Archive for December, 2008

Hauling Water at 40 Below Zero

Dec 30 2008 Published by under borderland,education

I’m not writing a New Year’s Resolution post. This is, however, an effort to get back into a more regular writing habit by taking advantage of some weather-induced down time. I’ve fallen off the blog bandwagon a little bit, and now I’ve got fifty open tabs on the browser that I could weave into a dozen different posts. But I’m doing none of that here.

What I have in mind is an example of how I learn by doing, and screwing up, using a couple of real world out-of-school examples. The reason this might matter to a teacher, or to anyone reading an education-related blog, is all the talk we’ve been hearing about innovation and experimentation in education reform. Take, for example, this article in the Washington Post on how Chicago Reforms Could be a US Model, where an education professor is quoted saying, “Duncan’s willing to try new things and see if they work, hopefully keep the ones that do and drop the ones that don’t. I expect that experimentation to continue on a national scale.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not keen on participating in experiments run by bureaucrats. Seems like there should be a release form for this sort of thing. And haven’t we had enough experimentation on a national scale already? Apparently not, if we listen to some of the geniuses who want to run things.

If we were serious about innovation, the ones who would be making decisions about what works, and dropping what doesn’t are teachers, principals, and parents, since they are in the best position to gauge it. And if a top-down trial and error model is what we have to look forward to for the next several years, then we should also wish Barack Obama good luck with that Afghanistan project:

The Pentagon calls its intervention in Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom. The emphasis was supposed to be on the noun. Unfortunately, the adjective conveys the campaign’s defining characteristic: enduring as in endless. Barring a radical re-definition of purpose, this is an enterprise which promises to continue, consuming lives and treasure, for a long, long time.

Morning Ice Fog

It’s 40 below zero in town today, and the weather report warns us that it’s going to get even COLDER in the next few days. When this happens, a high pressure cell sits on us and the skies clear – except in town where we get the foggy frozen version of hell from all the chimney-car exhaust. I’m holed up in a sunny -20 degree inversion layer at home today. Cold air sinks, and today at least, higher is better.

But that doesn’t mean we can be care free. It’s still pretty damn cold, and we need to get out now and then. Among other things, I haul water home from town in a big tank in the back of our truck, no matter how cold. When we built our house, the water hauling option was much cheaper than digging a well. Much cheaper. We think of this as being pragmatic, which simply means that we were willing to compromise and live with the consequences, come what may.

We go to a bulk water place with an outside hose that works kind of like a self-serve gas station, except that you put the nozzle in the plastic tank in the back of the truck. We empty it into a holding tank in the basement through a spout near the front porch. The whole system is indoors, except for the truck. In the summer, this is not a big deal at all. We never make a special trip to town for water. The entire family uses less than 100 gallons of water a day for domestic purposes. We even have a garden. One of the tradeoffs is that we need to own a big, clunky gas guzzling truck.

But things get dicey in the winter, which is another tradeoff. Physics lessons present themselves unexpectedly. Take, for instance, the law of inertia, which I was reminded of the day that the loaded 300 gallon tank crashed through the tailgate and slid out onto the road when I pulled away from a stop sign.

The new tank I bought had a siphon arrangement on the inside of it to help it drain completely. I found out that this didn’t work quite as well as it was supposed to when I brought a load of water home the following winter, turned the valve, and nothing came out. Bit-by-bit, residual water built up and froze around the outlet pipe inside the tank. The pipe had an elbow, so I couldn’t push anything through to break it or warm it. And, we don’t have a garage. The last thing I want is to drive around with a one ton ice cube in the back of the truck. Lucky for me, I have a friend with a heated garage. Now, I jam a broken shovel under the business end of the tank and let the left over water freeze at the other end, away from the valve.

I realized how much I’ve learned about this whole water hauling business one day when a guy walked up to me at the water place, and asked me for advice. He said he’d just bought a new tank and had never hauled water before. “Keep your strap tight,” I told him. He said he didn’t have a strap. “Then drive slow and steady,” I told him. And then I told him why. He said he’d buy a strap.

Hauling water in winter at 65N latitude is tricky, but the variables are finite. Teaching school is complex. After 25 years in three different schools in all the elementary grades, I have no list of absolutes other than to keep my eyes and ears open, and think about everything I do. When things don’t work out, I have to ask why and what I should do differently, but those things are rarely the same from year to year. I have more questions than answers, and I’d like the bureaucrats and politicians to respect that. I can still hope.

photo credit: Solar Wind Studios

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Cold and Dark

Dec 21 2008 Published by under borderland

Prompted by Michael Doyle’s Winter Solstice:

Living approx. 100 miles from the arctic circle, as I do, this day – winter solstice – is monumental. Or at least significant.

I was outside on my snowboard. It was cold, and the light was flat, but it was a good day. I got out. I dreamed. There was color: A blazing sunrise-sunset for the entire 3 hours and 42 minutes of daylight.

There were shadows, briefly. You need shadows to see the contours. And you need to see the contours.

It meant something. We’re still here. And we are making plans.

6 responses so far

On the Scale of Intervention

Dec 20 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics,social class

Via Susan Ohanian, a letter to the editor at USA Today about a recent study on poverty and brain development, Stephen Krashen says,

Experts quoted in USA TODAY’s article “Poverty dramatically affects children’s brains” seem to think that the solution to poor brain development of children in poverty should consist of “intervention” that includes “focused lessons and games” that need to be “incredibly intensive.” This fails to deal directly with the cause of the problem (Life, Dec. 8).

Children of poverty suffer from malnutrition, stress and highly toxic environments.

Instead of focusing on intensive drills, how about providing more and better food, cleaner air and cleaner water? How about providing more access to books through improved libraries? How about ensuring a safe environment where children can play outside without stress and fear?

The only problem with this solution: less profit for textbook and software producers.

One of the primary justifications for the standards and accountability movement, with it’s emphasis on testing and “school failure” is that disadvantaged kids deserve a quality education. Nobody disagrees. But a myopic focus on schooling as a civil right ignores the glaring neglect of other social failures that have immediate and daily impact on the lives of students.

The only way that seeing the effects of poverty as primarily a remedial challenge makes any sense is if we accept the idea that brain damage is inevitable for disadvantaged social classes. And we can only look at it this way if we refuse to see all the other problems associated with economic and social inequality.

Our local papers have recently published some stories about a rash of teen suicides in rural Alaska. What standard of human decency should be invoked to address this ongoing tragedy? And where should it be applied?

We don’t need scapegoats. We need a better world. In and out of school.

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Speaking Math

I’ve been thinking about our school district’s mathematics pacing guide lately. This past week we gave the required mid-year math assessment to make sure the kids are on track, and I’m seeing the predictable result: Some are; too many are not. So, what now? The pacing guide doesn’t say. It isn’t a teaching tool, you see. It’s a prod to keep us all moving like cattle toward a theoretical vanishing point. There’s a difference between teaching and program administration, and “covering the material” isn’t good teaching, even if more kids test OK and proficiency averages increase.

There’s a better way. Bill Kerr’s post about Jerome Bruner stirred my thinking about this, since I read Bruner for some of my M.Ed. project research. I looked back at that project this week, and I want to say something about it.

I entered our local university’s K-12 Reading Endorsement program after teaching for 17 years. It was a transformational experience for me, causing me to re-examine everything I believed about teaching. The philosophical underpinnings of the program were sociocultural, assuming education to be a social practice rather than a technical enterprise. The program was open only to practicing classroom teachers because we tested education theory by designing participant-observer inquiry projects. Unsurprisingly, I found that no approach or program works as advertised straight out of the box. There are always contingencies and anomalies, and these are things to pay attention to.

Early on, when we were discussing vocabulary development, I began thinking about math. I didn’t see any reason why comprehension instruction should be confined to reading, especially since the kids seem to have a terrible time remembering math jargon. I set up a small case study with a group of kids who read pretty well, but had trouble in math. I taught math vocabulary intensively to the whole class, hoping to see improvement in the math scores of the kids in this group. But there was no real difference for them.

I looked at the results of my first intervention as a new puzzle. Then I found the NCTM’s Communication Standard (available now by subscription), and dug through the bibliography for what was known about language and mathematics. I found a gold mine there, and read extensively from it. Magdalene Lampert’s “When the problem is not the question and the solution is not the answer” was hugely influential. She wrote about a teacher research project in which she taught in a fifth grade classroom, working to establish an authentic mathematics discourse community. In the abstract for her paper, she said, “…To change the meaning of knowing and learning in school, the teacher initiated and supported social interactions appropriate to making mathematical arguments in response to students’ conjectures.” The article is worth reading, as it maps out exactly how she went about her project, and her bibliography contains many of the same sources as the NCTM Standards document.

At the same time that I was off on this tangent with math, I continued to explore issues around reading comprehension, trying Literature Circles and Book Clubs – small book discussion groups – with my sixth graders. I wondered if the problem with my math vocabulary instruction project, and math instruction in general, was that authentic discussion is not emphasized in elementary level math classes. Nor, I would add, is analytical thinking much taught. So I set up a structure for small group discussion and problem solving that I called Math Chats. It was great fun. The kids loved it, and they got very involved in arguing and justifying their thinking about math problems.

I kept my case study group together and recorded some of their discussions. While I was transcribing and coding the things they said, I noticed that some of them – the kids who had the most trouble with math – were completely uninterested in any question about why a particular solution path worked, or didn’t. Invariably, the kids who didn’t “get” math only wanted to get to the answer, nevermind the reasons why it was correct, or whether there might be alternate approaches. Inquiry was lost on them. They had no patience for it, and continually drove discussions to the bottom line, or were altogether off task.

Bruner, recognized that social class influences how people use language, which might explain part of the trouble some kids have learning math. He found that the more prevalent use of analytic language among the middle class encourages those children toward the habitual use of formal categories and strategies such as featural analysis of tasks, consideration of alternative possibilities, questioning, hypothesizing, and elaborating. In contrast, he noted that lower class students "œtended to have little categorizing ability except in affective terms; they were highly concrete and immediate in their approaches to objects and situations" (Poverty and childhood, The relevance of education, p. 145).

Bill Kerr’s post moved me to look up Bruner again, and I found a copy of Acts of Meaning online. It’s in two places, actually. The first chapter, The Proper Study of Man, a critique of the information-processing model of human cognition, turned up as a Google book search result. The remaining three chapters are part of a pdf file, which I am still reading.

From The Proper Study of Man:

…information processing cannot deal with anything beyond well-defined and arbitrary entries that can enter into specific relationships that are strictly governed by a program of elementary operations. Such a system cannot cope with vagueness, with polysemy, with metaphoric or connotative connections. When it seems to be doing so, it is a monkey in the British Museum, beating out the problem by a bone-crushing algorithm or taking a flyer on a risky heuristic….It precludes such ill-formed questions as “How is the world organized in the mind of a Muslim fundamentalist?” or “How does the concept of Self differ in Homeric Greece and in the postindustrial world?” And it favors questions like “What is the optimum strategy for providing control information to an operator to ensure that a vehicle will be kept in a predetermined orbit”?

If we want to change the meaning of knowing and learning in school, we can start by asking better questions.

5 responses so far

Harder vs. Smarter

Dec 01 2008 Published by under borderland,complexity,literacy,politics,social class

Bloggers have been all over the Michelle Rhee story, lately.

Mike Klonsky:

Know-nothing writers like Amanda Ripley kill perfectly good trees to fill pages with crap like this:

“The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research.”

Did you get that? Decades of research? Now instead of weighing school research by the pound, Time measures it by age. Of course there is no such decades of study tagging teachers as the “biggest problem” in schools. Ripley made that up. But in this era of researched-based policy making, you can sell anything by adding the words, “research shows.”

It’s worth pointing out that Amanda Ripley admits on her blog that she really is a know-nothing writer: “I knew our schools were troubled,” she says, “but I hadn"™t realized the compounded effects of all that mediocrity.”

The same should be said for uncritical reporters who wander into political hotbeds they don’t understand and merely repeat what they’re told. Perpetuating myths and exploiting fear is how the Bush administration sold the war in Iraq. Instead of WMD, educational mediocrity due to ineffective teaching needs to be rooted out. Now. So they say.

Jim Horn also pushes back:

If Ripley were to look beyond the talking points prepared for her by pay-based-on-test-scores advocate and Hoover Fellow, Eric Hanushek, she would see that it is not teacher rights that are eating away DC Schools nearly so much as it is a long-standing malignant neglect and a continuing history of unaddressed poverty. If teacher job security and unions were the culprit, it seems that the suburban schools would be suffering the same as the urban schools, yes Amanda?

The graph he shares from a research report by Boe and Shin published in Kappan in 2005 reveals that US schools are not doing as poorly for white students as the naysayers want people to think. Boe and Shin observe that “…achievement scores of white students in the U.S. were consistently higher than those of students in the Western G5 nations, even though these nations were predominantly white.”

They conclude that the low scores of minority students reduce the comparative standing of US schools in international surveys, and that, “…public schools in the U.S. face the problem of providing a type and quality of education that will compensate for the background disadvantages of minority students and make up for deficiencies in their schooling.” Well, yeah. The achievement gap is what everyone is worked up about. I also understand that it’s mostly just a bat to beat us with, and that most of the criticism is coming from people who don’t give a damn about the well-being of poor kids.

But what would this compensatory education look like? And how might it benefit everyone? For starters, we should read Marion Brady’s “Primer for Education Reformers” [pdf link] to learn about the history of the standards and accountability movement and its articles of faith, which include

  • What the next generation most needs to know is what this generation happens to know.
  • If schools will just "œraise the bar," students will clear it.
  • Students turned into failures by their unwillingness or inability to meet standards won"™t be a problem.
  • The subjects and courses for which standards are written give students a comprehensive, balanced view of what"™s worth knowing.
  • Simply absorbing information is more important than learning how to create and manipulate it.

The assumptions built into curriculum structures are at least as important as any other single factor weighing on relevance and excellence in school. Working harder and raising expectations might benefit the people who already can, and who are personally invested in working the system. But those other poor people who are already in over their heads, and who see the whole enterprise as a forced march, what about them?

There’s a big difference between making someone work harder, and making someone want to work harder. When a parent tells me that this is the best year their kid has ever had in school, or when a young teacher approaches me at a professional meeting to tell me that I was her second grade teacher and credits me with her desire to become a teacher herself, I don’t believe it was because of my hard work. Rather, I believe it may have something to do with the quality of my relationships with my students, and my willingness to interpret the curriculum in such a way that our time together is meaningful, interesting, and maybe even fun. Sometimes.

Yesterday, Marion Brady, a frequent contributor to the Eddra listserve, posted a series of questions and answers about how knowledge is organized, and the role played by academic disciplines as an organizing principle, suggesting that systems theory might offer a more “holistic, systemically integrated perspective on reality.” He linked to a draft for a course of study he co-authored called Investigating Systems, written for adolescents as a way of teaching them how to organize and integrate subject area knowledge. This intrigued me. I see conventional curriculum as a major obstacle to learning, whether it be the “21st century” variety, or any other. I downloaded and looked through it, and it seems doable, and maybe worthwhile.

A Kappan article on Thinking Big might offer some insight on where he’s coming from with this. One thing for sure, we could all use some fresh ideas – big, or not.

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