Archive for May, 2007

Teaching the Controversy

May 25 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Deborah Meier, in a recent blog post advocated for what I’ll call a responsive curriculum, saying that

The best education I ever had was over the dining room table, as adults talked politics and culture (and how they dealt with the daily realities) in the presence of the young and with due respect for their contributions.

I’m in sympathy with her point of view. But how do we manage this kind of give and take in a public school classroom?

Consider the case of Deborah Mayer (different Deborah), who lost her teaching job because she told a group of elementary students that she honked for peace. I’ve been following a discussion about this on the eddra listserve. Mayer’s class was reading an article in Time for Kids about opposition to the war in Iraq, and one of her students asked if she would ever join an anti-war protest. She noted that when she drove by the peace marchers in Bloomington holding the sign “Honk for Peace” she honked her horn to show support for finding peaceful solutions to conflict before going to war.

Mayer was told by her supervisor that she could teach about the war as long as she kept her opinions to herself. And according to a US federal appeals court:

…a teacher’s speech is “the commodity she sells to an employer in exchange for her salary.” The Bloomington, Ind., school district had just as much right to fire Mayer, the court said, as it would have if she were a creationist who refused to teach evolution.

….As far as the courts are concerned, “public education is inherently a situation where the government is the speaker, and … its employees are the mouthpieces of the government,” said Vikram Amar, a professor at UC’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

There are pitfalls for any teacher who embraces the unexpected. The news article is worth reading, and goes into some detail about the legal limitations of the decision, which appears to be confined to the jurisdiction of the seventh circuit. But the expectation that teachers keep their opinions to themselves in the classroom is widely held, and should be considered when we find ourselves in troubled waters.

On the other hand, there also are possibilities for teachers who invite open discussion in the classroom. Because of this story, I’m thinking more, now, about Deborah Meier’s recommendation that teachers explore controversial issues as a means of developing critical habits of mind.

The habits of mind that Meier refers to are these 5:

  • The question of evidence, or “How do we know what we know?”
  • The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or “Who’s speaking?”
  • The search for connection and patterns, or “What causes what?”
  • Supposition, or “How might things have been different?”
  • Why any of it matters, or “Who cares?”

This could be a poster. Critics of this approach claim that it somehow negates or sidesteps the adopted curriculum, but I disagree. The adopted curriculum might actually invite discussion and controversy if you study the curriculum document itself with students. A couple of years ago I was surprised to discover that my sixth graders didn’t know that there even was such a thing as a curriculum. They thought the teachers decided what they had to learn. In fact, textbook publishers are more effective at limiting and controlling curriculum content than teachers or school boards. It takes a lot of thought and planning to observe curriculum guidelines, in contrast to following a teacher’s guide.

My thinking is that if we take a critical stance toward curriculum, we can still use it, and at the same time question it’s content, viewpoint, assumptions, and relevance. Along the way we can teach what it intends for students to learn, and we can also think about why. Learning that’s embedded in a real social context stands a far greater chance of making sense than simply reading through a catalog of goals and objectives.

A case in point: Earlier this year my students were reading from the social studies text about Seward’s Icebox, and the purchase of Alaska by the US from Russia. One of them asked Who did Russia buy it from? Well…..the answer to that question saw us through a lot of other events in US history, and became the basis for an extended discussion about colonialism.

I don’t want to tell my students what to think. But I certainly do encourage the activity.

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May 23 2007 Published by under borderland,education

I’m done. The school year is over. Yesterday was the day to put grade reports and test results in envelopes, to update permanent records, to put away everything in the classroom and turn in keys. It was a full day. Sweet misery. I hate administrative chores, and I stall out following tangents that most people wouldn’t bother with.

My school bought the STAR reading and math computer-based testing programs a month or so ago and we were supposed to give these tests to our students before the year ended. I did that, and I spent time yesterday learning how to generate and print reports. When I looked at the results, though, they didn’t necessarily match the state Benchmark (SBA) test results. In one case, a student who scored “below proficient” on the SBA, scored at grade level on the STAR. You might think, well, the STAR must be an easier test. But the very next student I looked at scored “proficient” on the SBA and below grade level on the STAR.

What really bugs me about this is that if anyone asked me to predict how those two students would do, I would have said that neither one of them was likely to do very well. So I suppose it’s good news that they at least passed some test. But I know they both have trouble with math.

Standardized testing is sold on the belief that we can compare learning in diverse settings by using a single scientifically calibrated instrument. But if I have two sets of test results, and they’re all over the map, what do I do then? In this case, I’m not comparing learning in diverse settings with a single instrument, I’m comparing learning among different children in the same setting using multiple instruments. And the results seem to say as much about the instruments as they do about the kids. How do I know if I’m looking at a meaningful indicator?

It’s like when the time and temperature signs in front of banks or churches down the block from each other tell us different things. Or the check engine light on my truck, how critical is it to follow up on that when it lights up? Medical screenings give false positives and false negatives, as well. How much faith do I put in any of these? The answer, I think, depends on why I need to know. And this is what I thought about while I was supposed to be focused on getting out of the building. It was an irritated meditation.

People say we should use these tests to tailor our instruction to kids’ needs. But if the tests don’t agree, which results should we use? Each test apparently measures different things, and each must favor some kids over others. But when test scores are reported to the public, the results are all aggregated, and inferences are made about the instructional program, teacher effectiveness, and so forth. The subtle meanings are ignored and lost in the politics of the story. Standardized tests are not very helpful for teachers or kids. They’re political tools.

It would be a great advantage to teachers if we had manageable-sized groups in big-enough rooms, and time to regularly interact with each student and with each other. We get plenty of good information from what we see and hear in the classroom if we’re paying attention to the kids. Using that information is fundamental, so setting up optimal conditions for interventions makes a lot of sense. Instead, we’re focused on diagnosis, data collection, and documentation. Tests are most helpful when we can go over the results with students, and give them a chance to tell us about their answers. Then we all learn something.

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How is ‘conflict of interest’ so hard to understand?

May 20 2007 Published by under borderland,literacy,politics

Via Schools Matter, a link to this NYT editorial, Putting More Profit Before Education (quoted in full):

Published: May 19, 2007

The United States Department of Education has been rightfully drawn (but not yet quartered) in Congress for failing to prevent the kickbacks, payoffs and self-dealing recently uncovered in the student loan business. Now it turns out that the department also mismanaged the federal Reading First initiative, the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to improve reading instruction in exchange for federal education dollars.

The failures, laid out in scalding reports by both Congress and Education"™s inspector general, go back to the very beginning, when the Education Department created the panels that evaluate state reading programs. Those panels were immediately hobbled by a lack of transparency and documentation "” and especially by the department"™s failure to fully enforce conflict-of-interest policies. Profit mongers who were eager to exploit ties to the program for gain were given plenty of room to do so. In a particularly egregious case, a senior Reading First official signed contracts with a textbook publisher while working for the program. He attended conferences and actually lobbied the government on one publisher"™s behalf.

Worse still, officials at the Education Department may have known about the conflicts and ignored them. As the word got around, some state and local officials naturally assumed that the federal government was more interested in shilling for favored book publishers than in improving reading instruction for the nation"™s children.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings claims to have revamped this troubled program and to have made the conflict-of-interest rules crystal clear. But the only way to make sure that things have actually changed is for Congress to write the new rules and procedures into law.

I’ve been tracking the reading first story for a year and a half. There’s blame enough to be handed round to plenty of people besides Margaret Spellings, the main apologist for this mess.

Some questions that this editorial raises for me, are How clear is crystal clear? And How would that be any better than the wikipedia definition? And, finally, How cynical is it to say that a rewritten definition is “the only way to make sure” that things have changed?

What we need is an election, and an informed public.

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Pull and Push

May 20 2007 Published by under borderland,education

The last day of school was Friday, and I’m scrambling now to bring together all the administrative loose ends that need to be cleaned up before the final contract day. Every year on the last day of school just before the final dismissal, we have a tug-of-war contest with the outgoing sixth-grade class.

We faced off this year in the schoolyard, standing on last year’s slippery dead grass. We haven’t had enough rain yet this spring to green it up. I stood in front on the teacher side of the rope, and kicked a small hole in the ground to brace myself. The sixth graders opposite me watched, looking a little bit worried. The teachers’ main advantage is experience. This is an event we participate in each year, but the kids have to wait until they come of age.

The Staff knows that when the whistle blows we have to pull hard and fast, taking the kids by surprise before they gain traction and a sense of their own power. In the 10 years I’ve done this, we’ve always won the first pull, as we did this year. The second pull – because the kids always demand a rematch – is a little more challenging, and never a sure thing for either side. This year, the teachers prevailed on round 2 after a struggle in which the rag tied to the rope’s middle wandered back and forth over the mark on the ground a few times. Round three is very much an iffy matter for the teachers, especially after a hard fought second round. This year we hung on, and for a few moments it looked like we’d pull them across the mark, but we couldn’t.

It’s good when they win one, I think, because we wish them strength in all their future struggles.

After all the cheering and high-fiving was over, we headed back into the building for the final goodbye’s. I was walking back with a couple of other people. My legs were shaky from exhaustion after all the hard pulling. One of my former students, a sixth-grader who’d been in my fourth-grade class two years ago, was stretched out on a bench. I congratulated him for his final victory, and he said, “You guys let us win.” He sounded disappointed. I answered, “We did not! We’re too proud to do that.”

I’ve been mining this incident for meaning, and I’m left feeling bad for kids if they see their successes as arranged set-ups, hollow victories which they claim by mere virtue of their attendance in school. For me, the tug-of-war contest symbolizes the constant struggle for teachers working to inspire students to do more than simply go through the motions, to make a sincere investment of their own that promises lasting satisfaction. I want the kids to win, but I’m not willing to let them win if they don’t work at it. The trouble, though, is that exhaustion takes a toll, and nobody is blessed with strength enough to pull constantly. I suppose that could look to the kids like letting them win, if they don’t also see our determination to honestly challenge them.

Leadership makes the big difference in how people respond to challenges. I’m looking forward to teaching sixth-graders next year, and this gives me a good starting point with some things to think about over the summer break, but for now I’ve got all that paperwork to finish.

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A Political Voice

May 15 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

A 10 year-old girl in my class asked me last week if she could publish an anti-war comment. I said, Sure. Just realize that everyone might not agree with you. We live in a town with an Army post, and a lot of people from here have been deployed. She went ahead and wrote her heart:

I have a question for all you people in the United States. When will George Bush stop sending people to war? And why doesn’t he go to war himself?

I’m thinking in the future when people are going to be tired of fighting and being in war! I think people should decide on whether they would like to fight or whether they wouldn’t want to fight. I think when we are in the future people are gonna want to give up instead of fight.

People are going to remember when their fathers had died in war and when their father’s father had died, and this will go on and on they’ll remember that, and they know who they will blame.

My grandpa was in the Army but he chose to do that because he knew it was best for his country and the people he loved.

George Bush shouldn’t decide for us even if it’s his job. We the people of the United States should decide by ourselves, and I believe this!

Yesterday, after I reviewed some of the recent class work with the whole group she asked me, Do you think that George Bush is going to read my story? I don’t want to insult him. I told her that I don’t think he’ll be insulted.

Her classmate wrote a comment for her, observing that words can change the world. Freire said much the same thing, using the word, conscientization, meaning emergent consciousness which has the power to transform reality.

It seems they’ve learned that their voices have power, a good thing to know in a democracy.

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Politicizing Media

May 11 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

My blog reading habits took a political turn after I started reading Tom Hoffman’s shared feeds. I now have a folder in my reader that’s bursting every day, because as we know, one feed leads to more.

One of my new favorites is David Sirota’s blog on WorkingForChange. Sirota, according to Newsweek, is a Man with a Mission. I started paying attention when this post, Questioning the Planet’s Richest Man to his Face rolled by. Sirota said:

I got up and asked a simple one: Why does he think Montanans – or any Americans, really – should be optimistic about the economy he describes and the “good-paying” jobs he says he offers when we know that companies like Microsoft are aggressively trying to outsource more and more jobs to cheap overseas labor markets?

My question followed Gates’ regurgitation of the Great Education Myth (aka. the myth that all a state like Montana needs to do is better educate its workforce in order to compete). Using what I learned when researching my recent San Francisco Chronicle column (which is a prelude to a section of my new book out in 2008), I specifically cited a series of articles (here and here, for example) in which the group WashTech uncovered official Microsoft documents proving that the company is telling middle management to look to outsource as much high-tech work as possible.

There’s a convergence of thought around the idea that public funding allocations are being directed by business interests who’ve got a foot in the door in DC, coming in loud and clear from a variety of sources. The idea goes back to Eisenhower’s caution about the military industrial complex. Take this Truthdig artcle, for example, which features a four minute video by Robert Greenwald that documents war profiteering in Iraq.

Applying the concept to education policy, Mike Klonsky shares how Checker Finn bragged about using the US Dept. of Education to facilitate political cronyism with an ends-justifies-the-means argument for promoting specific education products and services suppliers.

Ken Goodman explains that creating a “scientific” definition of reading makes it easier to direct public money to certain suppliers.

Gerald Bracey makes the case that school failure is good for business:

So why does the government continue to report such misleading information? The “Leaders and Laggards” report illustrates why: The numbers are useful as scare techniques. If you can batter people into believing the schools are in awful shape, you can make them anxious about their future — and you can control them.

In the 1980s, the “schools suck” bloc used such numbers to make us fearful that Japan, now emerging from a 15-year period of recession and stagnation, was going to take our markets; today, India and China play the role of economic ogres.

Recently, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in The Post that constant references to a “war on terror” “stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of policies they want to pursue.” Happens all the time in education. The most recent phony alarm comes from Eli Broad and Bill Gates, who are putting up $60 million hoping to “wake up the American people.” If the fear-mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase “failing schools” in the past five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would otherwise never allow.

Stephen Krashen sees the Democrats as pawns in the game, and Michael Green published an apocalyptic rant, One Day You’re Gonna Wake Up, that less poetically reminds me of part II in Alan Ginsberg’s Howl.

Back to Sirota, commenting on the state of journalism today,

I went to journalism school because I thought journalism was about sifting through the B.S. in order to challenge power and hold the Establishment accountable. Bill Moyers and the folks I’ve gotten to know at McClatchy Newspapers who Moyers highlights show that that long tradition still exists. But the fact that they are such rare exceptions to the rule also show that the incentive system in journalism today is to reward not the people who challenge power, but the people who worship it.

At the moment, the media/government version of “school failure,” as indexed by test scores, doesn’t bother me as much as the achievement gap that’s measured by poverty, unemployment, health, and incarceration statistics, which is a big concern. And the way those issues are taken for granted by corporate media is particularly galling.

Reading on the web gives me a chance to see what’s happening at a distance in a way that isn’t possible from watching TV or reading the newspaper. The variety of voices and points of view on virtually any topic allows me to connect public policy to problems in teaching in answer to my own questions and not someone else’s editorial whims. Charles Wright Mills called this an exercise of the sociological imagination, which “stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships”.

I feel like a conspiracy theorist sometimes. I’m not a pundit, just a schoolteacher trying to make sense of the world, and I know I’ve got a lot to learn. This post is an example of the things that have grabbed my attention lately. Thanks to the real political journalists out there.

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new blog skin

May 06 2007 Published by under borderland

I’ve got a new blog skin running now. Looks OK to me, but I’m wondering if it works in other browsers, etc.

Last time I tried this it didn’t run right for some folks. If there’s any usability problem, please let me know.

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And tonight we still remembered

May 06 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

I left this as a comment on Michel Duffy’s site, Duffy Writes. A story that Michael tells on his blog, and which he posted as a comment to a recent post here, reminded me of something from Ordinary Wolves, a book I can’t recommend highly enough for people who like to think about these things.

“Another speaker took the place of the first. He was named Joe Smith. He wore glasses, a new haricut, tight jeans, and a gold watch with nuggets lumpy on the band. His hands were large and soft. “Funny-looking Eskimo,” Hanna whispered too loud.

“I’m from the nonprofit arm of the corporation, and I’m here to inform you of our Cultural Edification Project. The project, or CEP, has been proposed through the regional elders, and a grant for one million dollars has already been procured.”

….The elders’ faces held the same expressions they had held at the meeting when strange rangers told them the National Park Service suddenly owned millions of acres of the best hunting land, in every direction. When anthropologists, archaeologists, and con men with computer credentials had come and held meetings and gone. The elders’ expressions, meeting after meeting, for decades: “What in ta hell they’re talking?” and “What in ta hell they’re talking?”

….”Good evening,” he said. “First, I have to say how glad I am to be in your wonderful serene little village. I am also grateful to be able to meet so many of you and glimpse you living your traditional lives. I am here with Mi-tick,” he nodded at Joe, “to make you aware of the sixty-four billion dollars available in grants to communities like yours.”

The crowd laughed.

….The man glanced around quizzically, shuffled papers, and retreated into a forest of overgrown words and Accountant English. The meeting trailed into whispers and tittering. Back on the metal chairs, we chuckled at the man’s pronunciation of Joe Smith’s Eskimo name. We heard “my dick.” We laughed, not because we were mean, but because laughing was traditional, it was something we were good at, and tonight we still remembered how.”

- Ordinary Wolves (p. 280)

Michael’s blog is (mostly) about public policy and aboriginal culture in Northern Australia. He’s a good writer, and I’ve found a lot of commonality in his viewpoint with my own observations working with Alaska Native students.

I mentioned his story to a friend of mine today. And he immediately thought of one himself. There are many examples of cross-cultural miscommunication, and one can easily prompt another, it seems. This one has been on my mind, ever since I read it, because of it’s bittersweet quality.…and tonight we still remembered how.

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Greenup – now

May 05 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Greenup in the subarctic is when the forest canopy bursts into leaf. In a few short hours, the hillsides become a sea of green. And because summer lasts only a few short months, we don’t take any of it for granted.

With just 10 school days remaining this year, seasonal changes are coming strong.

So, with some pictures I took the last couple of days…my response to Eric’s Successful Life meme:

Don’t be afraid to start over.

ducks at creamers
Rest when you get a chance.

Pay attention to little things.

wake up
Stay Loose.

…and thanks, Eric.

Anyone else want to jump in on this one?

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Choosing a life

May 02 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

I’ve been (and still am for a few more hours) away from home in the desert visiting my mom. Traveling Outside from Alaska is always a mild shock. The flood of people in the Seattle airport is the first jolt. And from that point on, I’m out of place, feeling a bit alienated and strange wherever I go. Like visiting a foreign country, except that I understand what everyone is saying – mostly.

I took some books along, and one of them, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, was a great companion. It is probably one of the most honest books I’ve ever read about cultural turmoil in Alaska Native communities. Kantner handled this difficult subject with a lot of sensitivity and directness, not an easy thing to do.

Cutuk, the main character, is a white man with an Eskimo nickname who was raised with his brother and sister by his single father, in a sod igloo.

Our family lived out on the tundra. Abe had dug a pit, old Eskimo style, and built our igloo out of logs and poles, before I even grew a memory. Eskimos wouldn’t live that way anymore, but for some reason we did.

Later in the story, he speaks for anyone who’s ever felt lost, displaced and yearning for a way of life that is gone, vanished like his friend Enuk Wolfglove.

I think I know how the guys feel. Real hunting is gone….Trapping feels phony; things cost so much and furs are worth so little. Every time I get a grip on what matters, then I’m all confused again. A white-person career, with insurance? And a pension? Something is missing in me – that feels like being born a wolf and choosing a dog’s life.”

I’ve been watching people while I’ve been out and about, thinking about wolves and dogs’ lives, wondering where we’re all headed, and how any of us can avoid being trapped or domesticated into a life that mainly serves someone else’s purposes.

Self-determination was a theme for this trip, since my mother recently moved into an assisted living senior community. She feels more independent now, relieved of care. And yet how easily this same situation could have felt like a trap if it had been someone else’s choosing. Making our choices freely is a challenge at every turn, and necessary if we expect to retain our human dignity.

Standards for living are deeply personal, and they reflect our core values. The choices we make in living are a form of self-expression, limited by our creative ability to make use of the world around us, and many of the choices people make aren’t very nice. Coming to an understanding of what’s good for all of us, it seems, is the major challenge of our time.

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