Archive for September, 2006

Contested Ground

Sep 30 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics,teacher research

My classroom doesn’t work the way I want it to. In the Age of Accountability, I focus on process, and see product as a secondary concern. I’m an ill-fitting peg, uneasy about participating in what, for me, amounts to a charade – emulating archaic practices designed for kids from bygone eras.

Looking at the group I’m with now, thinking about them, and not the generic, bloodless beings called Students, statistical incarnations of demographically catalogued learners, I feel more strongly than ever that I owe each of them more than mere delivery of the curriculum, and concern for where they stand relative to a standard that I don’t endorse.

Being a teacher means too many things for me to say that I know how to do it well. I surely don’t know how to move a group of kids to universal competence when their needs span the curricula for 4 different grade levels, and when they come with varying interests, talents, and beliefs about themselves and about school. But I do know how to connect with students through conversation. I am a noticer of insight, and I am a celebrant of the very good question. I know how to encourage kids to make strides on their own, working for things that I could never teach them directly.

Christopher Sessums put together a great article about teacher knowldege:

Knowledge for practice brings us to the idea of best practice "“ generalizable behaviors and techniques that are verified and acknowledged as effective. The problem with such a conception of practice is that best practices are not necessarily presented as situated in a specific context.

I remember when I first heard the term, best practice. A new principal used the term in a staff meeting, and it felt like ice on the back of my neck. Who says? I wondered. That term has rankled me for almost 20 years. The phrase resurfaced in a meme that bloomed on David Warlick’s blog. Miguel Guhlin and Will Richardson have taken a swing at it in recent months, also.

I found Christopher Sessums’ article refreshing because it offers a perspective outside the either/or, best-practices-trap which looks at teacher knowledge as a received commodity rather than a dynamic process of discovery and analyis.

Sessums used Cochran-Smith’s & Lytle’s (1999) analytic frame for understanding teacher stance toward practical and professional knowledge:

  • knowledge for practice: knowledge as received;
  • knowledge in practice: knowledge acquired through experience;
  • knowledge of practice: knowledge derived from adopting a critical stance through inquiry

From the Knowledge of Practice perspective, Sessums tells us that Cochran-Smith and Lytle pose this as a stance in which

teaching is seen as a political act and cannot be separated from what is being taught, how it"™s being taught, and what becomes of the results…teacher inquiry provides the social and intellectual context in which teachers, at all points along their professional lifespan, adopt critical perspectives of their own assumptions as well as the theory and research of others….Part of the goal of this conception is to professionalize teaching and bring about social/educational change by enlarging the teacher"™s role as a decision maker, consultant, curriculum developer, analyst, activist, and school leader.

Discussions about teaching and professionalism on both The Education Wonks’ and Jenny D’s recent posts illustrate the difficulty we have in making headway on the question of what we Should be doing, because a critical perspective is altogether overlooked in discussions about How we should measure teacher effectiveness.

Absent from discussions of teacher effectiveness and best practice is the acknowledgment that fact can not be separated from value. Standards, and the curricula they spawn are socially derived, and are not handed down on stone tablets. They encapsulate value orientations toward knowledge and the purpose of public education, ultimately defining what are desirable and necessary qualities for a human being.

I applaud Will Richardson’s effort to articulate a definition for emergent knowledge and the consequent change in professional attitude that must accompany it. His article in Edutopia, The New Face of Learning, addresses the need for new standards, without specifically calling them that.

…it feels more and more hollow to ask students to “hand in” their homework to an audience of one. When we’re faced with a flattening world where collaboration is becoming the norm, forcing students to work alone seems to miss the point…it’s not hard to understand why rows of desks and time-constrained schedules and standardized tests are feeling more and more limiting and ineffective.

Will is way out in front with this discussion, though. Teachers as a profession need to resolve our differences about the teacher’s role, or risk enshrining alternate methods for doing what we’ve always done, calling them ‘best practices’. If, as Chris Sessums points out, administrators have a hard time admitting the legitimacy of teachers as inquirers and challengers of the status quo, waiting for their encouragement will stall us out right where we are, mired in arguments about measurement and control.

We all are empowered. We each are responsible.

Cochran-Smith, M. and S. L. Lytle (1999). “Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities.” Review of Educational Research in Education 24: 249-305.

48 responses so far

Community Plumbing

It’s been frantic, the last couple of days, getting the kid site going.

Yesterday, Day 1, students all had material ready to go, saved in portable keyboards and on a file server, so everyone could jump in together, and we wouldn’t have to be concerned with “creative flow” and technical procedures simultaneously. After they logged in and downloaded their work to a text file, copied and pasted from there to the web interface – it sounds too simple when I say it like that – it took over an hour to get it done. (Did you know that the copy/paste procedure needs to be explicitly taught?) I now have about 25 rough pieces in the moderation queue to clean up.

The moderation panel works well for managing all the posting. (Note the position of the scroll bar – there’s a lot more on the page :)

Another feature of the software is the queue that allows content to be moderated by the community. They can vote online for the pieces that go on the front page. I plan to put that in place this year.

It’s too soon in the year for them to do any complicated revising. I model the standard, and teach them to write with the material they submit. Today I used the overhead to show them how I do the moderation. It took about 5 minutes for me to proof the example I pulled off the admin panel. I posed the question, “If I have 20 pieces to look at and it takes 5 minutes each, how long…

As the weeks pass, they assume more responsibility for proofing and revising, which is what makes this such a powerful tool.

After a few weeks, the conferencing begins. We identify individual goals and discuss what students should work on.

Today one of the students who is new to our school came in with a piece of notebook paper carefully folded and wrapped with a piece of yarn. He presented it to the principal, who brought it to me before school. It was a letter to the class that began, “Dear Denali Panthers…

The young man who wrote it asked me later if he could read it to the class. When he finished, everyone applauded loudly. There are some days you wouldn’t want to trade.

6 responses so far

Monday Morning

Sep 25 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy,teacher research,technology

Harris Salat, from the Visual Thesaurus, interviewed me last summer. Harrris is a good interviewer, and we talked about many things that didn’t get published. He was most curious about what we call our “Alaska lifestyle,” which mostly meant salmon fishing when I spoke with him. Even though I don’t believe the word, cute, is in my vocabulary, my wife said the interview made me look good, and insisted I show it to my principal. I did that, and he told an Asst. Supt. about it. It’s a small town, and she knows me.

The published article was mostly about my classroom website. It’s been rough getting the kids ready to work on it at the beginning of the year. This is the first year that I’ve had something ready for them at the beginning (well…almost ready), but I’ve found that I also needed to get them ready for it. They need to learn a lot about working with a word processor. To keep things simple, I have them use TextEdit, which has all of its font and style settings hidden and out of the way. I want them to use it for its spell checking feature, which the website doesn’t do. I’ll show them some basic HTML formatting later. Right now, many of them are challenged with the problem of moving

the words around on the

screen, to get rid of the big spaces, and spellling. Oh, and file management is a huge problem. They lose their work. Or they label everything with their first names, or there’s no name. They forget to log out of the file server, and put their work in each others’ folders. They need a LOT of help.

Today they’re going to begin submitting stories to the Raven. I told them about writers workshop for the first time last Friday. They’ve been writing all along, but I have a process in mind that includes revision and peer conferencing – with them making choices about how to use the time. This is a new deal for them, and there was a bit of goofing off that some of them thought might be part of the program – but found out different :(

I spent the whole weekend doing a Drupal upgrade and entering their fake names as users, and rebuilding the menu in the sidebar. I found a new theme for the upgraded site. The upgrade was nerve-wracking, since the database had to be rebuilt. Everything was backed up. I only saw the “white screen of death” one time. And I fixed it without too much sweat.

The weekend was a complete blow-out to get this done. Now I have an hour before I leave for work. I have to eat and get the coffee going. I have to put together the mid-term progress reports. And, oh yeah, some lesson plans.

It’s a MONDAY. I hope it goes OK, but with the plan to get all those kids busy on the website, there’s high stress potential. One good thing, about 8 of them are out of the room with the orchestra teacher for most of the time.

Now for that coffee…

One response so far

Follow the Money

Sep 22 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

What does global warming have to do with educational meltdown in the 21st century?

Global warming, the war in Iraq, hurricanes, earthquakes, and fake educational crises are all ripe with opportunity for government contracts. Government regulation spawns new business opportunity when new interventions are mandated. Never mind that the fix may have no impact on the problem.

The cure is the problem, like leech treatments.

I have no business sense – so I became a teacher. Because I was idealistic, I never saw it, or believed it. But I get it now.

A little un-educational example: Richard Branson wants to save the planet from greenhouse gases, and he’s putting up three billion dollars to do the job. Does anyone believe that three billion dollars will reverse global warming? Marketplace says that Branson could make a lot of money selling clean-burning jet fuel to the airlines once aircraft emissions standards are in place.

Basically, what he’s doing is getting ahead of the curve by finding a solution that he sees to this problem and then investing in it before the solution comes along. My guess is that he’ll be selling this stuff to every major airline in the world if he’s successful.

Reform and regulation in education are a business bonanza. According to Jim Horn, it works like this:

The DOE recruits the true believers in the version of “scientifically-based” literacy that the President’s advisor and enforcer, Reid Lyon, has placed front and center in the intellectually dishonest National Reading Panel Report. The DOE then sponsors studies, recruits academics, issues reports, and funds efforts to advance strategies that advocate the preferred solution.

It’s the same principle.

A few months ago, Susan Ohanian mentioned Success For All’s challenge to conflicts of interest and government bias in promoting the Reading First program for low-performing schools. Again, via Schools Matter: The US Dept. of DOE Office of the Inspector General’s Report confirms the charge. Dirty business in the Dodge City Whitehouse. From this account, the report comes down hard on Chris Doherty, the former Reading First program director.

According to the report, Doherty instructed one staff member regarding the Wright Group: "œBeat the [expletive deleted] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR [based on scientifically based reading research], never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."

This whole sad affair is evidence that corporate leeches are driving our education system down the drain, and not for ideological reasons – like I wanted to think. No. This bothers me now because I see that it isn’t even about Causes – worthy or otherwise. It’s greed and manipulation. This would be the nail in the coffin for my faith in government if the news hadn’t come from a government report. Small consolation.

Richard Branson may know that global warming is the next big thing, and I’m not saying he’s done anything wrong. Maybe his motives are pure, but spare me from this system. The odds of reversing global meltdown are better than they are for us ever seeing schools get the funding they need to make them work like we wish they would.

With calls for national testing from the likes of Bennet and Paige, is there any chance that teachers themselves would be given grant money to try innovative projects, reduce class size, or fund more early childhood education programs? Forget it. Jim Horn says that Bennet and charter schools stand to benefit from this.

Who gives a damn about reform? We need to talk Resistance. Read Sarah Puglisi’s comment here if a close-up view might convince you.

[photo by Chris Schuster]

2 responses so far

Between the Rock and a Hard Place

Sep 19 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

It may be the pressure of new school year ambitions weighing on me, with one eighth of the academic year gone, and with the strongest sense of being still at the beginning stage with this group of students, that two posts seem to describe this rocky hard place.

The Rock
Reporting on the stone, Artichoke recalls a quote by Charles Taylor, taken from the forward to a book by David Cayley called The Rivers North of the Future, as she muses about the “the future of learning in a networked world,” a quote she mentioned a while ago:

"œIt speaks of a hoped-for "œnot yet," time and a place that cannot be reached by simply projecting from the present, since it lies north of the future. And, even in these inaccessible waters, the nets that can be cast out are "œburdened with stone-engraved shadows," the weight of all that has been." (Charles Tayor in Foreword – Cayley 2005)

That haunting phrase, “the weight of all that has been,”….is palpable for me. It is the rock that I’ve carried from the day I took on the job of making a difference. Having picked it up, there is no place to set it.

A Hard Place
A hard place is mapped in Will Richardson’s Discovering Content. Will observes that

The real shift is with the stance of the teacher. This idea forces us to move away from delivering content as we have for 100+ years and instead move toward assisting students to discover content on their own.

Stance is, indeed, the key to helping students, but that stance needs to be applied to creating a context in which the content can be expressed. That context involves more than technology. The context includes what is said, and what’s allowed to be said. The context includes what is read, and what’s allowed to be read. The context includes scientific knowledge, mathematical knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, and critical awareness of unvoiced assumptions in all texts.

Will is correct; it is risky. The teacher’s stance must thoughtfully negotiate the line between freedom and authority. David Warlick has been asking about quality of field, which this issue turns on. Clarence Fisher offers constructive examples.

I can’t plan for the “future of learning” because any future is an imaginary projection, inaccessible, and still only “hoped-for.” I plan for Monday, and Tuesday, and…. I struggle with learning in the present, a very hard place when you look at a room full of kids with mismatched needs, every day.

Anyone with a vision of The Possible starts from the beginning each new year, at best, and often has to wade through heartbreaking difficulty to do even a little good work. There is no program for change, and I’ll head the other way if I ever see one.

3 responses so far

New Media Exemplars

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

Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, announced the development of a new media exemplar library, and posted a link to one of the first exemplars, Cory Doctorow. Jenkins described this project as a “a library of short digital films focused around media-makers and the craft and ethical choices they face in producing and distributing their work.” He said that long-range plans are for this to be an open library where anyone can insert their work.

The exciting thing about this is that it’s an effort to provide support for media production within the school day. Henry Jenkins has been working with the MacArthur Foundation on new media literacies, and hopes this project will address some common roadblocks to media production projects faced by teachers and students:

they had no standards by which to evaluate work produced in these new and emerging media; they didn’t know enough themselves to give good advice to student media makers; the students lacked role models to help them understand future opportunities in this space; and the students were facing ethical issues that their teachers and parents didn’t really understand.

I’m anxious to see this project soar, and will be following it closely. The original impetus for me to learn more about the internet was a video project I made with a group of sixth graders about our school lunch program. Everybody loved the video, but there was nothing for us to do with it after we made it. It sits on my hard drive, unpublished because of privacy and copyright issues that I didn’t address when we made it. Guidelines for both technical and ethical concerns are sorely needed as we begin to see growing opportunities to produce new media texts with our students.

updated: Clarence Fisher posted about this today, and left a link to the New Media Exemplar Library. Good to know about that.

3 responses so far

Mathematics Focal Points

Sep 14 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a news release announcing their new Curriculum Focal Points. What’s this? I wondered. They anticipated that I’d want to know, and they published a Questions and Answers page to satisfy me and anyone else who might want to learn what this has to do with the Mathematics Standards. NCTM’s president, Francis (Skip) Fennell, made a multimedia presentation to orient us to the reformed Reforms. From what I saw it’s a powerpoint lecture, but the audio couldn’t beat the noise of kids eating lunch in my classroom (which is not the high point of my day) so I couldn’t hear what was said.

NCTM recognizes the difficulty of working with a math curriculum that covers topic areas “a mile wide and an inch deep,” and I am grateful for their acknowledgment. Rather than changing the standards, NCTM is attempting to prioritize them by focusing on areas for study at different grade levels.

In the introduction to the Focal Points, NCTM says:

The long-term opportunity…is for mathematics leaders at every level to use Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics [pdf 18.9 MB] to launch an ongoing, far-reaching, significant discussion with the potential to guide the thinking of the profession in the development of the next generation of curriculum standards, textbooks, and tests.

It bothers me, since this is supposed to be about opening a discussion, that according to an article in the New York Times, conservative critics of current instructional practices are celebrating this as “a back-to-basics victory….and moving away from the constructivist approach some educators prefer,” There is no justification for this political rapture, because NCTM isn’t doing that.

In order to understand what this new turn might be about, I read Alan Schoenfeld’s paper, The Math Wars. It is a comprehensive history and analysis of math reform in US education policy. Schoenfeld notes that there are at least three "œmaster narratives" about education in the US:

  • education for democratic equality (to promote citizenship);
  • education for social efficiency (to fuel the economy);
  • and education for social mobility (to serve the needs of individuals);

He warns that curricular issues can become social issues, resulting in new curricula being rejected out of hand by the public, or corrupted by teachers, if either or neither is prepared for them. While he admits the validity of a viewpoint which holds that mathematics competence is related to factual and procedural knowledge, and that this knowledge increases with study and practice, he calls this point of view naive in that it does not account for more complex dimensions of mathematical competence.

The metacognitive processes required for effective problem-solving, for example, are critically important. He sums up his middle-ground position in favor of both process and content by saying that “Students need to learn to think mathematically as well as to master the relevant mathematical content.”

Schoenfeld maps out a middle-ground position in the process vs. skills trench war. His position would not satisfy the discovery learning purists, and he doesn’t yield to the direct instruction traditionalists. He beleives that students should:

  • compute single-digit numbers, integers, decimals, and fractions, efficiently and accurately;
  • solve problems with calculators and computers;
  • understand how to use the basic laws of algebra when solving mathematics problems;
  • explain and justify their reasoning and understand the reasoning of others;

And he argues that teachers should learn mathematics throughout their careers.

Schoenfeld is critical of the polarized rhetoric which places discussion of the merits of process and product in an ‘either/or’ frame. He argues for the reasonable inclusion of both, recognizing that facts without understanding are meaningless, while process without skills leaves students helpless and incompetent. NCTM’s standards documents were written from the perspective of the master narratives of social mobility and democratic equality. Perhaps this new move is an effort to give some ground to the social efficiency camp, but it shouldn’t be seen as a retreat. If anything, it’s a healthy attempt to reach consensus on how we can get “there” from “here.”

2 responses so far

Indigenous Knowledge

Sep 12 2006 Published by under borderland,education,science

Posted on Artichoke’s Knowledge Building wiki page:

Next to the wisdom of youth, the knowledge of people who’ve managed to survive with minimal technology for millenia has been all but fogotten. This survival feat was accomplished by assuming a relationship of respect for all things. We’ve had many discussions up here in the North about the value of Native Ways of Knowing, and how they might help us find our way in a world that seems increasingly fractious. I like this story from the Eskimo elder telling about learning to hunt caribou:

The boys watched as their father proceeded to walk directly toward the caribou herd, which as he approached began to move away from him in a file behind the lead bulls, yet he just kept walking openly toward them. This had the two brothers scratching their heads wondering why their father was chasing the caribou away from him. Once the father reached the area where the caribou had been grazing, he stopped and put his bow and arrows down on the ground. As the (now) elder told the story, he demonstrated how his father then got into a crouching position and slowly began to move his arms up and down, slapping them against his legs as though he were mimicking a giant bird about to take off. The two brothers watched intently as the lead bulls in the caribou heard stopped and looked back curiously at their father’s movements. Slowly at first, the caribou began to circle back in a wide arc watching the figure flapping its wings out on the tundra, and then they began running, encircling their father in a closing spiral until eventually they were close enough that he reached down, picked up his bow and arrows and methodically culled out the choice caribou one at a time until he had what he needed. He then motioned for his sons to come down and help prepare the meat to be taken back to the village.

As the elder completed the story of how he and his brother were taught the accrued knowledge associated with hunting caribou, he explained that in those days the relationship between the hunter and the hunted was much more intimate than it is now. With the intervention of modern forms of technology, the knowledge associated with that symbiotic relationship is slowly being eroded. (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005)

Any talk of knowledge or knowledge building has to be coupled with some mention of it’s purpose. Otherwise, we have to ask, “What’s the point?” Frijtof Capra’s conversation with E.F. Shumacher illustrates some new possibilities for Science that indicate we may eventually begin to recognize the value of “knowledge for understanding,” as opposed to “knowledge for manipulation,” while we think our way around and out of the Mind vs. Matter trap.

Chaos theory may help us see how other deterministic theories are limited by the uncertainties and contingencies of the classroom. The best analogy for teaching that I’ve come upon in the recent weeks that I’ve been following this line of thought is from Capra’s book, The Hidden Connection. He compared the trajectory of a rock, when kicked, to the trajectory of a dog given the same stimulus. Teachers need to think like people who are kicking dogs, not rocks. The outcome is predictable, but not absolutely.

Artichoke’s Knowledge Building discussion is a blast to read. Thanks for the nudge, Artichoke.

2 responses so far

Who Knows What Day It Is?

Sep 11 2006 Published by under borderland,politics

After reading How do I open up the subject with children?

The key word here is LISTEN. Most experts agree that it is best NOT to open up a conversation with children by giving them a lecture – even an informal, introductory lecture – on the particular tragedy that is on the news. Don’t burden children with information they may not be ready for. The best approach is to listen carefully to children’s spontaneous questions and comments, and then respond to them in an appropriate, supportive way. Let children’s concerns, in their own words, guide the direction of the discussion.

….I decided to take it real easy and let the kids lead this discussion. One of them wanted to talk about Sept. 11 right away this morning, but….there was a lot going on. I held off until after lunch, when I had a half hour. We didn’t do anything special, except that there’s this microphone and sound system in the classroom. So I went around and put a mic in front of the kids who had a hand up, and they said what was on their mind. Everyone listened.

With the How do I open the subject? advice in mind, I asked, “Does anyone know why this day is special?”

“It’s Sept 11.”

“It’s the day that they flew airplanes into the Twin Towers.”

There was speculation about why it was named 9/11. One person thought it meant the number of people who died.

The kids told what they knew. One girl claimed she’d never heard of it before. She was astounded. And for that alone I’m glad we discussed it. These little people were in kindergarten in 2001, and some of them have had eventful lives since then, so they need to get their Current Events in school.

They had it pretty right, but couldn’t understand why a highjacker would want to die with the plane. I know what they mean. Who can understand that? The question of “Why” was persistent, and I have to agree. It’s the big thing to wonder about.

We talked about what a patriot is, what a hero is, and that this is now known as Patriots Day. I told them it might be thought of as “Love your Country” Day. Then, after about 10 minutes of going around with the mic, one little boy asked, “Why is this day so special?

I handed the mic around to kids whose hands were raised to answer his question.

  • for the people who fought for us;
  • for the people who have died;
  • for the people who worked there;
  • for the families.

Enough said, they went to Gym class.

One response so far

Teaching for Change on Sept. 11

Sep 09 2006 Published by under borderland,politics

Monday is the 5th anniversary of the World Trade Center Atrocity, and Teaching for Change has resources for educators who want to help elementary and secondary level students untangle the rhetoric about terrorism [via Chris Lott]. Meg Spohn provides the link to the official 9/11 Commission report.

A special issue of Rethinking Schools, called War, Terrorism and Our Classrooms looks quite valuable. It includes articles by prominent writers and intellectuals. You can download the complete Rethinking Schools report [pdf], which is in a newspaper format, suitable for printing on 11X17 paper. Teaching for Change also has articles for teachers looking for background information on 9/11. Other resources for talking to kids about Sept. 11, are available at

The tenor of media coverage has gone beyond hyperbole as George Bush further polarized the rhetoric by coining the term Islamo-facism. News and fiction collide now, with ABC’s 9/11 deception, and keeping them straight is nearly impossible for anyone. Kids need a chance to sort through this mess. Students have heard about this event for a significant portion of their lives, but what do they really know? A Critical Media Literacy Teaching Idea presents 13 questions for George Bush that aren’t being covered by the media.

Hate and fear walk hand-in-hand. If we hope to make a difference in the world, we need to educate for truth and justice. This is an opportunity to open some important discussions with students about world events and media.

12 responses so far

Next »