Archive for February, 2009

Do It For Peace

Feb 22 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

“…It’s just to try and work on the good bit of you.”
- John Lennon (1969)

I Met the Walrus is an animated film directed by Josh Raskin and produced by Jerry Levitan. Illustration is by James Braithwaite and computer illustration is by Alex Kurina. It’s based on an interview with Lennon by Jerry Levitan, then 14 years old, who tracked him down to his Toronto hotel room. The film was nominated for an Oscar last year in the category of Best Short Animation.

I Met the Walrus is on youtube.

Official website.

For a connection to the news of the day, read Glenn Greenwald’s, Fox News “war game” the coming civil war. Greenwald comments on Glenn Beck’s “War Games” show in which, “They discuss a coming ‘civil war’ led by American ‘Bubba’ militias — Beck says he ‘believes we’re on this road’ — and they contemplate whether the U.S. military would follow the President’s orders to subdue civil unrest or would instead join with ‘the people’ in defense of their Constitutional rights against the Government.”

I sometimes hear this stuff on the car radio when I’m driving around, but I don’t see it on television because we’re not really plugged in to the tube here. Greenwald’s analysis:

This Rush-Limbaugh/Fox-News/nationalistic movement isn’t driven by anything noble or principled or even really anything political. If it were, they would have been extra angry and threatening and rebellious during the Bush years instead of complicit and meek and supportive to the point of cult-like adoration.

My favorite part of Greenwald’s piece is the link to historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article in Harpers Magazine, The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Lennon’s message for nonviolent resistance to militarism is still relevant. Even the animation reminds me of the 1960′s.

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What it Means to be White

Feb 16 2009 Published by under borderland

I first heard of Tim Wise during the presidential campaign when I read an essay he wrote called This is your nation on White Privilege, a polemic on the candidacy of Sarah Palin. Now I’m taking a class on race and racism, and reading his book, White Like Me. I hoped to finish the book today, and post a review, but the internet slowed me down a bit, since I was periodically sidetracked checking references from the book.

One of them was about a movie called The Color of Fear, (part 1) which I was able to find on youtube. Wise wrote,

One of the white men in the film, David Christensen, seems right out of central casting: a nice guy for sure, but one who has bought hook, line, and sinker, into the mythology of America. When the men of color discuss their feelings of marginalization as a result of racism, he clearly doesn’t get it, and offers up platitudes about how “everyone stands on their own two feet,” and how anyone can make it if they try, and how he feels that people of color block their own progress by not taking advantage of all the opportunities available to them.

“What follows,” said Wise, “is possibly the most poignant forty seconds or so of documentary film footage (full segment) I have ever witnessed.”

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Wave After Wave of Reform

Feb 10 2009 Published by under borderland,education,science

The 21st century isn’t what it used to be. In 1991, before I joined the staff, my school was awarded a $748,500 grant from RJR Nabisco to develop “innovative programs to improve education” as part of an initiative called New Century Schools. Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chairman and chief executive of RJR Nabisco Inc. said, “Rather than tinker at the margins, the grant winners have volunteered to be educational pioneers and devise model programs that can be adopted by local communities nationwide.”

The staff went into high gear. We became a science-focused magnet school. There were science specialists and guest speakers. We had intensive professional development, invention conventions, star-gazing nights, family science festivals, and a special Discovery Room with shelves full of kits and equipment for science activities that became a resource for the rest of the community.

By the time I joined the staff in 1997, the grant money was spent and the project was no longer being materially supported. We had a new principal, some teacher turnover, no more science specialist in the Discovery Room, no science curriculum development, and the school had moved on, adopting a literacy focus.

In 2004, we moved into a fantastic new state of the art building, built to replace the aging original structure. We now have wireless internet, tight windows, a special wing for Music classes, and small-group instructional spaces for special programs so they don’t have to meet in the hall. It works well, and I am very glad to be there.

This year we became a 21st Century Community Learning Center with a grant-funded after school program for academically at risk and low income students.

We will not have a school science fair this year, though, because the after school program consumes so much staff time and energy.

We expected the New Century would be all about innovation and discovery, but it’s been downgraded to basic skills. And Lou Gerstner is still out there trying to reform us. Now he asks “…why we are at this point — why after millions of pages, in thousands of reports, from hundreds of commissions and task forces, financed by billions of dollars, have we failed to achieve any significant progress?”

He thinks we need national standards. I think we are very tired of these people tinkering at the margins and telling us what to do.

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Feb 07 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

While the president has been busy trying to staunch the bleeding this week, he managed to find time to visit a public DC charter school: “This kind of innovative school"¦is an example of how all our schools should be….We’re very proud of what’s been accomplished at this school and we want to make sure that we’re duplicating the success all across the country,” the President said.

Tom wonders why more progressive bloggers aren’t celebrating, asking, Is no comment the best we can do? since this is clear sign that Obama has his education priorities straight.

That opponents of progressive education have not brought up the philosophy of the school the President praised is not surprising; that advocates of progressive education have also not brought it up is discouraging. Doyle isn’t happy that he picked a charter with many upper-class kids and lots of outside funding. I’m not sure if that’s everyone’s concern, although it puts one in a bit of a pickle for figuring out exactly what kind of school it is ok to praise. Do you have to find one that gets no special funding, has exactly the same resources and population as the urban average and is unusually successful? There aren’t many of those and then what does that prove? That the status quo is alright if we work harder? Certainly one necessary step in increasing school funding for all schools is going to well funded schools and pointing out how successful they are.


Since my name is on Tom’s list, I’ll say, Yeah. Cool, really. When I think about what Obama has on his agenda right now, it’s real encouraging to me that he took the time to go to this school and hold it up as an example. Maybe his visit there was related to the stimulus bill, wanting to preserve education items from the “fat trimming” and horse trading that’s been happening, I don’t know. In any case, it reminds me of what I do in the classroom when I find an exemplary student work sample. I hold it up and praise it publicly. For all I know, there are few good examples among regular public schools in DC, and Obama didn’t want to tacitly endorse Michelle Rhee’s heavy handed management regime, even though he praised her in the presidential debate.

That said, I’m not unsympathetic to Michael Doyle’s objections. Showcasing well-funded charter schools as alternatives to regular public schools isn’t fair unless we’re open about the costs and benefits of that kind of support. Charter schools are a potential Trojan Horse that can undermine the public system. I recommend reading Charter Schools and the Attack on Public Education, by Sarah Knopp, to learn more about what’s at stake here. Knopp urges us to recognize that school funding levels are not fixed, and that we can fight for making adequate resources available to all our schools. She also advocates for requiring charter schools to honor union contracts and to resist corporate incursions into the public system.

If we’re going to move in this direction, we’ll want to do it carefully. For what it’s worth, Alaska’s charter law is a pretty good one. As Tom said, we should put this moment to use. One thing we can do is to educate ourselves, our congressional representatives, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama, about how to create educational alternatives that are fair and equitable for everyone.

Oh, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog, but I am always out of phase with the news cycle. This past week I spent some time putting together a blog post for at Clay’s invitation. And honestly, I don’t know if I’d have thought this much about Obama’s school visit if Tom hadn’t been so adamant. Thanks to both of them for pushing me a bit.

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What is Scientifically Based Research?

Feb 01 2009 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

A nagging little pamphlet from NIFL appeared in my teacher mailbox the other day. I’d been hopeful that the government’s fetish for experimental reading research design would go into remission with the new administration, but that seems not to be the case. Always curious about government propaganda, I read through “What is Scientifically Based Research?” instead of grading papers or running the copy machine to generate more papers to grade.

Page 1 says that “educators need ways to separate misinformation from genuine knowledge,” and we should be wise consumers of education research to help us “make decisions that guarantee quality instruction.” Looking for the punch line, I continued reading, drawn to riveting passages such as, “Teachers can further strengthen their instruction and protect their students’ valuable time in school by scientifically evaluating claims about teaching methods and recognizing quality research when they see it.” Translation: Good intentions are not enough. Teachers may be misled by educational hucksters. I’ve had those same suspicions myself, but the target population isn’t limited to the teaching profession.

The main point of this document is to give us the “federal perspective” on scientific research, which:

  • Progresses by investigating testable problems;
  • Yields predictions that could be disproven;
  • Is subjected to peer review;
  • Allows for criticism and replication by other scientists;
  • Is bound by the logic of true experiments.

It reads like the introduction to a sixth-grade science textbook. Nothing on that list, however, is evident in our national school reform policy. But federal education reform is political, not educational. And since this is the age of double standards, I’ll let that go for now, and write it off as another example of how, when you write the rules, accountability is for everyone else.

What interests me at the moment is the federal perspective on curriculum and instruction. Principally, how much weight should be given to teacher observations in instructional decision-making? We often hear that innovation is a good thing, but it’s hard to imagine how new ideas are propagated in a standardized environment that myopically focuses on a single measure of success.

“What is Scientific Research?” tells us that teachers should “look for evidence that an instructional technique has been proven effective by more than one study,” cautioning us to be aware there are different stages of scientific investigation, and that we should “take care to use data generated at each stage in appropriate ways.” Then comes this attention grabber: “For example, some teachers rely on their own observations to make judgments about the success of educational strategies.”

Some teachers?!

At this point, we learn that “observations have limited value” and that scientific observations must be carefully structured to make determinations about cause and effect. Well, maybe so. But experimental evidence has limits, as well. We’re cautioned that, “In order to draw conclusions about outcomes and their causes, data must come from true experiments,” and “Only true experiments can provide evidence of whether an instructional practice works or not.”

So, teachers, don’t get any funny ideas about evaluating your own effectiveness.

Just to make sure we understand they don’t have every little detail quite worked out, we’re reminded that, “In many cases, science has not yet provided the answers teachers and others need to make fully informed decisions about adopting, or dropping, particular educational strategies.” No kidding.

So, what then? My teacher perspective is that all knowing is personal, classrooms are not sterile laboratories in which the variables can be tightly controlled, and doing experiments on children is still frowned upon in our society.

Coincidentally, The federal perspective on education research received some attention in Elaine Garan’s recent article about sustained silent reading in The Reading Teacher. Garan reminds us that the “medical model” is not well-suited for education research because messy human variables such as motivation, emotional difficulties, and other human qualities can contaminate the results. She argued that a lack of consensus among researchers converges with common sense, recommending that students have time to read freely each day, despite the National Reading Panel’s failure to find any evidence in support of the practice. If there is “no evidence” in support of a particular practice, it may have everything to do with the research methodology, and nothing to do with what is true about the real world of classrooms that researchers have awkwardly tried to shoehorn into a narrow view of reading instruction.

I’ll have more to say about free and voluntary reading some other time. It’s working out remarkably well for my students this year. That’s my observation, anyway.

Garan, E.M., & DeVoogd, G. (2008, December). The Benefits of Sustained Silent Reading: Scientific Research and Common Sense Converge. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 336"“344. doi: 10.1598/RT.62.4.6

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