30 April 2007

One Trick Ponies

I headed over to Olympia today to sit in on a presentation that the supe was interested in, but couldn't lose a whole day to see. I took the scenic route over to the capitol city---it was a beautiful day for a drive and I was in no particular hurry to be anywhere.

I realized about five minutes into the spiel today that I had seen this guy before at a state science teachers' convention. He shills for the FOSS kits and his bent today was to talk about "brain research" and how FOSS takes advantage of that. I have to say that his sales pitch was soft, which I appreciated, but the rest of his presentation needed help. It's probably been 8 years since I've seen it...and nothing has changed. They were exactly the same overheads, same jokes, etc. I suppose that there is something to be said for the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality...but how can you claim to be a science expert and never have anything new to offer?

This is not the first time I've been suckered in. There are any number of One Trick Ponies out there on the consultants' circuit. They retitle things, rearrange a few overheads/powerpoint slides, and try to pass it off as cutting edge. I'm starting to get a bit jaded. Is it so much to ask that they stay current...that they extend their knowledge...that they try to offer schools something different? Public education is being crushed under the weight of a multitude of expectations and these people think that the same old-same old is good enough. Meanwhile, many of the people there were completely buying what he was trying to sell about FOSS...not realizing that good instruction is the most important component. You have to build teachers, not kits. They were happy to take a ride with this guy because they thought it would magically fix all of the science problems in their schools.

The day wasn't a complete loss. I had lunch with a friend who just started her job at OSPI and took my time driving home. I haven't decided what to report to the supe about the presentation. I would hope that he already knows not to ride a one-trick pony.

29 April 2007

The Median

My "Quantitative Research Methods" (a/k/a "stats") class is underway, marking my halfway point in getting my EdD. At this time next year, I will be considered "ABD"---All But Dissertation. The whole process is really moving along quickly.

I have had some trepidation about taking this class, not because I'm mathphobic, but rather that I've never used much in the way of technology for math. Now, I have a fancy-schmancy statistical software package to use, an on-line resource to "see" statistics, and on-line tutorials and quizzes. I used just a plain old scientific calculator when I first took a stats class---and have never learned to use the graphing calculators all the high school kiddos seem to have these days. I am definitely at the far left end of the normal curve on this one.

All that being said, I'm ready for the change in my program. After cranking out 50+ pages of writing each semester, it will be a nice change of pace to have some weekly math problems to do. Meanwhile, I have to have my prospectus ready by August. This class will be a good way to test out my problem statement and figure out how I want to do my sampling as I start my research project next year.

Right now, though, it is almost the median point of the Spring season. My blueberry bushes and strawberry plants are in full bloom...and grass has started to take over my lavender bed. All stats and no play makes for a very dull Goddess---so I'm headed outside to enjoy the day.

28 April 2007

Where's Wonka When You Need Him?

At a time of year when things should start their quiet descent to summer break, staff in this district are incredibly stressed out. I keep thinking that instead of candy bowls on people's desks that there should be bowls of Xanax. Maybe some Valium lollipops would help. Or, just a big old Prozac Lick in the staff room. There are very good reasons for the anxiety across the district---there are lots of changes with the school closures, boundary changes, staff reassignments, and program cuts...with five more years of the same ahead of us. We need that wallpaper you can lick, except instead of fruit flavours, one with mood-elevating substances. The idea of "fizzy lifting drinks" takes on a whole new definition. (Perhaps those are served in a Wonka Bar?)

27 April 2007

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

You know the story, right? The one where the mouse gets a cookie and then wants a glass of milk...and then more and more? It's a variation on the old adage about looking at the business end of a gift horse.

Our high school principals were quite mouse-like earlier this week. In an effort to build a stronger connection between their schools and Curriculum, we had surveyed their teachers and then spent some time looking at the results with the principals and talking about possible ways to better meet the indicated needs. Principals wanted to focus completely on math needs and helping low-performing students meet the graduation requirements. The outcome of all of these discusions was to convert .6 of our Curriculum staff allocation to provide a .2 math coach for each high school. We shared this plan with the high school principals on Tuesday. We gave them a cookie, and wouldn't you know it, they started whining about needing milk to go with it.

The high school principals don't quite seem to get that for every new piece we support from our resources (such as the coaches), something else has to go away. They can have cake or eat cake...but not both. This really surprised me, but not another specialist who was there. She figured that they would just look at the process as a negotiation. I don't see that they have much to counter with. If they want even more support from us, what are they prepared to do in return?

Frankly, they're screaming for the wrong things. If they really feel the pressure about getting kids diplomas, then they need to start worrying about the math education kids are getting long before 11th grade. Their elementary counter parts are only focusing on writing---and have done away with additional math support (and continue to have no science support). I don't think the high school principals have considered this---that an ounce of prevention would be worth a pound of the cure. Instead, they want a feelgood staff development program which is showing no visible change in the classroom and a teacher with an extra planning period to work with math interventions. I wonder what these three blind mice will ask for next.

The Big Finish

It's been a very busy week...more on that later. In the meantime, if you haven't samba'd over to this week's Carnival of Education, now's a great time to shake your groove thing/tail feather/booty and head on over to the Wonks. There were a couple of posts about grading policies which caught my eye---but I haven't had time nor headspace to process yet.

I have second grade teachers today as the big finish to my week...and some vodka chilling in the freezer for a big start to the weekend. :)

25 April 2007

Dancing with the Devil

Someone in the office likes to say that the Devil wears glass beads...not Prada. We've had quite a ride with Boss Lady 2.0 this year. Actually, it's been a bit longer of a relationship than that. She was in charge of herding the secondary principals the past two years---and starting last year, she started to nose in on Curriculum territory. We could tell that our Boss Lady wasn't happy with this, but we were "politically ignorant" about things...and frankly, didn't want to know all of the behind the scenes action. I will say that many of us would have paid good money (and still would) to see a cage match with these two.

I bring this up only because the new Boss Lady and I talked about it a bit on Monday.

BL2.0: With the diminishing resources of the district, it doesn't really make sense for us to be a separate department from Teaching and Learning.

SG: I can see where it is hard to tell where one department could stop and the other begin.

BL2.0: But we operate as silos...very protective of our territory.

SG: Or jealous. It seems to me last year that many of us in this office felt we were being squabbled over in a custody battle. Mommy and Daddy seemed to disagree a lot.

BL2.0: Mommy and Daddy still fight now and then.

SG: No. Mommy left and went to OSPI.

BL2.0: And Daddy got custody. (said gleefully)

Ouch. I knew she was determined last year to steal things away from Curriculum (until it became hers...now she fights to keep what she has), but this was definitely a revelation that she meant full well to play dirty with the former Boss Lady. I admit there were decisions made by her that I wasn't entirely happy with...and yet I can't say that I thought she ever lost sight of trying to do the best possible things for kids. The new one is cold, sneaky, and cunning---a very different sort of animal than I have ever seen in education. I'm not entirely equipped to relate to this. I don't know the steps...but I'd better learn them quickly.

24 April 2007

It's a Bird...It's a Plane

Faster than a speeding slug as she goes from meeting to meeting...more powerful than a soggy black cat firecracker while she provides input to principals...able to extend teachers' knowledge base with a single activity...it's Super ScienceGoddess! (You knew that was the next line, right?)

Okay, perhaps there's a tiny bit of hyperbole there, but this day was going to be villianous. I don't have a cape and tights, and I don't wear my undies as outerwear (although some nice leopard print lingerie underneath does confer a certain sense of invincibility). Sometimes, you just have to tell your calendar "You're not the boss of me!" and march through things.

At this time last month, I had only one item listed as an item of business for the day: working with kindergarten teachers at our final cadre session. And then a tour of the science kit center was added for part of the afternoon. No problem---that isn't kryptonite. People were welcome to take a peek and think about other program needs. When Friday rolled around, two more meetings were added: one with each set of secondary principals in order to talk about the staff development model for next year. Hey, we can work around that. The math specialist can do her thing in the morning while I represent us with the principals and I'll do science with the group in the afternoon.

Things started to change for our heroine yesterday morning. Dastardly deeds were afoot.

First, one of the principal meeting times was changed to suit an early afternoon schedule. Ummm...okay. I'll just travel back and forth between the kit center and central orifice. And then, I added another meeting during the day. For those of you keeping count at home, we're now up to five commitments---four of which were happening throughout the fifth one. Only two of the meetings had anything in common.

But wait, there's more.

Boss Lady 2.0 forgot that she has to evaluate us by May 1. So, somewhere in the day when I was actually going to be at cadre, she needed to observe me for an hour.

Did I miss the memo---was Monday actually supposed to be today?

Not to worry, fanboys and fangirls, Super ScienceGoddess perservered and had a successful day dispatching the evil calendar and its meeting minions. She has lived to fight another day in the name of Truth, Justice, and the Curriculum Way. Huzzah!

23 April 2007

Dangerous Play

Last week, I blogged about my curiosity concerning how we ever survived to become adults, given all of the safety precautions there are now. I now see that there's a book designed to recapture a more old-fashioned childhood: The Dangerous Book for Boys. It is billed as "a childhood how-to guide that covers everything from paper airplanes to go-carts, skipping stones to skinning a rabbit...as well as help boys learn how to play marbles, make invisible ink, send Morse code and build a tree fort." (There's a nice review here.)

It reminds me a bit of the Handy Boys and Handy Girls books. I have these on my shelf and enjoy looking through them on occasion. While they no doubt represent a romanticized view of childhood, they also allude to simpler pleasures where entertainment is concerned. Perhaps someone in your own life would enjoy a copy?

22 April 2007

Zoom Zoom Zoom

I know that there are educators out there who will read this post and think, "Please, oh please, for the love of Mike let me never have to do this!" I understand. I'm not typically enamored of cutesy staff development things. I take some pride in the fact that I get feedback from teachers about the training I do that is something to the effect of "Thank you for not making us play any stupid games or do icebreakers." If you're one of those teachers (and I count myself among you), then take a deep cleansing breath and bear with me.

If you're a primary teacher, you've probably seen a book called Zoom by Istvan Banyai. It's a picture book, one picture per page. With the turning of each page, you discover that the previous one is only part of a larger view. For example, the image of a cruise ship on a bus is really being watched on tv. It goes on this way until you're eventually looking at a picture of the Earth from space.

Buy it here. Images (c) 1998 Istvan Banyai

For a staff development conversation about communication and leadership...
  • Cut the book apart and laminate each page.
  • Hand out one picture per person (make sure a continuous sequence is used).
  • Explain that participants may only look at their own pictures and must keep their pictures hidden from others.
  • Encourage participants to study their picture, since it contains important information to help solve a problem.
  • The challenge is for the group to sequence the pictures in the correct order without looking at one another's pictures.
  • Participants will generally mill around talking to others to see whether their pictures have anything in common. Sometimes leadership efforts will emerge to try to understand the overall story.
  • When the group believes they have all the pictures in order (usually after ~15 minutes), the pictures can be turned over for everyone to see.
Some questions that might be used are
  • Why was it hard to get the story together?
    (everyone had a piece, but no-one had the big picture)
  • What type of communication was used in attempting to solve the problem?
  • What communication methods might have worked better? e.g., Imagine if, at the outset, the group had taken the time to let each person describe his/her picture to the rest of the group. What would have happened then? Would the solution have been found faster? What prevented such strategies from being considered?
  • Did you try to "second position" (i.e., see one's communications from the perspective of others)?
  • What kind of leadership was used to tackle the problem?
  • Who were the leaders? Why?
  • What style of leadership might have worked best?
  • If you were to tackle a similar activity again, what do you think this group should do differently?
  • What real life activities are similar to this activity?
This activity will be used with our math and science cadre teachers this spring. It's likely that many of them have used a variation on this with their students, but the hope is that they might look at things a bit differently. I'd like us to think about communication between the various levels within the school district, their roles as teacher leaders, and perspective about issues. I see far too many teachers out there who don't try to step back and see the larger picture of public education. I understand how easy it is to be myopic when you're just trying to survive the classroom from day to day---I spent 15 years doing that, too. But I'm hoping that using an analogy like "Zoom" might get people to open their minds a bit more. I think even our groups of admins would benefit from doing this and making some connections.

Still not convinced this is your thing? Head on over to the Nikon website and play with their Universcale. It lets you zoom through all sorts of scales, from molecular to universe sized.

21 April 2007

Building Knowledge, Piece by Piece

Primary teachers will be coming next week for their last round of math and science cadre training. We have one teacher per grade for each of the fourteen elementary schools. It's been a worthwhile experience and experiment for me this year---and I know that it has for most of the cadre members. There were a variety of goals with this project. The biggest one was simply to begin the development of grade level math and science experts for each building. This was especially important because we only have literacy coaches---nothing to support math and science. Secondly, we hoped to give a wider range of teacher leadership opportunities. We also wanted to help teachers gain a better understanding of math and science concepts, not just instructional issues. There are some drawbacks with this model. Three meetings a year is not really enough to sustain conversations...only one-third of our elementary staff receives training...and there's little we can do to support and monitor things once staff have returned to their buildings.

I've been spending time today putting together a jigsaw puzzle in anticipation of helping teachers learn more about the concepts of a hypothesis and theory. It's not a new idea for teaching these (read more here, if you're interested in the details), but I am going to put a bit of a twist on the process. It starts with giving each person a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. On their own, they make some observations of the information they have in their pieces before receiving a bit more "data." Then, they can collaborate with a table partner or two and see what hypothesis they can build. These ideas are then shared around the room. No edge pieces are given (science can be ever growing) and people start to see connections between what they have and "research" done by others. My twist, however, will be not to randomly bag puzzle pieces. My plan is to give each person a section of the puzzle, minus one piece that I will distribute to someone else. I won't be telling them this, of course, but what we should end up with is a whole picture by the end of the activity. I think the connections could be a lot more powerful this way.

I'll use this activity in conjunction with a mystery box to develop understanding of observation and inference. Although most of these ideas are well beyond what primary students need to know about science, the point here is to enhance teacher knowledge. Teachers who understand the "end product" of certain concepts are better able to see how their piece of the puzzle fits and communicate this to kids...building their knowledge, piece by piece, too.

20 April 2007

Try It On for Size

There's plenty of shake-up in the Curriculum Department this year. Three new literacy coaches, a different elementary math specialist, a new "student success" specialist to manage interventions and cultural competencies, three new secretaries (out of four), and a new Boss Lady to start the year. As we end the year, three coaches are transferring for one reason or another (as have two others on staff), the student success guy is in the midst of finding other work, the voice of reason in the office is moving on to be an admin intern, we're losing a secretarial position, and the glue who held everything together moved onto other pastures this week. In short, this has been a year where change is the norm.

We're having lots of meetings at the moment, trying to sort out what the roles of those remaining in the department next year will be. As I sit and watch, I feel like I'm seeing a sort of dress-up game as people hold up different assignments by their names. I keep expecting to hear "Does this job make me look fat?" or "Will this task match that one...should I accessorize with some other role?" I find the process rather frightening in some ways. Barely are the corpses cold of those who are leaving and vultures are there to peck apart the job. In a better world, I'd think that Boss Lady 2.0 would assign us, but the reality is that she doesn't seem to have a clue about what any of us do. You have no choice but to jockey, form alliances, and self-advocate. I don't even want to get into the whole office configuration issue---that's quite the carnival act in and of itself. I'm already starting to get the impression that some people are already starting to be sorry what they've wished for. "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

As for me? I've been biding my time, waiting for all of the chips to fall. As Sinbad advised, "Trust in Allah...but tie up your camel." I might not be a religious person, but I appreciate the sentiment: it's okay to have hope, but you also have to be a participant in making your own way. To that end, I've created my own emergency exit from Curriculum...just in case my job assignment doesn't quite pan out like I'd wish. I also have a "backup camel" to present to Boss Lady 2.0 on Monday afternoon. She is only thinking short-term---how to make it through the end of this year and into the next. Offering a broadened picture of things might be very useful. I've had the benefit of sitting back to watch the action. Now, we'll see what fits me to a tee.

19 April 2007

Deal or No Deal

Our state legislature is wrapping up its longer-than-usual session. I believe that Sunday is supposed to be the last official day of business, but those involved would really like to be finished sometime tomorrow. There is a giant-sized unresolved issue still out there: whether or not to delay using 1 or more of the WASL tests as a graduation requirement. The governor has threatened to veto any bill which includes the reading and writing exams. Many school districts don't like this idea---although passage rates are very high across the state. These districts are concerned that it unfairly penalizes ELL students and students of poverty. These kids do not constitute the majority of those who haven't passed. Personally, I think reading and writing should stand.

But I'm going to be a bit more radical here: the requirements for math (class of 2008) and science (class of 2010) should stand as is. I admit that these passage rates are in the toilet---moreso for science than math---but as long as we keep delaying the requirements, no one (teachers, parents, students) is going to take them seriously. Kids are going to be leaving our schools without a solid set of skills that they can demonstrate.

There are already some alternative pathways to meeting the standards other than passing the test. Kids have more than one way to show what they know. It just doesn't make sense to me to excuse any of us from that process any longer.

18 April 2007

You Must Be This Tall

My first or second year in this area, I saw a young girl (16 or 17 years old) wearing a t-shirt that had a dashed line straight across the bust line. The words above said "You must be this tall to ride this ride." Funny? Very. Inappropriate for school? Ah, yes. So, off she went to change her shirt.

But hey, regardless of size, you can ride any of the great posts over at this week's Carnival of Education. Click on over to Dan's place and engage in a little digital action.

17 April 2007

Say It Isn't So

Sometime next month, it will officially be 20 years since I graduated from high school. I'm struggling a bit to process the time lapse. It doesn't really feel like it's been that long, but perhaps still being connected with a high school for 15 of those 20 years has skewed things a bit for me. I never really got away from Homecoming, prom, graduation, Julius Caesar, and teen angst in general.

I went to a small school---there were 59 of us in my class. A few have died...others would likely be happier not remembering their school days...but many will choose to participate in some festivities this summer. I know that a lot of people are uninterested in reunions. It's true that people do move on with their lives after high school (we hope) and that the people we become don't always have much in common with the people from our pasts. But I think there's something to be said for "collective memory." It is easy as a teenager to be wrapped up in your own life. You don't always notice everything happening around you or be very interested in other's perceptions. At this point in my life, I am curious about other people's experiences and how they fit (or don't fit) with my own. I like the idea of being able to reconnect with those who had some similar years to mine. I haven't anyone in my adult life who knows that other me. Now's my chance to go back and try to integrate things.

Besides, who can resist the allure of an event which has a schedule of "9 p.m. until Denise pukes"? (It reminds me of last year's group where children were invited to the bar.) It could be that everything old is new again. For now, I just can't believe that 20 years have gone by. Say it isn't so.

16 April 2007

Rumor Has It

...that teachers at two schools received their marching orders today. These are not the schools which are closing, but rather the two schools with the reputation of having the most negative attitudes in the district. I heard that late this afternoon, involuntary transfer notices were handed to several teachers at each school. Should make for a rather tense working environment for the rest of the year. My hat's off to the administration for doing something good for kids. No longer will groups of teachers be able to talk about how kids can't learn in their school...that no initiatives will make any difference...that their kids can't do the same work as the rest of the students across the district. I'm sure that things change much, but they won't have one another to feed off of, either. There won't be the message year after year within a school. The teachers will no doubt continue their cries of "Wolf! Wolf!" at every single thing which crosses their paths...but they may be all alone in their new schools with that attitude.

...that Mighty White Boy could have a job elsewhere next year.

...that one of our more clueless Curriculum Specialists was dressed down a bit by Boss Lady 2.0 on Friday. You're not supposed to be able to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person, right? This particular specialist had best watch herself and lay low for a bit. Our office is no place for the politically ignorant.

...that Boss Lady 2.0 is an Empress with No Clothesies when it comes to standards-based grading and reporting.

...that my job could look very different next year.

15 April 2007

How Did We Survive to Adulthood?

Car seats. Safety belts. Bicycle helmets. Rubberized mats beneath playground equipment. Peanut warning labels on foods. Hand sanitizer.

These things were not part of my growing up years. When I look around at all of the safety measures today, I think it's a wonder I survived to become an adult. I'm not suggesting that we put children in harm's way on purpose, but how long will it be until all under 18 persons are swarthed in bubble wrap 24/7?

A mom writing an op-ed piece in Newsweek is wondering the same sorts of things in We Protect Kids from Everything but Fear. She marvels at the youngsters visiting her own kids who cannot believe their eyes when they see fruit roll-ups and real potato chips. She's a self-labeled social deviant because she wants to allow her daughter to walk home from school. Her children don't wear long sleeved swimsuits or have summer tutors to keep things fresh. She speaks of mothers who seem to fear everything on behalf of their children, trying to shelter them from every possible emotional and environmental hardship. She wonders "what's the effect of our collective paranoia on the kids? Yes, these very kids we want to be so self-sufficient, responsible, confident, happy and creative (not to mention not food-obsessed). They're growing up thinking these weirdly weenie views are healthy and normal."

But kids will be kids, to an extent. I think my favourite part of the article was this quote: And then there's playground panic. I had to laugh when an Australian study recently found that playground injuries continue to rise despite safety improvements. One of the suspected reasons: the safe new play structures are so boring that kids are taking more risks in order to have fun.

Are we, as a society, on some sort of runaway train here when it comes to protecting our youth? Again, I understand the desire to protect children, but at some point, enough is enough. For example, we know that lower speed limits prevent more highway deaths (and conserve energy)...but you don't see advocates for having people drive 25 mph on the Interstates. We have to create a balance...some acceptance around the inherent risks associated with Life. Even the lives of children.

14 April 2007

Well, There's Your Problem

The picture above is the enrollment forecast for the district. Pretty, huh? Nearly a year ago, I posted about our incredible shrinking school district; however, it described losing "only" 1000 students between that point and 2010. This was in addition to the 1000 student dip in the enrollment the district has had since I moved here. Now, we're figuring in another 1000. Ouch.

Where will 2000 children go in five years? Are parents making good on threats to sell them to the gypsies? Are there more boogeymen per capita in this area than other parts of the country, gobbling up children each night? The basic answer is simply that they are graduating. It's a good thing that kids grow up and head out into the great wide world. The other portion of the answer is that we are enrolling fewer and fewer kindergartners each year---hundreds less in number than the senior classes which leave us.

A lower enrollment means less money from the state, which then trickles down to programs throughout the district. I think about all of the heartache this year with school closure (we already have 1800 empty seats k-6...enough to close 4 schools instead of just the 2) and cuts to programs across the district, I cannot imagine how we are going to keep from fracturing into a million tiny pieces fighting each year about continued closures and cuts. Even with declining enrollment, we can balance our budgets by cutting $5M per year until then...but that's a lotta money to find. I don't know how the community is going to hang in there with us. This year has already resulted in some nasty scars. Is there a silver lining here? I hope we can find one.

13 April 2007

The Sphincter Factor

Some of us in Curriculum have been joking about using a new rating scale based upon The Sphincter Factor. As far as I know the first reference to such a system was in The Abyss, when a character stated that "I got to tell you, I give this whole thing a sphincter-factor of about 9.5." Even without further explanation on the character's part, you understand that it's a good way to rate the stress of a situation.

We're assuming that this is a 10-point scale, with 0 - 2 meaning that a situation is just in a "heads up" or "FYI" status. I'm okay, you're okay...but when we start getting into 3 territory, more curiosity is raised. In the middle range, we've got issues that likely need some attention or perhaps intervention before something bigger happens. It implies a sense of unease about things. Above 7? You're headed into full-blown crisis mode. Something is having a major impact on your ability to function. There's a situation that needs immediate and concentrated attention.

Just think of the possibilities here. You can use it in the subject line of your e-mails to alert the boss. For example "5: Not enough subs available for the conference." Or, as a check-in with participants at meetings. It's a great conversation opener: "What's the sphincter factor on this?" Perhaps you start off with a really tense situation (someone is a 9) and as things go along, hopefully people can unclench a bit and move away from the full blockage end of the spectrum. At the end of the meeting, you want them to be a 2. It's a way to see if you've met your goal. Have the group hold up the fingers representing their personal spot on the scale at a given moment...or even better, write it and hold it up on a card...or use something like those paddles the judges have on Dancing with the Stars. Could be fun, don't you think?

12 April 2007

Generally Satisfied

Years ago, when my Sweetie and I were still getting to know one another, I saw an on-line article reporting on sex lives across the globe. The part we joked about was the percentage reflecting the number of people who were "generally satisfied" in this area, as the study made it out to be a wonderful thing. We were left wondering why that would be good enough for anyone. We tried imagining some pillow talk. "How was it for you?" "Oh, you know, I'm generally satisfied." Being generally satisfied seemed like only a slight improvement over "un-," but certainly not as desirable as "very." Shouldn't that be the goal? Since then, we've used the phrase to apply to most anything: meals, movies, museums, and other things which don't start with an "m." I was thinking about this phrase today because when a meeting with admins was finished and the Boss Lady asked how I thought things went, the first thing that came to mind was that I was generally satisfied.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about romancing the admins (the secondary school ones) in terms of finding a way for Curriculum to be more integrated with their staffs and goals. I have to say that the late March meeting was unsatisfactory in some ways. I don't know that the principals really took us seriously. We asked for some genuine dialogue and tried very hard to engage them, but things didn't gel. In spite of that, we took what little they offered and worked to create some support models to share with them on Thursday afternoon. Surprisingly enough, they started to buy in and give us some good feedback. The junior high admins are more clear about what they want (support in the form of instructional coaches) while high schools are closer to identifying some things. For once, being generally satisfied felt good.

This conversation is a step in the right direction, but we have further to go. Their needs for coaches can only be fulfilled by cutting other positions in order to redirect funds. We (Curriculum) would not only have to work out the financial details, but support with human resources and other take care of other issues. I don't know that we can make it all work for next fall. Perhaps we can start with some schools and find ways to move things along the continuum to everyone being "very satisfied."

11 April 2007

Mid-week Detours

If you haven't taken the sidetrip yet, click on over to this week's Carnival of Education, ably hosted by the godfather's of the edusphere: The Education Wonks.

This week is also your last chance to vote in the Best of Blog Awards. You can vote every day---go support your favourite edublogger!

10 April 2007

Doom by Whom?

Buy it here.

One of the teachers I worked with today handed me a copy of the review of this book from the Conservative Book Service:
Tracing the development of educational ideas in the United States from the time of William James to the present day, Zoch shows how they have given the schools an obsessive focus on teachers and their teaching methods while neglecting the disciplined effort and hard work that students must expend in order to achieve. Philosophical, psychological, and social influences as varied as behaviorism, John Dewey's idealism, the Romantic conception of the child, and modern cognitive theory have converged to create the widespread belief that the teacher and his teaching methods create (or fail to create) success for the students. The greater, more important, and more difficult role that the student plays in the mastery of knowledge is largely overlooked.

Zoch further demonstrates how the notion that the teacher determines whether or not the student succeeds handicaps our schools and thus harms both teachers and students. "It misleads students into thinking that the true source and fount of their success, both in academics and in more mundane affairs, lies outside their own actions and character: someone else must 'achieve excellence' for them. . . . Many American students sit back in their desks at school, arms crossed, waiting for the teacher to do what will make them smart."
Result? Because most students, in accordance with society's prevailing views, see their success as a product of what their teachers do, they devote little effort to their studies and, predictably enough, learn little. Their dedication to schoolwork, as Zoch documents, falls far short of that routinely displayed by students in other, less prosperous countries.
Why did the teacher give me this? Mainly because it supports the viewpoint he espouses now and then and I'm sure that he feels like a voice in the wilderness in this district. I think that he would like to sway me over to his side. Meanwhile, he's (reluctantly) participating in some work to build a differentiated curriculum.
This book does pique my interest. At first glance from the review provided, it appears an "excuse" for teachers just to teach in the same way---and never mind about the kids who don't get it. I would certainly agree that there is only so much a teacher can do in the classroom, no matter how intense the instruction. At some point, every kid has to buy in and make a choice to engage with the learning. Teachers can encourage that, but they don't necessarily control it.

I then went looking for another review of the book. The first one I googled across was from the Hoover Institution at Stanford. It more or less jives with the one above, but it raises more questions for me. While I, too, think that high expectations for work ethic should be set by the child's primary teacher (his or her parents), what do we do when kids don't have that sort of home life? Are we in the schools just supposed to say, "That's too bad. Maybe if you practice, practice, practice you'll get the parents you deserve?" Or perhaps simply just the "too bad" part and wash our hands of any responsibility to help a child?

I think I have to put this on my summer reading list. I really am curious to know if the author is just spouting off his opinion...or if he has any research behind what he's saying. How would he suggest we change the system? Who is currently dooming these kids to fail? If any of you out there have seen or read this book, I'd like to know your reactions.

09 April 2007

What Are the Chances?

The typical child in the USA stands only a one-in-14 chance of having a consistently rich, supportive elementary school experience, say researchers who looked at what happens daily in thousands of classrooms.

The findings, published today in the weekly magazine Science, take teachers to task for spending too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies. They also suggest that U.S. education focuses too much on teacher qualifications and not enough on teachers being engaging and supportive.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, educational researchers spent thousands of hours in more than 2,500 first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms, tracking kids through elementary school. It is among the largest studies done of U.S. classrooms, producing a detailed look at the typical kid's day.

  • Fifth-graders spent 91.2% of class time in their seats listening to a teacher or working alone, and only 7% working in small groups, which foster social skills and critical thinking. Findings were similar in first and third grades.
  • In fifth grade, 62% of instructional time was in literacy or math; only 24% was devoted to social studies or science.
  • About one in seven (14%) kids had a consistently high-quality "instructional climate" all three years studied. Most classrooms had a fairly healthy "emotional climate," but only 7% of students consistently had classrooms high in both. There was no difference between public and private schools.

Although all teachers surveyed had bachelor's degrees — and 44% had a master's — it didn't mean that their classrooms were productive. The typical teacher scored only 3.6 out of seven points for "richness of instructional methods," and 3.4 for providing "evaluative feedback" to students on their work.

These excerpts are from a recent USA Today article talking about this large-scale study. I would be interested to see the rating instruments used by the researchers and some definitions for the terms, but the percentages determined seem about right for what I see while I'm out and about in schools. I do think that teachers are working very very hard---so why is the quality of instruction often "poor"? There are likely some factors that weren't taken into account. How many of these teachers work for principals who have directed them not to teach math, social studies, and/or art? How many teachers don't have the classroom management skills necessary to run a class where learning can effectively happen? What numbers of classrooms have regular parent volunteers?

The thing about classrooms is that they are notoriously difficult to tease apart. Each one is a little microcosm of influences. When we peek in the windows, we only get a snapshot in time. What are the chances that we'll really know what is making the difference for kids?

07 April 2007

What I Did During My Spring Break Vacation

Dear Diary,

PICT1335 by Seth Melton CC-BY-NC-SA
What a swell week it's been! I was feeling really worn out when I started my holiday, but now I feel re-energized and ready to face the rest of the school year.

Warm Comfort CC-BY-NC-SA
I started things by meeting my Sweetie for a rendezvous. We had four days to laugh, enjoy some slow days, and get reacquainted. It had been a long while since we'd had some time together and I've missed him a lot. He's really special, you know? I'm always so happy when we're together. The picture on the left was one of the sights we saw while we were out and about. You know how I love a good roadside attraction. The whole area really has become a second home to us in many ways. It's always good to return there each spring. This year, I had my first Cheese Frenchee. My
Sweetie does know how to show a girl a good time. Rowr.

Buy it here.
One bad thing that happened was that a close friend of the family succumbed to cancer on Tuesday. Some members of his family are not following his final requests and this has upset a lot of other people. It's been sad, but there isn't much I can do. There are some things that neither time nor words can assuage or heal. We can only have compassion with one another.

I also read a really great bookthis week: Eat. Pray. Love. by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is the best book I've read in the last two years or so. Maybe it was just the right book at the right time, but this person's journey to create a balanced, meaningful, and hopeful life for herself was really unique. Whether or not I could have made her same choices isn't important, Diary. I think that the message here is simply that doing what you need to in order to help your own life have some passion and well-being enriches others by not adding to the drama and misery in the world. I know it's not an easy thing to do, but important. It's something I want to keep working on for myself.

Pollen Is Everywhere by evilsciencechick CC-BY-NC-SA
For a few days, I had some hay fever, which wasn't much fun. As much as I love the sexiness and promise of spring, pollen isn't always my friend. I'm feeling much better now. I also am feeling more confident about the paper for my current grad class. It's been such a thorn in my side...I've had a terrible time trying to craft it...but I think it's in good shape and my peer editors seem to think I've done well. I'll do a final round of editing and get it turned in later on Sunday.

Oh, Diary, I'm not ready for Spring Break to end, even with all of its ups and downs. The weather this weekend has been so pretty and I've enjoyed some time outside. I'm wanting it to be summer with lots of time to play. I have so much that I want to do---it's hard to think about waiting for it for 10 more weeks, even if I've regained a positive outlook on things at work. It should be quite a ride to the end, don't you think?

That's all for now. I'll write soon---BFF!

In Other Words

One of the items I bumped into during the last week was this:

They are billed as being able to "get you multisyllabizing like a results-driven tycoon in mere days. Study alone or with a team player, then embrace your golden handcuffs as you blamestorm your way up the ladder!"

I think we need a version for educators, don't you? What a great place to store all the eduspeak: transparency, capacity, paradigm, authentic, scaffolding, best practices.

What other terms would you suggest? What are the ones that make you bite your tongue in order to keep from laughing out loud during meetings? The overused ones that cause you to roll your eyes after hearing them one...more...time? The words you wish would be banned from education?

Think of the comments area as a suggestion box. Leave some ideas and I'll put some cards together. If you have a particular definition or usage you wish to suggest, all the better.

06 April 2007

Knowing Your Audience

A few weeks ago, I helped a colleague chaperone a field trip. Although it was a good chance for me to get out of the office and see some of my former students, the teacher really didn't need an additional chaperone. He had 17 charges---most of them high school seniors with an eye on academic pursuits. They were the kinds of kids who would have been just fine without any adults to shepherd them. And yet, they were still kids.

The students had a bit of an extended break at lunch and a few of them were chatting a bit noisily in the cavernous lobby of the science institute we were visiting. They weren't being "bad" or inappropriate, just momentarily self-absorbed in the way that teens sometime can be. I wandered over and whispered a reminder to them to use their "indoor voices" and smiled. They giggled and understood. Their teacher asked what I had told them and after I passed along the information, he said, "I didn't think that would work. It doesn't work on my nine-year old anymore."

That's the funny thing about knowing your audience. You can use the "indoor voice" or "six inch voice" phrase with little ones or with late teens and they're understanding (the older ones are amused at the reference). Junior high kids? Not so much. They're a bit too self-conscious, and want to distance themselves from child-like reminders. Their brains don't know how to read the facial expressions of others well---they can't always tell if their teachers are joking. Feelings are hurt very easily. It would be a tremendous insult to a junior high aged student to tell him or her to use an "indoor voice."

I think that one has to be an ethologist of sorts in the classroom. You have to live within the culture of the age group you're teaching. It's not always easy because a teacher has so much other professional and personal life experience to bring to the table. There has to be some trial and error in learning which boundaries you can push. You find some tricks to use with each grade level and age and then learn to adapt them with others. The audience for all of this will be active in shaping things along the way. They want you to know them.

Spring Breaking

I'm back from a few days away to rest, recharge, and relax. Regular blogging will continue momentarily. In the meantime, if you haven't checked out this week's Carnival of Education, click on over!

02 April 2007

Piecing Things Together

Several of us from this district attended a presentation by Ken O'Connor last week. He is something of a guru in the land of standards-based grading and reporting, something my district is valiantly trying to implement. The workshop was also a type of preview for us. Ken is contracted to provide three days of inservice to our staff in the fall.

O'Connor has some good and thought-provoking information, but I have some concerns about having him set the tone with our staff now that I've seen how things work. First of all, one-third of our elementary schools have already read his book (which is more or less exactly the same as what he presents) and have experience with standards-based grading. They need something to help deepen their knowledge base and answer some of their more significant questions. The rest of the schools also are a bit beyond "Standards-Based Reporting 101." Not much, but perhaps enough to be pretty darned bored by this particular presentation. If we have all of our elementaries attend at the same time, I don't think that anyone's needs are going to be met.

As for secondary...yikes.

We asked Ken at dinner last week if he had a different approach with secondary staff who hadn't had any exposure to thinking about standards-based grading and reporting. He doesn't. And while we believe that secondary teachers should reflect on their current grading practices, I'm worried that what Ken is going to say is going to piss them off to the point where anything good in the message will be lost forever. I can see where teachers are going to get hung up on the reporting of non-academic behaviors and making those considerations separate from the learning. I really think that those of us who will be charged with facilitating things are going to have to seriously develop some structure around the day and provide Ken with a bit more direction. I don't know how well this will work. O'Connor seems to have a very small circle of comfort.

I know it's Spring Break and I have many more fun topics to ponder, but this one keeps popping up to the surface. The week after Break, I'll be learning more about how the staff shake-up in our department will impact what is on my plate...including our Back-to-School planning. I'd like to have a clear picture in mind of how all of this is going to fit together.

Don't forget to head over to the Best of Blog awards and vote! You can vote once each day.

01 April 2007

Vote Early and Often

The Best of Blog nominations are out. Head on over and vote for your favorite Education blog. Might even be mine. :)

If you're looking for a bit of celebration on this April Fools' Day, peruse the Top 100 list over at the Museum of Hoaxes.