Archive for August, 2006

Reading “Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform”

Aug 30 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

NCTE published a policy document called NCTE Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform that takes a hard look at the state of literacy education in the US, and makes recommendations for improvement.

The introduction to the report tells us that although reading has been an instructional focus for students in elementary grades, we now see that middle and high school students need help with “the complex literacy skills they will need to be successful in the information-driven economy.”

Citing statistics from various sources, the authors of the report justify their proposed reforms by telling us that:

  • Over 8 million students in grades 4-12 read below grade level;
  • 3000 students drop out of high school each day;
  • Only about half of our high school students can read complex texts.

They also say that since demands for literacy in a knowledge/information-based economy are increasing, employers are looking overseas for qualified workers. Furthermore, we’re told that these underliterate students are unable to responsibly participate in democratic decision-making.

Summing up, the authors step center stage and chant,

The moral imperatives that led the United States to establish public schools during the early days of nationhood remain: schooling must produce citizens sufficiently skilled in literacy to help foster the greater good within our nation and in the world beyond.

So there we have it, “to foster the greater good…” And whose greater good will that be? By now I am looking for some authors’ names, but can only find “The James R. Squire Office for Policy Research” at the bottom of the page. They may support progressive change, but in this case, I’d like to see a little broader vision. What could be broader than “within our nation and the world beyond? You may ask.

It’s not that I disagree with any of the facts, because I don’t know. It’s not that I disagree with any of the solutions, because they may be good ideas. It’s not that I disagree with the proposition that we could do a better job, because I know that’s true.

I’m leery of recommendations that are justified with functionalist economic arguments coupled with dire warnings about political cataclysm. Jacquelin Edmondson, (quoting Patrick Shannon) in “Asking Different Questions,” suggested that recommendations such as these may be an attempt by researchers to answer the questions posed by policy makers, in order to be seen as the source of valuable information (Edmondson, p. 114).

With a dose of skepticism, I read on. The rest of the report seems fairly sensible. The need to address reading instruction across the curriculum is emphasized. Specific recommendations are offered for improving motivation, comprehension, critical thinking, and assessment.

The report then dredges up slogans about “a growing body of research” which shows that professional development holds great promise for improving student achievement. I’m OK with this, but it sounds a bit fuzzy, like something recopied off the xerox glass and passed around at too many conferences. And then, Rod Paige is quoted, and I’m feeling morose about spending time with this screed, with 12 pages left to go.

Reading on, “To have significant impact, professional development should link to other parts of the instructional infrastructure in a given school.” Maybe, I wonder, they might mean something like what our district is doing now with the “embedded” math mentors for our new Everyday Math curriculum adoption – today I heard the word embedded, with respect to classrooms, for the first time. Maybe people talk like this in other places? Living in Alaska, I often feel grateful to be out of touch.

The last half of the report, starting with the Interdisciplinary Collaboration section, seems the most promising. It addresses the benefits to be found in collaborative communities of teachers working with students who are writing across the curriculum using multi-modal texts. Standards for literacy coaches are listed…and those coaches are, Yes! I was right, “job-embedded.”

Enough. The discourse of reform is wearing me out. We’ll bend Education back and forth until it snaps like a wire coat hanger. Then I can retire and let the younger teachers figure out how to duct tape it back together so it can do some useful work.

For a critical article about literacy and global economy, read James Gee’s The New Literacy Studies and the “Social Turn”. Literacy skills may not buy as much liberty as some people want us to believe.

It’s time for teachers to counter the business-driven education reform message with some noise of our own about economic reform. In case you haven’t noticed, we work downstream from the discharge pipe.

My principles of reform can be expressed in less than 15 words:

  1. Connect with people near you.
  2. Show enthusiasm for your work.
  3. Renew your efforts daily.

work cited:
Edmondonson, J., Asking different questions: Critical analyses and reading research. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1 January/February/March 2002. International Reading Association.

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Classroom Operating Manual

There is no way to tell everyone on the first day of school – or even the first few days – everything they need to know about “operating” the classroom. I pick the most basic things, managing supplies, using the hall pass, getting lunch, knowing what to do when you come in the room, what to do when you finish your work, how to politely get my attention…and I work on putting those procedures in place right away. The more the kids learn to do on their own, without my direction, the more time I have, and the better they use their time.

Most of last week, the first week, was spent in error mode. I try to keep my explanations short and to the point. I say a few introductory things, and then move in to some easy activity. Invariably, something happens to interrupt the flow, and we have to stop and have a “mini-lesson” on how a particular micro-process should work. We don’t get a lot of schoolwork done early on, but I expect that. The fourth-graders have to listen to me tell them that they’re intermediate level students now, and…and…I’m glad I don’t have to listen to myself.

Last Friday morning, when the first homework assignment was due, the excuse machine was on overload and was in danger of overheating. When a student told me, “You forgot to tell us to take our math book home, and….” I stopped her in mid-defense.

“No, no, no. My ears are hurting!” I told her and the 5 or 6 woeful little faces standing near me. “Stop now. This is too sad for me to listen to anymore.”

This was No-Excuses-Friday. I stood in front of the class and let them know that I could not help anything that happens away from school, and that I’d heard too many reasons why something didn’t get done. “Better,” I said, “if you tell me when you’ll have it here.”

I decided to institute a Homework Policy that parents would sign. I plan to hold noncompliant students in from recess until they notify their parents, or satisfy the deficiency. This, of course, destroys my lunch period. But I have few options other than ignoring the whole issue and letting the slackers off the hook. I’ve tried that, and what happens is that parents yell when they see the report card. My hope is that if I am firm in the beginning, I will not have trouble later. But who am I kidding?

When I started composing my policy notice, I went online looking for research findings that would justify my expectations that students do their homework. As we all know, if we can say, “Research shows that…” people will be more likely to believe us. I discovered that there is little current research showing a benefit to homework in elementary school. My experience reflects much of what Alfie Kohn has to say about the Homework Myth.

I wish I didn’t have to assign it, grade it, or monitor student/parent compliance. Most homework is a waste of time and a headache from start to finish. The homework that I do understand is the classwork that needs a little more time, or gives parents more information about what their kids are doing in class. Like it or not, it’s part of the culture of school.

The beginning of the academic year is about establishing norms for participation in the classroom. This year I’m keeping track of as much of the social learning and teaching as I can. That’s the stuff that gets taken for granted later on. I want to have the kids generate a Classroom Operating Manual on a wiki. A student ethnography project like that will be a great introductory writing venture for us.

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Blessed are the Irrelevant

Aug 28 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

Will’s Richardson’s and Miguel Guhlin’s posts today about the rate of uptake for read/write web integration in classrooms suggested a reading of the The Eight Beatitudes. The word irrelevant, that Miguel used, made me think about the benefits of being overlooked and passed by.

So, with the help of a thesaurus, I suggest a ninth Edublogger’s Beatitude:

Blessed are the irrelevant; for theirs is to find freedom in being beside the point, off the subject, peripheral, extraneous, and insignificant.

Will wonders if

at the end of the day, blogs and wikis and the like come closer to pen and paper technologies than most of what has come before and that because of that, they may finally be the tools that bring us to the point where we stop talking about technology and start talking about practice.

To which I say Amen!

In a more secular vein, as Huck Finn said to Tom:
I had to shove, Tom — I just had to. And besides, that school’s going to open, and I’d a had to go to it — well, I wouldn’t stand that, Tom. Looky-here, Tom, being rich ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s just worry and worry, and sweat and sweat, and a-wishing you was dead all the time. Now these clothes suits me, and this bar’l suits me, and I ain’t ever going to shake ‘em any more. Tom, I wouldn’t ever got into all this trouble if it hadn’t ‘a’ ben for that money; now you just take my sheer of it along with your’n, and gimme a ten-center sometimes — not many times, becuz I don’t give a dern for a thing ‘thout it’s tollable hard to git — and you go and beg off for me with the widder.”

As soon as we all get codified, standardized, and known downtown, where will all fun be?

There’s no need to lament.

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Classroom Fieldnotes Wiki

Aug 27 2006 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

Last year I began thinking about how, after so many years of teaching, I should have the beginning of the year figured out. But I don’t. Each year I dig around looking for a file that I call “first week of school” or something. It has informational letters to parents, and it also has beginning of the year activities that I can do with kids while I’m getting to know them.

I decided to organize these files in a wiki that I installed on a subdomain next to this blog. I’ve been using this wiki as a personal data organizer, and last year I began keeping my lesson plans in it.

The way I set up the lesson plan scheme turned out to be not such a good idea, since I found out that Google indexed the pages and people were searching the site for lesson ideas that I either had only in my head, or were found in the teacher’s manual. The lesson plans were quite abbreviated, So I used one of the wonderful features that comes with the software, and limited access for those pages to me, only.

As the year went along I began to experiment with the style sheet, and I made a template page for the lesson plans that allowed me to use a CSS float class to keep two-column notes on what I was doing each week. In other words, one side of the page has plans, the other side has results. By the end of the year I had it mostly worked out, but there still wasn’t much of any substance there for me to come back to.

With the CSS style sheet, I’ve disabled comments and most of the wiki navigation features, except categories, so that I can frustrate anyone who wants to spam the site. It isn’t hard to find things if you know where to look, and anyone who reads this may want to check it out.

This year I returned to the same old problem of finding the things that I need for the first week of school. I’ve decided to include more lesson content in the site and hyperlink to it from my planning page. At this point, I have my last week’s plans accessible.

Items of interest that I have put in the wiki this week include:

  • an article on Vocabulary lesson design;
  • A great little vocabulary test for kids in grades 3-12, to give teachers a rough idea of their students’ reading ability;
  • A tangram problem solving challenge that is fun all year, but especially good in the beginning for teaching about creative persistence with problems;
  • A spelling inventory that uses feature analysis to give teachers of upper primary-level students a rationale for individualizing spelling assignments. There’s a reference cited for teachers of older students, who want to learn more about it.

A lot of ed bloggers have written about using wikis in the classroom. I thought I’d throw this idea out as an alternative suggestion. Wikis are not just for collaboration. They make good personal notebooks as well, and the information is shareable.

I’ll continue adding to the wiki this year and hyperlinking my planning pages. Maybe next year I won’t have to write so many lesson plans. I can’t find anything in my ancient metal file cabinet, anyway. I’m giving this a try.

Updated: For reasons I cannot discern, and won’t spend time worrying about, links to the wiki items listed above didn’t display in Bloglines, though they’re active on the page itself.

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Outcast Planet

Aug 24 2006 Published by under borderland,education,science

You never know when you’ll be called upon to speak authoritatively on something you know little about. Fortunately, since I began blogging two years ago, I have experience.

I heard a news story on the radio this morning about the demotion of Pluto from its status as a full planet. It is now classified a dwarf planet.

Immediately I thought about my fourth-graders, who study the solar system in science. The solar system is a hard topic for a hands-on approach. Naturally, we can do gravity demonstrations, and we can learn about atmospheric properties, but the size and scale of the solar system is a bit of a stretch.

The kids get enthusiastic gathering information about the planets themselves. Many have never thought about Earth as a planet, or the Sun as a star.

Most kids seem to like Pluto more than the other planets. I suppose it’s because of its remoteness. They like googol for the same reason. They’re attracted to the aura of power that comes from big things, or in this case, things that are very far out.

With its popularity, I figured the kids would have something to say on the subject. I wondered what the textbook publishers would do about it, with all that print to rewrite! Wikipedia had no such trouble. Score 1 for the Wikipedia. The Wikpedians were all over it, and the planets talk pages are fun to read through.

I also wondered how my favorite kid-information source for planet info on the web would handle this. The nineplanets.org might have to change their domain name. But they were ahead of me, and they say that they’ll stay right where they are and call Pluto a “planet emeritus.”

As the morning rolled along, I forgot about this big deal, but then one of the other teachers showed a reporter into my classroom so he could ask me some questions about how this would affect schools. I hadn’t really considered that it would make any difference! My group was getting ready for recess, and I couldn’t talk to him. I’m glad, because it was my lunch period, and I hate to lose that. I decided to talk over the heads of the kids as they were pulling on their jackets and finding basketballs.

I told him my approach to teaching this subject would be no different. “Really!” he said. And I thought, “God, what is he going to make of anything I tell him?” So I added, “It’s funny how a single definition can change the shape of the universe (I should have said ‘solar system’ but universe sounds better.) He smiled, and started writing. Then I said, “The kids always like Pluto best, and this will probably make it even more popular – the Outcast Planet” He smiled bigger and said, “Thank you very much.” Who knows what the paper will say in the morning!

This evening I was thinking about all of this and speculating on why it mattered, the reclassification of the ex-planet. The only new thing I can think of is that with Pluto out of the way, scale models of the solar system will be a lot easier to enter in the science fair. It seems fitting that Pluto, named for the god of the underworld, would be cast out of the heavens, so to speak. But of course, it’s still out there, just more precisely defined.

I don’t know about the science involved, but at least one source attempts to explain the issues and claims that this means more to the general public than it does to scientists. It seems to me that the re-definition, like any definition, must be a way of controlling membership in the category since many similar objects have recently been discovered and threaten to crowd what has until now been a very limited field.

But I’m not an expert. The reporter should have talked to one of my students. They talk all day on subjects they know very little about, and they’re full of interesting observations. That’s the real story.

I guess that one is up to me. The question of what should happen to Pluto will be a great writing prompt.

If anyone wants to explain why this might matter to us, I’m listening.

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It Finally Happened

Aug 24 2006 Published by under borderland

Years ago I told one of my second-grade classes that when one of their own children became a student of mine, it would be my last year teaching. This morning a little 9 year-old boy said to me, “Mr. Noon, you taught my mom when she was in second grade.

I spoke too soon.

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Chicken…Egg…Chicken…

Aug 22 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

There is a chicken and egg controversy over at HunBlog about IQ, socioeconomic status, and achievement. Brad Hoge kicked it off with a riff about my post on the likelihood of significant climate change in Hades, and the response he got in his comments confirmed my observation that it won’t happen anytime soon.

Brad made an interesting ecological argument for local rather than broad and sweeping interventions as we work toward making classrooms better places for kids to learn. I wanted to comment when I first read it, but I got sidetracked by the beginning of school. I checked the comments on the first of the two posts yesterday and found a lively exchange going on there about race and class in educational processes.

Brad’s analysis of the limitations of social science research reminded me of an article by James Paul Gee in which he discussed patterns in language and literacy research. Gee argued that

the patterns most important to human thinking and action follow a sort of "œGoldilocks principle": they are not too general and not too specific; they are midlevel generalizations between these two extremes.

He called these midlevel generalizations “situated meanings,” which sounded a little bit like Brad’s thesis that overgeneralizing leads us to erroneous conclusions.

Brad’s post was engaged by KDeRosa, who began the infinite regression down the search for lost causes, talking about whether “external factors” cause student failure and claiming that “improving the curriculum and/or school has raised achievement….while attempts at changing the external factors have largely, if not wholey, failed.” He goes on and on breaking down the causes and correlations between low socioeconomic status and low academic achievement.

I wanted to say something, but I hardly knew where to begin.

Now I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter.

Whenever I present the question to my students about which came first, the chicken or the egg, they tackle the problem with relish. They take sides and argue passionately for chickens or eggs. For pure entertainment value, asking this chicken and egg riddle to a group of kids is like dropping a cat into a yard full of huskies. Everyone goes home either mad or hungry, because there’s no satisfaction in an answer.

To get back to a first cause ignores the fact that in the here and now, chickens cause eggs and eggs cause chickens, and if we are going to do anything about one of them, we have to consider the other.

The reason to ask about chickens and eggs is presumably to intervene somehow on behalf of a chicken or an egg. Consequently we now hear a lot of people talking about schools as a monolithic concept, which is what pluralizing a regular noun allows you to do. They argue that by fixing schools they will improve our society, or by fixing society, we can improve our schools.

I challenge the notion that there is anything like a “school system” to be fixed. A system is organized and integrated, and schools are not, and never have been. What we have is a culture of schooling, not a system, and culture is not readily directed or intervened upon.

I denounce as racist, any advocacy for educational reform that discounts the relevance of equity in educational processes. My position is not practical. It is a moral stance. We don’t need to be concerned with causes whatsoever. They are a distraction from the real work of healing and nurturing that teachers are called to.

Education is not merely a path to material success. It is also a journey of self-discovery and communion. Social equity is also not simply a path to material well-being, but represents a birthright for every human according to our highest principles. The success criteria for education is neither test-passing, nor material gain. Success has more to do with satisfying deeply personal values which are not definable across diverse contexts. There can be no true education without justice, because the worth of each individual is the central teaching in a democracy, and the absence of that condition exposes all other teaching as hypocrisy and deceit.

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The Illiteracy Lie

USAToday published an opinion column written by Colorado’s commissioner of education in which he bashed schools and teachers for causing an “illiteracy crisis” that puts “the fate of our nation in serious peril.” Citing scaredy-cat luminaries Rudolf Flesch and E. D. Hirsch, Commissioner Moloney predicted that the sky will fall on our once-great nation because “85% of U.S. reading teachers were never properly trained.” This dire claim is based on data from The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIHCD), a quasi-science propaganda front for the US Dept. of Education.

The federal government regularly exploits mainstream media to relay its message of fear and failure through mindless mouthpieces like the commissioner, in order to promote its reformist agenda. An ignorant public will accept any data as fact, so long as it’s cloaked in official-sounding rhetoric. Joann Yatvin, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, responded with an indictment of her own, and says, in part:

NICHD, well financed by the federal government, supported by the Bush administration, and cheered on by publishers seeking profits, has done its best to persuade the American public and educators at every level that its ideology is based on science, moreover, that it is THE SCIENCE OF READING.

On the subject of educational research, Stephen Downes made a good argument about the limitations of experimental designs in education:

…when these experiments are conducted in a health (or educational, or foreign aid) setting, what happens of necessity is that the experiment is deliberately isolated and abstracted from the environment as a whole….The inference from the experimental setting to the wider practise is not warranted.

Journalists who report government-sponsored research data should learn how to read it. If there is an illiteracy crisis, it is with the media professionals themselves, since they appear unable to critically evaluate their sources. As a consequence, they sell a message of failure that dominates the marketplace of ideas and drives pubic policy down a dead end road to the past.

Michael Pressley’s article, A Few Things Reading Educators Should Know About Instructional Experiments is a good resource for teachers who want more information about the strengths and weaknesses of educational experiments. When we hear claims for the efficacy of evidence-based reading instruction, we should think about the validity criteria for those assertions.

Ironically, Pressley agreed with commissioner Moloney that too-few primary classrooms are engaging and effective. It’s interesting, though, that Pressley didn’t cite a lack of teacher training as the cause. Instead, Pressley concluded that

Educators and policymakers need to spend time looking at scientific evidence to determine how to reform literacy teaching, but neither group has digested this body of work enough to make the best use of it.

Without a determination of cause for weaknesses in reading instruction I suggest that burdensome policies enacted by ignorant politicians might be to blame, as well as textbooks and curricula that push a skills and drill instructional methodology. It’s been my experience that student teachers come from the university with fresh ideas that don’t wash politically in the public system, which suggests that training is not the problem as much as a culture of compliance that is found in practice.

Before we can realize the goal of an informed and effective teaching force, we’ll need to educate ourselves and our leaders about how to evaluate the research. What we are offered is a research-based political agenda that pushes a predetermined vision of schooling. What we need is freedom to pursue our hopeful visions, inspired by the data gained from our own sense-making as we read, watch, and learn from one another.

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The Community Writing Project

Aug 15 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Totem poleLast year I put together a website for my 4th graders to publish on. I called it Tell the Raven because we have a totem pole in the schoolyard. Totem poles aren’t normally found in the interior of Alaska. They come from Northwest coastal people. This totem pole was carved by a Tsimpshian carver from Metlakatla, who has a residence here, and it has a story in which Raven carries a message of love, kindness, and respect around the world. I thought it was a good theme for the website.

This writing project came together for me midyear last year, when I put together a Drupal installation on a domain that I set up without charge through the Lunarpages education program.

I commented recently to a post by Nancy Brodsky, who was writing about her planning process, and today she looked at the possibilities for student web publishing with fresh eyes, on her Inquiry blog. She included a link to a post called Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom about issues around public and private classroom blogs. I left her a new comment, and as I was doing so I recognized that I could say a little more about my classroom project.

I didn’t want to encourage students to publish personal journals. I didn’t expect them to want to write fiction so much, either, but that was a choice I honored. I approached the project in the context of a school assignment. I wanted them to practice good form, and to be judicious about personal disclosures. This was the topic of conversation for us in writing conferences. Because the writing was public, my students were more interested in learning about conventions of print than they are when they’re merely being graded.

My principal saw this, as he regularly makes rounds of the classrooms, and he asked me if I wanted to include other staff members in the project. I’ll present the project to our staff at a meeting soon and see if there’s interest. One of the reasons that I chose Drupal is that it allows groups and memberships with different sets of permissions. Maybe we’ll be able to use this installation building-wide, and the kids can continue their work on it from year to year. The little classroom writing project may soon grow.

updated: see with fresh eyes for my comment. I should learn not to repeat myself.

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The Last Day of Summer

Aug 13 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

It’s cool and misty outside this morning – the perfect weather for going back to work after a summer off. Summer’s spell has been broken. It’s dark at night again, and steady rain for the last 2 days tells me that the deck may not get refinished after all.

I picked up my keys from the school office, and I took a peek at my classroom. There are too many desks – more than there were last year. I counted them, and there are 28. That’s the first little clue I have about what’s coming.

The second clue about what I can look forward to came in the newspaper yesterday.

Twelve schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District have been classified as "œIn need of improvement" based on their Adequate Yearly Progress, an assessment required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act….

My school was listed. But I’m lucky to work with a principal who doesn’t get bent out of shape over this kind of information. Still, I resent the time we have to spend talking about it.

A related story about a rural Alaksan school discrict appeared in the news a couple of days ago. But they’re not talking about students, even though they say they are. They’re talking about test scores. There’s another set of “achievement gap” data for Alaska Natives that school officials and the news media aren’t talking about : Statistical findings of the Alaska Native Commission

Despite the overwhelming disconnect between many administrators and the real world of the classroom, I’ll try to ignore the noise and focus on being the best teacher I can be. I liked Brian’s thoughts about our role in helping students with these problems as an example of Best Practices. I’m there for the kids, not their test scores, and if that isn’t good enough, they can invite me to leave like they did those Bering Straits teachers.

This is the first school year since 1999 that I haven’t had university coursework to think about. I’ll put the extra time to good use. I go back tomorrow. Meetings, greetings, and long hours rummaging through closets will be the fare. I plan to spend this last day off with my family.

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