Oh boy! Now You Can Take the Tests.

12/14/2011
Standardized Test

Earlier this week I wrote a post called Standardized Tests, good for the geese, good for the ganders in which I challenged everyone who has anything to do with the setting of education policy to follow the lead of one stalwart school board member and take the tests they make students take.

Thanks to the Washington Post’sAnswer Sheet column I took an abbreviated version of the Florida 10th grade math and English tests. I did it at 11:30 at night after being up since 5:00AM, working a full day and taking five hours of grad school classes. You’re allowed to use a calculator and look up general equations like Pythagorean or the volume of a cylinder.

I don’t mean to brag, but I did it all in my head without a calculator and without looking anything up. I got perfect scores in both sections of seven questions each, all in about five minutes.

You can take the same mini-test I did or a sample of the Texas, California, New York, Virginia, Washington DC. or Maryland tests. Let me know which ones you took and how you did. And challenge your governor, your school board members, your state department of education administrators, and your president to relive their adolescence by taking the tests and making public the results.

This should be fun. It was for me, but I’m strange that way.

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All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky

11/22/2010
Education Reform I found this picture at: http...
Image via Wikipedia

Today is blog for education reform day and I’ve spent a week trying to think of what I wanted to say about education reform.

I’ve been reading a lot of the other blogs participating and have been duly impressed by the level of conversation and the ideas expressed.

It is all leaving me very cranky.

I know education reform is taking place somewhere but where I work I’m not seeing it. Oh wait. Is all that testing reform and I’ve just not noticed it? If so, I’m sorry, I’ll try to pay more attention in the future.

Here are some additional reforms I’d like to see.

1. I’d like all the students in my school, my city, my state and my nation have equal access to exotic things like math books.  I’m tired of reading about one-to-one laptop programs here and there when the kids down the hall from my classroom don’t have math books but all the other 6th graders in the school do.

2. I’d like to see the smaller class sizes the City promised and was given extra money to accomplish.

3. I’d like to see the reductions in paperwork the city has been promising for years. I’d much rather spend my time gathering materials and planning than filling out forms.

4. I’d like to see my employer pay for the supplies I have to buy every year. It used to be chalk and stuff like that, now it is hard drives, cables and other things to keep the small amount of tech I have access to so my students might not fall ever further behind the more prosperous part of the populace.

I know these are small things and not what anyone is really thinking about when education reform is the topic, but if we can’t get the small things done can we really expect the big things to happen?

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Education? What for?

03/02/2010
The Thinker
Image by afagen via Flickr

What Is The Purpose of Education?

This is the kind of philosophical question that drives people nuts. It drives me nuts.

Some say its A.

Some say its B.

Others propose C.

Then they spend the next decade arguing about which idea is right during which the education system marches along aimlessly without understanding why it exists.

This way of doing things has been good for some, not so good for some others and a downright disaster for the rest,

The realization of that last bit leads to pleas and demands that the education system be “reformed.”

Now that I have achieved middle age I can look back and see that these calls for reform are part of a self-perpetuating cycle that has a predictable pattern.

Here’s how it flows…

Every major change in technology raises fears that American children will be ‘left behind’ the children in the rest of the world. Those fears lead to calls for education reform.

New emphasis is put on math and science at the expense of social studies and the arts.

We accomplish putting a man on the moon or whatever.

We feel good for a while.

Then we notice that we’re still behind Latvia in math scores and Burkina Faso and Mongolia in science scores.

Rinse and repeat.

This is what happened when machines started to replace skilled tradesmen and women.

It happened again when airplanes started to expand travel and commercial opportunities.

The next wave of calls for reform came when the Soviet Union launched the first chimp-in-a-rocket and set off the space race.

Is it any wonder that as first computing and then communications systems became more pervasive, personal and portable, the calls for education reform have become feverish?

So here we go again, round and round into the spiral of another discussion of the purpose of education.

The one thing I’m sure about is this:

* Mission: STS-41-B * Film Type: 70mm * Title:...
Image via Wikipedia

The purpose of education is NOT rising to the top according to some exam.

When did our nation become so small-minded?

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Bring Real Life Into Education? Hah!

02/03/2010
garbage trucks (color)
Image by rdcapasso via Flickr

Many of the currently trending phrases in education revolve around the concept of bringing “real life” into education.

Some people see schools as dead places deeply in need of life, real or otherwise and they attempt to remedy this by introducing ‘real world situations’ into mathematics lessons.

My friend Ira Socol, as part of a larger critique of how math is taught, illustrates one of the difficulties in doing this with a story about negative garbage trucks.

You might be wondering what a negative garbage truck is. So did he.

Ira says, “We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems – which strip all motivation from the subject…fake issues drive kids away.”

But the difficulty of bringing real life into schools is much larger than merely creating plausible math problems.

The real problem is that education, at least the school part of it, operates on a completely different model than real life.

School is reductive; life is not.

In school, life is teased and isolated into different content strands called ‘subjects’: math, science, social studies (or, in its more pure form, history) Language Arts (which used to be English), etc.

Even in elementary grades, where one teacher might teach all those subjects (plus art, music, physical education and more), those content areas are often divided from each other much as a child arranges the potatoes and lima beans on his plate so they don’t touch.

Math is remote from science and even more remote from Language Arts. Social Studies somehow teaches us about vital events and concepts in our lives without reference to science or math.

At Educon this past weekend, in a discussion titled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency” (which had little to do with technology fluency), it was pointed out that when a student is required to perform certain labs in science class it is sometimes difficult because he has not yet been taught the math skills necessary.

It was suggested that the math teacher and science teacher plan together so each would know what skills the other subject requires and on what schedule so that, like in real life, skills are on-board when needed.

Real life is not like that. Skills are usually learned through a process involving failing in the task the first time.

I learned how to change the washers in a faucet, but I had to flood the bathroom to do so.

And that was despite having the book “Plumbing for Dummies” open in front of me.

Schools don’t often allow time for a student to try something novel, struggle with it, make errors, learn from them, try again and succeed.

Another problem with trying to bring “real life” (a tacit admission that school is an artificial one, for sure) is that schools have curriculums.

At their best, curriculums are a basic, streamlined statement of the learning goals for a class. Start here; end there.

I’ve never seen one like that. Life isn’t often like that either.

Most curriculums are heavily detailed, often week-by-week schedules of what is to be taught (and possibly learned) and when it will be done.

Those curriculums squeeze the random out of the classroom so efficiently that one wonders if that isn’t their real purpose.

Random is dangerous, some say, especially in the hands of teachers.

But life is random. You may make plans to go to the theater on August 2nd, but your plans may be disrupted by a hailstorm, a hurricane or temperatures so hot the roads melt.

Or you may get the measles.

Vogon Constructor Fleet
Image by Bladewood via Flickr

Or die.

Or find the need to dodge the Vogon Constructor Fleet.

Need proof? Haiti. No one there was expecting a massive earthquake on the afternoon of January 12th.

Schools are specifically designed to hide the truth that anything can happen without any warning at any time.

We all do our best to pretend that life is predictable and, to a large extent, controllable. Otherwise, we’d have so much anxiety we could not continue to function.

Bringing real “real life” into the classroom is actually kind of a silly idea.

I don’t know about your classroom, but in mine real life comes in every day with my students. They bring me their hunger, their fears, their precocious sexuality, their sibling rivalries, their problems with stepparents; their daily struggles just to survive.

On a lot of days there’s far too much “real life” for me to handle.

On those days, facing off with a negative garbage truck sounds like fun.

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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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Differentiating Deliciously

11/29/2009
The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
Image via Wikipedia

No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.

Nonsense.

Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

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