Archive for October, 2006

Happy Halloween

Oct 31 2006 Published by under borderland

Trick? Or Treat .

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Winners and Losers

Oct 31 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Yesterday was report card day, and I passed them out at 3:00. I almost handed them out earlier, with the envelopes opened, because I didn’t want to lick them all. But then I knew they’d start to compare, and there’d be all sorts of celebrating and hurt feelings and questons. So I taped the envelopes shut and kept them until the end of the day.

I got a call during the morning before school started when I was scrambling trying to get the report cards stuffed into envelopes – so that the name on the envelope matched the name on the card, because it’s embarrassing when they don’t – and my first thought was, “How could someone be calling to ask about the grades when I haven’t even sent the cards home yet?” But, of course, that was just a reflex response to the job.

The call was from a parent who wanted to tell me why her daughter didn’t turn in homework on Friday. As if some other children didn’t turn in homework? I didn’t say that. I listened politely, and heard the story about how they worked on it very hard and it somehow got lost.

She suggested that if I would send it home again, they could do it over, and would that be OK?

I told her that I understood, and that really the value was in the doing of it, and that I didn’t really need it for anything. And in the future she could send me a note and everything would be all right.

Then she said that she’d send me the note tomorrow.

I told her that the phone call was more than enough, and that I didn’t need the note now. I also told her that I hoped there wasn’t any nervousness about not doing the homework, because I’m not used to playing the villain.

This mom didn’t know that during the day, Sunday, when I’d written the report cards, I was also reading a book that I picked up at the library. It’s an oldie, with elements of the “Beat novel,” according to the Amazon publisher’s description, called “How to Survive in Your Native Land” by James Herndon. Irreverent, funny, cynical, down on schooling, I remembered the chapter called Explanatory Note #1: Find a Good School and Send your Kid There.

Herndon tells a story about how his kid burst into tears on the way to school because he forgot his homework, and he wonders why his child is frightened of the school. He said,

…There is one reason, and only one, and it is crucial. That is that an American public school must have winners and losers. It does not matter in this respect what kind of school it is. In Berkeley, now that Mr. Sullivan has integrated the schools, it is the black kids who sit in Remedial Reading and the white kids who sit in Enriched this or that. When they are together in some general course the well-dressed sharp clean-and-pressed shoe-shined poor black kid sits in the class next to the Salvation-army-surplus-store-ugly-dressed white rich kid and the beautiful pore black kid doesn’t know what the teacher is talking about and the white ugly rich kid knows everything and can read or even has read everything the teacher can, even if that surplus-store white kid disdains the whole thing and won’t answer or discuss or even attend class…try as he may to become an outcast the school knows that he is a winner even if he rejects winning….

But over in Oakland there will be an all-black school, Mr. Sullivan not having passed through that town yet. It may be that the school would prefer to have some ugly white kids to be winners but they in fact ain’t got any. Does that mean a school full of losers? Not at all. That school has got to have winners too, and so some sharp poor beautiful black kids wind up in the A group and some others in the H group. It may be that if the kids in the Oakland A winner’s group transferred over to Berkeley they would end up being losing kids, or it may be not. It doesn’t make any difference. In Oakland they are winners. The H kids find the A kids in line at the cafeteria and hit them in they mouths….

That is why Jack, my beloved son of seven years, bursts into tears and cannot be consoled. that is why some students of M.I.T. are throwing dodge balls at each other’s heads, and a large group of physicists stands around the outskirts of the school grounds crying, and why nothing can console them even if someone hits them or doesn’t hit them in they mouths.

They cry because the losers are going to get some revenge some way. but they also cry because the winning is never permanent. You may be a winner in the first grade, but but the fourth you may be losing. The rights of passage of the school go on and on. Each year it is circumcision time all over again; obviously you may weep for what has been hacked off by the time you are thirty five and have a PhD.

How does the school make certain that it will have winners and losers? Well, obviously by giving grades. If you give A’s, you must also give F’s…

I see this unholy truth, and I can see why some people believe there might be the wrong number of A’s or F’s from leaving it up to the teacher to decide who gets what. So to make it seem fair, we have Standards that apply across the board.

And we have tests with teeth that make it possible for the black kids to not have to show up over at the white kids’ school to find out that they are losers. Now they can stay right in their own neighborhoods to find that out, because standardized tests can measure anybody against anything anywhere, and tell them they go to a loser school without doing anything to change that except give them more tests and regimentation. The simplicity of standardized tests, or any other thing that is standardized for that matter, is their beauty. Boil it down to a couple of numbers and write the ticket.

Nothing like a day of doing grade reports to bring it out in me.

I opened the paper Sunday morning and found an article about the North Slope Borough School District’s Inupiat Education Initiative. There’s some Eskimo people living on the Chuchki Sea who’ve been smart enough to figure out how to make a living off whales and walrus, caribou and the geese for a very long time. But now in the last century they began losing touch with the old ways. Kids got shipped off to boarding schools for many years… Whole villages with no children. They have schools in the villages now, but some serious damage has been done, and the white man curriculum doesn’t make a lot of sense where they live.

They want their kids back, and to teach their own culture in their schools.

“In the Native way there was no failure,” said Ramona Rock. “If you were sewing and you did it wrong, you didn’t fail, you just had to do it over. Maybe you didn’t want to, but you did anyway.”

I wonder if it is possible for there to be no losers in school. If – they were measured against real world conditions, and they could do things over when they needed to, and if they risked being cold or hungry when things didn’t work out. But I don’t see that on the near horizon. As long as we say yes to this and perhaps to that, there will be winners and losers.

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Pattern Recognition

Oct 24 2006 Published by under borderland,education

Yesterday I told the kids that we were going to do math without the math book, and that I’d teach them to count to one. I’ve been Counting to One with fourth graders for a few years now, but I put a new spin on it this year.

One of the teachers I work with had a great idea for teaching decimals that she mentioned in a meeting the other day. She said that the place value blocks that come in units, tens, hundreds are easy for the kids to understand as decimals if we call them something that they look like, that represent something less than one. She said she calls them cake, slices, pieces, and crumbs (there’s no block for a crumb, but they can picture it). I tried it, and now we have something concrete to talk about when we use these things for decimals.

The Conventional Approach

The math books all start off with decimals by showing a place value chart with one’s, ten’s, hundred’s, etc. And we are supposed to “review” this before we introduce the new decimal stuff. By review, they usually mean we talk about it, and the kids write some numbers that you say, and then they find out if they’re right.

In my experience, this kind of review is great for affirming the knowledge of the kids who already know it, and for reminding the rest that they never got it to begin with. After this review part, according the manual, we move forward with the lesson.

The achievers are great at following directions, and they remember everything you say, even if they don’t know what you mean, and they figure it out after a while. The kids who didn’t know what you were talking about to begin with just copy what you’re doing, and they don’t hear anything you’re saying.

They might not ever figure it out because they learn to expect nothing. You’re told to provide examples of decimal notation by showing the students how 45 or 27 or… any number of little blocks out of a a hundred-square grid should be written .45, or .27, or … whatever, and then you’re supposed to tell them how to read the number, and you do some examples.

This routine is known as Teaching Math. But the low performing kids in this imaginary movie don’t have a reciprocal routine for Learning Math. Unfortunately for the real kids in my classroom, now, I have a Pacing Guide. The pacing guide is there to make sure I stay on the same page with everyone else and complete the program.

How, I wonder, is administering a program the same as teaching? It feels strange. I’ve never had a Pacing Guide before. Raise your hand if you think I’ll stick with the pacing guide. That’s right.

I’m just the teacher. Accountable to the program. The memo is somewhere near my desk if I ever want to read it. The cover says Pacing Guide. I read that.

The result of the Teaching Math routine is that you get a sixth grade girl in your class one year who tells you that a decimal is a number with a dot, and that’s all she knows about decimals. The girl was unable to write a number for a picture prompt showing half a glass of water. For her, the glass was way more than half empty.

Cake, and Fuller Glasses

When I counted to one a few years ago with my class, they got it, but we didn’t have the cake and the slices analogy. A good analogy is a big help in talking about something later on. By definition, analogies travel well, and they keep for a long time. When we call .17, seventeen hundredths, it just doesn’t have the same imaginative punch as 17 pieces of cake, or alternatively, one slice and seven pieces. Of course we use both forms. The mathematical and the analogous, and the kids learn to code-switch.

To accomplish the job of counting to one, I passed out the blocks and some grid paper. I have a bell. I explained that the flat 10X10 block was the cake pan. The little cubes were pieces, the long sticks of ten were slices. When I rang the bell, they added a piece of cake to the pan, and wrote the number for it. Every time we got 10 pieces together, they’d trade for a slice.

Ring! .01, “one one hundredth.”

Ring! .02, “two one hundredths.”

Ring! .03, “three one hundredths….”

Every now and then we’d stop and talk about the patterns they saw in the numbered grid they were recording in. The bell ringing kept them engaged in the conversation so we’d all be looking at the same thing. I told them we were factory workers, operating a cake-making machine. They put up with my nonsense most of the time.

“Hey, these are like regular numbers,” I heard a several times.

Some kids said things like, “I notice all the numbers in each column start with the same number.”

There was a lot of exclaiming and hand raising as various people announced discoveries of the obvious.

We actually counted past one cake. They need to see what happens when there’s a whole number. We didn’t go past 1.1, one cake and a slice because they all got it.

“Hey, we learned math today, and we didn’t even do the book!”

“I’m so glad you showed us this, Mr. Noon.”

“I understand this now. It’s easy!”


Today I pulled out the wimpy number line worksheet (I just made a typo, worksheep, that I kind of liked better than the real word) with decimals, and they filled it in – no problem.

One little girl told me, “Yesterday I told my mom that we learned how to count to one. And she said, ‘At least they aren’t rushing you.”

That mom has a sense of humor. And the kid said, “I wanted to see if she could guess what I was talking about.”

It was a good lesson.

Later on, at lunch time, another little girl who has no confidence in her ability to do math was looking at a poster of the multiplication table, and she said, “You know what, Mr. Noon, I just noticed that if I want to multiply three times five, I don’t have to look at the whole chart, I can just look at the three’s and count down five of them. See, it’s fifteen.”

This quarter, math is mostly about getting rid of that poster.

When they notice things on their own, they like to tell you about it. I’m feeling optimistic, despite the Pacing Guide.

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Oct 22 2006 Published by under borderland

Prompted by Sarah and Marco’s comments on my last post:

Irony and contradiction are endlessly fascinating to me. My focus in life – since I was a little kid, even, is always first on my subjective response to whatever experience I happen to be having. I’ve made a practice of being transparent on the blog, because when I’m not, it comes out bland and meaningless.

Now I’m in a spot where my thoughts and feelings are maybe not very attractive, and I am having to work through that. The previous post was about ME, (note the title) and now I guess some people will feel like I am talking about them, when I am only exploring meanings for myself. And I seem to be unable to say anything without offending someone now. I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intention.

A teacher at my work enjoys calling me on my “attitude” problem. She is a friend, and she credits my outlook on life to my Irish Catholic background – which is her personal history, too. Her inights are much appreciated by me, and we joke about my social blindness. Sarah, you shouldn’t feel like you owe me anything – most of all an apology. But I see that you take great reponsibility for all the people you care about, which is your strength and your goodness of heart speaking through your actions.

So I’m soured on blogging now…. no big deal, I think. I’ll get over it. I’m soured on schooling, too, yet I continue because it’s what I do, even though I doubt every aspect of it’s worth these days. Anyone who knows me understands that I am skeptical to a fault. Again, my character. My teacher friends disagree with me, and tell me that I do a “good job.” Why can’t I see that? Maybe because I have higher expectations…which is what it’s supposed to be about, yes?

To my sympathetic readers, thank you for your friendship. Your commentary is quite valuable to me. I appreciate it. I hope I can be done explaining myself.

To open this up to a more global context, Jo McLeay posted a good article about another aspect of the digital divide, and asked, Why isn’t Web 2.0 important to teachers? I think I know. It’s a lot of work, and it opens you up to a bunch of soul-searching that most people don’t have time for. My friends at work told me last week, after my presentation on the read/write web (I’ll get to that another day), “Yeah, but that’s you.” They’re right.

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Oct 22 2006 Published by under borderland

This is an insight into my personality that was sparked by some recent noise that’s come up. It’s about a character flaw of mine that gets an occasional workout.

People say that blogging puts them in touch with others and connects them to information about God knows what, all over the planet…. Well, OK. But for me, keeping a weblog also shows me sides of myself that I’m not particularly proud of. Lately I’m inclined to agree with Donald Brook’s statement that Weblogs are Fucking Stupid. Read it, esp. Chapter 2.

About 20 years ago, when I was getting divorced, I decided that the thing to do was to go to grad school and get a counseling degree. That’s laughable to anyone who knows me. Nobody laughed then, in front of me anyway. I heard things like…”Mmmm, that’s interesting.” Or, “What will you do with that?” They were the sorts of things people say to someone with a bad haircut.

But I was pissed off and grumpy at the world, and I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be a counselor. But I knew I didn’t want to be an administrator, either, and Guidance and Counseling was the only other graduate program offered at the university.

On one notable evening early in the semester, at my Group Counseling course, we were given an exercise to work on called Spare Change. The professor told everyone to empty their purses and pockets of any change they had. He explained that some of us would be the custodians of this money, and that we would be charged with the task of deciding how it should be redistributed. We could even keep it if we wanted to. He didn’t tell us why we were doing this.

Some folks were unhappy right away. They needed the money for bus fare, they said. There were various issues that came up. He ignored them, and told them that it would be OK. As luck would have it, I got put into the group that got to have the money. We were sent into another room.

While we were in the other room, the professor told us to come up with a scheme for distributing the money, and then he went back to the rest of the class. None of us knew each other yet, because the class had only met one other time. We had 15 minutes to work out a solution to the problem.

Nobody said anything. Being the task-oriented type, I decided to spark some kind of process. “Well, what should we do?” I asked. Still, everyone sat waiting, not saying anything. We at least needed to get talking. I pressed on, and nudged and prodded to get the discussion going.

Eventually, we worked out a distribution plan that was based on a hierarchy of need. We were mindful of the fact that several of the people wanted their money back, and we wanted to be fair. We tried to think of all the angles.

It was my continuing bad luck that everyone backed away from being our spokesperson. So, by default, the job fell to me. We walked back into the classroom and the desks, those little single seats with the writing surface that comes up from the right arm, were arranged in a circle. The rest of the class was seated there, chatting quietly.

I put the money on my little desk top and began to explain what we’d decided. Right away, one of the guys – someone in an Admin program who was taking the course for an elective requirement, I think – started challenging our decision-making. He wasn’t nice. I tried to patiently explain how we’d tried to be equitable in our process, and how it would work.

I can’t remember the substance of the discussion, it’s been so long. What I do recall is that nothing I said was satisfactory to this guy. He started badgering me. His comments became personal. Looking back, I think it’s likely that I was set up, and that he was a ringer, playing the critic role.

It didn’t take long before I got completely pissed. Reason failed me. I picked the handful of money off the desktop – a couple of bucks – and threw it on the floor at the guy’s feet. To make a complete ass of myself, I said “[email protected]%* you! Do it yourself.” And I walked out of the classroom, and went home.

It was only an exercise. Just a game. No big deal. Right?

Needless to say, it was awkward going to class the next week. A few people smiled when they saw me, and said things like “How’s it goin’, man?.” That sort of thing.

Strange, but I don’t recall us talking about this blow-up in class. We must have, but I don’t recall the discussion. I dropped out of the program the next semester, realizing that it wasn’t my calling. Not in this lifetime.

You might imagine that a person with a story like this has other examples that he could share, and I do. It amazes me how easily pissed off I can get when my good intentions are challenged. It isn’t breaking news that I can be an asshole. My reaction to anyone who says so is, “Yeah? And your point is?”

My abrasive charm in meatspace might not translate very well into cyberspace, and I want to remember that. Now I’m writing on this web site, and I see I haven’t learned very much about dealing with harassment. I’m not equipped to argue in public with strangers. I’ve learned that online belligerence is not a new problem for people. You might recognize some of these caricatures.

I’ve been thinking about how it is with teachers, when a parent comes in and questions us in a confrontational way. How does it feel? Have you ever been criticized for something you said, or didn’t say, or had your decision-making misrepresented?

One of my colleagues from way back told me that she tells parents that she’s willing to believe only half of what she hears about them if they’ll do the same for her.

Teachers are easy targets. Especially elementary teachers, I think. We spend all day and half the evening caring, on overtime, and when someone who has a gripe wants to unload on us, we bend over and say thanks for your input.

I can’t spend the rest of my life defending everything I say or do. I’m not going to try. If that’s intellectually dishonest, then anyone who disagrees with me is free to ignore me. I’ll do my best to return the favor. That’s what I’m learning now.

To clarify this new learning, I’m considering Donald Brook’s Disclaimer:

I realize that nothing I say matters to anyone else on the entire planet. My opinions are useless and unfocused. I am an expert in nothing. I know nothing. I am confused about almost everything. I cannot, as an individual, ever possibly know everything, or even enough to make editorial commentary on the vast majority of things that exist in my world. This is a stupid document; it is meaningless drivel that I do not expect any of the several billion people on my planet to actually read…..

updated: removed the last part. I’m chillin. Back soon.

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Wharf Rats

Oct 17 2006 Published by under borderland

I once lived in a rental house in a fishing town on the Oregon coast. It was a cozy place, spacious, and warm. It was a fine place to be. My feelings about it changed one night, though, when a member of the household found a rat in the toilet. After the screaming stopped, and I understood what was going on, I took a look. Sure enough, there was a wet rat doing a little rat-paddle, round and round the bowl.

I did what anybody would do – I slammed the cover and flushed. Three times, to make sure. And I put a concrete block on the lid for additional peace of mind. Still, the honeymoon was over with that little beach house.

On guard, then, I looked around because I know enough about rats to understand they don’t work alone. Suddenly the holes in the sandy bank behind the house took on new meaning. No surprise, I was living in rat country. It was a fishing town, after all. But I didn’t realize how devious and resilient a rat could be.

The common species are opportunistic survivors and often live with and near humans.

I have nothing against rats. But I don’t live with them. They’re free to do their rat business somewhere other than where I do mine.

From Meg Spohn, this link to the Nietzche Family Circus generated a connection with a contentious comment mess that’s kept me busy the past week. Wish I’d managed it better. I dumped my share of fuel on the fire, I know. Inflammatory, sarcastic, or disruptive comments, meant to draw people into pointless argument, is harrassment, and won’t be indulged. Personal attack and innuendo is not debate.

Squirrels are a problem now. They get in the shed and tear stuff up. They take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder…

I have heavy screens in the roof soffits to keep them out of my house insulation. I moderate them with a live trap and drive them down the road. Like the rats, they can do their squirrely mischief somewhere else. Since they’ve gotten into the shed, I can’t keep them out. They chew right through the door! Now I have to keep a closer eye on stuff in there. I think they attract one another by scent marking the place.

You ever listen to one? They cuss like sailors when you piss ‘em off. The ones we have here do, at least.

I have nothing against sailors…

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Constructivism in Practice

Oct 06 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,science

Brad, over at HUNBlog posted My Two Cents on Constructivism, and he asked,

I don’t know the extent to which constructivism can work for math education as an isolated strategy. Can it be useful in math education to some extent. Probably. Is it useful in language arts? Probably, but just how and to what degree I don’t know.

A thorough response to this question would require a book-length piece. I tried to leave this as a comment in Brad’s blog, but his site is acting up, and it told me that the comment wasn’t deliverable (Sorry, Brad, I can’t remember exactly what the error message looked like.) So, here’s what I said. We’ll see if the site accepts a trackback.

I have several links to information about constructivism saved here.

Questions about whether it “works” for particular purposes, frames constructivism as essentially an approach, or a strategy for teaching. However, if we see constructivism as a general theory about how people learn, it has broad applicability and, indeed, suggests certain approaches to teaching. Constructivism is linked with schema theory, which describes the structural foundation for human knowing.

Any theory of the world maps limitations and opportunities for our activity. The theory of gravity, for example, has profound implications for what we can and can not do :) Constructivism, in a purely theoretical sense, has it’s downside for schools. One of the questions teachers need to ask themselves about constructivism is to what extent it is useful for school, which may be a different question than asking if it works for particular domains of knowledge.

As a general learning theory, constructivism should apply to all learning. However, since any model is useless beyond its design limits, and school in its current incarnation imposes certain conditions on learning, a purely constructivist approach to school teaching is unlikely to produce satisfactory results. The teacher, after all, is the authority figure, and is obliged to make some decisions about what will and will not occur in the classroom.

Resolving contradictions in teaching is often a matter of learning how to have your hands in hot and cold water simultaneously, and to still know which is which. Piaget pointed out that the imbalance of power inherent in the teacher/student relationship made constructivist practice difficult for traditional school settings.

True knowledge construction involves a degree of intellectual autonomy that is problematic with large groups of children in a public institutional setting. This is not to say that children don’t construct knowledge in such environments, but rather that it is difficult to direct their knowledge construction. People are comprehending all the time – but not necessarily learning what we intend for them to learn. President Bush, for example, is struggling with this inconvenient truth right now.

The best analogy I have for constructivist practice in school came from a paper about the development of mathematics discourse in classrooms. Magdalene Lampert said that a teacher is like a dance instructor, sometimes leading, sometimes following, and sometimes dancing with students. The article provides a vivid picture of a fifth-grade math classroom. It shows how a shift in the authority structure of the mathematics classroom invites students to become arbiters of meaning and correctness. Lampert, in her findings, acknowledges that while her approach was more effective for some students than for others, a shift in classroom discourse did occur.

That brings the discussion around to individual student characteristics, and whether constructivism “works” for everyone. The answer is, of course, no. Many students won’t be bothered going to very much trouble for school. They don’t see the point, or they’ve been taught to expect that teachers will and should tell them what to know. Active effort is required of students who are constructing knowledge, and if they don’t assume responsibility for school learning, little or nothing happens. Of course, we could say the same thing about students in a classroom where content is explicitly delivered as in days of olde. Effort is required if a student is going to gain from the experience, but a different kind of effort – compliance will suffice where, in a constructive environment, initiative is required. In some cases students need to be lead and danced with, more than followed.

Discriminating and differentiating among students’ beliefs and inclinations, as well as their capabilities, is the art of teaching. There are no standards for learners, and until kids come to us in cookie-cutter batches, we’ll have to make decisions about how to help them develop their potential.

It’s all constructivism to me, just variations in form and degree. You might not see it happening if you don’t spend some time hanging out with me. Each year I do my part to move my students toward an active stance with learning. It’s a revolution and it’s happening out of sight, because as Gill Scott Heron said a few years back, the revolution will not be televised (still true).

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