Archive for January, 2008

Multiple Ways of Knowing

Jan 29 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics,teacher research

In my former life as a ne’er-do-well (during my 20′s when I had a variety of jobs) I worked on a couple of small fishing boats off the Oregon coast. We fished mostly within 50 miles of the beach, far enough out to lose sight of land, and I was grateful for the navigational equipment we had on board whenever it got dark or the weather was snotty.

We had radar and radios to keep us from running into other boats, and we had LORAN (a WWII radio technology, pre-GPS) to tell us exactly where we were. There were also buoys to show us the channel into the harbor. Some of the buoys had bells or horns on them. There were lighthouses, and we had marine charts, too. This stuff was reassuring. And the fact that we had multiple ways of knowing where we were, telling other people where we were, knowing where other people were, knowing where we wanted to be and where we didn’t want to be was important. We used all this stuff to help us find fish, too, which for fishermen is maybe as important as getting back to the docks.

So I wonder, since I have such warm feelings toward this navigational equipment, why do I dislike and distrust standardized testing and “data-driven decision-making” as I do? After all, testing does pretty much the same thing. It tells us where we are relative to fixed landmarks, and it lets other people know where we are. It helps us to see and be seen. Eduwonkette blogged about the significance of research statistics recently, and plans to say a little more about data-driven decisions later this week, which is how I happen to be thinking about this now.

One important thing to remember about all the navigational aids – someone still stands watch. There’s never a time when we’d just set the autopilot and all take a nap. If you see something, or hear something that shouldn’t be there, you might also need to DO something. And there’s a lot of stuff that radios and buoys and blinking lights can’t tell you. Fog, clouds, wind, the height and direction the seas are running, drift logs, the sound of the engine – all the messy details require human awareness, and most importantly, knowledgeable judgment to respond correctly.

It’s no different in the classroom. But in the classroom, standardized testing with high stakes attached to results privileges one kind of data over every other kind. Instead of using multiple ways of seeing, and being seen, as we do on a fishing vessel, we’re being encouraged to pay close attention to only one – the test with teeth – in school. Observational data and other forms of authentic assessment get little respect from pundits and policymakers, but those are the very things that teachers need for making decisions. High stakes tests lead us off course because they are not sensitive to local conditions, the contexts for learning. Sandra Mathison and E. Wayne Ross point out that that there are unintended consequences for high-stakes accountability schemes. And they outline four basic accountability principles:

  1. Improvement. Use of a wider range of strategies to improve the quality of schools and learning, such as professional development.
  2. Equity. Closing the race, ethnicity, and class achievement gaps and overcoming the consequences of poverty and racism, through the provision of health and social welfare care as well as academic care.
  3. Democracy. Control over and responsibility for schools must be grounded in sound principles of participatory democracy, such as informed involvement of local stakeholders.
  4. Informing the public. Providing accurate information about the functioning, successes, and problems of public education, such as information about libraries, health care, availability of enough and current textbooks, clean and equipped bathrooms, and so on.

Authentic accountability is characterized by:

  • local authentic assessments.
  • school quality review model.
  • low-stakes standardized testing in literacy and numeracy.
  • annual local reporting by schools to their communities.
  • consequences at the school level, not the child or teacher level, for failure.

[h/t Where the Blog has No Name]

The art of teaching is in learning how to interpret and use contextualized data.

For a long time I thought that the weaknesses of standardized tests were embedded in their design. But I see now, thanks to a link from Susan Ohanian, that the testing industry gets it wrong on the test-scoring end of the game, as well. Read about the Tests that Fail to see what kind of incompetence is behind how they’re handled after all the bubbles have been fully and carefully marked. David Glovin and David Evans won a reporting award for their story. The testing industry, as Glovin and Evans show, isn’t accountable to anyone.

Test scores mean little to me. They’re like the oil light on the dashboard of my old truck – broken, and not to be trusted.

7 responses so far

From Stewards to Shareholders

Jan 25 2008 Published by under borderland,politics

A small item in the paper earlier this week quietly announced the death of Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of the Eyak language. Eyak is one of nearly 20 Alaskan Native languages, and the first to become extinct.

Jones was chief of the Eyak Nation, a people whose ancestral homeland runs along 300 miles of the Gulf of Alaska from Prince William Sound, near the fishing village of Cordova, and stretches east across the Copper River Delta to the town of Yakutat. Presently, according to the Alaska Native Language Center, only about 50 Eyaks remain.

After her older sister died several years ago, Jones became the last remaining speaker of her language. None of Marie Jones’ children learned Eyak because, as her daughter explained, “they grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English.”

Jones became an activist, and spoke at the United Nations on the importance of indigenous languages. She also became an environmentalist, lobbying against the timber harvesting practices of her own village corporation. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, worked with Jones. He said that Jones, being the last native speaker of her language, bore her tragic mantle with great dignity, grace and spirit. Krauss and Jones worked to compile an Eyak dictionary.

It should probably not be surprising that the subject of endangered languages is controversial. One view holds that the extinction of languages is a tragic loss because languages are a window into unique ways of knowing, and from them we can learn more about the values, histories, and local knowledge of peoples who may not have left a written account of their experience. The opposing view is that we should, in fact, encourage language extinction to promote clearer communication around the world. The question of whether either view is right becomes problematic when we consider that pressure to abandon indigenous languages comes from within, as well as from outside native language-speaking communities.

Languages are lost when they are no longer spoken in the home or taught to the children. And the reasons why that happens are a part of the cultural matrix of economic forces and traditional values that exists in communities where cultures meet, and one language is dominant. Language loss isn’t always the result of official policy or compulsion. Minority language speakers may, for instance, feel that their children would gain an advantage by learning the dominant language.

It’s happening at an accelerating pace. According to Vanishing Voices (Nettle & Romaine, 2000), there are now about 6,000 languages, spoken by just 10 percent of the people on earth. The other 90 percent of the world’s population use about 100 languages. Michael Krauss believes that there may be as few as 600 languages that can be regarded as having a “safe” future, based on whether they have at least 100,000 speakers. Extinction is a possibility for the vast majority of the world’s languages, he believes.

A 1992 interview with Marie Smith Jones and Dune Lankard, founder of the Eyak Preservation Council illustrates how the Eyak language was lost. They tell about how the arrival of fish canneries on the Copper River Delta at the turn of the 20th century disrupted fish runs, and how the labor force, hired from outside the community, introduced the community to alcohol and opium. The subsequent arrival of the railroad, schools, the influenza epidemic, statehood, and the establishment of Native Corporations in the 1970′s, which replaced aboriginal land claims in exchange for corporate ownership rights, presented the Eyak people with an overwhelming series of challenges to their cultural integrity.

Said Lankard:

Incorporating the land and its people made us all shareholders of the land. You look out over the horizon and you see all this wonderful land that we have lived on and made our living on for thousands of generations. But when you become a shareholder, which means that you have ownership in the land, it changes your perspective on how you look at that land. Instead of seeing beautiful forests, you see acres and acres of timber. Instead of seeing beautiful mountains, you see mines. You look at everything as a valuable resource rather than as a valuable way of life.

My Alaska Native students refer to their native languages, Koyukon, Tanana, Gwich’in, Inupiaq, and Yup’ik as ‘my language’ when they talk about their own native language, even if they don’t speak it. Their grandparents still use it sometimes, and it tells them important things about who they are. They want to hang onto that.

In a world of global markets, how do we construct enduring identities for ourselves? We don’t much like to think about what we give up in exchange for all of that prosperity.

A longer Associated Press article, and an older more comprehensive story in the Anchorage Daily News provide more details about Marie Smith Jones.

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A Time to Write

Jan 22 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy

Yesterday was a professional development day. Kids were home. Teachers met in the school library and talked about the Six Traits writing framework.

Six Traits is an analytical framework for evaluating student writing. It is also useful as an instructional tool which can give us a common language we can use to talk about good writing with kids. The Six Trait model looks at writing in terms of

  • Ideas (interesting and important),
  • Organization (logical and effective),
  • Voice (individual and appropriate),
  • Word Choice(specific and memorable),
  • Sentence Fluency (smooth and musical),
  • Conventions (correct and communicative).

We spent the morning looking at examples of the writing of both students and professional authors, sharing readings from trade books, and discussing strategies for teaching.

It was a great training session, developed by a former staff member who now works with the Alaska Statewide Mentor Program. One of the teachers sitting near me said, “I remember when I used to feel like a good teacher.” I understood what she meant. Staff training used to focus on instruction and curriculum, and we felt like we were learning things that would help us to be better teachers. Now we talk about achievement – and measurement. And the thing is, if you don’t believe that test scores are a true measure of what the kids know and can do, what they’ve learned and how far they’ve come; and if test scores are all that anyone wants to look at anymore, then what’s the point? Every now and then it’s good to remember that we’re there to do what we know is good for the kids, giving them time to grow, discover talents and follow interests that nobody else may ever explore with them. And it was a treat to spend time talking about something that might really matter to somebody.

Our afternoon session brought us back to earth as we now know it. We learned that additional Title 1 support personnel will soon be hired to help us out. We spent an hour in grade level teams rearranging our schedules to try to figure out how to make use of yet another instructional support position. I was unhappy about having to fragment the class even more than it already is, and asked why we couldn’t simply assign an aide to each teacher for the whole day – there are so many of them in the building now. The answer was that the federal regulations don’t allow that. Grrrrr.

People think that elementary classrooms are self contained, and that one teacher maintains responsibility for a single group of students. This is only partly true. We do have responsibility, but we don’t actually work with all of our students, all day. Out of 24.5 possible contact hours each week, I see my whole class together for 13.75 hours, and I share my students with about a dozen other teachers and aides. Students come and go all day. They go to Resource reading, Choir, Math, instrumental music, Counseling, and Speech. They get pulled out for testing occasionally. A teacher’s aide comes in for part of the math period.

Trying to schedule more help fragments the day even further, and requires additional effort to coordinate all the people. I lucked out this time, though, and found a block of time for someone to come in and help with writing instruction each day. It’s the most difficult subject to teach unassisted because most of the important teaching is one:one. And it needs to happen consistently, daily, for the kids to get good at it. Not all the kids will be there each day, and now I have to figure out what to do about Social Studies…but I think this might be a good turn of events….as long as we get someone who knows how to conference with kids about writing, and maybe wants to learn something about the internet.

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Grace Lee Boggs

Jan 18 2008 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics,technology

Grace Lee Boggs on King’s Legacy of Change:

In the last three years of his life, confronted by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and urban rebellions, King recognized that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. We are on the wrong side of a world revolution because we refuse to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.”

“We have come to value things more than people,” he said. “Our technological development has outrun our spiritual development. We have lost our sense of community, of interconnection and participation.”

In order to get on the right side of that revolution, King said that as a nation America must undergo a radical revolution of values against the giant triad of racism, materialism and militarism.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The urban rebellions had also made King acutely aware of the need of young people for community and participation. “This generation,” he said, “is engaged in a cold war with the earlier generation. It is not the familiar and normal hostility of the young groping for independence. It has a new quality of bitter antagonism and confused anger which suggests basic values are being contested.

“The source of this alienation is that our society has made material growth and technological advance an end in itself, robbing people of participation, so that human beings become smaller while their works become bigger.”

The way to overcome this alienation, he said, is by changing our priorities. Instead of pursuing economic productivity, we need to expand our uniquely human powers, especially our capacity for “agape,” the love that is ready to go to any length to restore community.

Boggs reminds us that we can all take responsibility for becoming part of the solution by cultivating our human sensibilities.


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Classroom Collaborative Give and Take

Jan 16 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Graham calls it a grassroots collaboration. And that, it is. He set up a wiki last August called Spin the Globe. It’s a web space where his class and mine can hopefully learn from each other about our respective far-flung parts of the world. Graham gave it a fair review, but I haven’t had a lot to say about it because it hasn’t really come together for me and my group yet. But we’re getting there, and now, since Paul Allison invited me and Graham to discuss it this evening on the Teachers Teaching Teachers podcast, I’m sorting through my reactions to the project so far.

Going into it, I expected a lot of details would need to be hammered out on the fly, and that’s how it’s been, which is OK. Most projects involve making adjustments, and having someone else to bounce ideas off of has been OK. Graham’s been easy to work with. I’m not so sure about me, though.

I’m not a good collaborator. I like to do things on my own, in my own time, and in my own way. So when Graham needed input from my kids to move the project along, I wasn’t as responsive as I might have been. I was busy with other, more immediate needs in my own classroom and couldn’t always arrange my time to jump in as needed. It’s not that I don’t try to coordinate my schedule with the demands of the situation, but I don’t try as hard as I probably could, which makes me a less than optimum choice for a partner. I tend to not get involved in situations with other people where scheduling my participation is vital.

Early in our school year, when we joined the project, my students knew nothing about me, or wikis, or much of anything important that I wanted them to know. Graham’s kids had been working together for months. The time required for me to get my group rolling was a roadblock for his kids, I think.

I didn’t always see the need for us to depend on each other. To my way of thinking, we can collaborate in a number of ways, using a number of platforms, each on our own timeline. I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to the wiki, either. As I see it, we can use it for a “home base” and set up other things like blogs, flickr, and accounts to share photos and links, which we did.

The project focus has been a little broad. The wiki is set up so the kids can learn more about each other’s home regions. But the Fairbanks kids don’t know a lot about parts of Alaska that are remote from their experience. And I think the same can be said about the Adelaide kids. There is some comically wrong stuff about Alaska in the wiki, and yesterday some of my kids started working on revisions, which is one of the great things about using a wiki, that it allows for that kind of participation. They’re also adding new pages about stuff they’re interested in, and making decisions about the subject matter that’s included.

As the kids were working on the project yesterday, I noticed that many of them wanted to partner up and work in teams on different pages, and I realized that the collaboration doesn’t need to be confined to the wiki. The collaboration involved in figuring out how to locate and post photos, how to find relevant information elsewhere, and how to avoid accidentally overwriting someone else’s edit are all examples of informal teamwork that happens going in.

As for classroom web collaborations in general, I’m doing this with Graham as a kind of an experiment. I don’t see it as the best way for the kids to learn to write, but I do think it can help them learn to fact-check, and to see things from another person’s point of view. In some ways, it’s happening backward from what you’d expect in a real-life situation. People don’t usually decide to work together, and then think of something to do. But then, this is school, and that’s kind of how it is with everything we do in school. I don’t mind in this case. But it would be better, I think, if we began with local real-world projects, and documented them. And we can still do that, too.

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Report Card Reform

Jan 11 2008 Published by under borderland,education,technology

For people interested in technological change in educational settings, we’re going through one here. The last one on this scale was about 15 years ago when the School District gave us all email accounts. At Wednesday’s staff meeting we got a peek at the next big deal. It’s PowerSchool time now. System-wide change begins with meetings downtown. Then we hear about it at a staff meeting. And this is how technology becomes part of the institutional woodwork.

Someone from the IT department came to our meeting to show us how the new system works. We’ll begin using it right away to record grades and attendance data, and we’ll publish the next round of report cards with PowerSchool. In the beginning, we’re in training mode, and parents won’t have web access to their students’ accounts. But next Fall, students and parents will be able to see the students’ gradebook records online.

It’s a school-by-school process, and other schools are already using it. My own children, in junior high and high school, like seeing their grades, and they check their records regularly. My wife and I don’t bother because a) the kids always accurately report the information to us, and b) they’re not having problems with grades. Even still, they like to see how they’re doing. For parents whose kids are having problems, this system is a communication tool that might help.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to save me time. The gradebook and the report card run on the same program, so I won’t have to transfer grades to the report card at the end of the quarter. I also won’t have to prepare multiple reports each quarter to keep parents up to date on their kid’s grade status. It does other things too. I can post assignments before they’re due, and leave a note on them describing what needs to be done. This would help people who are traveling, or whose kids are absent. Anything that improves communication and saves time seems like a sure winner.

The report card has changed, also. They’ve taken Spelling away as a discreet subject, and it will be taught as a part of writing. Yes! Handwriting will not be evaluated as separate subject, either. Nor will Technology, which nobody ever understood how to grade.

Nonetheless, this isn’t real education reform. It doesn’t address any core problems. There will still be winners and losers. The curriculum remains securely in place. And this is, after all, only about grades and report cards, the currency of schooling. I don’t see these things as fundamental changes, but more efficient ways of doing the same things we’ve always done. And I’m not glad that the vision for technology seems to be limited to finding ways of doing the same old things school has always done – only better.

Jay Lemke makes a distinction between education and schooling in his article Re-Engineering Education in America:

Education, we should remember, is not the same as schooling. Education consists in what a community does to promote learning and understanding of what it values. Schooling is a particular technology for doing education in some human communities. It is a very old technology. I believe that today it is largely dysfunctional and that schooling is seriously in need of radical re-engineering if we are to succeed with education.

He believes, and I agree, that effective education requires deep understanding and critical perspective.

Deep understanding means that you have taken the time to examine a subject in depth. That you have looked at it from many points of view. That you have seen how it can be applied across a wide variety of contexts. That you have questioned its basic assumptions and identified the limitations of what is thought to be known. It means that you know a lot about it, that you know the details, and that you know where the bodies are buried. It means you know something about the history of the subject, something about the philosophical issues relevant to thinking about it, more than a little about its role in society and the economic and political interests that impinge on it or which it potentially affects. You understand it abstractly and you understand it concretely. You can talk about it in many different ways for many different audiences. You can represent it in many different ways to yourself in your own thinking. You can find ways to bring it to bear on other people’s problems and issues, in collaborations.

Critical perspective means that you think about a subject in relation to basic values and not just in relation to matters of fact or explanatory adequacy. It means not just that you question whether something is so, but also ask how particular knowledge functions to make the world a better place or a worse place, a more or a less just place. It means thinking not just about the subject, but about why that subject is studied, and why it was studied in the past, by whom, and how it contributes value and for whom. What values it contributes to and what values it may detract from.

Lemke has a list of the structural difficulties embedded in schooling as we’re doing it now, and given their fundamental nature, he sees reform as not really a tenable option. He outlines some alternatives. It’s worth reading, for people who are thinking about “the system”.

This post has gotten kind of long, so I’m going to end it here by saying that since the revolution is probably outside my sphere of influence, his article prompted me to think about implementing learning contracts in my classroom for some subjects as a way to immediately deal with a few institutional limitations I can do something about. Anyone with information about learning contracts, feel free to pass it along.

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Textual Studies

Jan 04 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy

Way, way back in December I followed up on Tom Hoffman’s recommendation and found a copy of Robert Scholes’ Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. Since it’s due back at the library now, I want to mention it here before I return it.

The book opened with Scholes’ recommendation for a new focus in English education, but after the first few chapters Scholes moved into theoretical issues justifying his argument. There’s nothing wrong with theory, and I understand why he did it. “There’s always a theory in place,” he says, “…the job of any teacher of criticism is to bring the assumptions that are in place out in the open for scrutiny (p. xi).” But as I tried to follow the intricacies of the thinking coming from different schools of thought, I got lost in all the labels, and eventually decided that I’d need more background knowledge on the topic of literary theory. The book was written in 1985, and I read it as a theoretical forerunner for what we now know as critical literacy. For what it’s worth, part of what Scholes was talking about is covered in Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler, but in textbook fashion, and it’s a bit easier to follow – but still not simple.

Why any of this matters is that Scholes has something important to say about reading comprehension and instruction. He explains that we can make the study of English about “how texts are used to perform work in the world” (which he calls “secular” reading) or we can teach “literature” as a purely academic (“hermetic”) subject . Instead of teaching Literature, he suggests that we should be teaching Textuality.

In an age of manipulation, when our students are in dire need of critical strength to resist the continuing assaults of all the media, the worst thing we can do is to foster in them an attitude of reverence before texts. The reverential attitude, a legacy of romantic aestheticism, is the one most natural in literary interpretation as we have practiced it….what is needed is a judicious attitude:scrupulous to understand, alert to probe for blind spots and hidden agendas, and, finally, critical, questioning, skeptical.


The essential change – the one that will enable all the others – must be a change in the way that we define our task. To put it as directly, and perhaps as brutally, as possible, we must stop “teaching literature” and start “studying texts.”

Scholes is not talking about just verbal texts, either. He sees worthwhile opportunity for critical study in visual texts, as well. Institutional practices are also on his radar.

Since reading proficiency and comprehension are now popularly regarded as quantifiable constructs, our approach to textual studies in school invites scrutiny from many angles. The relationship of texts to the world and to the reader is at the heart of what it means to read and to be a reader. Critical literacy legitimizes different “readings” and challenges the idea that there is a single correct meaning for any text, a necessary assumption behind most discussions about reading proficiency. ‘Comprehension’ is a very big word. When you begin thinking about how meaning is made, and how we determine which meanings are preferred, you’ve a entered a philosophical labyrinth. A good introduction to some of the problems may be found in Comparing the Traditions, Perspectives, and Educational Goals of Critical Reading from Reading Online.

Scholes’ practical chapters walk us through an example of his vision. He has a simple framework that includes three basic competencies that he sees as intertwined, but distinct enough from each other to discuss individually. These he calls reading, interpretation, and criticism. I especially like the intertextual schema he uses for his model. A brief description of each strand:

Scholes sees reading as the production of text within text. It’s the largely unconscious process we use to access the author’s message. While reading, we engage the generic and cultural codes used by the author. Vocabulary knowledge, discussion, description, and background knowledge all contribute to a reader’s ability to construct a text by entering the author’s world.

Interpretation is the production of text upon text, and Scholes see this activity as dependent upon breakdowns in communication. When we perceive a message as somehow incomplete, we employ “fix-up” strategies to help us make sense. Scholes notes that we’re motivated toward interpretive activity by “either some excess of meaning in a text or of some deficiency of knowledge in the reader (p. 22).” The impulse to understand, to look for meaning, is basic to literary analysis.

The production of text against text happens when we believe that a work has not lived up to its intended purpose. Criticism springs from an interest that is not just simply personal, but which is rooted in particular social texts with which a reader/critic may feel a close affinity. Scholes observes that criticism is in some ways the reverse of interpretation, since it comes about when the reader brings an “excess” of meaning to the text, and the text is judged somehow deficient.

Where do students find their critical voice? We need to avoid producing “readings” for students, and instead provide them with the tools they need to produce their own. We can do that by helping them to identify issues they care about, and encourage them to speak on behalf of some larger class or group. Debates and discussions that explore various questions that lie outside the text itself can promote critical thought and (we may hope) study.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, critical reading isn’t a teaching method. It’s a stance that a reader takes toward a text. Curriculum is a text. School is a text. The “Teacher” is a text, as is the classroom. These, too, can be open to interrogation, and they probably need to be if we expect any of this other stuff to happen. For anyone who sees critical literacy as maybe something *just* for older students, you might want to check out the Critical Literacy Podcast, and Vivian Vazquez’s book, for some ideas.

4 responses so far

Seed Time

Jan 01 2008 Published by under borderland,education

Time to stir the embers of this sleeping blog. It’s the first day of the new year, a turning point of sorts, and a time for taking stock of things. Amid the catching up with the family, and time away from the classroom and such, I’ve also had some time to wander through a local bookstore, and I brought home a couple of books that reminded me of something I haven’t thought much about for a while. My teaching assignment this year has been difficult on a number of counts (which is certainly not unusual), and I’ve been thinking about the opportunities for personal growth that teaching offers. But self-improvement isn’t a straightforward project. Every day is a new revision, and some are clearly better than others.

From Alan Watts‘ “Planting Seeds and Gathering Fruit”:

Every project for self improvement is a vicious circle. Dogen, a Zen master of the thirteenth century, said that spring does not become summer and, in the same way, firewood does not become ashes: there is spring, and then there is summer; there is firewood, and then there are ashes….As Chuang-tzu said, “You see your egg and expect it to crow.”

The selfishness of a selfish person is precisely that he is trying to become happier, stronger, wiser, braver, kindlier, and, in short, unselfish. “Is not your elimination of self,” said Chuang-Tzu, “a positive manifestation of self?” And again, “Those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong, or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation.

Watts advises us to avoid busying ourselves with problems that are too big, too abstract, too intractable, and fundamentally impossible to tackle. When we’re mired in judgments, we lose sight of possibilities, as he says, to “…plant seeds, gather fruit, build houses, sing songs, make love, and go on living until we stop.” I need to remember this, because the rough edges of the classroom really bother me. And in the current political climate where school reform is married to global economics and technological change, nobody wants you to forget what they think you should be doing.

Mark Ahlness shared this reflection:

There is much handwringing going on in some edtech blogs as the year “ends”. Much ado about the state of schools, the educational system, what’s wrong with teachers, why teach anymore, etc. Here are three noteworthy ones, especially because of the comments:

I thought about adding my 2 cents on all of them, but I ran out of gas. I am outraged at many of the same things these guys talk about. But this is what keeps me going:

The 9:00 bell. That’s when the kids come in the door. Thank goodness for the kids.

Yes, it’s about the kids, and not the tests or the curriculum or the schedules. My comment to Mark: Out of the 99 feeds in the reader I plowed through this morning, yours was the last – and the best – the most encouraging and hopeful of them all. I’ve been thinking lately that my frustrations in the classroom are nothing more than that. They’re my frustrations, and my problems. It’s easy to blame the system, or the other people in it. It’s much harder to use those problems as catalysts for personal growth, because they call for us to respond in ways we might not be ready for, and to stretch in unexpected and sometimes unwanted ways.

Professional growth is something that teachers often think about. I’m right there with all of them, wanting to do my best. But methods are only a part of the puzzle. The hardest thing to learn, I think, is how to meet both challenges and rewards with equanimity, because teaching requires a constant commitment to every student, and that can mean many different things depending on who and what requires attention at any one moment. Getting to know the kids and maintaining a personal connection with each of them takes time and patience that I too frequently can’t find, though I know it goes a long way in making a difference for us all.

What do we do when we want something that is not an object, when we want to change something in ourselves? It’s a problem that many people bring with them into the new year, with their desires for growth and transformation. Alan Watts recommended that we choose to simply “be” and learn not to intrude our judgments onto the world. It’s easier said than done, I know, especially for a teacher where evaluation is a big part of the work. But, still, it’s the best way that I can see to become an integral part of what Mark called the “living breathing organism” that is my classroom, and to focus on the kids as they are. My connection with them is one thing I can know for sure, and being truly with them will free us all to plant seeds and gather fruit, as we should.

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