On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.


A Few Thoughts on Gun Appreciation Day

01/20/2013
Winding Road Ahead

Winding Road Ahead (Photo credit: nathangibbs)

I’m writing about guns more than education these days. I wish I could feel I don’t have to.

The Second Amendment grants American citizens the right to bear arms. There might be some discussion about whether it’s a requirement that they be in a “well-regulated militia,” but I’ll concede for now that it isn’t.

The position many gun advocates and the National Rifle Association have taken is that there is no limit on the right of American citizens to bear arms.

But there are limits, and ones the NRA, probably supports.

Taken at its word the 2nd Amendment grants the right to own any kind of arms, even nuclear arms. Despite that, we have agreed as a society, with no dissent that I’m aware of, that private citizens should not own nuclear arms and have made it illegal to do so.

Unless I am mistaken (it has been known to happen frequently, according to my wife), it is also illegal for American citizens to own fully automatic weapons.

We have also decided that mentally ill people and convicted felons should not own arms. Our efforts to prevent those people from getting arms might not be particularly effective for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t change the intent.

Since there is some limit on the 2nd Amendment it is reasonable to ask if there might a need for other limits. The discussion we should be having as a nation is whether there are other limits we want to impose. There may not be, but not because the Second Amendment precludes it.

There may be very good reasons why additional gun restrictions are not a good idea, or there might be reasons for enacting some limits. I don’t know for sure. What I know is that a lot of children are getting killed by bullets fired from guns. I’m not talking about the mass murder in Connecticut or any other mass shooting. I am talking about the large number of children killed by bullets fired from guns every month all across the nation.

Universal mental health and criminal record checks before anyone can buy a gun should be a given. Any legitimate, sane, non-criminal gun purchaser should have nothing to fear from this, they will get their guns, eventually.

Guns should be secured when left at home, and that security should be robust. In a neighboring town two guns were stolen when the safe containing them was taken during a break-in. That safe either was not heavy enough or should have been bolted to the floor or some other strong anchor. Failure to secure weapons left at home should be a crime. That idea has nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment but might keep guns out of the hands of some criminals.

Some gun-owning friends say that laws allowing people to carry guns, concealed or openly, reduce crime. It is something that is very hard to prove, not because it may not be true but because it is very difficult to prove a negative effect.

Carry laws, whether concealed or open, might protect the individual carrying but will not prevent those scores of murdered children. I don’t know what will prevent those murders, but my instinct tells me that making it more difficult for everyone to get a gun might have some effect.

In all honesty, I am skeptical about the general safety of carry laws. Today, on Gun Appreciation Day, five people were shot accidentally at Gun Appreciation events, two of them at a safety checkpoint at a Gun Appreciation event.

That sort of thing does not inspire confidence that gun owners can be trusted to carry their guns safely.


Don’t Ban Guns, Regulate Them.

12/16/2012
English: Houston Gun show at the George R. Bro...

English: Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center Español: “Houston Gun Show” en el Centro de Convenciones George R. Brown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not anti-gun, though I don’t want to own one.

I am against automatic weapons in private hands, fast-loading clips, and anti-NRA.

I am in favor of mandatory waiting periods of at least 30 days between gun license application and delivery of gun, in favor of gun registration and mandatory annual inspections just like we have for cars, in favor of investigations of a gun applicant’s parents, children and siblings before a gun license is issued.

Gun dealers must be required to have a license.

I am against gun sales at gun shows, interstate shipment of guns or ammunition, shipment of guns or ammunition by mail or other carrier to individuals – they should be required to be picked-up in person.

I favor strict controls on the amount and type of ammunition individuals can buy, and am in favor of people who want to have guns having to pass a licensing exam and road test at least as rigorous as the requirements for driving. I also favor requiring gun owners to be personally and criminally liable for any use of their guns in a crime even if the guns are stolen from them (because it is their responsibility to make sure their guns are secure).

I oppose carry permits for anyone unless they can prove a compelling need. I am against guns being carried within .25 miles of any school, public, private or parochial.

I am also in favor of a complete rewrite of the 2nd amendment to clarify the meaning of a “well regulated militia” as the well-regulated part of it seems to be regularly ignored.

Other than hat, enjoy your guns.


NY Clarifies Assessment Plans for Teachers and Librarians

05/04/2012
Teachers

Teachers (Photo credit: iwannt)

The NY State Education Department has issued GUIDANCE ON NEW YORK STATE’S ANNUAL PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE REVIEW FOR TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS TO IMPLEMENT EDUCATION LAW §3012-c AND THE COMMISSIONER’S REGULATIONS.

This is the detailed explanation of how Race to the Top bribes have caused the state to assess teachers based on, among a very few other things, student performance on standardized tests. Most of it talks about ELA and Math teachers in grades 4-8 because those subject are the ones for which there are currently standardized exams, as faulty as they are (I’m sure you’ve heard of the pineapple problem; the multiple choice math questions, one with two right answers and the other with none).

Teachers will also be assessed by their principal as to whether they have met Student Learning Objectives. All teachers, except pre-K teachers are included, whether or not they teach subjects covered by standardized exams.

There’s a complex explanation of how the percentages of the influence on student learning any one teacher has will be computed. Examples of the math involved in that are not likely to show up on state tests because I doubt whether most mathematicians would understand it.

The document makes very clear that “School librarians and career and technical teachers are teachers in the classroom teaching service and are, therefore, subject to the new law beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.” (page 17)

How are SLOs for Library/Media Specialists established if these teachers do not 
have regular classes scheduled and only schedule on-demand/teacher-requested 
basis for specific topics and projects? (page 41)
Districts/BOCES will need to determine their specific rules around which courses must have SLOs when contact time varies following the State’s rules and the general principle of including the courses with the most students first and making practical judgments about how to consider different course meeting schedules like those in this example.
Huh?

Our National Story is Ruining Our Nation

04/22/2012
American westward expansion is idealized in Em...

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1861). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has always been paradox to me that teachers face demands to teach differentially to address learning individualities but only standardized assessment seems to count.

Perhaps there is some confusion. Some people, even some education officials and legislators, seem to think ‘standardized’ refers to holding students to standards, possibly even high ones.

That is not the case.

Standardized just means everyone takes the same test, not for the benefit of students, individually or collectively, but to make it easier for politicians and the media to rank states and districts competitively and mislead parents to think that there is some educational validity to those rankings.

There is not.

Our education system is broken. Taxpayers want to buy an Aston Martin but at Dodge Dart prices. Politicians want to brag or criticize without understanding what they are talking about.

Everyone admires Finland and Singapore but no one wants to make the same investment they make in teacher preparation, ongoing training and providing time for collaboration and reflection. No one seems to care that despite all the wonderful schooling students in Singapore and Finland get, and despite the fact that all those students and their families have adequate housing and healthcare, immigrants still come here, not there, for opportunities for better lives.

That, my friends, is our greatest national asset and its a pity that so few of our leaders are either able to recognize that or willing to acknowledge it.

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We suffer from a failure of leadership. It is not a Democrat problem. It is not a Republican problem. It is a national problem, a continuing and deepening of the long-running fantasy narration of rugged individualism in which we tell ourselves that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor, it is the teacher’s fault that education policies don’t work, and, at those times when crime is high, it is the policeman’s fault for eating donuts instead of battling crooks.

Perhaps someday each of us will take responsibility for the direction our nation is heading, take responsibility for our communities, our neighbors and ourselves. I’ll know when that happens because 90% of the eligible voters will cast ballots and show the politicians and policy makers that we really care. Perhaps then we can start addressing problems, trying to fix problems instead of cynically casting blame for them.

Perhaps then.

Perhaps.


I’m Tired of Talking About Education

12/28/2011

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

Learning and Schooling

Image by colemama via Flickr

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

Image via Wikipedia

From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.

Resource:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

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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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Revising History

10/06/2010
Studio portrait of the surviving Six Nations w...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep waiting for someone to tell me why an 11-year-old should be interested in the economic system of ancient Rome.

Or why a 13-year-old should care about the War of 1812.

How much do you know about the War of 1812?

Has that held you back at all?

Me neither, and I’m a history teacher.

We teach history in the wrong direction. We start with the past and work forward.

We need to turn around.

We start off teaching social studies well.

In kindergarten we teach about the thing immediately around the child, the family and the classroom.

This is one of the kindergarten rooms on the f...

Image via Wikipedia

In first grade kids learn about the neighborhood and in second the larger community.

In third grade kids learn about the various countries in the modern world.

Then it stops making sense.

In 4th grade NY students learn all about NY, from the earliest Iroquois days forward. Fifth grade that expands to the early explorers of Canada, Mexico and the rest of the North American land mass.

Sixth grade starts with studies of three countries in the eastern hemisphere, usually only Asian countries are included because the next unit is on ancient Egypt and the rest of the year is spent in ancient Rome, Mesopotamia and more, ending up somewhere around the Renaissance.

The seventh and 8th grade curriculum, my current assignment, is American history.

In 7th we start with the native civilizations before Europeans arrive and are supposed to get through the Civil War.

American Civil War

Image via Wikipedia

Eighth grade is supposed to start with Reconstruction and end somewhere around 1976.

Here’s one idea. 7thgrade American history should start in 2010 and work backwards to try to unravel how we got into our current miasma. By the end of 8th grade we should have worked our way back to Columbus’ “discovery.”

But even that isn’t optimal. I object to teaching history as a linear series of events whichever way we run through time.

History is not about time or events; it is about ideas and how people deal with conflicting ones.

Ideas excite people, even 8th grade inner-city students. Ideas have meaning to them that dates, names and events do not.

Opening (inverted) and closing question marks ...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to follow a curriculum map.

I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is and try to figure out how those patterns can be changed so their lives improve.

I want to help them make their world make sense.

Maybe then I’ll understand mine.

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Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

09/18/2010
Mitchell Map - A map of the British and French...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve decided to do something different.

No, not that.

I’m still going to be teaching where and what I am doing presently. I’m just going to do one thing different.

It is a big thing, though.

Last spring I took training in designing project-based learning units. They’re really cool for studying things like marine biology, algebra and techno-stuff (an all-encompassing category of “things despised by Luddites.).

I spent a lot of the summer trying to think of how to apply the project-based approach to social studies. I had a lot of ideas, none of which really captivated or excited me.

If they don’t excite me they’re not going to excite 7th grade boys and girls.

My new plan excites me.

I’m going to ask my students to invent a country.

In New York, 7th grade American history starts in what will eventually become the Americas a couple of hundred years before Europeans arrive bearing trinkets and syphilis.

Eventually colonists arrived and, as time passed, they invented a country.

Inventing a country is a much bigger process than telling a nutty king that he’s been abusive and you’re not going to take it anymore, then proving it even though he has the world’s most powerful navy and a large and well-trained army on his side.

Betsy Ross Flag Painted on a Barn

Image by myoldpostcards via Flickr

Okay, that’s a big process, but they had to beat that same Army again 35 years later and in-between they developed a government and a rule book to run it by, unified – more or less – 13 independent colonies, had elections, and started exploring the rest of the continent.

They had to create maps, flags, and a national story.

time to proselytize

Image by 7-how-7 via Flickr

My students will have to do all that in the year-long process of creating their country. And to make it more interesting, they will not each invent their own country. No, that is too easy.

Instead, they will have to work in groups of five or six to invent a country. That will involve negotiation, compromise, deal making and, without doubt, conflict.

And every time one of those things happens will be a teachable moment about the forming of this country.

They’ll have to write a Constitution, provide for succession of leadership, and all the rest as I keep asking questions and contributing situations that will arise more-or-less on the same schedule as they did in this country.

I think this could be a lot of fun, something most 7th graders think social studies can’t possibly be.

So now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve got to come up with the groups of students I want to work together.

And I’ve got to figure out how to start a civil war.

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