Thursday, June 27, 2013

My New High School For a Change

Everyone seems to be all atwitter about reforming and rebuilding high schools. They might want to rebuild other schools but, seriously, who cares. Little kids are loud and often annoying. High school students have figured out how to be annoying without making as much noise.

Now I am not one to jump on the reform bandwagon. I haven't seen anyone explain clearly what is broken about the current system so i can't see a clear direction to fix it. Are there areas of weakness? Sure, but does that indicate a systemic flaw which needs to be reworked? I think not. So, faithless reader, you have seen me point to the newest pedagogical flan in the pash (a caramel custard in a collection) as a tool to be used or not sued based on the skill and insight of the individual educator. But let us say that I actually wanted to reset an entire curriculum and build a high school from scratch, what would it look like.

Well, I have to be honest and true to myself -- it would not chuck traditional pedagogy or subjects out because of some belief that youngsters can find their own way. But it would also not limit itself slavishly to the traditional areas of study. It would not be the school for everyone, and that's an important point. Every school cannot be for every student unless it is fragmented within to address the particular needs of, at least, grouped students. Tracking, programs, sub-schools all take the monolithic and huge school and turn it into something which can help educate each student in his own way. I think that maybe, some high schools need to admit those students who can thrive in certain environments. Fortunately, the school I am creating is a private one [could this be exported to a charter school? No idea. DK/DC].

So here is my thought: remake a high school to be similar, in some ways, to a college.

Freshman year --
Required year of intensive writing instruction
Required Half year of Basic Geometry and Algebra 1. Students who have studied Algebra 1 can take half a year of Algebra 2.
Required Half year of Intro to Scientific method and half of Biology {each science class would require a minimum of 5 labs, scheduled separately}
Required year of historical survey (ancient world to 1600)

Yes, for the math and science, this would reduce what can be covered and would force teachers to focus in on exactly what the core concepts and skills are and omit all the outside stuff. Math teachers might take their cue from external standardized tests in terms of setting curricular goals. The ugly truth is that intro math courses serve 3 purposes -- foundations for thinking, foundations for later classes and prepping for standardized tests. And only 5 labs? But for most students, other than remembering how gross the lab was, what does the student gain that can only com about through 15 labs? It reduces science labs. Not fair, I know. And English teachers would see intensive writing without a literature component as unfair, but students need to know how to write through practice and correction. They will need to read, but not in order to discuss literature -- only to analyze writing and push forward their own writing. History teachers would complain that there is not enough time to cover all that stuff, but the fact is, there is no real external measure for ancient world history. Students need it as a foundation for later history classes, so a teacher need not teach technical details.

Pedagogically, I suspect that there will be a lot of traditional frontal teaching (with whatever methodology a skilled teacher opts for), complemented by extra videos and independent work by students. Projects and group investigation are nice additions but are not the backbone. Look, I have 4 courses per day listed up there. Even in a dual curriculum school, and adding in gym, I still only have a 9-5-ish day. Compared to what we have, this is less.

Sophomore year --
Required half year of fiction reading and discussion. Required half year of non-fiction reading and discussion
Required Half year of Chemistry and half of Physics {same lab issue as above}
Required Half year on Algebra 2 (or pre-calc for ones who took Alg 2 in 9th grade) and half year on "Math in Life" a course highlighting current applications of math.
Required year of American History

Yes, yes, yes...complaint, complaint. I'm breaking ground here, people. In the 10th grade, there will be more stress on larger independent projects and group discussion but still, a lot of traditional teaching in whatever form the teacher sees as most efficient. We are still driven by the 3 goals of an intro class -- whetting the appetite, thinking skills, external tests.

Now to 11th grade. The elective year.

In this year, students will be offered a broad range of independent study or structured classes. A schedule will have 4 classes per day which might be the "second half" of the first half classes offered above (Bio II, Calc, Poetry etc) or completely separate from the core courses (either taken virtually, or through mentorships or one-on-one classes with teachers, volunteers and such. I'm not trouble shooting here...I'm dreaming). I am sure some classes, especially the level II classes will have enough enrollment to be scheduled with the in-house teachers, but offerings would be driven by student demand. A student who wants to take the Math SAT II will use this year to take the additional math class to help him, but the English student will already know enough math both the to take the SAT I and to see how math is integrated into life. I guess my bias is clear here, but I simply don't think that applied science is as relevant to everyone's life experience as applied math is, so I don't have a "Science in Life" class. More classes will focus on project and inquiry based approaches but not all, and none entirely. If we think that students must, at some point, decide their futures for themselves, then I don't think that this can happen before they have tasted some of everything. I chose 11th grade to let them spread their wings but that is somewhat arbitrary. It just happened to fit into a larger scheme which I am envisioning.

Senior year -- the senior project

Two classes a day: a required class on Civics, Basic Economics, literacy (in a larger cultural sense) and comparative cultures class and a required class as the anchor for the senior project.

The senior project is a group based inquiry complemented by a teacher initiated challenge. A student-group must meet with a team of teacher/mentors and devise a project which identifies an issue, explores its history, creates an action plan (which incorporates real world angles like money and environmental implication) and begins to implement the plan. The plan must be based n the real world, and must require communication with experts outside the school. Yes, the details of this 12th grade project need to be fleshed out, but the idea is to have students work together, incorporate and apply what they have learned on their own and together, and tackle what the world is really going to push on them.

No AP's. No labels. Lots of freedom, but freedom within a structure. It isn't for everyone, and it is just my thinking out loud.

If you wish to improve on this, or reflect on it, let me know. If you think it is a good idea, you may be right or wrong. Same if you think it is a bad idea.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In defense of marriage. Act I

This is NOT a political post. I am not a political person. I am simply piggybacking on some news story I saw mentioned so more people will stumble upon this post and recognize how great my parents are. If you are looking for a political rant, or one even only somewhat informed about politics, look elsewhere. I try to avoid such entanglements.

Today, if you haven't checked your calendar, is June 26th. For many of you, that day holds little significance. For me it is a very important day as it relates to the union between a man and a woman. Today is my parents' anniversary. Fifty-three years together. I want to say that again so that I can be sure you heard it correctly:

FIFTY-THREE years. 5-3.

That's a lot of years. I have trouble imagining that many years except that then I look at my parents and realize that I don't have to imagine it because they were actually there. Remember, this doesn't mean that they are 53 years old. They have been married for 53 years. That's more than 20 or even 21. That's like double some number. As much as I hate politics, I hate math more. Anyway, I read somewhere that that's a lot of years. I might even have been the one that wrote it, I'm not sure.

I want everyone to celebrate that -- I want people to stop and say "wow, I guess I can keep using these shoes for one more week if those people can be married that long." I want people to make a sign saying "They can put a man on the moon but they can't have people married for 53 years? Oh wait, they can!" I want official proclamations saying something like "In recognition that somebody said the 53 years is a lot of years, that's awesome!"

And I think that, after all these years, they do truly like and love each other. Any two people who can live together that long and not kill each other have something really special: a child or children they want to kill more than each other. And for that, I clearly thank my siblings, because I am wonderful.

Let's think about history. When my parents got married (1960. 53 years ago. Do the math) There was no, um, cool stuff that was invented after that point. Truth! We had yet to fight the um, y'know, that war after 1960, and you know who hadn't been born yet? Lots of people, including ME. Crazy, right? So that's obviously a long time ago. And yet, here they are, being themselves and all that.

So in celebration, we are going out to a meat restaurant tonight. Why? Because I looked up on a website to see what the traditional gift is for the 53rd anniversary and it said:

Fifty-three years: Wait, 53? Really? Holy Cow!

A very happy anniversary to my favorite parents. Love youse lots.

Next year in the mid-fifties.

Monday, June 24, 2013

I don't act like that. I AM that.

For a long time, i was convinced that I would grow up and be a celebrity. I was wrong. I won't grow up. But why did I think i would be a celebrity? I watch enough TV to know that the actors who are up there are mostly acting -- pretending to be people they aren't for the edification of the common man. They do voices, put on disguises, adopt personas that they aren't. How tough can that be. I do voices. I tell stories. I act like an idiot frequently. So it should be a perfect fit. So why am I not a celebrity?

I figured it out while driving in to work ("work" by the way is common-man speak for "what you do when you aren't a celebrity"). I have been waiting for someone to discover me and say "wow, you'd be great in my new TV show -- you'd play the part of the..." and then fill in the blanks with some fabulous character who has madcap adventures, solves mysteries and gets the girl to buy him a car. I'd be a modern day Buckaroo Bonzai just without the science, the aliens or a side kick named New Jersey. So I chalked up my continued non-celebrity status as a function of the right role not presenting itself and no famous actor stumbling across me while I sat on the sidewalk grading Shakespeare essays. But that isn't it.

I am, I realized, actually unequipped to play any role not because they haven't found the role for me, but because the character which I naturally am is better than any fictionalized version of anyone, ever. I can't suppress my natural identity and pretend to be anything else. The problem isn't that they haven't found a role to cast me as, but that they haven't written ME in as a part of their little show. They don't need a tough-as-nails-but-heart-of-gold drill sergeant played by Dan Rosen, they need to cast a Dan Rosen and then I can play it perfectly. And what production wouldn't be enriched by the inclusion of some Dan Rosen? I don't sing; I don't dance; I don't act. I'm the perfect triple anti-threat. Like an ointment of some sort.

So for all you celebrities who frequent this blog (though I realize many of you, it seems, live in Eastern Europe, based on the statistics for this blog), when you are writing your next script or tweaking the next cast, consider the advantages of including someone who is just like me, because I'm just like me and I want to be a celebrity when I grow up.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Glassies Come Home

I can't find my glasses. This is troubling to me because I use my glasses to see things and melt small plastic action figures. They aren't dolls; they are action figures. I usually have clear memories of when I took them off and where I put them but, even though I can recall that I existed yesterday, I have zero recollection of wearing them, taking them off or planting them firmly in between the cushions of the sofa.

I don't like losing things. I work hard at living firmly in a rut of repetitive behaviors and firmly entrenched habits. I know where I put things every day and the glasses are simply not there. I say 'simply' but it isn't simple. We are talking about a localized space-time rift that has swallowed up my glasses. This is decidedly not simple. I am stuck wearing my older glasses which are scratched, dirty and scratched. Now everything I see is scratched and old and angry because I can't find my other glasses. I have a sensory memory -- I connect things with experiences and so I can usually use visual triggers and relive a moment and retrace what I was thinking and doing. Yesterday has provided me with no memories. Seriously, I have no idea what I did yesterday afternoon. I know I sat outside, did some laundry and watched the Mets' best imitation of playing baseball, but nothing seems to be connected with either wearing or not wearing glasses. Maddening.

I will not buy new glasses. I don't deserve them and refuse to spend money rewarding myself for being irresponsible and not slavishly following my own well established foolish consistencies. If you think that this is the wrong way to approach the issue, feel free to contact me and make an appointment to come over and help me look. Meanwhile, let this serve as ample warning for anyone planning on being on the highway this afternoon or for the next 5 years.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What the heck am I doing here?

Another education based musing. Sorry for those non-educators, but the end of the year and some new venues for discussion like JEdLab have me thinking school with the time to write about it. This also might buy me back into the good graces of any James Gandolfini fans offended by my last post.

A discussion has been raging for the last 12 hours over the value of Chemistry as a course of instruction in the high school setting. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm first on line at the sign up table for the "Ugh, Science" petition but I won't simply throw the baby out with the aqueous solution. So let's consider why we teach subjects in high school:

1. They provide relevant and current facts and skills that will immediately enrich the lives of our students.

No, but I'm proud of myself for being able to type all of that without breaking down in fits of laughter. How much of my discussion of Hamlet is really relevant and useful to every student? Sure, I say "all of it" but more realistically, bits of it (in its theme, cultural references and analytical methodology) will present themselves as useful over the upcoming years, I hope. How much Geometry is really necessary in life (besides when I have to help my kids with their Geometry homework)?

2. They provide grounding in a variety of facts, skills and words that enable later familiarity with the facts and terms and skills that life requires.

True, but only sometimes and for some people and for some subjects. Trying to predict what will be most useful and focusing education on only those key terms and concepts would require that a Chemistry class be 2 weeks long and ignore process, lab work and context for the concepts in order to save time.

3. They set students up for careers.

I hope not. I hope that we aren't letting the pre-professional mentality into high schools. When I was in HS, I had left my "I want to be a fireman-astronaut-rock star-baseball player" phase but not by much. Even when I applied to college, I listed a variety of potential fields as a choice of major. I enrolled as a computer science major, went to graduate school to work in radio and ended up a HS English teacher [I even asked my mom if I should take Education classes in college and she said that that is what Grad School is for! She didn't like the idea of college being pre-professional]. Asking me when I was 15 what I predict I would be, I don't think that any of those 3 potential careers would have come up. Did I need Chemistry for any of them? No, but I'm glad I understand the nature of acids and bases and reactions when I cook dinner, or the concept of oxidation when I clean things around the house. I even know of some friends from high school (using the word "friends" in the loosest sense. I had no friends) who were not science people but became doctors. And some who weren't good in the liberal arts who became lawyers. Did anything they learned in those areas maybe affect them and effect their choices? I don't know, but not having those options, i.e. letting a 15 year old decide his own courses, would close options.

4. They prepare students to be ready to study the same topics at a higher level, of for more efficient acquisition later.

This could very well be true. Learning a science now may not stick consciously, but will soften up the brain so that when that subject is broached again, later in life, the learning will sink in. High School instruction should whet the appetite and plant seeds -- it should encourage the creation of life long learners and self-teachers, and provide food for thought which can be fed by the later voluntary choice to pursue certain topics and fields. I have likened this to the Talmudic notion (Niddah 30b) that a baby is taught the Torah in utero and then caused to forget it. But everything after is then about relearning on a foundation of some (literally) innate understanding. The problem this raises is that of course selection -- what does a student need to have been exposed to in high school? Is there any way to predict which concepts might prove to be interesting or necessary later?

5. The give a core set of knowledge.

Yes, they do, but why? This is the "core" of one of the arguments -- that the collection of subjects, disciplines and facts that we institutionalize is, in fact, an arbitrary grouping and possibly a vestige of an outmoded society (if it was even relevant and useful in that earlier time/place). One may not even question this and still have a valid counter-argument: these topics ARE important to a core, but in what sense -- for their own intrinsic fact/skill or because they somehow create a greater understanding (underlying and enduring concepts vs. specific content). Within each department, do we know exactly what is the core and why? And does the choice to include something in the core mean that we cannot, because of time, include something else which might have value? Sadly, yes. Who makes these choices? And how?

We want to keep the options open for a student who has yet to find himself and we want to create a society of well rounded individuals who, while they specialize in one area as a career, are conversant in a broader set of topics not just because those other subjects provide insights, skills and approaches which can further the career-based work, but because it provides a uniting force that defines us and allows us to work together as a society. We are united by a core curriculum; colleges can compare us, employers can presume that we know certain basics, co-workers can rely on us to know certain things. We can choose our friends and make our own special circles based on our reactions to and assimilation of core knowledge. To unstandardize curriculum and unshare experiences prepares us for an unstandardized world, not one based on connection and similarity. But the truth is, the world has standards and is standardized, and society thrives on shared experiences, vocabulary and history.

To eliminate a core set of skills seems attractive. Let students choose the subjects they want to learn and pursue so that they can channel sincere passion into more assured success. But this leads to some (to my mind) persuasive counter-arguments. As stated, the 15 year old doesn't know his own mind or future and, unless we want to end childhood earlier and make students get jobs at 16, we should let them see more of the things which we know are the groundwork for their later choices. The zero-core is enticing because it expects a student to know, want, and want to know but that isn't where most teen-agers are, and it is the job of the teacher to create that ethos, not presume its existence.

How about a series of tracks that students choose, each of which that might stress or mitigate one subject or field? That also sounds nice, but we still are confronted with the line to draw. If we think that some science is necessary and the effective instruction of that science requires a specific amount of time (or else, why try) then, no matter how much of a "science-light" track we make, there will be some students who want less. Even the "Biology for poets" course in college has students who struggle in it.

There are, by my last count, one bajillion different facts and categories of things which we want students to see (shouldn't a child see some of the basics of Economics, computer science, Philosophy, culinary arts, ecology etc?). We have to make choices because we want to cover the ones we choose in enough detail to allow them to develop as actual disciplines, not buffets for the dilettante. A general survey of all the sciences, offered in 1 year would not do ANY of the sciences any justice and might further drive students away because it wasn't able to build excitement properly. Some subjects can be included and some not. Can a school afford to have an expert on hand for every particular specialty? Do I need a bajillion teachers so I can accommodate the individual and unique set of courses any student crafts? And don't tell me that the internet can provide the videos, virtual distance classes and exercises which compare with a real live class. If that were the case, I would have to walk away from my job right now. But I would still put one of my students up against a kid who learned about Hamlet by watching videos or hearing virtual lectures.

So how to do we choose? Maybe our current core is what it is not because it holds tight to an obsolete theory of what students need, but because it is the culmination of a process of acclimation. What we teach in physics is nothing like what was taught in physics 100 years ago, either in content or depth. We are always refining the core but we are staying within the disciplines which have already proven useful on some level.

The thing is, no core is going to work for every student and no core will be possible unless an external power decides that certain things are just plain necessary. If you tell me that algebra is important in life so my 14 year old has to study it even if she hates it, I'll listen to you and ignore her complaints. And if she never uses algebra after high school, you can say that you were playing the odds and who knew that she would win the lottery and be able to hire an algebrist to do her thinking?

So why am I here? What's my take? I teach to cultivate interest, create familiarity, establish literacy, and instill a love (or at least forestall a hate) of both my subject and education as a whole. I think that my subject and most of the others in high school are important, useful and vital -- not to the exclusion of other subjects -- that is the unfortunate by product of a 24 hour day and a 4 year course of study. Maybe we should be rethinking those two variables.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Death of [a] Celebrity

A. Title apologies to Neil Armstrong.
B. This is different from the earlier post.
C. I do not mean to be a jerk. It just happens.
D. I do mean to be insensitive, but that's not a bad thing.

I just read that a celebrity died today. All over Facebook, people are posting RIP or other supposedly appropriate comments bemoaning the loss of this actor. The guy was 51 (gawrsh, that's sad) and had a stroke (what? no reunion movie? That's sad) and he was on vacation in Italy (gee...when I go, I hope I'm somewhere nice. But isn;t it weird that he died just like a mob guy?) But I say "big deal." Yeah, big deal.

It isn't that I am not awed by celebrity. The idea that someone's skill is in entertaining, and that he has achieved a measure of fame through that is impressive. But people die. And I never met the guy. To me, it boils down to:

Didja hear? The star of a show I never watched was spending a vacation the likes of which I can't afford in a place I have never been to and he died, possibly as a result of his own life choices. He starred mostly in movies I haven't seen and is famous for grounds that I personally can't validate or don't value. I never met him and, had I died today, I doubt he would have cared. There, I said it. I'm not glad he's dead and I'm not sad that he's dead. I'm sad that someone is dead (cf John Donne, Meditation 17, "any man's death diminishes me") but did you know that today, over 132,000 people died? Why is the death of a guy who was on television any more significant? Why do we publically mourn a stranger and ignore the sadness and pain all around us? I'm not even asking that we all wail and don sackcloth and ashes all the time, but that we stop deifying Hollywood in absentia and make a big deal when someone from that one particular slice of the world passes on. Some deaths are tragic, but not because they happened to someone who is in the public eye any more than if the same thing happened to someone else. If James Gandolfini had not been on television, but was a successful appliance salesman who supported his family, helped the poor and played bocce on the weekends, would we be making a spectacle of his death on Facebook? Because I bet that someone with those attributes died today and we aren't scouring obituaries to find other people who died and posting about them.

I am sure that many celebrities are wonderful people and have families and friends who love them for who they are. And there are many celebrities who star in shows, play on teams, write songs that matter to regular folk. The death of one of these people will sadden those near him and leave a gap in the collective imagination of fans, but let's leave actual conspicuous anguish to those closest. Save sincere expressions of lamentation for those who have that personal connection to us, and when a celebrity dies, leave the sadness to the private circle. We water down our sincere sense of grief when we express it for anyone who happens to have been in the public spotlight.

A side point -- as I stated, there are some celebrities who are, I am sure, nice people. In fact, some have always appealed to me for their acting, performance in sports or some other artistic or expressive quality. In fact, there are some whom I have always dreamt of sharing a meal with, just to have time to get to know them on a more personal level. These are celebrities/artists who fascinate me beyond their public personas and I think that they would make for wonderful dinner companions and very interesting and good friends. I have emailed a few but, shockingly, have received no responses. If you are a celebrity, or just play one on television, and would like a nice home cooked meal, some nice conversation and, eventually, an expression of agony when you die which comes from a real and personal place, then please contact me. Otherwise, be forewarned: when you die, I don't intend to take much note other than to comment about how we'll never get to see, hear or read about your next _____. It isn't that I am insensitive - I mean, I am but that isn't a bad thing; it is that I am saving my sensitivity and sense of sadness for a person who has, through a lifetime, earned it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To be or not. To be that is the question.

I am currently struggling with my professionalism and future plans. I am a teacher (at least I purport to be) so I wrestle with this notion of teaching both in terms of presentation and choice of content. In one of my earlier posts (entitled "The Flipped Classroom" it) I discussed the general notion of technology in the classroom. This is a topic I have played with repeatedly and I have consistently come up with the same conclusion -- sometimes technology is great in the classroom. Sometimes, memorization is also great. But I have been dealing with a more local question so those of you who are tech advocates or English teachers, come on in.

I like Shakespeare. I don't mean that on a personal level -- truth is, I have never met the man, and I hear he can be really mean. Actually, by that I mean, really dead. He's dead. And his plays range from the incomprehensible to the delicious. Some of them make zero sense, and I honestly lack the motivation or need to plow through them. Others are brilliance beginning to end and each word is like a spot of genius secreted onto the page. Yummers. And a bunch are somewhere in between -- rewarding but flawed, like a tuna sandwich on pumpernickel bread. And you can guess which part of that I like. For years, I have been weighing the relative value of Shakespeare in the classroom (the plays I like) and I have come up with some arguments to ponder:

Shakespeare has value as...

1. a key to unlock references (cultural literacy)
2. a practice in deciphering language (when studied in the original)
3. nice stores with universal themes
4. experience with the theater

Each of these advantages can be countered

1. If we stop learning Shakespeare, we will stop using the cultural references -- is there anything in Shakespeare that hasn't or can't be derived from elsewhere? Other than perpetuating what we know, does a reliance on Shakespearean characters, phrases and stories enrich us in a unique way? As we read the Shakespeare made easy version or see an updated version, we lose the words and phrases as cultural referents anyway.
2. There are plenty of pieces of source material from various cultures and times that require deciphering skills -- from doctors' handwriting to actual foreign language texts to body language. And the more we see updated or "translated" Shakespeare because we feel that the themes and stories are important, the less we practice this skill of deciphering anyway.
3. The thing about universal themes is that they can be found elsewhere in the universe. I can spot evil characters, boys meeting and losing girls and mistaken identity from other stories.
4. Much of Shakespeare is acquired through text and movie so the actual theater experience is less and less relevant, and it can be replace by going to see another show if we still think that there is value in it.

I know all of these arguments but I still like to hold tight to teaching because I think that the process of investigation, and literary explication as it applies to a Shakespeare lesson brings out so many of the exercises and demands that good teaching should. I can look at words and etymologies, potential meanings and implications, thematic points and motifs, character motivation, or plot development. If we see value in the study of literature as a discipline, and see that close reading has a value which we want to keep pushing then the tight instruction of Shakespeare has value.

But if that is the case, then HOW should I be teaching it? Shakespeare was meant to be watched. But be watched by an audience which had familiarity with language, method and background. So to say that our students gain something by watching the play on its own seems over simplified. Even guided viewing requires an expert at the front to help students understand what they are seeing (when I show a video in class, I start and stop it frequently). To my mind, it is as senseless to assign a student to watch Shakespeare (in the original) for homework as it would be to assign a student to read it on his own. So how about we mix in technology and the applications which present the plays in parts and then explain what has been shown? Doesn't that take the place of the instruction in the classroom and allow us to then delve deeper into exploring meaning then next day? Can't I flip my classroom with said apps and free up my time for discussion, assured that students are interacting with authentic text, deciphering acquiring certain basic levels of meaning without me?

Nope. I don't think so.

Deciphering a text is not about building meaning, but about building meaningS. If I want a student to know simply what happens, then the original language (and the play form) is unnecessary. Remember, Shakespeare is dead and he can't tell me what he meant as a singular expression of his play, and that might not even be authoritative -- the study of English often hinges on finding unintended meanings and deconstructing text and wrestling definitive meaning away from the author. If we only want familiarity with culturally relevant points, we could just give a list (like the quotes at the back of the book). We could be using this and walk away. Reading Shakespeare is about opening up allowing for often contradictory meanings simultaneously, exploiting the form and seeing the context in order to create the many levels of meaning. Even assuming that a student can be entranced by a video'ed lesson and that the lesson can cover all the potential meanings that I can in the classroom, the communal building of meanings as we explore together, not in the privacy of our own homes and brains, makes for a new gestalt meaning that can be questioned and evaluated as and after it happens. After the fact, trying to explore ideas created in the intellectual vacuum that is a student's bedroom late at night falls flat. We need to stop the moment a new word or idea is confronted and, especially since students as readers don't know where the play is going, anticipate, guess, consider implications. Handing instruction over to an app is no different from handing it over to any other performance, but it presents the veneer of improvement because it attempts to replace one dimension of the teacher's presence in the pedagogical loop. And if we hand everything over, then we limit ourselves to that one dimension. A live teacher adds something to the mix that a fixed presentation (of simple text or a single understanding)can't. There is even damage done when a student is exposed to that single presentation or understanding without the guidance of a human who is trying to keep a student from coming to conclusions.

So I repeat -- I am wrestling with whether I should continue to teach Shakespeare in the classroom, but if my decision is that I should, then my decision is that I should.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Teaching Something and Teaching Somehow

This post will be about education. Yes, there will be a substantial amount of smarm and personal voice, but it will appeal mostly to those people who value the dialogue concerning the future of quality education, so not most of you in Serbia who apparently frequent my writings. So to you guys, Izvinite.

I was planning on writing this as a result of the deep thinking I did this morning in the shower and then, when I got to work, I sat through a long meeting which dealt with many of the same ideas. So this post will be a summary/review of that meeting, mixed with some of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of this will be a linear discussion, following the lines of logic, and some will be punctuated by single observations and questions which come out of no where but the dark recesses of my mind. For more on those dark recesses, see this video.

I have opined in the past on the use or misuse of technology in the classroom, and on the tension between skills acquisition and content knowledge dissemination via education -- I won't hotlink those. You can sift through my earlier blog posts and try to find what I have said. That way, I'll get more hits on a variety of pages. But I also wrote, a bunch of years ago, about assessment through gaming and second life type simulations. I was, and am, very excited about the application of scenario-based assessment. And yet, I can't embrace or fully get behind what I am seeing currently regarding the implementation of Project-based learning (henceforth, deliciously, PBL). I was wondering why not. I then, I found my center as an English teacher and realized that part of the problem is in the definitions, and part in the premises. So I wanted to quantify and clarify terms and conditions so I could, in a moderately public way, come to terms with what exactly I can endorse and what not.

First, the terms as I understand them. By understand, I mean "as I have made up definitions that I like."

Project-Based Learning is an approach to education (maybe) which stresses the creation of a summative "thing" as a demonstration of mastery. By itself and limited to assessment, it is not much more than the traditional end-of-unit project. However, in its current use, it is rarely invoked in this minimalist form. It is very often coupled with...

Self-Guided instruction -- this is an attempt to hand reins over to the student and let the student be a master of his educational direction. By giving this intellectual autonomy, we also bring up...

Passion Based Learning where we allow that the best education comes when a student is highly and personally invested in a topic and is pursuing education in a field which interests him or her. Allowing students to choose not just fields, but specific topics lets students find their academic bliss, and I don't mean potatoes. These approaches call forth...

Discovery learning or Inquiry Learning -- As umbrella terms, these push the notion that students need to have a driving question or need which will have them dive into the world of the world and develop ideas, explore issues and uncover truths. An implementation of this might be...

Problem-Based Learning where students are given (or can discover on their own) a situation or problem which needs to be addressed and they can, through their own investigation (guided or not, as will be discussed) come up with [an approach to, a critique of, a summary of] a solution. This allows for preparation for the real world and for relevant content which students can understand and care about.

Implementation of these ideas is often a mix-and-match in various combinations and percentages, based on the particular discipline, context and need.

My interest was in something I called Scenario-Based or Game-Based work. It places the student in a real or virtual situation and asks the student to negotiate that situation applying skills and facts learned. The beauty of this is that it is teacher generated and loaded with demands and skills applications, placed intentionally by teachers to ensure content relevance and grade level propriety, but the student does not know which skill has to be practiced or what content will be called forth -- that is part of the real-world aspect. It is very different from much of the above and those differences explain why I can't jump on board with PBL and the like.

The next set of clarifications get to the heart of the matter. Simply put, I don't see, for the mass of students, that the PBL's or the other concepts explained above are effective methods of LEARNING. And for that matter, they aren't effective modes of TEACHING. And this is a big thing to me. I view the use of application scenarios as a form of ASSESSMENT, not pedagogy. Asking a student to go and apply what he learns on his own might ask him to reinforce flawed information or practice unskills rather than skills. Give a kid a basketball and tell him to discover how to shoot on his own or by doing research, and then go play the game is asking the student to avoid external experts who have been shooting basketballs for years, and reinvent the wheel. Is it possible that he will come up with something no one has thought of -- a new holy grail of basketball shots? Maybe, just maybe. Odds are, he will develop a bad habit that will cripple his ability to play on a team or in a game situation, simply because in the vacuum of that project, his method works and he found it.

So then, some say, let's provide him with guidance along the way. That becomes a very fine line -- guiding him with baseline information and a gentle push when he is moving down the wrong path becomes the traditional indoctrination and limited direction before we know it. That balance between the institutionalized tradition and the unique, individual innovation is hard to achieve.

Here's the thing, one of many things, I hope. It isn't enough to say that pedagogy, like many things, isn't about the black or white dichotomy, but about shades of gray. I would posit that in education, there is no black or white. Only the shades of gray. No one method works for any student all the time. The human dynamic means that we have to shift gears moment by moment, abandoning what served us so well 5 minutes ago. New ideas and old ones overlap -- even reform can't divorce itself completely from the "way things are." Forgetting that any innovation and risk isn't just risking our jobs, but also the educational integrity of the next generation, we can't do anything other than built out of what we know, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. It is sort of a determinist view, but it seems to me to be reality. There is nothing new under the sun, or even at night time when the sun has been swallowed by the evil dragon-god and only our prayers and supplications will effect its safe return on the morrow. Our newest ideas, even if they don't smack directly of something tried years ago, come either as a consequence of or as backlash to existing ideas. But we, as humans, can only build from what was there, or what we saw as a need because it wasn't there. We can't make an ex nihilo educational system so we shift subtly from one paradigm to the next because in truth, EACH ONE WORKS SOMETIMES.

So let's go back to the beginning, when life was simpler and ice cream flavors fit on the label and had, at most, one adjective. What is our goal, and how does each thing we do move us and our students closer to that goal? And, as an off shoot of that what is the goal of our method? I ask that because if we investigate goals, we will see major differences at work. The PBL approach (in certain applications...I know, asterisks abound and footnotes saying "not always" and "if you choose to do it this way" should be populating the end of this post, but they aren't) makes the goal the process of learning. Is the main object in a self-guided (or somewhat teacher guided) project the actual solution or the process of exploration, assimilation of fact and discovery of information? In scenario-based assessment, the goal is the application of facts and skills, often measured by the efficacy of the solution or the accuracy of the conclusions drawn. If we want to see a student demonstrate mastery, then we should have a way of defining that mastery. Is the mastery "being able to design a robot" or "choosing to explore the history of the fur trade in Quebec in the 18th century"? Is the point the destination or the journey? If we hand off much of the learning beyond the barest of background to the student then, not only will teachers have an existential crisis on their now idle hands, but there will be an academic void as the student ices the non-existent cake by working on advanced data/skills collection with no foundation or context. And the more we provide, the more the project aspect of PBL becomes simply the standard project in which we make a diorama of the Civil War or a model of the Solar System (from which I learned NOTHING, I might add).

Am I consigning projects and such simply to the realm of assessment, then? Is there no value to self-direction in terms of student learning? The thing is, I see PBL in the same way that I see technology. They are tools and only tools. I'll tell you a story and stop me if you have heard it. Well, you can't stop me so I'll continue. In graduate school, I developed the idea that teaching is about having a quiver, and each methodology and trick of the trade which i learned or observed became an arrow in that quiver [let's ignore the implicit violence and possible latent anti-student frustration in this metaphor]. On a given day, a skilled teacher has to try a bunch of different arrows and see which one works. None is the magic bullet, especially because they are arrows, and there is no such thing as magic (except for that chocolate syrup you pour on ice cream that then solidifies). They are potentially successful tools. But Each one is also a potential failure and that's the challenge. I can choose to use a Smart Board on a Tuesday and it might fail. I might choose to direct my students and let them have a few days of self-guided content and skills acquisition culminating in a non-traditional assessment, and that might work or it might not. The variables of student, time of year, topic, resources etc. make it tough to predict. It is my ability to assess and reassess the success of the approach day-to-day that will let me know if this is worth retooling or reusing.But the point is that the decision lies with the teacher who has to implement (in the same way that the success of a scenario based assessment lies with the teachers who infuse the situation with challenges which will demand performance and knowledge). Newer methods cannot obviate, nor should they wholly replace older forms of pedagogy because those tried and true methods tap into cognitive faculties and skills which are no less important or currently relevant. Deciding to let education BE something new before THINKING about education is a simple case of refusing to put Descartes before the horse. I have been waiting 25 years to work that phrase in.

At what age do we think a student is old enough and mature enough to be responsible for his own educational path? At what point is a student ready for ANY of these approaches or methodologies? Is a student at age 5 using an iPad in class gaining something from that experience that he couldn't have gained without the technology? Is his educational journey as well formed (or better formed) because of the introduction of a new method at a young age? Is he missing something or gaining more? No one actually knows. Do we know that there are ends which we can reach only through new forms of teaching because we see such a decided lack of something? In the "real" world, are things changing (I know I have discussed this before but I'm too lazy to reread my work and see where. Go do that. Find it, and I'll give you an "A")? Is this Change Gratis Change? And how can we ever know if any particular approach really "works" and what part one methodology played in ultimate student success or failure (I have moved from determinism to nihilism and boy are my arms tired)?

Maybe, to play the semantic game, I can find my niche when I decide that PBL is not about LEARNING (name aside) nor about TEACHING, and not even about ASSESSMENT, but about INSTRUCTION. Maybe that's the term which codifies the middle ground. Maybe we need a project at the end of senior year, after 3 months of directed study and three months of independent field work. Maybe we need a separate "PBL Track" in a school so those students who learn best that way can opt into that learning style. Remember, I don't see PBL et al as a curricular change at all, only a methodological one. There was some question at that meeting about how a teacher could change his curriculum because of PBL, but that is also a false dichotomy -- this is about HOW the information which we think of as valuable is distributed. If the method incurs logistical nightmares which require us to reevaluate which information or how much we will cover, then so be it, but the point is that PBL won't drive curricular change, only allow any change to be administered in an effective way. Maybe, any and every class can have a PBL component, either as a summative assessment after a unit or the year, or as an instructional method when the curriculum allows for students exploring ideas individually, under close guidance. And maybe the size and scope of the iterations will vary wildly and widely because each subject and class requires something different. Maybe we should stop trying to find the solution and direction of reform and recognize that in some ways we are already there and in some, the goal of change is a foolish one anyway.

My cynicism is not about being anti-change. I am not down on PBL, inquiry learning and the rest simply because I am happy being a dinosaur (though it does have its advantages). I don't like extremism and it seems that when the pendulum swings, it swings exceeding hard. The rush towards technology and alternate forms of instruction is a dangerous, and often out of control pendulum. I am not advocating baby steps, but measured risks and reasonable changes which can build on each other, and I think that, to some degree, we are already moving in that direction. Can we do more? Sure, as long as we know what our goal is at each mile marker and don't lose ourselves in the pursuit of means over ends.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A review review

I'd like to talk for a few moments about food. Unfortunately, I inevitably talk about it for more than a few moments and then I run to the kitchen to break my diet and eat things like chocolate cookies wrapped in deli meats. It is one of my many weaknesses -- I like to eat. I have other weaknesses but let us not go too far afield right now. I like food.

One of my challenges when it comes to food is my insistence, repeatedly, that I am on a diet. I actually am on a diet if we define diet simply as the sum of the food consumed by an organism or group, marked by specific selection (based on the wiki material that appears in the google search). If we define diet as something even more broad like "whatever you got" then I am even more so on a diet. My diet may be religions (I eat kosher foods, so I am on a "kosher diet") and it may be a weight-loss diet: I select foods which will contribute to the illusion that I am trying to lose weight. So with that limitation in mind, eating is sometimes a challenge. Mix in my reluctance to go places and spend money, and I become a tortured gourmand. So, in order to satisfy my craving for food while not overstepping my tendency to sit at home and do nothing, I like to read restaurant reviews. To me, they are the spoilers of the industry, though that is an unfortunate word for a description of food -- I get the sense that I had the meal without having to leave the house, pack on the pounds or spend money and have the meal. Crazy, but it works.

Here's the thing, though: I live in Bergen County, USA. When I do want to eat, I have to eat at the restaurants around here. Even if I read reviews from experts and lay people, and know from my own experiences what the food around here is like, I still feel like I am missing something. I just don't know of the food that I prefer (with a million restaurants here, I tend to go to the same 3 an order the same thing at each every time. I'll explain with a specific. For some reason, I find that the local kosher Chinese food restaurant makes the best crunch chicken wings. Ever. Maybe. Note, I am not getting any remuneration for that link. I just really like the wings. I recall, though, that I once had really good wings at a kosher Chinese place outside of Philadelphia [the Dragon Inn, maybe?] So my question isn't "would you please review the Chinese food which is within 2 miles of my house and tell me about the food which I have been eating for 15 years" or eve "would you please review a Kosher Chinese place I will never get to go to again" -- I need something else.

I need to know how my local restaurant compares to similar restaurants in other communities. I want to know if the wings here have a flavor profile or composition which is unique or which is better or worse than a similar product elsewhere. A review of a Chinese place in Los Angeles is meaningless to me if I can't compare the product to a known entity. Television shows about food (which I enjoy watching) that have experts travel around and enjoy and love every thing they order anywhere they go are not helpful because I can't put their comments in a context of my own experiences. You think that is a good pastrami sandwich? WHY? How does it compare to a pastrami sandwich anywhere else? It seems that certain foods are so basic and unadorned that they would end up being the same anywhere -- a piece of meat thrown on a fire is going to be the same. If there are differences which are worthy of note, please explain them. Is there a continuum of mac and cheese? Please place the mac and cheese in the range so I can see what it compares to. Maybe I LIKE the one you didn't, so if you say that the mac and cheese in Wyoming is too like something you hate, I know see that it might be something I prefer. This is a review. I don't need to hear that some hidden expert thinks that there was "too much salt" or that the presentation could have been prettier. I want to know that the product reminds him of some standard that I have interacted with so I have a basis for comparison. And yes, I think that this is a vitally important methodology for all communication which attempts to codify and assess experience. You liked that opera? Why? Did it remind you of something I can relate to? If not, your preferences are meaningless to me. There is nothing new under the sun -- every food has to be tied to sense that I have and food that I have tried to I can decide if my experiences are lacking. You, the reviewer, are traveling on my behalf, not your own. So stop enjoying and help me understand.

And, of course, if I find myself in another place, ready to sample the foods, I can start by selecting ones that I have on record as being similar to or strikingly different from what I am used to based on what I want at that moment. I don't want the element of surprise in my meal. If I have gone through the trouble of leaving the house, suspending my disbelief in my own weight, and allowing myself to spend money, I want something that I can predict, but not because it is necessarily identical to what I could have were I to stay home but because it will add an experience I want to have (a reminder of my home product or a welcome departure from it). If I fly to LA, I want to have Chinese food chicken wings because their comparison to wings I usually have is intriguing. I want to know how my local venue stacks up and see how the rest of the world defines the experience of eating chicken wings.

This, to me, is a review. It taps into the knowledge base of the reader and establishes the reviewer not as the subjective and variable taste buddhist* (did I use that wrong) who gets to be one with all his food, but as the representative of me out in the world: the guy who can look at me and say "the ones you eat taste just like the ones 500 miles away except that they serve them with a lemon sauce. Yours are better...stay home."

*Not a formal footnote, but did you know that when I just checked on google, there were ZERO hits for "taste buddhist"? Always blazing new trails on your behalf, people.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Let Me Bleed

Sometimes I worry. I hope you're OK with that. I worry because I feel like I make my living by being a story teller. Teaching, to me, is about telling stories -- even when I am teaching grammar, the goal is to connect the sentences and the explanations to the way students listen. They don't listen to dry facts; they crave a context, especially one that draws them in. So I share stories. I try to tell them in a way which keeps student interest up. And it isn't just like this when I'm in the classroom. When I speak with friends or people I hope will become friends, I try to make what I say interesting by couching it as a story.

Storytelling isn't easy. Tone of voice, awareness of audience, vocabulary, timing and other elements drive the story teller. I don't want to be listenable or acceptable -- I want to be great. So why am I afraid? I have been telling stories professionally for almost 20 years and I worry that I have told them all. What more do I have to share. Now, sure, the same students haven't heard them all (working in a high school means that I get a totally new audience every 4 years), but I need to feel like my stories are vibrant and current and if I have told them all over and over it means that I am growing stale. So how do I counter this? I have to keep having new experiences so I have new stories. And I have to practice telling my new stories so that when I need to draw on one, it is shaped and established well.

In that light, I'd like to tell you about today. Today started about 15 years ago.

I remember that day, 15 years ago, when I got the letter. "Dear you," it said (well, I'm paraphrasing), "don't give blood again because we hate you." I'm sure there was some science in there also, but that isn't the point. They didn't want my blood. I used to give pretty consistently and felt that this was something I could do approaching the altruistic. And giving makes for a heckuva good story. So to get this letter was not at all welcome. I had the science of it checked and double checked by my doctor. I called all the important people on the letter's letterhead. No dice. They didn't want my blood. And yet they kept sending me mail every couple of weeks complaining that the world was in dire need of MY BLOOD (though come to think of it, that might just have been a mass mailing). It made me mad. If you aren't going to find a way to un-blacklist me and my bleeding willingness, then at least some taunting me with your appeals.

When I took my daughter to give blood a couple of weeks ago, at her insistence, I struck up a conversation with one of the phlebotomists at the blood place. The person might have been a nurse or a receptionist but how often do I get to use the word phlebotomist? Humor me. The phlebotomist said that this blood place didn't have me in their database as disqualified so they would be happy to take my blood. I didn't cry but I was very happy. All I had to do was clear my schedule and get over my perfectly rational fear of needles and bleeding. Especially in that order.

Well, today I decided to stop coddling myself and just do it. I ditched work early and drove myself over to the blood taking place and went through the process for the first time in 15 years. Questions about my private life (no, I have no slept with an IV drug user who has used Plavax for syphilis in the UK after not feeling well within the last 6 months to 12 years), blood pressure (102/62), temp (97), iron (14.9) and then bed #2. The people there were incredible -- they treated me like the proper combination of balding middle aged man and scared child which pretty much sums me up. They distracted me with bright lights and reassuring pats on the head and told me how proud they were of me while also telling me about a new plasma donation program just for people who happen to be me. Hey! I'm me! So now, starting in August, I can go and donate plasma every 30 days instead of waiting 8 weeks after whole blood donation. I brought my own cookies and juice (a power Bar and some water, actually) and politely declined the 10 dollar gift card good at restaurants that I'll never go to, and got to go, but not before telling some of the other donors some stories about why I hadn't been able to give. I was sharp and I feel that they were a bit logy having just donated blood, so I sounded even better.

Then I went to Barnes and Noble but I have yet to craft that into a tale worth telling.