The State of the Union Wordle

01/27/2010

I don’t know how many of my students listened to the State of the Union address tonight, but I can help them understand the emphasised points in the speech by showing them this Wordle of it.


Teacher Gets Schooled

01/26/2010

I’m a lousy teacher.

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
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I’m a great teacher.

I’m also a mediocre teacher.

In the course of a year I’m all of those.

Sometimes I’m all of those in a single 42-minute period.

I’m in my sixth year teaching.

As I learn more and more about my craft I spend more time as an excellent teacher, somewhat less as a lousy one. But when I really look at my practice, I realize that most of the time I’m pretty mediocre.

There’s been a lot of discussion about teacher quality lately. Atlantic Magazine has an interesting article on the subject.

It seems that despite the billions of dollar spent on curriculum development, technological upgrades, renovated or new physical plants and tons of books, it’s the teacher in the room that makes the biggest difference.

I make the difference.

If you were the parent of a student in my class, or someone from whom I might seek a teaching job, you could, and should, ask me what qualifications do I have to take on this awesome responsibility of teaching.

I have a BS in Education Studies from SUNY/Empire State College and a Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University GSE, with 4.0 averages at both.

I passed all the exams New York requires and, for good measure, the ones NJ requires, too.

I did 15 weeks of student teaching in a suburban second grade, then another 20 in a multi-grade class at Blythedale Children’s Hospital School.

I also have 40 years of work experiences in a variety of professions and 56 years of (just the one, so far) life experience to draw on for something those extra insights that add so much to lessons.

Impressive, some would say, while others will call it merely adequate. As paradoxical as it may seem, both groups are right.

My qualifications for my job are impressive.

They are also not nearly enough.

Good teachers never stop learning; never stop trying to get better.

I’m fortunate that I have found two different groups of smart, dedicated, generous and talented people who help me learn more about how to do what I do better.

The first group started developing in my rookie year when my mentor, Oksana Kulynych, introduced me to Phil Panaritis and the Teaching American History program in our half of the Bronx. For five years Phil and the college professors he recruits have taught me a tremendous amount of subject content and applied pedagogy.

The second group started developing when I joined Twitter.

Through Twitter I started connecting with what has become my PLN, my Professional Learning Network of teachers, librarians, school psychologists, principals, administrators and others connected to or interested in education.

I’ve been on Twitter for 15 months or so, about as long as I attended graduate school and did student teaching.

I have learned far, far more about teaching, gathered many, many more resources and gotten much more support and constructive criticism on Twitter than I did getting my master degree.

It was a hell of a lot cheaper, too.

Later this week I will travel to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia I will meet some of the members of my PLN at the Science Leadership Academy. Principal Chris Lehmann, along with the teachers, students and parents connected with the school, host Educon, 500 people having a three-day long series of conversations about teaching and learning.

I am tremendously excited about the learning opportunity Educon presents.

I will come away exhausted, my head spinning with more inspiration, more techniques, more knowledge and more questions.

It will take me some time to digest it all, but in the end it all will help me become a better teacher.
My qualifications will be that much more impressive.

But it will not be enough.

It will never be enough.

There’s always something else to learn, something else to try.

I will find it.

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Get Fat For Haiti!

01/23/2010
Bake sale table
Image by Holy Outlaw via Flickr

In early October people began noticing that in late June the NYC Department of Education banned most bake sales in schools.

There were exceptions: once a month the PTA could hold a bake sale, but not during lunch periods. In other words, if you wanted to sell cupcakes to kids you had to haul them out of class.

Oh, you could also hold all the bake sales you want after 6PM on any day. Go figure. My school closes at 6PM.

The DOE promulgated the crackdown on cupcakes in an at-best ham-handed attempt to reduce the amount of fat and sugar in student diets.

Apparently the yearly lessons on the food pyramid were not sticking in student heads as much as the daily doses of chips, brownies and Skittles were sticking out student bellies.

I’m not writing this essay to claim that allowing students more time for physical activities such as gym classes and running around the schoolyard during recess would do more to promote student health and reduce waistlines faster than policing pies.

That is far too obvious to bring up.

And I’m not writing this essay to note that many schools are so overcrowded that their gyms are used for classroom space, or that many principals have eliminated gym time so that students are able to receive more minutes of the precious math and language arts test preparation that passes as instruction in many schools.

I’ll save that diatribe for another time.

I’m also not writing to say that my school gives all students gym class at least twice a week, has two certified physical education teachers, and gets kids outside during recess whenever the weather allows it, even though we do all of that.

No, I want to talk about Haiti and the DOE’s reaction to the death, injuries, famine, homelessness and other horrible results of the recent massive earthquake there.

The DOE said it was okay to have bake sales again, even during lunch periods.

But only as long as the proceeds were sent to agencies participating in the relief efforts in Haiti.

Yes, boys and girls, the DOE says you have to find other ways to finance class trips, band instruments, sports uniforms, and all the other things schools once provided.

But its okay to get fat for Haiti.

There’s something particularly disturbing about the DOE’s idea of students swallowing sweets while desperately hungry Haitians swallow dust.

Meanwhile, at my school, students raised over a thousand dollars in three days just by going from class to class and soliciting donations.

And they got exercise by striding down our long halls and climbing up and down stairs.

I think they could teach the DOE leadership a thing or two.

Don’t you?

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Life vs. The Curriculum

01/13/2010

I went off the reservation today.

The Scope & Sequence, the map for mapping the curriculum map, says I should be teaching about Africa right about now and I was planning to introduce the unit today. Then something very unfortunate happened.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paradoxically, the unfortunate event pointed out to me how professionally fortunate I am.

Calling the Haitian earthquake an unfortunate event is a massive understatement: the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere had what little they had, including life and relative health, disappear in a flash and rumble.

I went to high school with some Haitian students, lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Haitians, and now live in a county with a sizable Haitian population. I’ve never been to Haiti, and never particularly wanted to go, but I could not get the devastation out of my mind.

When my smart, chatty 6th graders came into the classroom I had this picture of the devastation on the SmartBoard.

(REUTERS/Reuters TV)

I asked the students to tell me where they thought the picture was taken. The Middle East was a popular guess.

I told them the picture was of some of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti and then showed them a few more photos.

That’s when things became interesting.

These students are very smart and usually very, very chatty.

They were silent.

Rapt.

Awed by the destruction, the pain, and the death.

Then the questions started.

“Is it better to be inside or outside when an earthquake comes?”

None of us knew.

I pointed out that after the big 2008 earthquake in China, people were afraid to stay inside because the building could collapse on them. I showed a picture of collapsed buildings in Haiti.

“What causes earthquakes?”

Detail of the Cocos and Caribbean plates from:...
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I told the oddly quiet students about plate tectonics, using two sheets of paper and some paperclips to demonstrate what happens when the plates separate or collide. Either way the paperclips ended up on the floor.

Map of Pangaea showing where today's continent...
Image via Wikipedia

I told them that I was going to start our Africa unit today, then mentioned that at one time, millions of years ago, Africa, North America and South America were likely one big continent called Pangaea and popped a world map onto the Smart Board so they could see how today’s continents could fit together.

Then I told them that in a way we were studying Africa as most of the Haitian population is made up of descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves.

One girl who hardly ever speaks in class raised her hand.

“Is that why Haitian people look so different from my relatives on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic?”

Another Dominican girl asked, “Could an earthquake separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic?”

I asked her to tell me the difference between a political map and a topographic map.

The light went on.

“Oh! Earthquakes are topological and borders are political. The earth doesn’t care where the border is.”

Suddenly one girl jumped up and said, “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!”

The students took over the class to discuss what they could do and how fast they could do it.

When the bell rang and they filed out the door, several students asked me to print some of those pictures so they could put them on the posters they were going to make to help in their fundraising effort.

When the class cleared I took a deep breath.

And that’s when it hit me.

My resume shows a lot of different jobs in different fields: print journalism, radio new and talk shows, restaurants, political action, advertising, and more.

I sometimes tell people all about it when they ask how it came to be that I started teaching when I was 50.
Then I tell them that every bit of knowledge, every experience, every sensation I’ve gained comes into the classroom with me.

And today it all came out.

The lesson my students got today could only have come from me.

I’m very fortunate not to have to prepare my students for a standardized test lurking at the end of the year.

And I’m fortunate not to work in a system or for an administrator requiring me to teach the same lesson that every other 6th grade teacher is scheduled to teach on January 13, 2010.

I know my supervisors would have been very happy had they been sitting in my room today.

Real learning took place. Authentic learning. The kind of learning you don’t need to use a test to see.

The students learned new material, made connections, and acted on their learning.

They realized that history is not a series of encapsulated isolated events, that its an intricate weave of people, places, ideas and situations, .

And I was very fortunate to have the time, the freedom, and the ability to go off the reservation.

Teaching has a much nicer view from there.

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The Name of the Game

01/11/2010
The rose has thorns only for those who would g...
Image by Parvin ♣( OFF / ON ) via Flickr

I’ve been hanging around after school more than usual lately.

I usually come in very early and leave as close to three as I can, but lately I’ve been having too much fun to leave.

I’ve been teaching some of my sixth grade girls a game.

The girls are part of our popular after-school program and they’re supposed to be in the classroom opposite mine with a teacher who is actually paid to be there, but they hang out with me when they can.

The game I teach is called Petals Around the Rose and the name is important.

If you know the game, skip the next two paragraphs to the crux of the story while I explain the game to everyone else.

In the game I roll five dice and announce a score. The object of the game is to figure out why the score is what I say it is. I keep rolling the dice and announcing scores until you start telling me the scores before I tell you.

The scores follow a rule and you win by spotting the pattern and determining the rule I follow. If a student does they are beholden not to reveal the secret and I give them dice so they can start to teach the game to others.

S got it today.

S is a small, thin serious-minded girl with a winning smile and a huge dose of self-assurance. She is very bright, takes intellectual risks and is an absolute delight to have in the class.

I started playing the game with S and three other girls on Friday. We played for almost three hours. Each of the other girls walked away from the table from time to time. Not S.

S sat there making notes, making charts, getting frustrated, laughing, and shooting me skeptical looks.

I kept telling her the name of the game, Petals Around the Rose and that the name was important. I also told her that she would feel so good when she finally got it.

S sent me an email on Sunday evening telling me she’d been puzzling over the game all weekend and chiding me for torturing her.

As soon as she saw me today she said, “After school we’re playing the game.”

It took me three days of playing two hours a day or so to figure out the game.

It took S another two hours today.

I am so used to students who frustrate quickly and fly off the handle. I really enjoyed watching S struggle with the game but keep going. I admire her persistence, her determination, and her grit.

When she finally got it her excitement was electrifying. At times when she got frustrated I told her she’d feel good when she got it, and she told me she had never felt as good.

I gave her the dice we used as a prize. She immediately went across the hall, she said to celebrate.

When I looked into that class on my way out the door five minutes later, S had a crowd of ten students around her and she was rolling the dice.

Students often ask when they will ever use what we try to teach them, and teachers often wonder why the students don’t use what we’ve taught.

S never asked why I was teaching her the game, and I got to see her use it right away.

Priceless.

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I’ve Got Money; Are You Available?

01/08/2010
WASHINGTON - MARCH 26: Stacks of one dollar bi...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

News item: Gov. David A. Paterson on Thursday proposed a host of changes in state education law, including eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools, which he said would make the state more likely to receive $700 million in federal grant money. (NY Times 1/8/2010)

If we ever needed proof that – despite all the promises, platitudes and protestations – no politician gives a damn about students, this is it.

From the moment President Obama renamed No Child Left Behind (a giant, expensive race to mediocrity) with the equally catchy and vacuous Race To the Top, governors and state legislatures have been eager to lay down and spread them as any Nevada hooker offered the right price.

Harsh?

Perhaps, but not nearly as harsh as the way those officials charged with making the policies that rule their educational lives treat students.

Just so I am not misunderstood, let me say it loud and clear:

Nothing any politician says or does about education is about children.

Nothing.

Everything they do and say is about money, power, or reelection, usually all three simultaneously.

This Race to the Top is just another attempt to hold the gun of money against the head of state government and attempting to justify it by claiming the gun holds a silver bullet.

I don’t know what races President Obama, Governor Patterson or any other governor shining their red light has watched, but every race I’ve seen has had a small number of winners, usually one, and a much larger number of losers.

That’s right.

Our persuasive President’s education plan promotes there being a large number of education losers.

This is why he, Duncan, Klein and Rhee despise teachers so much. Teachers know there are no silver bullets.

None.

Not charter schools, not standardized assessments. not centralized authority and not union busting.

But also not technology, not better-trained teachers, not smaller classes and not fewer exams.

Some combination of all the above may do wonders, but there are no silver bullets.

None.

Governor Patterson, that gun held against your head holds blanks. Sure it makes a loud bang, but it will not hurt you.

The only ones hurt will be the students.

I guess that’s okay with you.

After all, it is not about them, is it?

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Data! Get Your Red Hot Data!

01/05/2010
calc screencap , this is a spreadsheet screenc...
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Data is the new snake oil.

Look this over carefully folks. Come up close so you can see with your own eyes, hear with your own ears, every sight, every sound, of this demonstration.

This is the answer to all your problems.

This is the the way to answer your critics and change them into your champions,

to garner headlines and Major, I say MAJOR Race for the Top federal funding.

This is the stuff you need.

This.

Is.

2006OCT241505

Image by bootload via Flickr

DATA.

Yesiree! This Gen-U-WINE date can cure all your teaching ills.

Every single one. All of them.

What?

You say your students are falling behind others?

Have you tried data? No? Well lookee here…

This data doesn’t just give you test scores, it doesn’t only give you short-term score trends, this data gives you…

Wait for it folks….

Data Model Template - Excel spreadsheet
Image by Ivan Walsh via Flickr

RESPONSE ANALYSIS!!!

That’s right! Intimate details about every question asked, every answer given, laid out to two-decimal-place precision.

I know.

But wait, there’s more!

This data come as raw numbers, it comes in scatter plots, it comes as histograms, and, hold your breath, be still my beating heart….

It comes as bar graphs and pie charts in

Not one…

Not two…

Three sets of data plotted using pie charts an...
Image via Wikipedia

Not three or four… 

This data comes in five; count them five colors on every bar graph and pie chart.

No extra charge

Yes, you heard it right, all this…

The numbers, the histograms, the scatter charts, the pie charts,

Did I forget to mention the stem & leaf arrays? Yes I did,

So, you get the numbers, the scatter charts, the histograms, the pie charts, the bar graphs, AND the stem & leaf arrays for one low price.

Look at it. Look at it carefully. This data is the answer to all your Ed-you-KAAAAY-shun issues.

Students not doing well? Teachers not teaching well? Or was the test just too darn hard?

Don’t know? LOOK AT THE DATA! Its all there, all laid out for you in five eye-catching colors!

But wait, there’s still more!

Along with every set of full-color data displayed six, count them, 1,2,3,4,5,6, SIX ways we’ll include this handy chart that teaches you and your teachers how to manipulate the data to show whatever you want it to!

You can show gains, you can show big gains, or anything you want just by using this handy, chart.

So let me give lay out the whole package for you ladies and gentlemen. Let me tell you all you get at one time in one package:

you get the numbers,

scatter charts,

histograms,

A plot showing a regular and a cumulative hist...
Image via Wikipedia

bar graphs

pie charts

AND leaf & stem arrays –

all of it for every student, class, teacher and sub-group –

PLUS the handy chart that tells you how to make it show anything you need it to….

All for one easy to swallow price.

Now, you look at all this and I bet you’re telling yourself, ‘this all looks and sounds great, but where am I going to put all this data?’

You look at this and think it must come in a bunch of boxes, enough to fill a storeroom, maybe enough to fill a warehouse.

Ladies and gentlemen, what will you say when I tell you that everything I’ve mentioned,

every number,

every chart,

every graph,

all of it in five colors, broken-out and aggregated any way you want it;

all that, PLUS the nifty chart showing you how to massage the numbers…fits on this one, little, flat DVD.

The image shows a comparison in size of a Dixo...

Image via Wikipedia

Yes, folks, its all on here.

And even with all that stuff squeezed onto this DVD, even as FAT with information is it, its still sharp enough to slice this tomato, to scale this fish, and you never have to sharpen it or worry about it losing one byte of information.

Ginsu!

Image by Mat Honan via Flickr

I know. It sounds too good to be true. That you must be dreaming…

Don’t hesitate!

Don’t be left out!

Bannack Days 2008-snake oil
Image by virtualreality via Flickr

Don’t be the last one on the bus!

Call right now!

Here’s how to order….

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