Education Ideas, cheap!

07/24/2012
English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st...

English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st at 92nd Street Y. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

That is certainly the case with the #140edu conference next week at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan where, if you are a teacher or student, $1.40 buys you two days of ideas, inspiration, conversation and connection with some of the more thoughtful, challenging, and engaging educators who have used social media in their classrooms or individual learning.

I should warn you, these are long days. Both of them, July 31 and August 1, start at 8:30AM and run until 5:45PM, with only 45 minutes for lunch, but don’t worry. You don’t have to sit and listen to it all. You can get up, walk out, go to the networking room or step outside, then go back for more. Trust me, you will need to do this because your head will explode if you don’t.

Just plan to be back in the hall by 11:50AM on the first day. That’s when I’ll be talking about How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You. I don’t want to go into my whole talk here, but the thesis is that one can get an equivalent or better education using social media as one can by attending high school. I have no idea how I got included with the otherwise distinguished list of educators presenting here, but I did. Please come and disagree with me. Educators can register here for just $1.40 for the two days (you can disagree with a lot of people and make the conference even more cost effective if you like).

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you do go, and I hope you will, please come and say hello. I’ll be the one with the exploded head.


Bad Teachers Cause Student Failure? Great Doctors Have Patients Who Die.

01/16/2011
Heart
Image via Wikipedia

In discussions of the reasons for using value-added data to assess teacher effectiveness the following argument for firing teachers comes up a lot: “If a heart surgeon fails at his job, she/he will no longer retain that job.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Who in his right mind would want an incompetent heart surgeon? Probably the same people who would want an incompetent teacher.

But there is a serious problem with this argument: even the best heart surgeons have patients who die.

The best heart surgeons have patients who die for most of the same reasons that patients of less stellar heart surgeons die; and, oddly enough, they are many of the same reasons that students fail, even some students who are taught by really, really good teachers.

It is really very simple and can be explained in three words: uncontrollable external factors.

Lit cigarette
Image via Wikipedia

Heart surgeons have patients who don’t follow aftercare instructions,who smoke, eat fatty foods, eschew exercise, drink excessively and otherwise engage in other activities that render the heart surgeon’s skills moot.

They also have patients who come from high poverty areas where getting good nutrition is more difficult and high-calorie foods are more common. And they have patients with genetic proclivities that make maintaining good heart health particularly challenging.

Many of those patients die. It is not the heart surgeon’s fault.

Even the best heart surgeons will tell you that they are not miracle workers and can’t make you healthy if you don’t do what you have to do.

Patients have to take responsibility for their own health; if they don’t, no heart surgeon can save them, no matter how well-trained or how highly skilled.

Teachers deal with uncontrollable external factors, too.

The uncontrollable external factors affecting teacher effectiveness include poverty, inadequate early childhood development, and brain-based aberrations that make learning particularly difficult.

Teachers have students who don’t take responsibility for their learning the same way some heart patients fail to assume responsibility for their health. We have students who don’t pay attention to instructions, fail to exercise their minds, watch high-fat television programs and otherwise engage in activities that render our teaching moot.

Many of those students fail. It is not the teacher’s fault.

Of course, heart surgeons have one big advantage over teachers.

Valve
Image by lschmitt77 via Flickr

They can replace defective or damaged parts. New valves? Not a problem. Reroute blood around a clogged artery? We do it every day! Need a new heart? Done!

I wish surgeons could do the same with brains.

But even then, it would be up to the individual to use it.

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Pushing Beyond Their Limits

05/20/2010
Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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Academics or Life Skills? Yes! No! Maybe!

05/07/2010
Floor balance scales, foot lever and two dishe...
Image by Lichfield District Council via Flickr

Essential Questions are fun because there is no one right or wrong answer.

There are many answers, each with the ultimate potential to be right or wrong, or even change from right to wrong or back at any given time.

Our Essential Question today is: Academics or Life Skills? Should special education teachers emphasize one over the other, or is there a happy medium?

My answer: Yes.

My other answer: No.

My third answer: It depends.

I’m not trying to be difficult (there are those who will say I accomplish being difficult without any effort at all) but this is one of those questions of which the answer one gives depends entirely on one’s conception of the purpose of education.

My conception of the purpose of education is that it is essential that children be prepared to lead adult lives.

Vague?

You bet!

This is the problem with statements that need to apply to everyone.

Even if we narrow the statement to apply only to special education students;

It is essential that children be prepared to lead adult lives to the best of their individual abilities.

Not much clearer, is it?

The problem is that in stating the purpose of education, we are trying to answer an essential question.

Every student, whether or not in special education, needs an individually crafted answer to questions of whether academics or life skills should be stressed and to what extent one should be stressed more than the other.

It gets more basic than that: For each individual student the definition of what is appropriate to teach changes as each student develops.

When it comes to education, there are no easy answers.

It is time we stopped looking for them.

___________________

This is the third and final posting of a string of blogs for the Classroom Insiders series at We Are Teachers. I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to reach their audience.

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Do We Really See What We Claim To?

04/20/2010
Distorted Reality
Image by Vermin Inc via Flickr

My last post inspired a blog post by Diane Lauer on her blog titled “Seeing with Our Hearts as well as our Eyes” I commented on her post. She urged me to post my response on my blog. Here is is:

Thank you for the honor of quoting my post. I’m glad it inspired you because that is what I — and all teachers — try to do; inspire further thought.

Part of the problem of human perception is that we use short-cuts, our minds fill in the gaps of what we think we see according to the patterns of our past experience. Those gaps are not always filled accurately and we’re not perceiving what is actually there.

It is one thing to use past experience as a guide to perceiving present situations, but it is a completely different thing when the perception is not based on any prior experience.

That is what happens with standardized tests and in any other situation where the person or people drawing conclusions based on the data presented to them do not have prior experience with the particular students whose exams generated that data.

A teacher knows her students and knows that student A has a stomach ache from the tension high stakes tests generate, that student B’s parents just got a divorce, that student C’s brother got shot last week and that there isn’t any food in student D’s home because his parents got laid off and the first unemployment check hasn’t arrived yet. The person looking at their data, the classes data, and the school’s data doesn’t know any of this and neither does anyone walking into the classroom for the first, second or third time.

Only the teacher, particularly in consultation with students’ prior teachers, has the intimate knowledge and background necessary to make the data make sense. Arguments that exam data is not about particular students and are aggregations fail because an aggregation based on defective data is as worthless as the data it is based upon.

It is the curse, or more likely the gift, of the human condition that we are not perfect and any single test may catch us in brief but spectacular moments of imperfection. That snapshot is valuable only that it verifies our being human, and it is my fervent hope that we don’t need to spend the money, time and anxiety standardized tests cost to realize that.

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Sticks and Stones… Yeah, Right

03/22/2010

It happened again.

I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Why, I’m sure she didn’t even give it a second thought.

That is the crux of the problem.

We don’t give the words we use a second thought, at least not when we say them out loud.

When we write we choose our words carefully, aiming to get just the perfect nuance, the right shade of meaning.

When we write we recognize the power of words, how choosing one instead of another shifts meaning in subtle or overt ways. We use dictionaries and thesauri in tandem to aid us in our search for precision in language.

I do, and I am confident many other writers, cognizant of the complexity of our mutt-like English language, do as well.

While Professor Henry Higgins bemoans that “One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get,” the rest of us are free to revel in the diversity of words that Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Saxon, German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Italian (itself a motley collection of distinct dialects), and more have contributed to what we commonly call English.

It is that very diversity that allows linguistic precision, and it is that capability for precision that makes it so very distressing when people who should know better use words carelessly.

It is one thing to use an imprecise word when speaking, but quite a different thing when one is writing and, perhaps, has the time to choose words more carefully then read and revise by picking a different word or phrase to better convey intended meaning.

Still, despite the opportunity to do better, I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Perhaps I should say persons because the offending term appeared in a magazine article and this magazine has an editor who might have caught the offending term and suggested an alternative.

That this did not occur leaves me to presume dereliction of duty or, worse, intent.

I will not embarrass the writer, editor or magazine by identifying them, partially because that is not how I operate, but also because the offensive phrase is so commonly used.

Here’s what I’m going on about; just a few simple words:

“Regular education,” or in this specific instance, “regular classroom environment.”

I am known in many corners of the online world as Spedteacher. It’s a handle that takes SpEd, a common abbreviation of ‘special education’ and adds it to my job title.

Perhaps I should call myself ‘Irreguteacher ‘ instead.

The opposite of ‘regular education’ is irregular education. A classroom environment other than a regular one is an irregular one.

All people are different. We all come with a broad selection of abilities and things we’re not so good at doing. How can it be that only a very small group of that overwhelming selection of abilities is labeled ‘regular’ and the rest are implied to be irregular?

In the text for one of the many inclusion-themed t-shirts available from his Nth Degree Catalog (The Home of Wheelchair Boy Jeans) Dan Wilkins explains the problem with the phrase ‘regular education’ much better than I can:

“One of the problems I have with the Special” and “Regular” education dichotomy is that its very existence forces us to label every kid just so we know which box to put him/her in. It gets worse. Then we take all the kids in one of the boxes and we put each of them in their own box and slap another label on it…. perhaps two…or ten. After a while we forget about the kid in each box and just see the box (and all its labels). It gets worse. Inside the box, the kid, misjudges the edge of the box for the horizon and comes to believe ‘that’s all there is…’ In the eyes of everyone, including the child, the kid and the box become one. So much for dreams…the chase is over before it begins.”

There it is.

In general, it is better to call the classrooms most students are in “general education.”

Calling them anything else should be irregular.

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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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