Monday, March 18, 2013

Tech NO logy

I'm unhappy that I complain about technology.

Let me consider that. I am not unhappy that I complain. Complaining is fun. And I don't particularly feel bad that I complain about any one particular thing like technology -- if any one thing gets on my nerves repeatedly, it deserves to be called out repeatedly. And It isn't that I feel like a stereotypical "old man" who can't see anything but the worst and who decries anything new simply because it didn't exist when he was young and playing kick-the-can while paying 10 cents for a candy bar. I have enough technology and know how to hold my own in a conversation with a teen ager, and I know how to fix my own devices better than (so it seems) the entire of the Indian Subcontinent.

What makes me feel so bad is that the only way that I can ensure than ANYONE reads what I have to complain about is through that same technology which I am criticizing. It isn't about hypocrisy, but about irony. I promised myself I wouldn't be ironic and yet here I am.

I bought a new computer recently -- a Surface pro (128). his is neither the time nor place for a formal review (and I am not the person to review it) but I can say the following:

I like the split personality (the Metro interface for swipe-type-apps and the Windows 8 desktop for old fashioned computing).
There are still little glitches in the use of the keyboards (screen and physical).
Windows 8 is a hostile environment if you are another browser.
The charger access plug is incoveniently placed and shares the port with the stylus so you can't store both at the same time.
The USB port is on the wrong side (my USB mouse should be on the right, not the left.
Yes, the system software takes up a huge chunk of the solid state storage. You need the 128 in order to have anything to work with.
It is fast and responsive and does what I need it to do.

So there I am tweaking it to get the right software to set up where I wanted it and someone comes over to me and asks "how about watching movies on it?" Let the complaints begin.

I didn't buy a computer to watch movies on it. I don't know how to get movies on it (at least for free...) and I don't have the time or energy to devote to watching movies. Why, if I wanted to watch a movie, would I want to stream it (knowing how tempermental a simple video is when I try to watch it)? Are people that addicted to movies that they are starting to rely on computers to provide a venue for movies? Do I write papers on a calculator? Can't we have our interactions with our culture and our educational venues stay discrete? The notion of convergence will turn our home PC into our everything box -- imagine getting a tuna sammich from the same device that does your laundry and provides you with the traffic report.

And when I say "I don't really have the time, energy or interest to watch movies" the response I get is "so why did you buy a tablet?" There is something very un-PC about this.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why do I teach? Dunno.

Why do education systems fail? And trust me, they do.

It might be that the first step in ameliorating any system's problems is admitting that we lose sight of why students learn when they learn. There are 4 basic categories of learner:

1. The student who loves the process of learning -- he may not retain anything but his brain expands and he has the thirst for all new information. Occasionally he can combine facts and is trained to seek out new knowledge.

2. The student who loves a particular content area -- he can memorize facts which interest him. He will read and study anything that has to do with his interest area. He will even seek out new information about his area of interest.

3. The student who wants the grade -- he learns for a test, and learns to "play the game" because he can attenuate his performance to each (or any) teacher. For him, any memorization or comprehension is a means to an end and while some information sticks, that is almost incidental.

4. The student who learns for direct use -- he sticks with facts and skills which have a relevance to what he wants to do or be, or which he can see as immediately useful in the real world. Esoteric knowledge and background data, unless they can be proven as applcable to his near-future experience will be ignored.

When we teach, we often ignore why the students are there and their particular needs. Can we change presentation or, indeed, the curricular demands we place on students to address what they want to do and what they need? Do we know what a kid will need in 10 years to survive? Is math necessary when the calculators and computers are there? If my kid isn't a scientist what science does he need to survive? Is there something about the process of learning that is necessary for anyone?

Or maybe, the problem is that we break kids into groups and try to differentiate, accommodating their specific needs instead of saying that we have a standard expectation of all and part of growing up is dealing with tough or uninteresting classes, or learning irrelevant material because struggle makes you better able to face future struggle.

And this tension fills every professional (and many non-professional) moment of a teacher's life. The question of "why are we doing this?" or "is this the best way, or even a good way?" plague us. Wouldn't it be easier if someone could tell us what will work and what will be necessary so we can be "just teachers"? Instead we have to evaluate needs, try different methods in the dynamic classroom, backing up and starting over or forging ahead, knowing that every wrong decision has consequences which reach well beyond our time in the class. No pressure, or anything...just the survival and success of our culture and society.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I really, really mean this

We go through our daily lives and notice how everything that we aren't involved in and especially everything younger than we are is horrible and signals the end of civilization. OK, I go through life that way. But I see others do so also. Every couple of days there is a picture on Facebook, or an angry letter to an editor which bemoans the state of the world and points to some new development as conclusive evidence that we are all doomed and we might as well jump off into space and dive headlong into the sun.

So I'd like to add to the litany of proofs, because in addition to the standard bits of evidence which I see on a daily basis, I spotted a new one.

Our current younger generation lacks a skill which allows for the survival of our species. They cannot fake sincerity.

I don't think that they understand how important this skill is. To be able to look someone in the eye and make that person feel as if you mean what you say or care about something. Without that, no one will ever pretend to listen, no one will ever either be able to convince another person that his views matter or convince others that he has any views which are worth listening to. Sarcasm, the lifeblood of our people relies on someone's having that moment of wondering "is he serious?" And if you can't fake the edge of sincerity, no one will ever experience that second of doubt.

We need fake sincerity. Our politics demand it, our relationships demand it, and our very survival on this planet often depends on our ability to make others think something is the case without actually lying about it. The animal kingdom has mastered this (you think your dog likes you? Only because you feed him -- I learned that from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown -- The Doctor is In). Even Siri sounds like she cares but, in truth, looks down on all of you because you don't seem to know anything on your own.

It is essential that we alter curriculum and increase awareness of this vital skill. Parenting classes need to remind moms and dads-to-be that they need to model that veneer of caring and encourage their children to modulate tone and effect a sweet facade. So practice making eye contact, and using phatic language. This is really important, people.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Geste Post

Before you say anything, geste is a word. I looked it up. Yes, it is archaic, but these days, who isn't?

Education is a tricky thing. I just taught you something and it probably didn't hurt, mostly because you didn't know that you were being taught and you needed the information I presented in order to appreciate fully the title of this blog post. Usually, education is painful. Learning about math and science and junk like facts that haven't happened in 200 years (and, Santayana be damned, are probably not going to happen again) seems like a waste of time. And having a teacher in the classroom telling the students that so much of this stuff is somehow relevant and useful, when we all know it isn't (I'm looking at you, Chemistry) doesn't help.

So why do we do it? Why do we memorize the Bill of Rights, or learn how to speak Lithuanian? I say what I am about to say only half facetiously: We don't need to learn stuff if we have the external brain that is the internet to present us with this knowledge at a moment's notice. Facts become a waste of brain cells. Now, I know that I have railed, recently, against this idea of handing over the keys to our intellect to the virtual world. I don't like the idea that people have changed and now need to have data presented differently. But the fact is, it used to be necessary to know how to use a slide rule, but since technology has outmoded that skill, we rarely teach their use any more. So if we are talking about an evolution in education, one which allows the number crunching and data aggregation to be the task of the CPU on some server farm, and one which makes it ok, even desirable for a student to have his "head in the cloud" (HA!), then what is the role of the human brain?

The answer is "collaborative problem solving." Students don't need to memorize facts but to learn how, and more importantly, when, to access the facts and use them. Giving students real-world challenges and situations which ask them to APPLY information might prepare them more accurately for the real world. But why aren't we doing this? Why are things like project based learning still sputtering at the starting gate? The answer is a basic three word phrase:

ess aiye tee

The SAT and other standardized tests do not ask students to think and apply. They do not challenge students to use information. True, they don't ask for pure spitback of knowledge (well, some other tests do) but they don't ask for the synthesis of any new ideas, only for recall and simple inferences. By the way, I'm talking about the Verbal sections. Apparently, there is math on the test also but who cares?

And, to make matters worse, the world acts (for a brief window of time from March of 11th grade to November of your sophomore year of college) that the SAT grades matter. That you can be compared to others based on your scores and that anyone from the outside can quantify your skills and potential based on how well you bubbled in some circles. The backlash is here, though.

We are selling shirts in the school where I avoid work which read "I'm More Than Just a Test Score." I'd like to think that a few shirt sales should resolve the entire issue of the underlying structure of our educational system but I have my doubts.

First, to colleges, I am more than just a test score. I am a test score and an application fee. Sometimes a photo.

Second, I may be exactly a test score, but it depends on the test. Like a blood test? Yep, that's me all right.

And third, I'm significantly less than a test score. I did really well on the SAT's and consider that to have been my academic peak. I haven't approached that ever since. I WISH I could be my test score.

And fourth, consider the small child whose parents, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, named him "Test Score." There are over 100 results for the last name "Score" in the US. Some kid will be judged as a Test Score because he wants to be. Who am I do say I am better than he is.

So, in sum, what I want you to take from this entry is "current state of education, bad, technologically aided shift deemphasizing fact gathering and accentuating coordinated application and problem solving skills, good, T-Shirts, potentially offensive but useful at covering up much of my back hair."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

to my former students, past, present and future

In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I'm a teacher. I teach English to high school students who, generally, already know a bunch of English. I thought this would be a plus and would give me ample free time to pursue my real passion, English. I have been in the game professionally for almost 20 years and have, over that time, taught (well...stood in the front of the room and tried to amuse) close to 2000 students. That isn't an exact number as I have had some students in more than one class, and there was a range of class size and number of classes taught each year, but it is not far off. Also, with my work in administration, and on clubs and publications, I met with and worked with hundreds more, to varying degrees.

I say this all in my own defense.

Over the last 19 years, I have run in to former students in a variety of different contexts. Occasionally (I can think of 3 cases in particular) I completely blanked on who the former student was. In one case, I guessed his name after he gave me a hint, in another, I was befuddled until he told me and in a third, I asked a mutual friend to remind me of the name. Now, once I get the name and can open up the dusty filing cabinet that is my memory, and find the right file, I'm usually OK, but I feel bad that I forget students. For the most part, though, if you had me or worked with me, or I had any reason to deal with you, I'll recognize you. You might have to remind me of your name, but once that sinks in, I will probably be able to tell you all sorts of embarrassing stories about yourself that you have been trying to forget. I will tell you if you still owe me any work, and whether you were a "good" kid or not. Hint -- meh. I still have my yearbooks and my grade books so I will run home and relive my memories of you. My students really do define my world and each one is important changed me. Realize that while I'm slow on the uptake, you do have a permanent place somewhere in my thoughts.

And most of the time, if I see you in a social setting (an event, shopping, the Jumbotron), I won't say anything, but I'll recognize you. While it would be nice to think that you recognize and remember me and that when you sit around with your friends, all in your early-midlife crises, musing about the greatest teacher ever you all say my name as one voice, and then there is a solemn silence and you raise your glasses and toast to me, the greatest teacher EVER, I doubt you do that. You should, but I doubt you do. So I won't make it awkward by coming over and assuming that you have built a shrine to me and have been looking forward to this meeting so you can tell me how you named all your children after me.

You had many teachers before me, and a whole bunch after. And while I think I made you what you are today (if it is a good thing...if you are a murderer, I blame the entire math department) I can understand why, when we meet 10 years after your final exam in my class, you can't remember my name or how you know me. I have had that happen and, while it hurts, I understand it. Just remember what I said on the first day of class (and I say this to every class, every year), I am not good with names and faces so give me time. But remember -- I do know you. You are important. And I'll never say if you were or weren't my favorite student.