling. I’ve never known what to do with them until last week when I had an idea to use them in a science classification activity. Fourth grade science classification is open ended. Learning to differentiate sets, recognize the criteria used to discriminate between the sets, and then assign labels to them is what it’s all about at that age.

I handed a couple dozen photos to 9 groups of 3 students sitting at tables. I told the kids they could sort the pictures in any way they wanted. And when they had their pictures sorted I asked them to label each set with a word that would describe the set. I then had the kids change tables and try to guess the names of the sets they found. Most groups could figure out at least a few of the descriptive words by looking at the photos. They then re-sorted and labeled the photos for the original group to see a different way of grouping them. It was harder, but not impossible for the first group to guess how the second group had reclassified their pictures. We ran out of time. But I intend to do this again because I think the kids will get better at it, and I want to see if that happens.

When we were wrapping up I asked them to recall the words that were used for labels on some of the groups. They said they had groups called black&white, colorful, mammals, backgrounds, reptiles, landscapes, ponds, plants, sand, nature, fog, cold-blooded and two-of-a-thing. Immediately, I thought this sounded exactly like Flickr groups, which are really just public tags for which group members have to negotiate meaning. I hadn’t expected my students to be so inventive.

Seemed like it might make a good party game.

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Naive Misconceptions and Reading “Errors”

I have a class subscription to Time For Kids. The subscription I have is for the grades 4-6 version, so the reading level is a little bit difficult for most fourth graders. We work through the feature articles as a class when I think there’s something there worth paying attention to. TFK had a global warming story recently. With all of the media attention being given to Arctic warming I thought it might be good for Alaska students to know a little bit about the greenhouse effect, so we read through the feature article as a class.

Most teachers do a lot of schema development when they work this way with kids, supplying loads of background information. Frequently what happens is that the article content gets lost under all of the more interesting information that the teacher supplies anecdotally. So when the kids respond to the article we often hear our own echoes coming from the kids rather than any thoughtful processing of the actual text. I hear it. I think we all do.

When we finished reading the global warming story, I asked an open ended question about the article. “What is the feature story mostly about? (Use 2 or more sentences).” I figured it would be a slam dunk after we read it together and discussed it. Here is a sample of the responses (with made-up student names):

  • It’s about global warming. It’s also about pollution. -Ben
  • The feature story is mostly about climate scientists wondering if we are having a manmade global warming. TFK is telling us that there are things to help us prevent global warming. -Rebecca
  • Some sintes beleve that thir is going to be a global warming. The reson sints thnk that thir is going to be global warming is because we lose mor ice. -Joel
  • It is mostly about gloBel warming. gloBel waming is aBout the sun geting to close thats what I think.-Barbara

Clearly, there were a range of understandings. What’s interesting to me about this is that I would never have expected anyone in the room to have suggested that the sun gets too close. This is an example of how a naive misconception retains more meaning than the actual experience. And that is precisely why reading is impossible to assess with standardized multiple choice test instruments. Background knowledge is key to any interpretive act. Reading is an interpretive act. Words are merely vehicles and have no inherent meaning.

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The Importance of Blog Titles

Oct 23 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

Imagine you are called to speak to a crowd of people. You don’t know who they are or what they’re interested in. You don’t know how many will show up to listen. All you know is that you get to talk, so you show up at a hall and start talking about whatever comes to mind. No, this isn’t stand-up comedy, but it could be. You realize you may not be funny. You begin talking and wait to see who shows up…but the hall is dark. You can’t see who’s there or if anyone is listening.

You’re a blogger.

I’m still learning the basics of this medium. A while ago I wasn’t sure if anyone was reading this stuff. But every once in a while I got a nice comment, so I knew that there were at least a few people out there. An article by Stephen Downes got me thinking about site design, content, and mission a little more carefully. I also found a discussion on ProBlogger about stat counters. I notice there’s another more recent discussion there on the same topic. I learned why people check their “stats.” I didn’t know anything about stats. I registered with a couple of sites that have helped me see where my site traffic is coming from. Statcounter gives the most information. MyBlogLog, tells me which of the links I post are being followed, so I get a better idea of what people value. Feedburner tells me how many requests there were for my feed. I have Webalizer on the Cpanel that my domain host provides, but the data is not as usefully presented as I’d like. There are also the server logs. But those aren’t real user friendly. If I ran a hot dog stand, this would all be obvious because I’d be there interacting directly with my customers handing them stuff.

I’m not sure if the services I’m looking at are very reliable, but I’ve learned some things. Titles are important. So are the first few lines of text. A lot of people visit my site from Google searches. I put a post up a few weeks ago for a joke that I called Adults Only. That got a lot of response from some people who were probably disappointed. My lesson plan wiki (now with restricted access) experiment was getting a fair number of hits also. I was amazed to see that was being indexed on Google and teachers (I guess) are looking there for lesson ideas. I was probably a big disappointment there, too. Maybe I should start writing more thorough plans (and reopen it for general viewing). I would never have guessed. Technorati tags have sent me some visitors, also.

Blog titles are powerful in their ability to help search engine traffic find its way to the blog. I suppose I should be choosing descriptive labels for the post titles, as opposed to the more cryptic headings I sometimes choose. Also, the first few lines of the post are what is usually in the search summary.

Just because there aren’t a lot of comments on your site doesn’t mean your blog isn’t being read. They’re there. Always listening. It’s something to consider.

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Anatomy of a Test Item

Oct 17 2005 Published by under borderland,education,politics,teacher research

Three days with the Test Item Writer Workgroup in Fairbanks taught me something about test questions. We all know that asking questions and making tests is [part of] what a teacher does. But how many teachers have specific training for question-asking? I never had any. Even if classroom teachers don’t want to think too hard about preparing students for NCLB benchmark tests, they might want to know a little more about the questions they put on their own classroom tests.

Trivial point: Test questions aren’t called questions by the people who specialize in writing them. They’re called ‘items.’ I got used to hearing them called items in the workgroup after a while (as in, “That’s a good item.” Or, “This item needs a little more work.”).

Test items have to pass through several layers of review before they are ever presented to a student. We’ll look at the structure of a test question, and I’ll point out some features of them that students and teachers can be on the lookout for.

  • Depth of Knowledge:
    Test makers have embraced Webb’s model for depth of knowledge. According to this model, there are four levels of knowledge. There is recall -of facts or procedures; application of skills or concepts -in which information is used to make a decision as part of a multi-step procedure; strategic thinking-which requires reasoning and planning, and may have more than one possible answer; and extended thinking-very hard to assess with a paper and pencil test-requiring an investigation. Extended thinking questions are not asked on typical large scale testing models.
  • Bias:
    This is a very tough criterion for a fair test. The effort to remove bias from tests is so that different individuals with the same ability could be expected to perform similarly. Just about any controversial topic can be considered a risk for bias. Topics that might be off-limits include war, abortion, alcohol, diseases, abuse, sorcery, etc. Bias-prone topics might also include floods, fires, and natural disasters. In Alaska, which covers an immense physical and culturally diverse landscape, there seems no escaping biased question content.
  • Alignment of Question and Purpose :
    The questions we ask in school have specific purposes, and some questions work better than others to get a job done. The purpose a question serves determines how it’s constructed. When a question is meant to prompt a student to identify or recognize something, it begins with the word, “What.” When a question is meant to prompt a student to explain something, it begins with the word, “How.” Questions that begin with “Which” are good for comparing or classifying things. Questions that ask “Why” are difficult to answer. “Why” questions stifle inquiry because the correct responses are narrowed to an indefinite and limited body of information.
  • Question structure:
    There are primarily two kinds of questions, multiple choice, or constructed response. The questions come with what is referred to as a stem or prompt (the question part), the options (the choices) which include the distractors (incorrect responses) and the key (the correct response). Each question also has a rationale that explains why certain choices are either correct or not. The stem should be clear and concise, and should measure only one grade level expectation at a time. The options should all be plausible and should have only ONE correct answer.

What I take from this information is that no matter how carefully a test is constructed, it’s fatally flawed from the beginning because of bias. No matter how carefully the test makers try to make their questions reflect content knowledge, they need to recognize that paper and pencil tests rely heavily on students’ reading ability. To presume that science tests are not testing reading ability is foolish.

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Tests, Genre and Empowerment

The case for teaching students about text genres has been made by critical educators for several years. Wendy Morgan, in Critical Literacy in the Classroom: The Art of the Possible, summarized the political rationale for explicit teaching about text genres by pointing out that genres are conventionalized means for accomplishing social purposes and

that students, particularly those not from the dominant culture, need to be given instruction in the ‘powerful genres’ of public life; to have these at command may enable those formerly excluded from social and political power to lay claim to it. So knowledge of language functions can bring wider ‘empowerment’.

Since No Child Left Behind legislation is becoming such a driving force in our classroom instructional practice, it’s time that teachers consider the possibility that standardized tests should also be considered a genre worth including in their teaching units.

I’m conflicted about using class time to teach about tests because I don’t endorse the practice of using standardized tests as an accountability measure. So I resist the suggestion that I should spend any class time explicitly preparing students to take tests. On the other hand, tests are gatekeeping instruments that are currently part of the social and political landscape for students. If teachers concentrate their efforts to prepare students for tests by teaching the content alone, they risk disadvantaging students for whom the test itself is an obstacle. Some might say that if kids know the content, they’ll do well on the test, but that point of view assumes that students understand the methods and purposes of the test makers – and they don’t. I do feel comfortable taking a more global approach to the whole problem, and including standardized tests as a part of my instructional repertoire for teaching about genres.

It’s clear to me that all texts, including electronic texts, need to be understood in terms of bias, point of view, author’s purpose, and text conventions so that we have sufficient understanding to evaluate information and the intended effect of any particular message we might encounter. Tests are most definitely written with a purpose in mind. Point of view is expertly hidden, though. And test makers naively believe that they can eliminate bias from their tests, which results in a sanitized, faceless document that is extremely difficult to understand when approached naively. Studying tests as a genre, makes it possible for students to “talk back” to the test itself, and to recognize how they are manipulated as readers. Students need some way to equalize the power dynamic so that they begin to recognize the intelligence that constructed the test document. That level of insight is necessary for them to make inferences about how the test makers expect them to respond.

A book by Lucy Calkins, Kate Montgomery, and Donna Santman called A Teacher’s guide to Standardized Reading Tests offers practical help for teachers interested in teaching their students how to analyze test questions. In my experience administering these tests, I often see students who I believe know the information the test is measuring but fail to correctly answer the question because they didn’t understand what was being asked. If we could help students become a little bit smarter about the tests themselves, the kids might have a better chance at scoring well on them.

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Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing

10/13 update: I did a little revising of this blog entry-nothing substantive, though. I was pretty tired when I wrote it and tonight I discovered some heavily garbled sections that needed correction. If you’ve already seen it, there’s nothing new here yet. I’m going to need a day or two to catch my breath before I can continue.

I had the privilege of being invited to participate in an exercise of power that few teachers will ever experience. The State of Alaska Dept. of Ed. hired an educational testing and assessment company to develop a standardized test for Alaska’s new grade level expectations for Science, (GLE’s), and they wanted Alaskan teachers to write test items. I assume I was nominated because I participated in a summer institute with the Alaska Science Consortium this year. The curriculum work I’ve been doing with science has been interesting, and it just got MORE interesting because now I have an up-close-and-personal view of where the poison in the well is coming from.

I’m not a fan of standardized testing. As a matter of fact, I don’t like testing of any kind. In a perfect world there would be nothing but performance assessments. But we have a long way to go before that can happen. In the meantime I’m trying to figure out how to get along in the world we’ve constructed. It’s fascinating to learn how these tests are developed. Mostly we think of them as authoritative but authorless texts without a history. Now I have been given a glimpse of where they come from. I want to devote the next few blog posts to my observations and impressions of the test development process because I think that every public school teacher who is affected by standardized testing can benefit from hearing what goes on inside the little rooms where these things come from.

We signed confidentiality agreements about not revealing the questions we write. My lips are sealed on that topic, but I don’t care because the questions aren’t important. The good stuff is all about the thinking behind the questions. I’ve always told my young students that test questions are written by sneaky manipulative people who stay up late into the night thinking of ways to fool kids into choosing wrong answers. Now I’m one of them. Heh, heh, heh. There’s only about 26 of us representing the whole state! There are other groups of teachers involved in other phases of the process, but at this point, the ball is in our court. I asked how we were chosen to be there, because most of us had no clue, and the woman from the Dept. of Ed. said she contacted everyone who had ever been on a science committee. I wonder about that because I’m not real active in the curriculum development realm. Anyhow, we’re a bunch of test-weary Alaskan teachers who are going to do our best to be sensitive to the cultural differences of the various groups of students scattered across this huge state. There are several teachers from rural school districts. The interesting thing about who makes the test questions is that the company that the state contracted with is writing the final draft. They’re working with teachers to get input and ideas that will lend a local flavor to the test items. We’re not literally writing the test, because each item is heavily revised throughout the process.

Other things that I noticed today: One of the guidelines instructed us to “Respect the diversity of Alaska’s student population.” That seems altogether paradoxical in the context of a standardized testing scenario. One of the people wearing a suit from out of state told us, “This isn’t a reading test.” I kept my mouth shut because that was too big of a discussion and I wouldn’t win the argument, anyway. But really, how are kids going to take the test if they don’t READ it? I think most people would agree that kids who read well will do better on reading assignments than kids who don’t read well.

It’s too late to write any more at the moment. I have to get up early to put on my wolf suit. Next time I’ll talk more specifically about the do’s and don’ts of good test questions.

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Oct 11 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

Alan Levine led me to this. It’s amazing. Like watching an army of ants marching through the jungle.

The link to Alex Bosworth’s Weblog explains the intent of the programmer, which was to demonstrate the power of Ajax technology to push the web closer to real time data exchange. I don’t know if I can understand how it works but I’m comforted to see that it is written in PHP, which I have a rudimentary understanding of. I’m thinking, though, that this might not impress anyone who hasn’t used I don’t know if this application has much practical value in an of itself, but it certainly is a powerful demonstration.

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Goldstream Sunrise

Oct 09 2005 Published by under borderland

Every once in a while you notice that the universe seems to have fallen into place at a time and place you happen to be. For me this was a recent morning when I was headed to work.

Fortunately, I carry my little Cannon A60 with me in my school bag.

Feeling lucky to have been there.

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Flickr-Borderland Integration

Oct 08 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

A few months ago I began trying different ways to integrate my photo collection into this blog.

  • I used a Flickr Badge for a while, but it wasn’t really a part of the blog since the thumbnails were all linked back to photos in my Flickr account.
  • I also tried using Singapore, a photo gallery application that I think is really great, but I couldn’t get it integrated into the WordPress templates.
  • I’ve tried using RSS feeds by pasting some code from Feed to JavaScript into a custom page template, but I didn’t like the layout.

So…I abandoned the effort. I’ve also neglected my Flickr account because I’ve got too much else going on.

I was happy to discover a new WordPress plugin, FAlbum, that integrates my Flickr photos and my blog seamlessly. Yeah!

This plugin wasn’t the easiest to figure out how to use, though. And the developer’s site has a lot of questions from folks who were having trouble getting it going. The main problem folks seem to have is with friendly URL’s, which you don’t need. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to get the Photos link to display in my sidebar where the “wp_list_pages( )” function is called – for cosmetic reasons mainly. For anyone who’s interested, I used a custom page template with a new blog page called Photos, and put a PHP header redirect into the template that sends the browser to the “unfriendly” plugin URL. I know that last sentence is complete nonsense to most people. Sorry, two years ago I couldn’t have said that.

Borderland and Flickr are finally talking to each other the way I wanted.

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Subsversive Educator Cookbook

Oct 07 2005 Published by under borderland,education,politics

What does a subversive educator do? This question came to mind after reading Kathy Sierra’s article the other day. I was impressed by the synchronicity of her vision for corporate change with my own thinking about school culture. In fact, as I was reading her piece, I began inserting the word ‘student’ for ‘user’ in each instance and the whole thing made perfect sense. Kathy pointed out that even though she worked for a big company with an entrenched bureaucracy, the organizaton was really just a collection of people, many who were smart, caring and creative. She described how she and a small group of people conspired to subvert the corporate culture. This might be a worthwhile goal for teachers who feel the same sense of frustration with the institutional culture of ed.

I offer few suggestions for educational subversion:

Value students.-
When it’s all over they’ll remember how you treated them, not what you taught them. Teaching isn’t about the curriculum, the standards, your lesson plans, grades, or the school rules. It’s about students. Any time you feel the need to exercise authority to get someone to do something, ask yourself, “Is this demand necessary?” A great question that I was asked in my interview for the job I have now is, “How do you let your students know they are doing a good job?” Sometimes we forget we need to do that.

Be open to “flow.”
I have plans every day. But the things that get done are frequently inspired by the demands of the time. I’ve learned to trust my intuition more than the teacher’s manual. Make it interesting. Make it fun. Keep things upbeat. Mess around with their imaginations. How can you put that in the lesson plan?

Self preservation is the prime directive.
You gotta’ be there to get the job done, so try to not get fired or burned-out. Don’t accept a bunch of crap from students (see Fair Play), or parents (see Good Manners), or your principal (see Common Sense).

Good manners succeed with even difficult people.
Maintain your composure when you’re dealing with people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Fair play is appreciated.
Kids have no power other than to expect justice. If you’re evenhanded, they usually don’t resent your authority. Of course, there are always going to be a few hard cases who don’t think you should have any say in what they do. These people are not fun to work with.

Mind the discourse.
The way people use language tells you a lot about whose voice is privileged and whose isn’t. You can the hear ideology dripping from every official pronouncement. The power to control definitions is the power to influence behavior. Don’t buy anybody’s bullshit – including mine, or even your own.

Know the research.
In light of the previously mentioned suggestion, be aware of what research literature tells us about teaching and learning. You can justify almost any approach to education with references to somebody’s research.

Common sense is one of the basics.
It isn’t rocket science.

Speak up.
If you’re going to be a change-agent working to transform the culture of education, you can’t expect to do it all by yourself. At the end of the day it’s sometimes hard to find words to synthesize our experience. The act of writing for a real audience is a personal expression of power. A blog can help with this. Being outspoken in professional meetings is another way to get the attention of many people who might enjoy seeing things from another point of view. Discovering that others value your ideas is incentive to keep working for change.

If anyone has more ideas on this subject, I’d like to hear them. Educational change is cultural work, and requires the efforts of many.

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