Archive for January, 2006

Herding Goats

Jan 29 2006 Published by under borderland,education

From her blog Artichoke released a tunnel of goats into the edu-blog o’ verse, and now I’m off trying to round them up so that we can sort the lost children from the beasts.

I need to digress here briefly to comment on the apparent limitless supply of fantastic characters that appear in Artichoke’s blog. In the last month she has hosted crowds of invisible ducks, alcohol fueled cricket fans, birds swimming south, and retired TV celebrity talking horses. Even SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs have made an appearance. I think these characters spice up her thought-provoking blog by adding a measure of comic counterpoint to the mind-bending questions she asks, so I was happy that she brought Hans Solo, Luke Sky Walker, and a giant Tauntaun along with her to leave a comment yesterday on a disjointed post I wrote about ice fog and my students’ new web publishing project. With remarkable economy of effort, she left Hans and Luke here in Borderland hunkered down in the beast’s intestinal cavity. I suppose George Lucas is done with them now, so here they will remain until they are summoned elsewhere – if they survive this hellish cold.

The goats that Artichoke employed were running loose in a tunnel into which some children had been lost. The imagery led me to think about how similar teaching is to herding goats, who are as likely to go anywhere except where you want them to go if given the chance. Artichoke questioned the uncritical application of inquiry approaches to classroom learning, and recommended that teachers introduce relational and extended abstract thinking challenges into inquiry tasks. She left a link to an article called Using the SOLO Taxonomy that I found useful for answering a problem I’ve been pondering for about 9 years. The article provides a framework for teaching to levels of thinking that are appropriate to a student’s specific background and needs. The SOLO taxonomy defines levels of learning competence for students. With Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in mind, maybe I can use this model to find challenges that are just right for my students.

I spent the first dozen years of my teaching career working with predominantly white middle-class kids from families where a college education was normal. Feeling restless during the early 1990′s I transferred to a school in our town’s downtown area. The jump was far from merely geographical and it has caused me to question everything I believed about myself as a teacher. Previously, my students averaged in the 80th percentile on norm referenced tests. Those who didn’t do well in class were labeled and remediated, but I didn’t feel too much responsibility for their educational limitations. I naively gauged my effectiveness by the successes of all those kids who did well.

The change of teaching venue brought me up short because the classrooms I came to work in had a high percentage of those kids who struggled. The community is warm and supportive, and there is a shared sense of mission among the teaching staff as we work to nurture and heal, as well as teach. It’s been one of the most challenging and enriching environments I’ve ever stumbled into. I confront problems with conventional approaches to classroom practice every moment of every day. There are no easy answers. The tension between authority and freedom is both ethical and practical. Trying to “get the job done” is always tempered by the thought, “and that job is?” because I have to wonder what I’m educating these kids to be and do. So I find myself some days with blood on my hands, thinking about the societal mess I have to clean up.

And that’s another reason to write this all down.

I’ll never forget a moment of sudden insight during the first year working in my current school. I sat on the floor with a group of about 9 six-year-olds in an author’s circle, helping one of them to read his story. He said something like, “On Sunday I was at my grandma’s house and there was fighting and then the cops came.” I thought, “Awww crap! How do we respond to this?” I didn’t even know this kid who was from another teacher’s class. I was new there, remember. But I shouldn’t have worried. Without missing a beat, one of the little boys sitting in the circle said, “I hate it when that happens.” And then two more said, “Yeah.” We had a great little chat about times when adults are unpleasant, and what kids do to stay out of the way. I immediately felt a wave of compassion and recognition of a world view I’d never been shown. It had been under my nose all along, but I’d never been admitted as a member. I can’t leave now.

My efforts to extend the thinking of these students to more abstract levels have persistently been frustrated by their confusion and lack of initiative to seek new opportunities to learn. I used to joke that we didn’t need to work on “higher level thinking” because we first needed to develop the lower level variety. From the SOLO taxonomy I gleaned this: “…teach at just one level higher than the student, and not more than that.” Of course I knew this, but the taxonomy gives me definitions and crtieria for determining what those levels look like. For those kids who are at the prestructural level and hard to differentiate from goats, I can attempt to get them to “use one obvious piece of information.” While for those students who can do that, I will help them relate and connect ideas. Thinking beyond that level involves making generalizations and applying them to abstract principles.

Now I ask whether, for the longest time blinded by my ambition to help students transcend, perhaps I’ve been trying to move them further than they realistically can go at the moment.

Teaching really is a lot like goat herding. What I learned from my one humiliating experience with goats is that when you get them up to the gate, you can’t crowd them or they’ll bolt and run around you back out to the pasture. Hang back and bide your time. Be ready to move laterally to block any that get “ideas” about breaking loose from the herd. Eventually a few will walk through the gate and the rest will simply follow. But that gate has to look like the place to go.

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Ice Fog and Student Publishing

Jan 27 2006 Published by under borderland,education,science,technology

update 2/27/06: Edited the URL to my students’ writing project so it points to a new domain I set up for them.

It’s been challenging ’round here the last several days with temperatures in the minus 40′s and predicted to get colder for several more days. Negative temperatures are not unusual this far north, and even the minus 40′s aren’t unexpected. Minus 40 degrees, though, is a kind of a benchmark for cold weather. It’s interesting to note that -40 degrees is the same temperature on both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales.

temperature scale

Ice Fog
There are a few interesting things about weather this cold. For starters, you need a block heater and an oil pan heater, a battery blanket, and any other kind of heater you can plug into the truck engine. One thing that happens is that your tires go out of round when the vehicle is parked for several hours. When you get the rig going, you go bump, bump, bump, bump for a while until the tires “round out.” Ice fog forms in low-lying populated areas. Cold air has a very limited capacity to hold moisture, so all of the water vapor that comes from chimneys and tail pipes turns to fog and makes navigation in the car (when you can get it running) dicey. Visibility is estimated at Zero at the moment.

In the staff room today I mentioned a little demonstration I did with my students. We took a cup of water, hot from the microwave, outside, and threw it into the minus 40 degree air. None of the teachers had tried this. They all made predictions. I made a video with my little Canon A60 from the porch of my house 2 winters ago (It isn’t foggy on cold days out in the country where I live.) If you’re curious, you can see what happens at -38 degrees below zero. I’ve never tried posting a video, and there might be a better way to do it. If anyone has suggestions, please let me know.

The town doesn’t shut down. It limps a little bit, but you’d never know it. We just work harder to cover the basics, and we groan when stuff starts to break. All of the technology we depend on is operating outside its design limits. Kids at school today were asking me if it ever gets too cold for school. I told them it doesn’t. The only day I remember school has been canceled because of cold was in 1992 when the ice fog got real thick and the buses stopped running (Don’t forget, I’m old. So I know about these things). It feels good to have a warm building to look out of even when you can’t see very far through the frozen fog. But we haven’t been able to send the kids out to recess for several days. It would be OK if everyone wore ALL of their warm clothes, but it would take the whole recess period to dress and undress. Missing recess is a hardship for elementary schools. Everyone spends the whole day together, and some of us are not always charming, I’ll admit.

We’re branching out, though. My classroom has a web presence now. My students have a web space to publish in, and we’re all excited. They haven’t all contributed yet, but some of them are really pumped, and they are busy writing at every opportunity. I wouldn’t say they’re blogging, because they aren’t reading other blogs, or expressing opinions, or doing “connected” kinds of things. They seem to be mostly interested in writing what I call kid fiction. Many of them want to use dialog, and tell stories with characters. I don’t think they’ve had a lot of experience writing for fun, and I’m letting them follow their instincts in a writers workshop structure. A few of them are leaving comments on one another’s pieces, and that is a power that I predict will become increasingly meaningful. I’ll be interested to see how their perceptions change over the rest of the year. I told them they could use “internet ID’s” for names, and they had a lot of fun choosing them. Parents signed releases for them to use their names, but I thought this might give them an added level of anonymity.

I have the attention of my school district on this because I requested district server space for the project, and they tell me they’re working on it, though I’ve waited now for several months. So I went ahead and hosted the project on the domain I use for Borderland. This “community writing project” is called Tell the Raven. I’ve used a Drupal configuration that allows me to moderate all of their writing and any comments that are posted. I plan to document the project details on the project itself, but so far I’ve only just begun to find my way around Drupal. I like the user management features because there’s a minimum of clicking around for me to see what’s going on. And I particularly like the fact that the kids can edit their own stuff, and when they do that, it gets kicked back into moderation. I’m using categories to organize their material, which will include reports, personal “blog-style” narratives, and fiction. There’s a book module that will work a little bit like a wiki, with versioning control that archives previous versions. I plan to have them post project-related material that we’ll organize into books.

A couple of days ago someone asked me what would happen with this project next year. This is an interesting question because it indicates a sincere desire on their part to have and maintain this expressive outlet. I told them that all of their writing would stay there for a long long time, and that my feeling was that they could keep publishing there until I didn’t have time to manage it. This is a problem that exists because I’m the only teacher at the school who understands anything about this. Part of the reason I want the site on a district server is to make it easy for other teachers to jump in as well. I’ve only showed it to a couple of folks. They look at it as something interesting, but technical and outside their grasp. Until this type of student publishing is recognized and legitimized by the school district administration, it will remain isolated and on project status for students. I can’t imagine how I’d be able to manage students who want to continue contributing after the year is over. But on the other hand, if I had a couple of strong and motivated writers who were willing to help out, an interesting community of practice might develop.

To reach back up to the top of this post and try to tie the whole thing together, which may be reaching too far, I’ll say that the climate for student online publishing here is cool and a little bit bumpy right now as I get things rolling. This is not unexpected, though, and there isn’t any resistance even though the path forward is foggy and unclear.

All kinds of basic computer skills are going to be taught. Today, for instance, the kids had to learn how to run two applications at once so they could copy and paste text from the web into a word-processing document that they can use for notes about a research topic. Last week I taught them about copy and paste. Most of them know very little about using a computer to do anything beyond clicking and scrolling. But we are warmed-up and rolling, making our way through that frozen fog. It’ll be summer before we know it, and we have a long way to go.

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The Achievement Gap

Jan 22 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

There’s a term that’s been insinuating itself into the language, mainly through its commonplace usage in popular media. You know it. Like ‘sunsets’, ‘blood relatives’, ‘from the bottom of my heart’, and other colorful but misleading idioms, it’s taken on its own little bundle of taken-for-granted meanings. I’m thinking about it because it was an agenda item in a professional workshop I participated in last week. What do people mean when they say “achievement gap?” What is it supposed to mean to me?

Instead of thinking, “OK, I know what that is,” I was immediately uncomfortable hearing the words ‘achievement gap’ because they sounded odd coming from a guest speaker in the school library with the donuts, the tea, the books and the hard little chairs. The word itself felt like an intruder, like a relative you’d rather not see who shows up uninvited to a family gathering. Unhelpful. Uncooperative. Vague. Confrontational. Pointy. Non negotiable. I don’t think I’ve ever said “achievment gap” to describe anything on my own. It’s someone else’s word. It’s jargon for something that I don’t fully understand. Nonetheless, hearing it the other day in the school library coming from the mouth of another teacher started this thought that I haven’t yet finished with. I’m exorcising the demon, trying to stop the ringing in my ears.

Our guest speakers were there to lead us through an exercise. I might have been happier if we could have first talked about what an achievement gap might be, but instead we were asked to write down our thoughts about what caused the “achievement gap.” I was groaning inside. I wrote down a few things about how an achievement gap is a social construction, and not a real thing. We recognize it through standardized test results and the unequal distribution of wealth in our society. Everyone took a break, and I kept writing on my little scrap of paper.

We then watched a video called A Class Divided in which a teacher named Jane Elliot subjected her young students to a cruel lesson in discrimination and oppression based on their eye color. Parts of the video were funny because you could see some of these little characters weren’t playing her game. By the end of the day, though, she had them all pretty twisted. As a way of showing the other half of the class, “Now YOU see how it feels!” and to even the score, she had the kids switch roles the next day and double the damage. The lady meant well, but clearly we’re operating on a different ethical plane now than we were in the 1960′s when this abusive little piece of teacher research was conducted. The film we saw included footage of these kids discussing this event 15 years later when they’d reached adulthood. They thanked Ms. Elliot for her powerful lesson. I wonder how many students didn’t show up, and wouldn’t have thanked her. The point Ms. Elliot (and our presenters) were trying to make was that racial discrimination is irrational, it hurts, and it interferes with learning. Yes. I got that. Our presenters told us not to try this experiment with our own students. Uh…OK, thanks for the advice. And I won’t swallow rat poison anytime soon, either.

The good part came when we got together in small groups with the chart paper and the markers and had to answer discussion questions. The folks I sat with had an honest discussion with no whining about having to write on chart paper. We decided that even though test scores do indicate a difference in achievement among some of our students, the tests themselves are not immediately consequential. The real consequences are the unequal access to capital resources and power in society. Prejudice is real, and it is reproduced and reinforced in school. When we talked about the ways that school did this, one of the major culprits we identified was – that’s right – curriculum. We weren’t ready to go into our own individual racist tendencies, or the contradictions inherent in teaching both conformity to conventional values and individual freedom. Middle class values don’t easily admit knotty discussions in casual company.

Each group finally stood up and said pretty much the same thing to the other groups. Platitudes were offered regarding respecting individual differences and honoring diversity. It was time for lunch. We thanked our guest speakers and moved on to other business, but I’m still wondering about how this applies to me?

If I have anything to do with the “achievement gap” it must be somehow connected to a function that I serve which remains outside the scope of my intentions. If through my agency kids are failing to learn, then I better shape up and do something else. The “achievement gap” wasn’t created by teachers. It is the product of racist and culturally biased institutions that embrace middle class values and shun association with minority points of view. Why don’t businesses and corporations do something about the achievement gap? Ah, but they are. They have politicians pushing standards, and testing, and sanctions, and vouchers, and intelligent design. This entire issue is about getting kids ready to uncritically participate in the economy no matter what they might be asked to do. Like I do! It isn’t about teaching them to think for themselves, or to find fulfillment as human beings. No. The “achievement gap” is about induction into a middle class value system that endorses free markets ahead of free people. Kids who don’t buy in are forced out. Teachers too, eh? I wonder how long I’ve got.

The only way through this is going to involve creating a different classroom reality. It isn’t an achievement gap; it’s a reality gap. Whose world are we helping to build?

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Rethinking Curriculum

Jan 19 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

Early last summer I began getting professionally developed as a science educator. What I developed was an appreciation for the power of inquiry to stimulate thinking. In the spirit of becoming an inquirer, I began wondering what inquiry might look like in the context of reading instruction. I wondered what process skills for literacy might be called. The science process skills of observing, predicting, classifying, and measuring must have an analog where literacy is concerned.

I ran across a possible answer to my question about literacy process skills in an article by Jerome Harste in a textbook I had on my shelf, Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (1994, out of print). I can’t remember why I was looking in that book, but Harste’s chapter, “Curriculum as Literacy Conversations about Knowledge, Inquiry, and Morality” gave me an idea. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I planned to explore a “reconceptualization of curriculum” with my students in the coming months. That wheel is turning.

Curriculum is normally organized around academic disciplines that are used as categories for the topics we’re expected to teach. Curricula serve to standardize what’s taught (and learned) to ensure common outcomes for students in school. Harste proposed that we reconsider our practice of using the disciplines (curricular subject areas) as a starting point for instruction. Besides the role they play as “bodies of knowledge” the disciplines also provide “ways of knowing” which serve as a lens that can limit what is knowable. If we allow students to seek answers to authentic questions, the outcomes of learning are undefined. Inquiry therefore promotes openness, divergence, and differences as opposed to sameness and uniformity. When conducted in an environment that allows personalized constructions of meaning and collaboration, inquiry supports “disciplined conversations” in which the disciplines provide perspective without narrowly defining the possibilities for learning. Now I wonder what it would look like if the “outcomes of learning are undefined?” It sounds….messy. But I also wonder, how is that any different than things are now, when kids don’t-won’t learn what is presented to them from The Curricular Canon? In that case, aren’t the actual “outcomes of learning” still undefined?

The process skills for reading Harste mentioned as possibilities:

  • Negotiation is both an internal cognitive process and a more social activity in which possible meanings are considered. It is the necessary deliberation that occurs before we reach consensus on any interpretation of a text.
  • Transmediation is the use of sign systems such as music, dance, drawing, drama, and language in order to interpret our experience of the world. The sign systems offer us different forms of self-expression, and they each allow different meanings to be made. They operate as metaphors that describe patterns of meaning we recognize. We tend to prefer linguistic sign systems in schools, but advocates for art and music education understand transmediation.
  • Transformation is the reformatting of what we know for our own purposes. It is the forming of connections between our experience and texts as we attempt to render our own meanings for specific audiences.

What this means for me is a shift in my activity as a teacher. The role of the teacher in an inquiry-oriented classroom is to

  1. Be an inquirer – a teacher-researcher stance toward educational practice is helpful.
  2. Support a learning/thinking culture – create a community of learners by encouraging collaboration.
  3. Be a listener/observer – take notes, pay attention to students individually.
  4. Pose questions – encourage students to reflect on what they are learning.
  5. Organize – gather resources you know will help students find what they’re looking for.

My students are presently working in a Reading/Writing workshop environment. They are making choices about what they read and write, reporting to one another and to me in dialog journals. Where I’m headed with this is to begin teaching them about research. We’ve started a unit of study on salmon, which is a topic that lends itself to both science and social studies since salmon is a resource for people throughout our state. I’ve set up a Drupal website for them to report on their activity and to publish their stories. I’ll post a link to that site once we get some content on it. My school district’s technology department is supportive of this effort, but they are a little bit delayed in their timeline for providing the infrastructure I require. I’m told that a server for projects like this is on order, and may soon be available. In the meantime, I’ve set the website up on another subdomain next to Borderland. I am fortunate to work in a school community that respects the professionalism of teachers and encourages us to follow our instincts.

I don’t claim to know exactly where I’m going with this. I do know that math, being a sign system in and of itself, will require it’s own dedicated instructional time. In order to prevent this project from getting chaotic, we’ll approach it, initially at least, in a guided inquiry fashion. A guided inquiry is one in which the students are not given free reign, but rather are constrained and assisted in the formulation of the questions they ask.

Finally, I agree with Jerome Harste that the knowledge most worth teaching within an inquiry framework might well be the process of inquiry itself.

Harste, J. C. (1994). Literacy as Curricular Conversations about Knowledge, Inquiry, and Morality. In S. Harry(Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (pp. 1220-1242). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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The Olden Days

Jan 13 2006 Published by under borderland,education

I was going to call this blog entry “The Old Days” but then I realized that wasn’t the way it would have been pronounced back then. ‘Olden’ is the old way we said it. So that’s how I’ll say it now because I am going to demonstrate that

  • I’m old.
  • I’m not smart.

The way I’m going to show that I’m old is that I am going to claim that I know about things that happened a long time ago from first-hand knowledge, as opposed to only reading about them.

I will prove that I’m not smart because I’m going to talk about the olden days even though I know that nobody listens when people talk about them. If people do listen, it’s only because they have to, as in, “Listen to your elders!” In that case, though, they aren’t really listening. Instead of listening they are actually thinking, “When will this be over?” This, of course, is how it used to be in school in the olden days when the teacher did all of the talking and students sat up straight “listening.” This form of discourse is known as ‘the lecture method’ which was the dominant form of talk in classrooms in the olden days. Modern teachers are concerned about things like ‘engagement’ and ‘meaning’ whereas in the olden days teachers had no such concerns. They didn’t care if students learned anything. The main things teachers cared about in the olden days was whether students were listening, which meant they had their eyes open.

In the olden days parents didn’t have as many things to worry about as they do now. This is true because in the olden days parents could not buy their kids bottled water to drink. The very idea of buying water would have been regarded as insane. People would have thought, “BUY WATER!? Go use the faucet!” The “conversation” would have been over, and the older people could have resumed lecturing.

The other thing that parents and teachers didn’t have to worry about in the olden days was safety. Safety wasn’t invented until sometime during the 1980′s. The gym teacher and I were talking about this the other day. We realized that in the olden days athletes didn’t get to drink water on hot days. First of all, there were no such things as water bottles (which might explain why there wasn’t any bottled water). The other reason we couldn’t drink water during practice on hot days was that people thought that you would get stomach cramps and be unable to play. If you got hurt playing a sport in the olden days, you didn’t get to see a physical therapist. You got “taped up” and put back in the game. But of course, tape doesn’t work for stomach cramps, so we learned to endure cotton mouth and verbal abuse from older people who took advantage of the fact that we couldn’t talk.

Nowadays we think that teachers should teach so that students actually learn things. We have things like ‘curriculum’ and ‘testing’ to see if this is happening. These weren’t necessary when students had cotton mouth and could only listen. Back then, everyone knew that if kids were listening that was good enough. They didn’t care what kids thought. Now we encourage kids to TALK and ask questions, which in the olden days were punishable offenses. Teachers in schools now have to be “conversational” so that we can “individualize” and “meet each child’s needs.”

Now that I’ve proven that I am old and not smart, feel free to use any of the above information to help you ignore what I had to say. Thanks for “listening”.

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DIBELS and the Seductive Lure of Snake Oil

Jan 10 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

It’s snake oil time. I started to write this last month when I heard they’d be coming around again, but I couldn’t find the link to the DIBELS homepage. Thanks to Doug Johnson for pointing the way. Things are more interesting today. This morning I read Doug’s call for more testing.

Doug also recently posted a link to a post written by Ken Goodman on a mailing list at Stephen Krashen’s site, which I’m now subscribed to. Professor Goodman wrote sarcastically about the power of the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). He said that DIBELS is the perfect test in the same sense that Katrina might have been the perfect storm. Since both of these links (to Goodman/Krashen and the call for more testing) point to opposite points on the testing compass, I should probably quit here and let them cancel each other out. But I wanted to say something about DIBELS.

I liked Ken Goodman’s statement for its ironic edge.

It"™s basic premise is that it can reduce reading development to a series of tasks, each measurable in one minute. Each test has arbitrary benchmarks which get more difficult to achieve in successive grades. The test authors claim that the sub-tests are "œstepping stones" to reading proficiency and each prepares the child for the next test.

Snake oil is a derogatory term for any generic “patent medicine” used as a cure-all. I’d say that DIBELS fits the definition. My first experience with it came a couple of years ago when I was asked if I wanted to administer the test to fourth graders. I didn’t know anything about it so I asked for some information and I was directed to the website where I eventually found the page describing the reading fluency test.

Goodman’s description accurately represents what is on the page and what I’ve seen:

Oral Reading Fluency. Starting in first grade the children are given a five paragraph essay on a topic written in first person. The score is the number of words read correctly in one minute. The children learn to skip any words they don"™t know and say the words they know as fast as they can. The tester says any word the child stops at after a few seconds. Some children use that as a signal that they should wait for the tester to say the word before proceeding. And a minute goes by very rapidly.

Oral Retelling Fluency. Teachers complained that counting correct words didn"™t show what the children understood. So the DIBELS folks added an oral retelling. The score is the number of words the kids produce in one minute that are more or less on topic. No attention is paid to the quality of the retelling. Honest.

As you can see, this test does not measure anything but raw behavior. It’s a step back in time. As a teacher what I get when it’s over is a list of my students’ names with a number under columns headed ORF and RF. One set for Fall and one set for Winter. Since all of the numbers are higher now, I’m supposed to feel good about doing such a great job. But what did I do? I don’t know! When I ask the question about how this test is going to help me as a teacher, I hear “It’s just another piece of information. It’s like a snapshot.”

My response, “Yeah. A snapshot of the back of each kid’s head.”

“Hey. Their scores are up. Don’t complain. Just keep doing what you do.”

I didn’t want to give the test. But I found out that whether I gave it or not, the kids would take it. So now someone comes in and walks the kids one at a time down the hall and sends them back 5-10 minutes later. No big deal, right?

I don’t see it like that. First of all, the tests are meaningless. They’re meaningless to me anyway, but I wonder about how my students feel about them. They watch us all the time, and not only do we teach them how to read and write and do math, we also convey our beliefs about those subjects. If the kids are taking tests to see how fast they can read and talk, they will naturally assume that we want them to read fast. Fast is good. Talking is good. It doesn’t even matter what you say, as long as it’s on topic. I wonder what else we can measure simply by timing it? Heh!

As to Doug’s claim that “What gets tested, gets taught,” if it’s taught because it’s tested, what typically gets taught is not the skills or content, but test-taking itself. And we have NO say in how it’s tested when it comes packaged like a patent cure. Doug claims that “we live in a society that believes in testing. And quite honestly, a degree of accountability shown through testing is not all bad,” However, he also points to a different post where he says

The general public believes such tests are reliable, objective and understandable despite the fact they measure only a few basic skills and penalize students who are poor test-takers. Assessment tools that assess higher level thinking skills and the application of skills are also necessary.

I don’t disagree with a word of that. I don’t see how we can endorse accountability using such primitive tools when the cost of their use is public misperception, institutional disruption, and personal grief to students who are being railroaded in the process. DIBELS is just one example of these things. Our energy is being totally misdirected on account of all this nonsense. We certainly don’t need MORE of it!

Instead of the DIBELS, teacher time in elementary school could be used to make checklists, and keep running records which are useful for miscue analysis. It would take about the same amount of time, and it would provide teachers with useful information about how students are processing written material. What DIBELS gives us is something like a “testing pill” that we can easily and painlessly use to get a measure. Never mind that it isn’t rational.

Update 2/10/2006: The DIBELS Clearinghouse is worth a look if you are searching for more opinion and commentary.

We feel good now, don’t we?

45 responses so far

Comment at Dinner

Jan 08 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Succinct commentary from an avid reader: My sixth grader reports, “I hate reading comprehension; it completely spoils the book.”

This is now my favorite critique of how reading is conventionally taught.

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Walking the Dogs

Jan 05 2006 Published by under borderland,education

What do thank you notes and walking the dog have in common?


They both need to be done in a timely manner.

The dogs wait for me to finish with the many incomprehensible things I waste perfectly good daylight hours doing. They wonder about my ability to remain motionless and stare fixedly at static objects – the same way I marvel at their patience to wait for squirrels in trees.

“When can we go?” They look at me intently, trying to read me for some sign. Dogs are good readers of their humans. Much better, I’d argue, than humans are of their dogs. They move when I move. If I put on coat and boots, they dance and sing. If it’s a false alarm, they flop and wait. They’re waiting right now, while I follow up on these great comments that were left on a recent blog entry.

It didn’t seem right to leave the comments buried down there, and if I wait much longer to respond, there won’t be much point.

Artichoke encouraged me to follow my labyrinthian thought process, not because the ideas are a “bad” or “good” thing/ “easier” or ‘harder” thing” but because of what they can make happen. Yes, that’s me. I’m a wanderer, domesticated now, and have to content myself with making life interesting by rearranging furniture and turning the room inside out. Sometimes a small change can be an occasion for new understanding and reflection.

Michael and Wesley commented on the power of dialog, and I agree completely. Wesley’s comment that “Students today want to be involved in activities that matter, and one of the problems with school is that many students view the things they do there as irrelevant to their lives” is exactly right. Wesley’s question is about how to change attitudes toward technology. But I wonder about whether we can presume to know what will be relevant for everyone, or whether we can say that anything should be relevant to everyone. My neighbor across the road has a small farm. He told me this summer that he has absolutely no interest in the internet. He said, “If I could get on there and find out whether someone has a pile of horse manure to give away, then I might be interested.” Since some people do see the internet as relevant, I suppose our job these days is simply to put people in touch with the piles of horse manure that are out there. Many would say that we should just let people follow their noses. But then we get into a big discussion about internet safety and filtering…

To say, as Wesley does, that “critical literacy is subsumed by digital literacy” is a claim that I’ll argue, and it may be simply a matter of how we define the terms. To me, it should work the other way. Critical literacy is a discourse that interrogates and disrupts relations of power in texts, examining the relationship between text and context. Digital literacy can and should be taught from a critical point of view, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. As Wesley pointed out, many teachers use it to fulfill Freireian ‘banking model’ pedagogical aims. Teachers use books and videos and talk to do the same thing. There is nothing inherently critical about any particular medium. The critical part comes from our human ability to sort through intention and outcome in communicative activity. That said, I think that Freire would be a blogger these days if he was still around. The power of dialog that conversational media enables is its real power, and Freire advocated dialog as a means of consciousness-raising. Of course, we don’t need electronic media to dialog with our students, but I agree that we could show them how to make it useful for whatever purposes they may devise.

Our understanding of how critical literacy might look in practice is a matter of continuing interest to educators in various settings. A paper by Barbara Comber: Critical literacies: Politicising the language classroom (1997) discusses the need for teachers to join the discussion, and offers some classroom examples while exploring the problematic nature of the discourse as it is may appear in schools. I’ve read some of her other work, and I enjoy her insights. Sharing just a bit from her conclusion

While educators have devoted energy to promoting their preferred versions of critical literacy and conferences have often become battle grounds for theorists, it is essential teachers also enter the debate. We need to critically examine the different versions of critical literacy that emerge and develop complex pictures of what pedagogies for critical literacy look like in different educational contexts.

Moving on, Jeremy gave me a New Year’s “Hmmmm” . I never got one of those before. Thanks, Jeremy. (I guess.) I’ll do my best to live up to it.

Brian left me an awesome comment. His insight and thoroughness is impressive. And when I followed the link back to Brian’s site I learned that everything I said in my Recursion post was something that he’d already covered in his. I wish I’d discovered his work sooner because it would have saved me a lot of time. I’ll have fun going through his archives because I know that I’m going to learn plenty. From his comment, the bit that I especially liked was this

New technologies in education do not lead to fundamental change and creative uses of them can hardly be called innovative. A so-called “disruptive technology” will always fail to disrupt the underlying source of authority in the system and therefore will always be subsumed by it. There is a far more powerful and borg-like technology at play, and that technology is called curriculum.

I added the Wikipedia link to Brian’s word, ‘borg’ because I found it such a great metaphor for the faceless power of curricula. As with terrorism, it’s difficult to fight an enemy that you can’t even recognize.

Marco Polo is thinking about what I had to say, but in the meantime he found Artichoke’s link to a helpful paper about the problem of trying to teach critical thinking in the context of conventional classroom instructional models.

Finally, I notice that Will has my above-mentioned Recursion piece about curriculum on his sidebar (along with stuff by other folks). It’s also on a site called Squidoo, where he is the Lensmaster for Connective Learning. That’s cool! Thanks Will. I’ll ride your coat tails as far as you’ll carry me. What’s Squidoo about, anyway? Have you mentioned it? I don’t always pay attention in class. Sorry if I blanked out for a while.

Now for my poor dogs. We need to stretch while there’s still daylight. It goes by quickly at 64N latitude in early January.

Bosco and Maya

Thanks to everyone who pays attention to what I’m doing here! I know that soon I won’t have time to post to the blog-space so obsessively because I’m due back in my teacher role next week. But that will give me something else to write about.

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Bloggers Rights, Reinvention, and….Who Knows What?

Jan 04 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

I joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and pasted a badge in Borderland’s sidebar below the blogroll, above the ‘Activism’ section. I can’t turn the computer on and get any work done these days. I get spun around so quickly by the stuff I’m reading that I never get where I was headed. I still have grade reports to write, and my remaining days off are few. I want to build a web site for my students, but too much is going on.

A puzzle
People are making announcements left and right about reinventing themselves.

They’re are all talking about changing skins like reptiles molting. The subject of retirement for me comes up regularly at home. But no-can-do, and besides, what would I have to chew on then? There aren’t a lot of other opportunities for people in my line of work around here. And I know full well that I’m no longer fit to live in the United States proper. (You can read that last sentence any way you like; it’s true whether the last word is an adjective or a grammatically incorrect adverb.) So I wonder about the mysterious ways of the world and I think about how comfortable it is way out here on the head of a flea at the tip of the very long tail.

Words of Lao Tzu come to mind.

What a booby I must be
Not to know my way round,
What a fool!
The average man is so crisp and so confident
That I ought to be miserable
Going on and on like the sea,
Drifting nowhere.
All these people are making their mark in the world,
While I, pig-headed, awkward,
Different from the rest,
Am only a glorious infant still nursing at the breast.

This isn’t to be critical. I always feel a little bit out of step with everyone else. Reinvention is something that just seems to happen to me. I’ve never had a sense of being in control of it.

I read Clay Shirky’s excellent article about power distribution curves. One thing he wrote was how eventually there’ll be so many bloggers that the term blogging will become meaningless as a descriptor for any particular kind of activity, and we won’t see any distinct connection between what people at either end of the long tail are doing. Shirky speculated that at the head we’ll see blogging activity that is essentially the same as broadcast media – distribution of material to an audience that is so large there is no direct interpersonal contact with them, while activity at the tail would be essentially conversational. I don’t know if that’s right, but I was thinking about it in light of this rash of reinventions.

An outrage
With a thoughtful hmmm (You see, I really don’t want to write those report cards!) I read Cory Doctorow’s I quit my day-job story. And I followed his link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I started poking around. I found the page of badges and the Bloggers’ Rights pages. I thought that was pretty cool in a kind of academic way. I wondered if I should join; and I moved on.

The next thing that happened was fateful. I noticed that Graham Wegner and Leigh Blackall both posted links about a teacher who lost her job for blogging. I was captivated by this story. Most briefly, Meg Spohn was abruptly dismissed from her university teaching position in Colorado because she is a blogger and she wrote about her work. She gives a good account of what happened. All I can say is that it strikes me as an outrageous tactic to silence and intimidate educators who wish to speak publicly. Because of this – I’ve been online now for a couple of hours working through this – I went back to EFF and made my donation.

Who knows what could happen to any of us? There is historical precedent in other countries for the arrest and imprisonment of dissident voices. Who believes that our own government wouldn’t put citizens under surveillance for the things they were talking about!!? We should not take our rights for granted. We should not be afraid. We should not be complacent.

2 responses so far


Jan 02 2006 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology


Today, clearing off the workbench, I found my old maul. To be precise, I found the maul head (the heavy wedge-shaped part) and the maul handle (wooden) that I bought to replace the one that broke in September when it started getting cold this fall and we began splitting wood again. The other replacement – the one we use now – has a plastic handle and a sharply curving wedge that even my 10-year-old can use to split knotty spruce. I’d never used a plastic one before, but since the old wood handle didn’t last even a year, I upgraded and took one of each. The new 2.0 version works OK, but it’s light, and won’t easily do the job for the firewood rounds that are very twisted. They lay around, battered and abandoned by the rest of the family, waiting for me. I can usually break them up by virtue of brute force, but sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

The maul head on the bench was the old heavy version that broke off the other handle. When I brought them home I left the fancy maul near the woodpile ready-to-use and the new handle went to the workbench. I drilled the handle stub out of the old head and tried fitting the new handle into it, but it was too tight for even my big framing hammer to pound home. Whittling the new handle down was my last choice. Better, I figured, to bang it on with something heavier – like the new maul, which was outside. I forgot about it until today. (Which might give you some idea of how the bench looked.) Of course, I tried all the same halfway measures that I used last September. I banged it on the concrete floor. I pounded it with the framing hammer. This all worried the dog, which was entertaining. Finally I broke down and took the half-minute walk to the woodpile. With the warm wooden handle in my one bare hand and the cold plastic handle in my other bare hand, it took about 2 swings and a few follow-up taps to marry handle and head.

I’m thinking about how many new things we need to use so that we can keep the old things functioning. Kids are an obvious example. We’re heading rapidly toward a world of who-knows-what and we want to make sure that when we get there someone will know what to do about it. We foresee that we might not be in any shape to deal with whatever-it-is, due to our impending dilapidation, so we’ll have trained assistants standing by to do what we ourselves can’t. The problem, of course, is will they? They may decide that the stuff we think needs doing doesn’t matter any more. Changes, changes…

Culture and technology don’t always keep pace. How much of the stuff that we do in school now should we scrap? How much do we salvage and repurpose? And which new tools should we use to get the old things done? Is there anything new under the sun? The question I really want to answer is whether curriculum has become an end in itself that actually obstructs learning.

Curriculum is a tool for accomplishing cultural and political objectives. It isn’t a neutral educational object no matter how hard we might wish. It has a history and a purpose. It’s a technology, designed for a world that someone imagined. I suspect that, for a variety of reasons, it has become incoherent. Our sense of it depends on who we are and the world we each imagine. Education has become the bastard child of many of the academic disciplines that it spawned. We’ve been studied and colonized by psychologists, ethnographers, linguists, historians, theologians, philosophers, and more recently by business administrators, and economists. Curriculum, springing from all these disciplines is as murky as a cesspool.

2006 is the year that I plan to reclaim my classroom from chaos, use tools and methods that suit authentic inquiry, and explore the meaning of curriculum with my students. We’ll do a research project on research projects. Among other things, I’m going to use Borderland to document the effort. This disruptive technology is going to help me disrupt another one. This may sound extreme, but I don’t think it is. For me, it’s the logical next step. I’ll save the history for another day, but I see this as an exercise in scholarship.

…scholarship in all of its forms becomes consequential only as it is understood by others-others who are engaged in related processes of discovery, invention, and investigations-and thus it becomes consequential as it stimulates, builds upon, critiques, or otherwise contributes to any community of scholars who depend on one another’s discoveries, critical reviews, and inventive applications to move the work of the field ahead (Shulman, 1988, p.26).

Like the maul(s), the new tools need to work with the old at least for a while. I see room for a conversation with my students about what’s relevant to them. Rather than dumping content on them, we’re going to explore what’s there, talk about it, and express our understanding of it through a variety of media as we go. Very simply, I want to build a curriculum with my students, based on what we have now. I’ll document the experience, and I want them to record their understandings on a website reserved for that purpose. It’s a colaborative teacher-student research project – disciplined inquiry; curriculum as conversation.

Shulman, L. S. (1988). Disciplines of Inquiry in Education: A New Overview. In R. M. Jaeger(Ed.), Complimentary Methods for Research in Education (pp. 3-29). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

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