31 July 2007

I'm Gonna Need a Bigger Venn

One of the nice things about summer is the time and headspace to explore the 'net a bit. I like taking time to visit a site from my sidebar---and then work through the recommended reads that they have listed. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Doing this today took me down an interesting rabbit hole...one which I knew existed, but not with quite the diversity and depth that I saw today. I'm talking about the ultimate techie teachers. The ones who are out there on the bleeding edge of things. They're talking about using twitter with their classes (and having kids message in class from their phones)---groups "tweeting" to the smartboard. Wiki type sites for uploading class projects. And all manner of acronyms and other things that made my eyes glaze over in a hurry because I was clueless (and embarrassed about my cluelessness) as to what was being talked about. WTF is "Library 2.0"?

So here's another whole circle of the edusphere: one leading the front of implementing the latest tools with students. I don't know that I can or will ever catch up to them, but it made me think about preparing students for the roads they'll travel once they leave high school. The teachers I read about today are closer than I am in terms of familiarizing students with the next generation of "stuff" for learning. I need to connect my circle of comfort with these other teachers. I think it will be a major learning curve for me...but I like a challenge.

30 July 2007

How Not to Succeed in Business

There is a new science kit being added to the rotation this year. In early June, I had asked the sales rep about the possibility of scheduling a training for teachers on this kit for sometime in early August (1, 2, or 3). We had some money that would have paid for the trainer and teacher time to attend, but it had to be spent before August 10. I never heard back from the sales rep, assuming that there must be no trainer available.

Lo and behold, I get a call on Friday (July 27). The company that sells the kits was interested in confirming some flight information for the August 1 training. Wha'? I nicely told the lady that I had indeed put in a request for some training, but since I had heard nothing from the company, no teachers were aware. I certainly had no way to get ahold of 40 teachers in 4 days (assuming they're available), let alone make sure that there is an appropriate space, etc. Five days of warning is really not acceptable. I told the sales rep that we would try to reschedule for sometime in September or October. I didn't say that I wished there was a more reliable company from whom to get the training.

I'm still a bit floored by the way this whole thing played out. Is this really how business should be done? Teachers will want and need the training...we have another source of funding to pay for it...but the company is very difficult to deal with. So, I'll look for a way to make things work with them and get teachers what they need, but it apparently won't be easy.

29 July 2007

It's a Mystery to Me

I don't watch a lot of network television. I have a few shows that I peek in on...most of them mystery
Ceci n'est pas Scooby Doo by JD Hancock CC-BY
related. I think it's because it takes me back to my childhood. I was always such a fan of Scooby Doo and those meddling kids. Of course, when I watch that cartoon now, I wonder why I was always surprised at the denouement. Come on---there was usually only two or three possible suspects offered in each episode. When one was shown not to have committed the crime, then...duh. To a four-year old, however, it was pretty magical. I have to admit that I was a big fan of playing Clue until I figured out how to beat the system and win every time. Sigh.

These days, I'm satisfying my craving for puzzles by watching Monk, Psych, and the Miss Marple episodes of Mystery!. The first two are a bit of eye candy. I'm just now realizing how Scooby-Doo'ish they are. I suppose one can't expect much more in the way of character development with a one-hour format vs. a half-hour format, but it still took me a couple of seasons to see it. There's only room for a couple of suspects per week---just like Scooby-Doo. So, the "whodunit" is usually more obvious than the "whydunit." As for Marple, I have to make a girly statement here and just say that the new hairdo that Geraldine McEwan is sporting just doesn't suit the character. Marple has always been a bit of a busybody character, but never shrewish until this season. I don't know what's happened to the writing. Anyway, the thing about the Marple series is that they really are chock full of possibilities: suspects and motives. This part I like.

Perhaps this is also the part I like about teaching...but also the challenge with research about the classroom. There are so many pieces that have to work in concert in order to effect a particular outcome. I can't catch that suspect known as Student Achievement until I know something about the players, the rules of the game, and the right tools for the investigation. Great teachers find ways to solve this puzzle. My problem with educational research---including my own---is that we often examine only one or a few suspects...and hope to end up with the right identification. In other words, I might be able to look at student motivation in light of grading practices, but there are so many other elements that are part of the classroom dynamic.

I suppose that just like I don't figure out all the pieces of every mystery shown on tv, I may not find the answer to all of the mysteries within the classroom. If I'm lucky, however, I'll learn one solid piece of the puzzle.

28 July 2007

Your Saturday Homework

I'm out and about today, so I'm leaving you a little reading to do. :

  • A new federal study shows that students in rural areas are outperforming their urban peers in the area of science. I'm not sure that I buy their reasoning that it's due to kids "being closer to nature," but I am curious to learn more from the report itself.
  • As reported by Pharyngula and Washington Teachers, the strongest predictor of success with college science is preparation in math. (You can read the article here.) We've long known that the amount of math taken in high school is one of the best correlates for completing a 4-year degree, but this is the first time I've seen something about a relationship between math and science.
  • This piece in Time magazine claims that Boys Are All Right. In spite of the repeated claims that there is a War on Boys (or you might remember me recently musing about the gap in reading scores), maybe the overall news is actually good. This is a long read, but much recommended.
That's all for this Saturday. It's time for me to finish the chores and hit the road. :)

27 July 2007

The Decider

I talk about grades off and on here. I find grading practices and how grades are used to be something interesting to ponder. For the last day or so, I've been thinking about grades as gatekeepers---and if they aren't used in that manner, who/what should The Decider be (if any) about what classes students are allowed to take?

So here's the problem which generated my recent round of wondering: too many kids are failing chemistry at one of the area schools. The solution? Heavily weed out kids who signed up this spring (for next fall's class) based on their previous grades...and then weed again in the fall based on scores from two tests. I have to say that this kind of thinking really sets my teeth on edge, but I bit my tongue during the conversation because I felt like I needed to think about my reaction a bit more. I don't like the idea of using grades as gatekeepers, because the grades reported for incoming students don't tell you anything more than just a letter. Does the letter represent a kid who attended every day? Frequently "participated"? A kid who knows the material, but handed in all his/her work late and therefore received a C? Is this a kid who is good at memorization and could ace the tests without any sort of real learning? Or, is this a student who really does or does not understand the material? There is no way to tell...and yet if you're going to use this magic letter to determine who will or will not be successful in chemistry---how can you know?

My other problems with this argument are twofold. One is simply that having chemistry on a transcript is a gatekeeper in and of itself. It's something college admissions staff looks for, even if the grade isn't so hot. It means the student has chosen something challenging and rigorous---there is reason to believe that the kid could make it in college. So, in keeping kids from taking chemistry in high school, you're also making it harder for them to get into college. Secondly, the assumption is that all of the kids who are failing chemistry are doing so because it's completely their doing. I have no doubt that this argument will hold up for some of that population. Some kids may not have the facility with algebra to be successful with chemistry. Others have significant attendance issues---and aren't able to learn the material on their own. But I don't think we can paint this entire group with one brush. At some point, is it not also worthwhile to step back and look at the curriculum? Concepts taught? Instruction and assessments? Is it possible to offer some sort of support program for kids who are struggling instead of making it ohsoclear that you don't think they can do it?

I understand wanting to prevent some heartache on the part of a student who is failing miserably. I'm just not convinced that grades are the way to go in order to prevent this. So, what would be?

I'm thinking that the parents and students are the logical choices here. If a kid wants to try chemistry, then why not? Perhaps the kid has been a goof-off in the past and is making a commitment to his/her studies. Maybe there's been some family drama in the last year and now that personal lives are stabilizing, school performance will, too. Only the student can know for sure what s/he is willing to take on. It's true that they need to make an informed decision---look carefully at the pre-requisite skills and topics covered (No, you don't get to blow things up every day) and evaluate that in light of what they know about themselves. Talk to other students and parents about their experiences.

My previous Boss Lady was a champion of getting the gates off of course enrollment. These hurdles schools place in terms of grades and pre-requisite courses are one source of the achievement gap, especially in terms of our children who come from poverty. Schools need to be places that are more associated with "Yes, you can!" than "No, we don't think you can...so don't." In the end, I'm still left trying to balance all of that---the intentions of staff to place students, the needs of kids, and the role of grades. It is easy to think of extreme examples, but I'm looking for any overall gestalt here. What should the policy be about who/what is The Decider?

26 July 2007

Ready to Write and Roll...I Think

I have no doubt that I will continue to expand my literature search as my dissertation develops over the next year. For now, however, I'm ready to start writing my Doctoral Study Proposal. This will eventually form the first three chapters of my dissertation (introduction, literature review, methodology). I have until the middle of April to accomplish this, but I am going to see if I can't finish this by December 1. My concern about "waiting" to finish is that I can't do any data collection until the Proposal is approved. If that doesn't happen until sometime in May or early June, my project is going to be screwed: I can't survey students during the summer about their motivation for school and the classroom environment that they're in. Considering I'm supposed to finish drafting the whole shebang by September 2008, I'm in trouble. It's true, I could lay out a semester between now and then and then finish my degree a semester later than originally anticipated, but I'd just rather not. I'd like to keep moving forward.

The line of thought I'm following goes something like this...
  • Powerful Learning Environments are those which are student-centered and facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills in all students. They represent a response to recent changes in society which expect that every student will achieve a high level of literacy, thinking skills, and the ability to regulate and communicate learning. These characteristics of these environments are also related to new learning about how the brain learns. Student motivation and learning are connected to and affected by these environments.
  • Motivation toward achievement can take one of two basic pathways: performance or mastery. A person or environment geared toward performance is one of normative comparisons. Performance goals are not associated with deep learning or metacognition. Mastery goals are criterion-referenced and are associated with patterns of learning that are adaptive. Although most people have a dominant type of personal achievement goal, these can be influenced by the situation/context a person is experiencing---such as how a teacher structures his/her classroom practices.
  • One practice teachers impose on the classroom environment is grading. These practices can foster either a mastery or performance goal approach, but little is known about the impact this has on students, especially adolescents. Adolescence is a time when many people begin to differentiate between "ability" and "effort" and this can alter their personal approach to school. Most elementary school aged children have a mastery goal orientation, but the performance environment which has a greater presence starting in middle school may be part of the reason that students begin to disconnect from school at this time. It's possible that those teachers which continue to foster a mastery-oriented environment through their grading practices help students stay connected with learning and have higher-achieving students.
Voila! We'll see what I find out. I have some really great research to form the basis of my study and have gathered some useful tools for investigating student perceptions of their classroom environment and motivational levels/orientation.

Right now, everything still feels a bit unwieldy. It makes sense in my head, but pulling everything into one neat little package is not so simple. I hope to make a good run at it in the next few weeks and then just take the fall to revise and add details. It would be nice to get this project off the ground.

25 July 2007

Home Improvement

It seems like a lot of school personnel use the summer for working on their homes, in addition to some self-improvement. After a week of off and on rain here, the paint job on my house is nearly done, I'm busy redoing some planting beds in anticipation of the fall (bulbs) and next spring (flowers and veg), and slowly-but-surely working on some small indoor projects (like fixing the fluorescent light over the sink). With duties for school beginning in two weeks, time is growing short for me to deal with the long list of home improvements.

If you're one of the lucky few who can sit back today and enjoy a cool beverage, why not head over to this week's Carnival of Education. It is once again most ably hosted by the genial Mike in Texas. As always, this is our weekly opportunity to edify our minds, feed our teacher souls, and perhaps dodge another chore in the yard. :)

24 July 2007

So What Else Is New?

The Tampa Tribune has an article about the "crisis" schools are experiencing due to the gender gap in reading ability. I definitely agree that this is a significant issue, but this issue is starting to feel like Mark Twain's observation that "Everyone talks about the weather...but nobody does anything about it." We've been hearing for awhile now that boys lag behind girls in terms of proficiency in reading. Can anything be done? What should it be?

From a developmental perspective, I'm not convinced that there is much families and schools can do. Educators have long recognized that boys and girls learn differently. And new brain research has convinced some that more consideration should be given to the findings. "Girls' left brain tends to develop more quickly than boys' left brain," said Diane Connell, a professor of New Hampshire's Rivier College. "That enables girls in kindergarten and first grade to actually do the writing, fine motor skills, sit in their seats longer. They're even able to hear better. They really do come to school more equipped to read and write." If this is truly the case, then all the nurture in the world isn't going to overcome nature. We have to wait until the minds of young boys are physiologically ready to learn to read. Beyond that point, we need to do a much better job of helping them learn. Consider the following information from the article:

  • Nationally the gap between girls' and boys' reading proficiency is 5 percentage points to 10 percentage points. In writing, it's 10 percentage points to 15 percentage points.
  • About three-quarters of special-education students are boys.
  • Poor, black and Hispanic boys struggle the most with reading.
  • Poverty has long been a factor in poor academic performance, but a high percentage of boys from educated families are deficient in reading. Twenty-three percent of young white men with parents who have at least a bachelor's degree are not proficient in reading when they graduate from high school; 7 percent of young women are not, according to statistics.
I'm not aware of any biological reasons for these---although the first one might be due in part to a developmental "lag." The article's author includes some suggestions to help close the gap (wider choice of reading materials, more time reading and talking about reading). Will anyone consider this as new information? Will now be the time that schools and families make some changes to supporting boys in reading?

23 July 2007

Putting It Together...Again

Any blogger with a library of posts and some stats code begins to notice that some search terms and posts are more popular than others in terms of who they bring to your blog. Two of my recent favourites have been "Why aren't I gifted anymore?" (um...grammar issues, perhaps?) and "HOW TO GET KIDS TO PICK UP TOYS" (I'm assuming the all caps represent a frustrated mother who is wondering when the hell school is starting again). Anyway, one of my "old" posts that is frequently called up to active duty is Putting It Together. This was a post where I distilled information from Robert Marzano, Marcia Tate, and some other cognitive researchers into a generic lesson plan format. The idea was to make as much of the theory as practical as possible. I have presented this a few times---and more importantly, I have used it myself and been very happy with the results.

One of the features I have with publishing my blog is the ability to upload attachments with my posts. So, for the first time, I'm going to try out this feature and place a copy of this "Holy Grail" of a Lesson Plan: Grail_Lesson_Plan.doc

For those of you who try to open it, I hope you'll let me know how the formatting did or didn't stay intact (at least from what you can see). This is a great plan to use with students of all ages (including adult learners in a staff development setting) and can be flexed to suit different time frames. Enjoy!

22 July 2007

Math First...Science Sometime

As a result of some recommendations made by a state level commission, Washington is in the process of re-examining its math and science standards. These documents had been reviewed in the past, but the goal now is to make them comparable to international standards. The math review is complete and the verdict is that the math goals are too low. Other conclusions by the review team included that Washington standards are too much on the concept side and not enough on the basic facts side of the math world. In addition, the standards are a mile wide and an inch deep---they have not been truly boiled down to what's essential. Currently, nearly 40% of tenth grade students are unable to meet the standards in math.

Fewer students are able to meet the standards in science. I am cringing as I await the review of those standards and what that may mean. My hunch is that there will be some similar conclusions as with math---not enough "beef." Science is a bit of a red-headed step-child in all of this. Kids have to meet the standards in 2013, just as they will for math, and yet all of the attention and focus is on boosting math scores...which have a lot shorter road to travel than science. I'm not sure when people are going to start panicking about science, but it's already getting to be too late.

20 July 2007

Screaming Meme-ys

The Exhausted Intern appears to be getting her second (blogging) wind. She just put out her "'Four Things" meme and tagged a few others of us to play. Let's see how I do.

Four jobs I’ve had

  • Librarian
  • Pseudo-Nanny (just afternoons)
  • Teacher
  • Herbarium Specialist/Greenhouse Tech

Four movies I can watch over and over

Four places I’ve lived

  • Burnaby, British Columbia (twice)
  • Austin, Texas
  • State College, Pennsylvania
  • western Washington

Four TV shows I love

  • Twin Peaks
  • The Tick (animated)
  • Mythbusters
  • darned near anything on Turner Classic Movies

Four places I’ve vacationed

  • Colorado
  • South Dakota
  • France
  • England

Four of my favorite dishes

  • Homemade flour tortillas (yes, lard and all)
  • Texas Brisket
  • Steamed snow crab
  • Magnolia Bakery Cupcakes (I like to add some mini-chocolate chips to the batter)

Four sites I visit daily

Four places I would rather be right now

Four People I Am Tagging
  • Four people who would love to play! It's summer---get your blog on and meme with us!

19 July 2007

A Few More Thoughts on Ed Research

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts in response to an Education Week article about how education research could probably improve schools, but won't. There were lots of great comments generated and I have been thinking about some of them.

Ivy mentioned "that the best researchers are the teachers themselves. By truly getting to know the children that they work with, they can assess what they need. It should not take third, fourth and fifth parties to get involved with that relationship between student and teacher. I think the system has made a complex mess out of something that used to be a natural and instinctive process." I do believe that in some ways, she's right. Who best knows what a particular group of students needs within the classroom walls? Who works with them each day, hopefully refining his/her practice along the way, in order to help student achievement? The teacher. I think good teachers...caring teachers...are researchers after a fashion. I applaud that.

But there is a bit of a breakdown beyond that. Some of the reasons are pointed out by Gary: not all research is good research. There are problems with the methodology, data collection, sampling technique, or other aspects. That "right mix" of factors that might be stumbled upon for a group of students isn't going to necessarily be generalizable. The next class or next year, you have to start again. Rarely do we pass the collective wisdom of teachers to the next grade level receiving students (maybe each kid should have a "user's manual"), let alone think about how developmental changes are going to impact things. Meanwhile, for those researchers who have gone and combed through previous work and conducted analyses---yes, I'm talking about Marzano, Guskey, and others---we're still not making the rubber hit the road in most places. Where the roadblocks of finding and distilling quality information for us has been done, we're reading/learning...and not doing.

It is likely that Vivek and the Repaiman are on to the stickiest point in all of this: support from leadership. This is where I see something like a strong coaching model making a significant difference in the classroom. Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce of the National Staff Development Council have been conducting longitudinal research on how well new learning about best practices is incorporated by classroom teachers. In 1996, they published the findings summarized in the graphic below.


What you're looking at here is their 1996 data. The yellow bars represent the kinds of mastery demonstrated during the training...the green is what is demonstrated in the classroom. You might think of the first set of bars as "sit and get." Someone is just presenting information. Not a great bang for your buck, eh? The second set includes demos by the presenter while the third adds in some practice by the the participants. While the presentation style does increase teacher mastery during the presentation, you'll see that none of these makes a long lasting difference in the classroom. This seems to support some of the observations made by commenters on my original post. Showers and Joyce recently amended their data. Here is the most recent version (keep in mind that the "feedback and reflection" associated with coaching/mentoring required nearly 20 cycles in order to reach the reported level of effectiveness):

Maybe it isn't the educational research that's out there on "best practices" that's the problem in all of this. Perhaps it's our plan to support the implementation. Are leaders within the public school system ready, willing, and able to provide coaching and mentoring for teachers in order to make change happen? I'm sure the answer varies among districts. All of this is a good reminder for me as I take on the mantle of "instructional coach" next year that I really can help make some change. I just need to get into classrooms and support teachers in what they do best: reaching students.

18 July 2007

Copping Out

Okay, so I don't have a lot education-wise to share at the moment. I'm busy with some other personal projects (like getting the house painted and some new trees planted), so hop on over to this week's Carnival of Education. You will find that many fine minds are still focused on the topics at hand, as opposed to gallivanting around the yard with shovels and water hoses. Since these sorts of activities tend to give one some think-time, I hope to return tomorrow with something education-y to talk about. :)

17 July 2007

Summer Brain Drain

The folks at ABC News are reporting about the effects of "Summer Brain Drain," which is the loss of knowledge and skills that may happen for school children during summer vacation...as much as 60% of what was learned in the previous school year.

Their sources, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, reports that "brain drain during the first five years of school can hurt kids later on, in high school and college." This is especially evident in the areas of math and literacy (especially for low-income students), but I have to wonder if anyone has actually studied the loss of learning in other academic areas.

They suggest the following options to help support student learning over the summer:
  • Camps and library programs
  • Read, read, read
  • Baking and lemonade stands (for math skills)
  • Spend time outside (ostensibly with your book)
I wonder if anyone out there works with low-income families...or families that might live within cities where green spaces (let alone yards for lemonade stands)...in order to provide some ideas for how those families can keep kids' minds active over the summer. While the suggestions here to prevent brain drain aren't exactly brain surgery in terms of their ideas, I do think that there are some equity issues to be mindful of.

16 July 2007

Who? Me?


Shot a Deer by Andy Beal CC-BY-NC-ND


I didn't take this picture, but I could very well have done so. The deer I had last year have made a return appearance and are enjoying munching on various things in the yard. They definitely have a "Who? Me?" look when at them happily eating away at my flowers. I can only really complain about the loss of hydrangea buds, as they are also working their way through dandelions, brambles, and vinca vine. Like last summer, they are spending time sleeping outside my bedroom window. It's nice to see them just a few feet from me, curled up together and feeling safe. I also have a family of raccoons wandering around in the evening. The babies are fun to watch.

I haven't made as much progress as I would like in beating back some areas of the yard, where I would like to a put a cutting garden to help support bees and butterflies...but soon. There's something nice about supporting wildlife within one's own boundaries. This place is not only my retreat---but one I can share with others.

15 July 2007

Putting Away the Year

The previous school year is now nearly three weeks into the past and perhaps there's finally some closure on things. We did lose a couple more people from the department, including Mighty White Boy. He (finally) got a principalship, although many of us would like to extend our condolences to the school receiving him. Their previous admin left after a vote of "no confidence" by the staff. MWB took this as a sign that there's nowhere but up for his tenure to go. Someone in the office commented that they hadn't met him yet. Another mentioned that Boss Lady 2.0's fervor in believing he would have an admin job for next year might well have been due to her figuring out he wasn't all he made himself out to be---and she was engaging in wishful thinking to send him along to someone else.

Although many of us hoped to see some sort of restructuring of central office administration happen, it was not to be for the upcoming year. The elementary director is wonderful to work with and we are excited about the incoming secondary director. The temporary one this year was completely useless. Someone asked me a few weeks ago what exactly she did for the district. Other than taking up air and space, I wasn't quite sure. Mind you, she's been moved to a different position next year, but at least it's one which is less visible.

I am very much looking forward to my "escape" back to a building---if only part-time---next year to coach. I know that others have looked for different positions...and another year working for the Boss Lady 2.0 may finish off all of us. We were provided a forum with the supe to just raise his awareness level of what is happening in our office, but we ended up not taking the offer. It was just so late in the year and everyone's feeling is that it would do no good. We'll have to wait and see what next year brings.

At the moment, I really do feel myself starting to recharge. I have enough distance from last year to be able to put it away and not think about it anymore...and soon, I will be ready to spend more time anticipating the coming year.

13 July 2007

Is That Your Final Answer?

There are about four more weeks left in my stats class. I have to say that for all the hype, this class really wasn't that frightening. I was originally a bit worried about surviving the course in good stead, but all has gone wonderfully well. The main thing that has stood in my way was the one item I had anticipated: learning to use the statistical software.

The weekly assignments weren't particularly difficult---we were provided with enough "point and click" guidance to make things work. The only problem with that, of course, is that it doesn't foster a lot of learning. We have only one paper for this class and it is definitely a "rubber meets the road" sort of deal. We choose a particular research problem, create a survey, generate some fake data...and then analyze it. It's the analysis portion that has been eating my lunch the last few days. Because I created my own data set, I already knew how the analysis should skew, but I had to prove it. After several permutations of analysis (and a lot of swear words), I finally have the kind of output I need. I've managed to slay the dragon.

All of this has raised a more generic question for me about how people learn about the "reasonableness" of answers. When I taught chemistry, I was quite often amazed at some of the answers students calculated. How could they not have noticed that there was some sort of problem? Didn't it look off by a few orders of magnitude? With the statistical software I've been using, I have seen how easy it can be to just accept whatever output is spit out---it generates whatever you tell it to...so that must be correct, right? My guess is that most of my current classmates may be of that mindset---there is already talk of hiring "personal statisticians" (at $80/hr) to complete that part of their doctoral studies.

At first, my hunch was that people learn to evaluate the reasonableness of an answer through conceptual understanding...a deeper level of knowing the math. Now, I'm not so sure. I can't claim to have a very deep knowledge of the statistical concepts I'm wading through; but, something is still giving me a clue that all is or is not right with the world when I look at my data. Maybe learning to decide if you're at your final answer is just a reflective process---something that allows you to evaluate things in light of the original question and probe things that way. Has anyone seen any information on how we get students...how we learn...to look for and listen to that sort of cognitive dissonance? It would be great to find out how to foster and develop that.

12 July 2007

I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

This was one of those days meant to tie up all sorts of loose ends. The laundry and dishes are all done and put away. The trash made it to the curb. I caught up on my magazine reading---my periodicals have been stacking up for at least a month. All of the mid-month bill paying and accounting were completed. I gave the thirsty plants (and lawn) something to drink (although I think my basil was permanently toasted during yesterday's record heat). I sorted through some e-mail. I heard back from a prof who was enthused about being on my doctoral committee and then set about getting that paperwork done.

And I finished reading all of the research for my dissertation...at least what I have on hand. It is this part which feels miraculous. Seventy-odd articles and a few books later, I have an abundance of notes and a healthy bibliography. Fertile ground for writing my prospectus (due in a few weeks), but even more importantly, for starting my doctoral study. I had hoped to get my introduction and literature review into a preliminary draft this summer, but it all felt so daunting. So much reading. So much thinking. I can't believe that I'm ready to start digesting this feast (and I know I'll be having additional courses from now on).

My brain seems to have finished processing the year at large. I don't know about other teachers, but whenever I have a bit of an extended break---be it winter or summer---I have a couple of weeks with the oddest dreams and a few nightmares sprinkled in. All of those little things my subconscious didn't have time to process during the working part of the year because new things got piled on top are all now neatly sorted and filed or otherwise disposed of. I finally feel like I have some perspective on the previous year, although I'm not ready to get enthusiastic about the next one. (I have plenty of summer work I brought home...all of which is gathering dust at the moment.)

It won't last long, I know. Tomorrow, more bills will arrive in the mail and there will be more dishes and laundry waiting. There will be more research to hunt down and abstract or ideas to ponder in more detail. For now, though, there is this delicious sense of completeness. Of fullness. All that's missing is dessert---but I will take care of that shortly when I go out for my favourite treat. There's room for one more indulgence in my day.

11 July 2007

Wednesday Cool/Kewl

It's supposed to be insanely hot here today (near 100), which wouldn't be a big thing if this part of the world believed in central air conditioning. The fact is, there really aren't that many days where it's needed...so we just have to suffer on those days. We are fortunate enough here not to have a reputation for being stoic. I plan to take advantage of that and whine. A lot. If you're sweltering too, here are some suggestions for distracting yourself from the evil sun.

The Education Wonks have a fine Carnival this week. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the 127th edition---and it's still looking fresh as a daisy.

A few days ago, I wrote about the research-practice gap. Interestingly enough, so has Greg over at LeaderTalk. He writes about being inspired to do something about it as well as his plan to get things moving in his world. He's going to be an effective principal: a rebel with a cause. This is a fantastic post to read and think about today.

Prefer to go shopping? Let me recommend Pencil Things to you. Yes, in real life, I'm very low tech. Happiness is a cedar-based pencil with a very long sharp point. This place is nirvana if you enjoy anything pencil related. I love these little sharpeners, for example. I have to say that this seller is one of the best and easiest to work with that I have ever encountered. I placed my last order on the 4th of July...it shipped that same day...and I had things in hand by Monday.

Finally, I made this picture my new desktop wallpaper:
Photo AP File
I wish I could give proper credit for it (it was found on Yahoo! News and they only credited AP). Even if the moias of Easter Island didn't make the final cut for the Seven (New) Wonders of the World, they're still darned fascinating to me. Makes me ponder my own future travel plans. I have so much left to explore.

Good luck to everyone riding out the heat today!

10 July 2007

Meltdown

It's hot here, campers. It's not as hot as the area where I grew up---where 110 degrees (Fahrenheit) was a common summer afternoon temperature. It's "only" 91 here at the moment...and it's expected that temps will rise tomorrow. I'm trying to keep a cool tool, as my Sweetie says, but I actually have a different sort of meltdown in mind at the moment.

Toward the end of the school year, I had a teacher melt down in front of me about a standards-based report card. Not the one in our district---this teacher was looking at it from a parent's perspective. The children in the family attend school in another area district which uses them...and this teacher was hopping mad. "I hate them! It doesn't tell me anything!"

Wha'?

I tried to ask some questions and find out what was missing. I truly wanted to know. Considering that we are implementing this type of reporting system in this district---ostensibly as a better communication tool with parents---what might not be working from a parent's perspective. Unfortunately, this teacher was so upset that there wasn't much of anything coherent to share. The idea of the standards-based report card touched that sort of nerve. The only thing I managed to get is that the parent was positive the daughter could do a certain kind of work, but there was a "1" on the report card for that area.

It wasn't the right situation to pursue this line of thinking, but I had to wonder what this teacher expected the daughter's teacher to do. I know the teacher is someone who often gives zeros to students for missing work...and setting aside the argument of whether or not zeros are appropriate...why would another teacher not be expected to do the same thing? If anything, the daughter's teacher was communicating that s/he hadn't seen the skill demonstrated...that they had no evidence. Maybe the kid could do it, as the parents attest, but how would the teacher know since the child didn't turn in her work (even when given an additional opportunity)?

I hope to continue this conversation at some point next year. I think it's worth pursuing...but I have to wait until this parent is no longer in a meltdown frame of mind.

09 July 2007

Not a News Flash, But Still a Twist

Teacher retention has been an issue in public education for some time now. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) has published another study on this topic. Key findings include
  • The national cost of public school teacher turnover could be over $7.3 billion a year.
  • Teacher attrition has grown by 50 percent over the past fifteen years.
  • The national teacher turnover rate has risen to 16.8 percent. In urban schools it is over 20 percent, and, in some schools and districts, the teacher dropout rate is actually higher than the student dropout rate.
  • The problem is most acute in the nation’s high minority, high poverty, and low performing schools. Because 46% of all new teachers in the United States leave the profession within five years, NCTAF says leaders of at-risk schools are in a constant cycle of rebuilding their staff.
The recommendations don't hold any new ideas---which doesn't diminish their importance, only that it's a renewed call for public school leaders to listen---save one: Amending NCLB to hold school leaders accountable for turnover and its costs. That's a rather novel idea, don't you think? I'm not so sure how it would play out. Would you count retirees? Those who choose to start a family and leave their job to be a stay-at-home parent? Teachers who move, but then become employed in a different district? What do you do with districts (like mine) who have shrinking student enrollments and need fewer teachers? And, finally, what about those teachers who discover that public education is just not for them?

I'm not forgetting that most teachers leave the profession because of a perceived lack of administrative support and working conditions. If those can somehow be addressed in a way that makes sense for all stakeholders, it needs to happen. Perhaps tying it in with NCLB would be a forum for doing so.

08 July 2007

Like a Wheel Within a Wheel

I'm still working my way through a massive stack of research. It's my plan for the summer---getting my dissertation charted out. I know, it doesn't sound like as much fun as sitting on the beach somewhere drinking Mai Tais, but I can see the water from my windows while I sip iced tea. It's almost as good.

My doctoral study is starting to take more shape. In doing so, I'm seeing more and more how some of the larger theories can be honed down to one aspect for me to investigate. At this point, it looks like most of my work will be based on current motivational theory or "Achievement Goal Theory." The idea here is that students have one of two goal orientations: one toward mastery or one toward performance. Mastery goals are associated with more intrinsic forms of motivation. A kid with a mastery goal will value the learning happening in the classroom. A student with a performance goal will be more interested in comparing his/her grades or standing with others in the class. You might think of these as more normative goals vs. those which would be criterion-referenced (mastery). There are more positive outcomes associated with mastery goals, including developing a lifelong love of learning. (Please note that I'm greatly oversimplifying things here...it's likely going to take me 15 pages of writing to do the same thing for my dissertation.)

All of this Goal Theory is a small chunk of another---and grander idea, in my opinion---of "Powerful Learning Environments." This theory has emerged around constructivism, but is much more biologically based. (One could even go deeper here into "Cognitive Load Theory.") Here, we're looking at the qualities of classrooms which allow for the greatest amount of learning...everything from how many "chunks" of information are presented along with opportunities for rehearsal to how assignments and small groups are structured. Motivational goals for students are certainly part of this.

These things are leading to my main interest for investigation: the impact of standards-based grading practices on students. I have found several articles by this point which mention the need to specifically look at grading practices in order to inform each of the theories described above. Meanwhile, we in the schools tend to talk about changing communication tools in order to help parents and other teachers (a goal I definitely endorse), but we're not looking at the impact to our kids. I really think that grading is a place where motivation, achievement, classroom structure, and constructivism meet. So, this is where my doctoral study will sit. A circle in a spiral, indeed.

What all of this will look like in terms of my study is still a bit fuzzy in my mind at the moment. Initially, I had thought about looking at the grades 6 to 7 transition as students emerge from "mastery" oriented classrooms and move to "performance" ones. But now, I'm thinking that I might just focus on sixth grade students. This district is ripe for a stratified sample, as we will have elementary schools at years 0, 1, 2, and 3 in implementing standards-based grading/reporting. It's a perfect opportunity to look at motivation in adolescents in a somewhat "longitudinal" fashion.

So, it's back to the stack of folders for me. Time to dive back into the piles of research and build my case for doing a dissertation. Maybe the windmills of my mind will create perfect summer breeze to make me feel fine. :)

07 July 2007

Clash of Old and New

Part of my undergraduate degree was a full-year survey course of Philosophy...one designed just for people in my degree program. I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would. The reading was intense and the ideas were fun to ponder. The graduate students who led our small discussion groups were a kick. They didn't talk about their work very often, but there were always interesting stories to share. I remember one about reading Hegel, who has some pretty difficult ideas to try to digest, but I hadn't thought that would be literal. Apparently, one poor student was so intent that she actually threw up all over the book. My favourite story, however, was the one about a grad student who was consumed with his analysis of Plato's The Republic. His dog, who eventually tired of being ignored, got up on the table where the book and notes were...and took a big dump right in the middle of them.

At the time, I did not picture myself as a doctoral candidate. I had a hard enough time picturing myself as an undergrad...but nearly 20 years on, here I am, gearing up for the biggest project and paper I have ever attempted. I totally understand the feeling of nausea that is generated by reading one. more. paper.

Reader's Guide by 917press CC-BY-NC-SA
Some things have changed in the intervening decades (oh, it makes me cry to realize how much time has passed...). Instead of a brick and mortar institution, I'm working with an on-line one. I don't sit down with all the green "Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature" books at the library. (Remember those? Good times....) Instead, I use the EBSCO database to instantly search through hundreds of peer-reviewed journals and can download articles. If there is something I need that can't be had there, I fill out an electronic request for the university library to find it and send it to me.

from Smead
Even with all of the new possibilities for learning in today's world, one thing I haven't been able to figure out is how to manage all of this information in a digital format. I'm not talking about making folders on my computer's hard drive for storage---I'm talking about the actual work that goes into reading the information, taking notes, and being able to note the connections and "A-ha!"'s generated. I have to print the articles. I have to think about pulling out ye olde index card file. For me, there still has to be the tactile piece to the research. I need to be able to physically move things around...to highlight at will and pencil notes in margins. It seems to be at odds with all this new-fangled way of learning on-line, but I just can't seem to find a way around it. My best friends right now are the Smead No. 10344 folders. They have printed lines on the interior which are perfect for notetaking. Each of the articles I have (and I'm up to about 75 at the moment) has its own folder. The APA citation is on the label. I note the keywords on the outside of the jacket along with any connections to other things I've read. On the inside, I capture the main points highlighted in the paper so that I have a quick glance reference. Beyond this, each folder is organized in a hanging file with like ideas...and then those are ordered by how I want to (eventually) write about them.

I'm sure that I'll have a lot more to learn as my older and newer ways of learning attempt to mesh into something roughly approximating a dissertation. Maybe everything can peacefully co-exist...maybe we can all just get along.

06 July 2007

Great Dissertation Topic...Just Not Mine

Ryan over at I Thought a Think had a lovely post earlier in the week about how Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won't. His thinking emerged after reading an article by the same title over at Education Week. (As he points out, the whole thing is worth reading. Really. Click on over and have a look. I'll wait.) All of these ideas reflect something that I've been wondering myself recently. If we know what constitutes best practices, how come they are not often used within classrooms?

My head is full of research at the moment (more on that tomorrow) as I'm gearing up for my doctoral study/dissertation. I probably have 30 different---and recent---studies on student motivation and classroom structures which support the kind of engagement and learning goals teachers say they would love to see in their students...and yet I'm hard pressed to think of a single teacher I know who actually has this kind of environment in his or her classroom. This is just one example of many concerning the disparity between educational research and the real world of the classroom.

Why things are as they are isn't rocket science, at least by my estimation. Teachers are busy with the day-to-day work of the classroom. To do it well can be all-consuming (although to teach poorly doesn't require all that much effort). I have often said here that schools aren't making widgets---we're trying to turn out good human beings. This is no small task. Where is there time in a teacher's life to keep current?

However...

We want doctors who practice medicine according to current standards...not those from 100 years ago. I like to take my car to a mechanic who knows about current models of cars...not just Model T's. Considering the precious cargo of our classrooms, it is not incumbent upon professional teachers to make an effort to learn about---and implement---the current set of best practices?

The EdWeek article does make a good point about why this doesn't happen: "Research is not readily accessible—either physically or intellectually—to the potential users...Even if research findings were widely available and written in clear prose..., the reports would not be widely read. Most teachers are not consumers of research, nor are most principals or superintendents. And even if educators and policymakers did read all the studies in a timely fashion, schools and education practice would not change very much, mainly because making significant changes means altering value structures, disrupting routines, and teaching old dogs new tricks." (They didn't mention having to fight The Union every step of the way, too.)

This is a fair summation of things. I can attest that reading a lot of the educational research is downright painful. Meanwhile, I can't admit to keeping up with everything happening in the great wide world of education. I'm fairly focused on a few areas. I also appreciate those who have distilled this work into reader-friendly books available from ASCD, Heinemann, Corwin, and other educational publishers. And yet, how many of those books have I read but not implemented the suggestions contained within them?

The author of the article also suggests that researchers could do more to make their information accessible. This is another good point, but it would still mean that teachers (and admins) would have to make the effort to do their part with the information.

Where I'm not ready to follow along with the EdWeek article is this statement: "Finally, efforts to apply research findings are not likely to produce the desired outcomes because the educational system, like a combustion engine, will not work efficiently if any of its critical parts are broken." This rubs me the wrong way. It feels like a "Why bother? You can't make a difference, anyway." sort of statement. Yes, it's true that public education is far from a well-oiled machine. We have big problems to address and none of them are simple. But from what I've read, teachers are the most influential factor in the classroom. Just because some parts of the system as a whole are dysfunctional doesn't mean that teachers can't make a difference within their classrooms each and every day.

Seems like a good EdD or PhD candidate out there could chew on these ideas in a lot of detail. Why such a disparity between theory and practice exists in education---and what can be done about it---would make for great research. Research I would certainly be interested in reading.

05 July 2007

Another Reason to Be Away from the NEA

Via Pharyngula...

This year's annual meeting for the National Education Association includes a booth by "Answers in Genesis," a creationist group. As Dr. Myers points out in his post:

It's rather like finding the Mafia has a booth at the police convention, but there they are, with lots of pictures, proudly peddling creationist dogma that is not legal to teach in public schools, and which can get school districts embroiled in expensive lawsuits, to teachers... I'm mystified why the NEA would allow this — any teacher in a public school who followed the advice of these clowns could land their school in very hot water, not to mention that they would be misleading and miseducating their students.

Hey, it's just another reason for the NEA (WEA, Uniserv, and Local) to suck away that $700 from my paycheck right? If a few out there teachers don't do stupid things, then what would be the point of the mob enforcement "protection" mentality that they have? Why not stoke their own fires by providing materials for teachers to get in trouble for using? I have no doubt that it would make perfect sense to the union "leadership" here.

04 July 2007

Meme Attack

Frumteacher and 100 Farmers both tagged me with the meme du jour while I was away last week and I'm just now getting caught up on things.

The rules are 1. Let others know who tagged you. 2. Players start with 8 random facts about themselves. 3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts. 4. Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

It's summer and time to play, right?

  1. The name on my original birth certificate is "Christine Frances." My birthfather was a Catholic and thought naming me after Christ and St. Francis would confer some sort of protection as they sent me off into the world. Mind you, my middle name was first spelled "Francis," but because that was a "boy" name, the government wouldn't allow it. My birthmother had a difficult enough time getting my birthfather to sign the birth certificate the first time...and wasn't sure she could get him to do it a second time. But she did.
  2. I'm allergic to strawberries. There is an enormous patch of them at my house and I happily allow the birds to consume the pretty red berries that emerge in the summer.
  3. If I had my path in life to chart all over again from age 17, I would have worked toward becoming a forensic anthropologist. Not that I don't feel comfortable and successful in my career...and I suppose that I'm not too old to start over...but having had some time out in the world has opened up my mind to more possibilities than I would have ever known about growing up in a small town. Maybe I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. :)
  4. I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books...nor seen any of the films. I think I may be the one person on the planet who has not contributed to the wealth of J.K. Rowling. Ditto for J.R.R. Tolkien('s estate).
  5. When I moved to Washington 11 years ago, I really considered myself Hispanic, by culture. After spending most of my life in a Tex-Mex speaking town with traditions strongly influenced by "border culture" (including food, holidays, etc.), I more strongly identified with that ethnicity than anything. However, the longer I have been away, the more that part of me slips into the background. I am really half Russian, and a quarter each British and French.
  6. I collect small hearts (the shape, not the organ) carved out of different kinds of stone.
  7. I get a lot of satisfaction out of working with my hands. I think it's because I don't have a career where there is much in the way of tangible products. There are so many things I'd like to learn to do: woodworking, metal work/welding, creating mosaics, etc. For now, I do whatever projects are within my skill set; but I look forward to expanding on that.
  8. Making biscuits eludes me. I can successfully prepare nearly anything in the kitchen, but every time I make biscuits (even under the watchful gaze of an expert), they turn out like rocks.
As this meme has burned its way through a good deal of the edusphere at this point, I tag anyone who would like to play, too! You're it!

Carnival: July 4th Style

The NYC Educator is hosting this week's Education Carnival. There's a fine collection of posts to peruse if you're trying to avoid the heat, fumes from the barbecue, or that view of the neighbour in the beer-stained undershirt. Enjoy!

03 July 2007

Keep on Truckin', er, Bloggin'

If you're an Eduspherian blogging your heart out about life in the classroom and sharing other thoughts about the world of education, then perhaps you might be interested in this resource from the Electronic Frontier Foundation: Fighting for Bloggers' Rights.

There's a handy legal guide, which while no substitute for proper advice from a practicing attorney, at least provides some background to the casual blogger. Most of the examples are not specific to the educational world, but that does not mean that they aren't worth considering. You may be most interested in looking at the material on Labor Law, which details workplace blogging. My hunch is that most of us blog about work from home and do not use hardware, software, or bandwidth available in the workplace. This is a much safer place to be. Even moreso, for those of us who work in districts with "internet nannies" (i.e. filtering software), there is even less of an opportunity for employers to stick their noses into your blogging. By not allowing blogging sites through the filter, it is not considered "school sponsored" and is therefore outside of their control. (I wonder how long it will be before a student suspended because of a MySpace post sues a school district from this angle?)

If you want to blog about your union---go for it! You've got federal protection for that. An employer is prohibited from taking any action against you as long as you're writing about union activities relating to the conditions of employment.

For those of you out there who work for private institutions, you may have less of a chance of standing up against any disciplinary measures. Considering educators as "public employees" is a bit of a stretch; however, public dollars are used for public education...and if there are things happening in your workplace that the public should be aware of---then you can make this information available. You need to be sensitive to the privacy of others; but at least edubloggers don't have to worry about divulging any proprietary information.

Finally, if you have a way to filter IPs and your employer is still attempting to monitor your blog, "this may violate provisions of federal and state laws that prohibit the unauthorized interception of communications. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510 et seq. (Wiretap Act), 2701 et seq. (Stored Communications Act)." While it is unlikely that anyone would take steps to sue an employer because of such a thing, it could put you in a position of strength.

Keep on bloggin'!

02 July 2007

Getting There Can Be More Than Half of the Fun


Some of us had a discussion at work about whether we were "journey" or "destination" people. In other words, are you the kind of person who would rather snap your fingers and be at a particular place...or do you enjoy the adventure of getting to a particular place? I tend to be more of a journey person. I like a road trip where things are on their own schedule: when you stop, where you spend the night, which route you take. (My exception to this preference is air travel...just get me there...I don't want any hassle.) A destination is what you make of it.

The past week has been a delightful combination of both journeys and destinations as my Sweetie and I took some time together. The first two days were all about the destination: a cabin by a rushing stream in the mountains. I won't reveal much more about this, as this is a G-rated blog. :) Suffice it to say that after being apart for nearly three months, we took lots of time to get to know one another all over again. It was a great way to kick off the summer holiday.

After that, we moved on down the road for two days. The first day, we stopped off to have lunch in Leavenworth, Washington---a Bavarian styled village in the Cascades, before moving on to Lake Chelan for part of the afternoon. To truly enjoy the lake area would need to be a destination in itself, so we kept heading down the highway.

This third evening led us to another cabin by the river, a small town's Friday Night Arts Walk, and the worst barbecue ever concocted (while being serenaded by a "cowboy" doing Cole Porter and Everly Brothers' tunes). Oy.

The final day of the road trip portion of our visit brought us back to my place. This was a long travel day, but very scenic. By the end of the day, even I was more about the destination than any more journey.

We've had some time at my place before ending our summer holiday together. The real world has started to creep back in again. It is always difficult to say our goodbyes, especially knowing that it will likely be a few more months before we can get away to another destination. In the meantime, we'll keep enjoying the journey. (All pictures taken by my sweetie.)

01 July 2007

Got Some Catching Up to Do

Regular blogging will recommence shortly...after I've had a chance to get back into the rhythm of daily life. In the meantime, might I suggest you peruse this week's Carnival of Education? Mike in Texas has one of the most unique voices in the edusphere and he's put together a delightful summer road trip for you.