31 December 2008

Obligatory Post

If you use the Gregorian calendar year, then today marks the end of 2008. As I write this, nearly half the planet is already into 2009. I hope that all is well on the other side. The rest of us will find out soon enough.

By this same calendar, it's Wednesday. I haven't reminded readers of the Carnival of Education for awhile, but this periodic addition to the Edusphere is now in its 204th incarnation over at Bellringers. Go visit your favourites from 2008 and perhaps find some new blogs to read for 2009.

It will be a quiet evening here, chez Science Goddess. I had a wonderful time out with friends last night---an early celebration of sorts. Tonight, I'm staying home...and if I feel really wild, I may get a Costco pizza and/or open one of the splits of champagne I've been saving for my graduation party. I am off until Monday.

2008 was not too bad of a year. I learned a lot about grading, had my most favourite job ever (elementary instructional coach), started to be a creator and producer of knowledge to share (presentations on grading practices), and more. I met a ton of new people--both on-line and in the real world. I am grateful for all of my friends, as well as being able to have money in the bank, a roof over my head, and food in the pantry. I may not be wealthy in a material sense, but I feel rich in ways that maen more to me.

As for the upcoming calendar year? I haven't given it a lot of thought. I hope to put my dissertation to bed this spring. I'd like to finish up the book proposal I was asked to write and get the best practices in grading website and Ning up and running. I want to be healthy and spend more time with friends (I am thinking about working 4-day 10-hour work weeks in order to get back my personal life.). I want to find a project or two at work that I can be passionate, rather than bureaucratic, about. Perhaps I can translate these things into some semblance of goals and action.

Best wishes to all of you in the coming year. See you on the next page of the calendar.

28 December 2008

What It Means to Make the Effort

The results of a recent study of college undergraduates (n = 400):
  • If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade -- 66.2% agree
  • If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course -- 40.7%
  • If I have attended most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B -- 34.1%
  • Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments -- 31.5%
  • Professors who won't let me take my exams at another time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation) are too strict - 29.9%
  • A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them - 24.8%
  • I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent - 23.5%
  • Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early - 16.8%
  • A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class - 16.5%
  • A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor - 11.2%
These results, if representative of college-age students, leave me almost speechless. They remind me of a conversation I had with a parent last year. Her son wasn't passing my class---he was rarely able to show any evidence of learning. Mom was convinced that they boy should get credit for the class because he was a nice person. In her mind, the fact that he wasn't a problem (behavior-wise) and did seat time should be enough. I don't know that I ever truly convinced her that it wasn't enough, but what I realized is that I was fighting years of the child (and parent) being rewarded for being nice. How many of this young man's teachers---and how many of the parent's teachers from years ago---had awarded time served for good behavior?

The information at the start of this post comes from an article in Canada's National Post suggesting "Entitled" Students Expect Better Grades (emphasis added).
The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."

It's a hot topic -- and source of much frustration -- among instructors, author Ellen Greenberger, a research professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine, says.

"I would have trembled with fear before I suggested to some of my revered teachers that I wanted them to give me a higher grade," she says.

Ms. Greenberger's study reveals that students who are academically entitled are more likely to engage in academic cheating, exploit others, shirk hard work and display "narcissistic orientation."

She found virtually no connection between self-entitled attitudes and grades, meaning it's not just weak students trying to wheedle better marks out of their profs, and those who do so aren't reaping the benefits on their transcripts.

"It certainly suggests that these attitudes and behaviours aren't producing the desired effect," she says. "It's just making teachers crazy."

Ms. Greenberg was surprised that parenting appears to have little influence in shaping self-entitled students, with one key exception: students who say their parents often compare their achievements to siblings, cousins or friends are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

What interests me the most about the emphasized areas is how closely they relate to my ideas about some of the behavioral theory behind best practices in grading. If you're an oldtimer here, then I'm about to get into grandma territory---where you've heard the same story so many times you could tell it better yourself. But for you whippersnapper readers out there, the predominant theory about motivation in educational settings is Achievement Goal Theory. From an earlier post:

Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

When I read this article about entitled students, I see Performance indicators everywhere. These are students who have been conditioned to believe that the grade is the be all and end all for learning...and they will do whatever they have to for it. One might think that means that they're learning and engaging in significant study along the way---but that is not typically the case. Think about the responses to the survey...the sheer number of students who believe they deserve a B for showing up most of the time or trying hard.

What do we do about these sorts of values, assuming we don't like them? Personally, I think that schools need to take a long hard look at the messages they send students and parents. Are we talking about grades...or are we talking about learning? Do we set up policies and practices that serve to entrain the higher priority on concept mastery...or are seat time and smiles enough? I believe that we can get students and parents to focus their attention on learning if we set those examples. When I read pieces in the New York Times commenting on America's need to reboot, I feel like there is a connection to schools---our entitled society is not only a product of them, it models and encourages their development in our youngsters. Hedgetoad points out that

We aren't inspiring people who want to create. We're producing people who want to be famous and rich. A generation of would-be lottery winners. Not for creating something, but just for being something. I've had several would be famous hip-hop artists in my classes, but none of them want to put any work in actually writing anything. I remember one former student who swore he would be a writer as a job, but couldn't write a complete sentence. And nearly punched the luckless teacher who attempted to point this out. I could go on and on with the stories of student who expected that whatever they wanted would eventually fall into their laps with no effort on their part. Even so-called 'fun' assignments show little effort and generally end up as not much more than coloring pages glued to a poster board.

In reading the blogs of others, I can see educators fighting the same apathy and I can see people finding moments of brilliance. What kind of shift do I need to start to get more moments of brilliance and less apathy? How can my students be inspired to want to learn?
It takes all of us. It means that we as a society have to reflect on both the hidden and overt messages we are giving kids. And it means that we have to change those. We can't say that we value intelligent and creative people---and then set up the rules for school in ways that don't support this. We can't shake our heads and say "Kids these days." as if they are all in some sort of phase that they can grow out of. We created the playing field and we have the responsibility for making things better---not necessarily easier. I hope that we make efforts to do so.

27 December 2008

Negotiations and Navigations

Being in the classroom comes with a variety of blessings and curses. On one hand, you are shielded from most of the politics and intrigue that happen at the school, district, and/or state level in education. Ignorance in many of these particular instances can indeed be blissful. You also have the luxury of just shutting the classroom door and doing your very best for the students sitting in front of you. You are the most influential factor and have the most direct power for what happens in the classroom. But, on the other hand, the fact that you are left out of the conversations means that you often have very little say in many of the policies and practices which shape most of the other aspects of classroom life. These include everything from how much prep time you get, to the number of students in a class, to the money spent on supplies. In that sense, it feels like everyone but you has a say in how you do your job.

What I am seeing from my current vantage point is that we all need to be better negotiators. By "we," I mean anyone who is sticking their fingers into the education pie: legislators, teachers, policy people, budget-makers, etc.

For example, there has been a lot of talk about "opportunity to learn" in several meetings I've recently attended. The idea here is that unless students get to engage in science lessons, they won't learn science (and scores on tests won't improve). So the answer is just to do something to mandate/encourage more time on science, especially in the k-8 levels, right? I'm not so sure. I do think that more practice with scientific skills and content may very well result in better student performance---but just telling teachers to teach more isn't a magic bullet. If we do this, then we also need to make an offer. In other words, what will we take off of their plates? Are we willing to work with schools to identify how to make more pockets of time for science in their schedules? Are we willing to say "teach reading and math less"? Are we willing to provide more prep time---or pay for a longer school day? What support will we provide so that teachers can be successful with the "do more science" thing? Where is the spoonful of sugar that will make the medicine go down?

I don't mean to trivialize things---but I do think that we need to be mindful that when we ask for something, it should come with an offer of benefit as part of the negotiation. Imagine how much differently NCLB would have played out by now if the feds had taken that tact.

If you're not reading Organized Chaos, you should. It's written by one of the best edubloggers out there, in my opinion. She's passionate, committed, and as adverse to capitalization as e.e. cummings. Her school was recently targeted for some changes, all in the name of district budget cuts. I could understand all of the amazing reasons she and others don't want these changes to take place---the reasons are entirely student-centered. The unfortunate thing is that such reasons aren't enough anymore. They should be. What's best for kids should be the very bottom line of every decision made in schools, in my opinion. The reality is that budgets must be balanced---schools aren't allowed to operate like the federal government. I suggested to her that her school will have to negotiate. To just offer the "right" reasons not to cut won't solve the problem for the money people. They have an ugly job to do. Instead, offer them alternatives: "If you don't cut x at our school, we could do without y." Help them achieve their goal---which in its own weird way, will get you to yours, too.

I realize that union leaders might negotiate for benefits and working conditions, but that's not where most teachers need help these days. Teachers need to be able to navigate the other systems which impact the classroom---those factors which often make them feel impotent, overwhelmed, and uncared for. It means that we all need to be respectful and aware of our power to negotiate---to give, as well as expect a return.

26 December 2008

A Brave New World

In a standards-based educational system, do grade levels really matter? A school district in Colorado has decided the answer is "No." and beginning next year, there will be no more traditional k-12 system.

A school district in Westminster struggling with declining enrollment and falling test scores will try something revolutionary next year that many say never has been accomplished in the Lower 48.

Adams 50 will eliminate grade levels and instead group students based on what they know, allowing them to advance to the next level after they have proved proficiency.

"If they can pull this off, it will be a lighthouse for America's challenged school districts," said Richard DeLorenzo, the consultant who implemented a standards-based model in Alaska and is working with Adams 50. "It will change the face of American education."

A district of 10,000 students and 21 schools, Adams 50 serves a working-class suburb north of Denver. Seventy-two percent of its students are poor enough for federal meal benefits, two-thirds are Latino, and 38 percent still are learning English.

Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles; fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

"What we are doing right now is not working," said Superintendent Roberta Selleck, who was hired in 2006 to reform the district. "We think this will be huge."

The new system will have 10 levels instead of the traditional kindergarten through 12th grade model.

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Next school year, the system starts with students now classified as kindergartners through eighth-graders and will expand into high school one year at a time.

"In a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant," Selleck said. "When a kid can demonstrate proficiency of a standard, they move on. There is nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school. That becomes blurred. Learning becomes much more 24-7."

There's much more to read in the whole article from the Denver Post. I have to admit, I'm rather fascinated with the whole idea. It looks like standards-based grading practices will be used and mastery will be the goal. It's a bit buried in the piece, but Robert Marzano is consulting on this project---and a district could do worse than having him guide things along.

Still, if I may say so, this is one ballsy school district.

I would very much be interested to learn what the district will do with "outlier" students. I'm assuming that just because a 15-year old student is working at a 3rd grade level doesn't mean you put them with 9-year olds---you find the other 15-year olds who are far below their peers and group them that way. What happens to electives? Transcripts for college? Do kids only get the one test a year to determine placement---or is there some way teachers can have kids collect evidence of learning for a broader method of determining level? Would an ELL kid get to "skip" some levels once their language skills allow them to demonstrate the subject matter proficiency they may have had all along? What supports are in place for teachers? Parents?

While I doubt that this sort of model will become the norm in coming years, if it is successful, I wouldn't be surprised to see it adopted by others. I hope we learn a lot along the way.

25 December 2008

Happy Holidays!

I hope that all of you are enjoying the holiday season---whatever that may mean for you in terms of creed or style of celebration. We are still snowy here, but things appear to be melting a bit. I've been able to get out of the house twice in the last 8 days...I'm actually looking forward to being able to go back to work on Monday. How sick is that?

I did get some wonderful gifts this year. I must have been a very good girl. Blogger, however, is getting coal in its stocking from me---having borked their ftp publishing the last several days. By sheer luck, I'm able to post again. Many out there cannot.

If, like me, you're starting to get a bit stir crazy and are ready to call it a Christmas, might I suggest the following links for a bit of comic relief?
  • The Saturday Bulletin has had quite the Christmas series going (see example at the beginning of the post---it's not PC, but I still giggle every time). Some are naughty, others shed light on Santa's recruiting methods, and one is brave enough to put into words what we were all thinking about string pulltoys. Guaranteed classy, indeed.
  • I also recommend The Weepies. Be sure to shake the snow globe.
  • If you have too much snow (and who doesn't these days?), take a look at these very cool snow prints. I may have to try something like this next time we get a snowfall. Like later today. Or perhaps show your pets this video of a dog joyfully playing in 4.5' of snow to encourage similar participation.
I am going to spend the rest of the day putting away paraphernalia, snacking, and cleaning house. Tonight, I'm snuggling down with the Bogeyfest on TCM and some pinot noir.

Best wishes to all of you for safe travels, happy families, and turkey/ham leftovers. Eat sugar cookies until you can eat no more. Get your Guitar Hero on. Take naps and watch wee ones play with toys. 2009 will be here soon enough.

23 December 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I get e-mail from teachers looking for support with grading. The fact is, I'm getting more and more of it, both through the blog address and at work. I won't say that all of the questions and needs are the same, but I will say that the common factor is that nearly every teacher who makes time to write feels like they are an island in the sea of grading.

I hear you.

No, really. This morning, I purchased a new domain specifically for grading and am putting together a Ning as a point of connection for you. It's time you all had some way to find and connect with one another. You have a lot to share and would benefit from being able to find each other. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover just how many other islands there are. Trust me, it's not just you floating along out there.

So, stay tuned. Keep those e-mails coming, so I know where to send the invitations to help get the party started.

22 December 2008

Enough is Enough

I was told yesterday afternoon that someone who made the trip from here to where I work needed 5.5 hours to get there. Considering the added overnight accumulation of snow...opportunity for ice to form...and lack of plowing since yesterday, I'm going to stay put today. Yes, again. If I thought it would do any good, I would shake my tiny fist at the sky and say "Uncle!"

One of my major projects today is to work on some staff development materials for a group I'm working with in early January. Part of the focus that afternoon is to shape some ideas around "How much evidence is enough to convict a student of learning?"

I'm not thinking that there is one answer to this question, but I am still interested in how we make that decision. Even if you're not into using best practices in grading, a teacher is still making a determination about how many quizzes to give...activities to use...tests...and so forth for a particular unit of learning. What sort of "rules" do you apply when planning to assure/fool yourself into thinking you will be able to collect sufficient evidence?

This leads into a follow-up question about "How many students at mastery are enough so that you can move on to the next unit of learning?" In a perfect world, the answer is "all of them." In the real world of the classroom, we have some sort of cutoff point in mind. Is 80% enough (as RtI would suggest) and then we remediate the rest? Is a lower percentage acceptable? I don't know that many secondary teachers have thought about this particular question. For whatever reason, we are conditioned to finishing a unit and then, Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!, even if most of the class can't meet the standards. We are more slaves to our ideas of pacing than student learning. So, in the era of No Child Left Behind---let's get real for a minute---how many is acceptable to leave behind (and hope to pick up later)?

Personally, I enjoy pondering these sorts of open questions; however, most teachers do not the luxury of time and headspace to do so. Therefore, many of the teachers I will see in early January will want some framework for the answers to these questions. I will have to think some more about any guidance I can provide, but perhaps you have some ideas of your own to share?

21 December 2008

It Just Keeps Going and Going

The picture on the left shows the scene on the mat by my front door this morning. Can you tell I left a bit of food out last night?

We had about 5 inches of new snow overnight, and it has continued to snow all day today (so far). This has really been the energizer bunny of storms. I notice that the Hedgetoad, who lives west of here, is also having her own weather saga. The governor is asking people to stay off the roads today---what that means for tomorrow remains to be seen. However, at least one of us who is snowbound here appears to be wondering if I will ever go back to the office.

I do have several exciting projects to work on. No, really. I'm supporting a few islands of teachers who are trying to implement best practices in grading---and I have some presentations coming up and some data manipulations I want to share. I am sure to steal some of Bill Ferriter's pivot table ideas to add to my bag of tricks. I am cogitating on ways to help these various islands of practice connect. They are sprinkled all over the state and are lonely in their own ways. Perhaps a Ning for them? I'm also working on my book proposal. I finished up my outline and have chunked out the introductory chapter. If I can finish that piece and write another sample chapter, I will be ready to test the publishing waters to see if I can snake a deal for the rest of the book. And there is always dissertation drama. I also have new things to think about as my job responsibilities start to lean more toward the area of assessment. Frankly, I'd rather work from home (and am more productive without the myriad of distractions offered by the agency) than make the long trek to the office. If the weather continues like this, I may just get my wish for Monday and Tuesday.

19 December 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

Houseboundiness continues here. Every school district in the four counties I traverse to/from work is closed, so my laptop, sofa, and I will soldier on with various tasks. Up to another foot of snow is due on Sunday. It appears that I may not be able to leave the house until spring thaw. Since I'm out of links to share (and cabin fever is starting to set in), I thought I'd share my Top 5 holiday movies. To be fair, most of these are just movies set during December/January---not necessarily a lot to do with Christmas itself...but they are the ones that I like to watch this time of year.

Number Five: Holiday

This is probably the least well-known of the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn pairings. Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story deservedly get more attention, but this is still a little jewel of a film. For once, Hepburn doesn't play strong---she's a bit demure and stubborn in a quiet way. Perhaps even passive aggressive. She tries to resist adoring her sister's fiance (Grant) who has being introduced to the family over the holidays, but we can all see that Grant's and Hepburn's characters belong together. Eventually, they do, too.

Number Four:
The Man Who Came to Dinner

Monty Woolley chews up the scenery as Sheridan Whiteside, the man who not only comes to dinner, but won't go away. His larger than life world takes over the home he invades and those he interacts with. Hart and Kaufman's script is full of pre-WWII pop culture references and zingers that truly bite and leave a mark. Bette Davis plays one of her most understated roles while Ann Sheridan (the Oomph Girl herself) vamps it up.

Number Three: The Year Without a Santa Claus

It might not be Rankin-Bass's Magnum Opus, but it has the most cherished place in my grinchlike heart nonetheless. And, for the record, I'm a total Snow Miser groupie (even considering present circumstances).

Number Two: Christmas in Connecticut

I am not a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck, but there's just something about this film that sparkles. It's slapstick without being over the top...character development is strong...and the plot tiptoes along the line to being absurd without completely crossing over. Pure Hollywood. Like other films on this list, it's not so much about Christmas as it is a romcom set in the holiday season. Go watch. Giggle as Babs tries to flip a pancake for the first time, is clueless about changing a diaper, and falls for Dennis Morgan. I dare you to resist the urge to pinch S.Z. Sakall's cheeks through your tv screen. Reginald Gardner (who also starred in #4) makes an appearance as the man we all know Barb shouldn't marry, but who turns out to be a nice guy anyway.

Number One (with a bullet): A Christmas Story

What other choice could there be? Ralphie's passion for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, the ubiquitous Bumpus hounds, Scut Farkus, the pink bunny suit, leg lamp, triple-dog dares, Lifebuoy soap, and all the rest provide much needed perspective and comic relief to the season.

Let's hope that tomorrow brings a break to the ugly weather...or who knows what I'll be posting here. :)

18 December 2008

Snow Day Two: Electric Boogaloo

I'm housebound again. Good thing I brought home plenty of work to do. My job responsibilities are undergoing a significant change when the new year begins, so I'm trying to finish up various projects now. I also have a few personal projects in the mix...and, of course, I have other things I'm chewing on. So, here are some things I won't be thinking about while working today---but perhaps you'd like to take some time with:
  • An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about how some high schools are starting to drop the practice of determining class rank. As you might imagine, this is a load off of the minds of some kids and parents---but not so much for college admissions. If lack of a stated class rank hurts a student's chances of getting into college, then I don't think we should hurt the kid. But I also have to say that if college admissions hasn't figured out how to select students after 100 years of practice, then maybe they need to take a long hard look at themselves instead of depending on a number.
  • Or, perhaps you might be interested in thinking about other ideas related to evaluating students? As Hugh noted, some Canadian schools are dropping grades as measures of student achievement. (How do you like them apples, college admissions officers?) Hugh probes things a bit further in Do We Really Need Grades?
  • On the other hand, there is the Gates Foundation, who is looking at supporting a Cash for Grades program. I think the Gates Foundation has made some significant humanitarian efforts, but I am not convinced that they have ever made the right choices with any of their initiatives. (Small schools fiasco, anyone?) They are now looking to pour tens of millions of dollars into various educational efforts in several states. If cash for grades is any indication, they are off to a poor start.
  • There has been a lot of rumbling and grumbling in the edusphere about this recent report on students lying, cheating, and stealing (and liking themselves). Most of the educators I've seen posting about this seem unfazed and have something to say about the decline of western civilization. The part that I find interesting however, is that we are not asking why kids don't perceive these activities as being wrong. I'm particularly interested in the "cheating" part---because I think that in the digital environment kids are growing up with is greatly changing what "cheating" means. In an age where you have all sorts of tools available to mash up text, video, and audio, where does cheating start and creativity end? And is this the same as in the past? This is more or less a continuation of the conversation started with Cyberspace and Meatspace, only we have some numbers now to attach to things.
There you have it. The list of things I'm not thinking about while working today. You believe that, right?

17 December 2008

Kinda Sorta Snow Day

I'm going to be working from home today, due to snowy conditions elsewhere. When one has a 70-mile commute, even if one's home has no new snow and area roads are fine, knowing that wintry conditions exist for the majority of the drive is enough to sit out this particular dance.

I'll be working, mind you, which means that I can't distract myself with the links and sites below. As for you, however, rock on:

  • The New Examined Life in the Wall Street Journal tells the tale of those who track enormous amounts of personal data. Organized? Narcissistic? Anal-retentive? Introspective? You decide. The WSJ has even provided links to some sites that help support such habits, or you might try visiting The Quantified Self, which has "Tools for Knowing Your Own Mind and Body."
  • I've heard a lot of buzz about Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in The New Yorker: Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job? The article describes both teachers and football quarterbacks. Are there lessons here for schools? I'll have to find out later. I'm working today, remember?
  • Or maybe you want to check out Alfie Kohn's latest rant in Phi Delta Kappan? It's his view on Why Self-Discipline is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within. I don't always like what Alfie has to say (and am not sure if I do this time), but I do enjoy what he brings to the table for conversation about education. Perhaps you will, too.
  • And finally, there is Tattoo Santa. Head on over to play around and ink the big red guy. You have your choice of location on the body (be careful with the rollover for the lower back, cause you'll see Santa's crack), wording, and so forth. Make something new to post on your own site, create a unique image for your Christmas cards, or just use it to frighten neighbourhood children from your lawn. Fun for the whole family, indeed.

For those of you with a day to play, enjoy prowling the internet. Feel free to pass along any links I should also be distracted by...after 5 p.m., of course. :)

15 December 2008

The Resume Gap

A colleague and I were chatting about resume-building the other day. What we noticed was that the generation made of 50+ year olds puts a premium on specialization. They appreciate that their own resumes show that they have a very finely honed skillset. The rest of us? We're interested in appearing well-rounded. We like to show that we've been successful in more than one environment, integrate different content areas, and have a broad base of knowledge to draw from. A singular focus is not for us.

For example, I have a healthy high school science background...but my Master's is in gifted ed and my doctoral work in motivation and grading. I've taught junior high and coached in elementary. I'm techie, so to speak. I have a lot of experience in designing and implementing professional learning experiences.

I'm not interested in being pigeon-holed, but older colleagues are. We have a resume gap.

Is that a function of all aging, I wonder? The more you experience, the more you hone in on what you like? Or, is it a matter of opportunity---and I've had a chance to learn from a variety of experiences which were previously unavailable? Do employers have a greater interest in one or the other? I can certainly see benefits and drawbacks for each.

What do you think? Would you rather work with a specialist or a renaissance educator?

14 December 2008

Once, Twice, Three Times a Meme-y

Miss Bioteacher tagged me for the "Seven Random Things" meme. I believe that this is the third time I've been asked to play---so apparently, I haven't developed an immunity to this particular meme. I think it must be a December thing, as it has been almost a year to the day since the last time I posted some answers. Have I discovered anything new to share in the last year? Hmmmm...
  • I recently received the final piece of paperwork regarding my elementary endorsement for the state of Washington. After nearly two decades of haunting secondary schools, I'm now qualified to warp the minds of little ones. I never anticipated I would actually be k-12 certified. It's just one of those strange turns---one of many---my career has taken.
  • I rarely watch the news on tv...or much commercial television at all. That's not to say that the tv isn't on as I do things at home, just that more often than not, you'll find the channel tuned to Turner Classic Movies or other movie channel. I don't find the way news is presented on tv to be useful anymore. Some of it is vapid in nature (or at least presented by and about vapid people)...much of it appears to be constructed to intentionally frighten viewers...and the rest is just an overloaded screen of information. When the intelligent talking head reappears, I'll go back.
  • One of my greatest pet peeves is when people display an utter lack of personal responsibility, especially by those in positions of leadership. If you screw up, say so and figure out a way that you can fix it. Don't make others continually clean up after you. Seems like this particular nerve is being rubbed raw these days.
  • As is the one stimulated by overuse of the word "team" in reference to work situations. Please, people, give it a rest.
  • My self-identified area for professional growth this year is information visualization. I keep thinking that all of the various tools out there (things, not people) have great potential for schools...I just haven't had the time or headspace to get practical with them yet.
  • I don't like slimy foods. Things like runny eggs or jams and jellies make me squick. I don't know what it is. I just can't handle the way they feel in my mouth.
  • Speaking of food, I'm allergic to strawberries. I get nasty hives every time anything with a hint of real strawberry comes close to me.
So, there you have the 2008 edition. I admit that I didn't check previous editions to see if there are any repeats. Do visit Miss Bioteacher and give her some encouragement as she progresses through her first year in the classroom!

12 December 2008

It's About Time

Dan Meyer recently posted about the various sessions he attended at a conference. In the last one, he reveals a comment about why this recent learning experience was better:

As educators, the stakes are too high and the time constraints too stringent to settle for anything less than our best efforts, even if hearing that we shouldn’t lecture from bulleted slides for an hour is painful.

Oddly enough, I had just been preaching this message to a group of staff developers. First of all, time is too precious to waste either on bad classroom lessons for kids or poor professional development for educators. As teacher leaders, we must know best practices for all of these areas and be able to walk our talk. There is no time to waste with hit-and-miss ideas about what you think will work. Know what works and do it.

In addition to Dan's observations, I found that I had starred a post from the Principal's Page about poor presentations at conventions: You Can't Just Hand a Microphone to Anybody.
It’s just that they presented the same information I have heard over and over for the last few years.

Our students are farther advanced in technology than adults. Educators should allow cell phones in schools because they are mini-computers. We should use Skype because it is free (we do and yes it is). Schools need to be proactive, not reactive to changes in technology.

I get it.

Enough already.

I need tips or strategies to implement technology and not the same old rehashed PowerPoint presentation with 187 slides (by the way… I can read, so you don’t have to pronounce every word on every single slide for me).

If I seem angry that is because I am (see: not sleeping in own bed and haven’t had a decent cookie in days not to mention the dodging of so many PowerPoint bullets).

I know we are falling behind with technology in schools, but now I am convinced we may be falling behind in presenters.

Just because someone is willing to talk into a microphone doesn’t mean we should allow them (see: President George Bush… let the emails from North Dakota Republicans commence…).

Not everyone talking into a microphone is an expert.
And there was an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday, too, about how presenters need to be more than just spewing rah-rah ideas. Schools have real problems. We need people up there who have real solutions. I don't care what Mick Jagger thinks. Time is not on our side.

10 December 2008

This Many

Four by King of Monks CC-BY-NC
The blog is four today. Four years old, that is. "Four" those of you keeping score at home, this is post number 1259 and as of this post, there have been ~198,920 visitors.

Although the blog has had various growing pains over the years, it is still plugging along---even at its advanced age. Soon, I will have to think about enrolling it in kindergarten and saving for its college fund.

Many thanks to my Readers for making these small successes possible. I am grateful for everyone who takes time to stop by (or who subscribes via RSS)---and, as always, for those who are moved to comment. You continue to shape my growth as a professional educator and impact the work I do with students and teachers. I don't know that I would be able to reflect and improve without you.

I can't claim that I'll be around four years from now, but I will be here for the foreseeable future in some form or another. I hope you'll be along, too.

07 December 2008

It's That Time Again

The annual nominations for the Edublogger awards are out---so get your finger ready to vote for your favourite blogs in several categories. If you're so inclined, you can even put in a plug for me in the "Best Individual Blog" arena. (Many thanks to @MissBaker for the nomination!)

06 December 2008

There Is No Spoon

For those of you who might have missed them, Roger---a frequent and most thoughtful commenter here---left some excellent responses to my post about Taking False Comfort in Numbers. I have found myself thinking about them a lot this week (a 2.5 hour commute time each day provides plenty of opportunity for ponderous measures), especially these ideas:
How long learning should last depends on the purpose of the learning. The only way to decide that is to answer the fundamental question, "What is the purpose of schooling?"

There is much talk that it is to acquire knowledge ("book learning") that will be used in life. But all high school teachers know in their heart of hearts that this is largely false. By graduation, most of what was learned in the previous four years will have been forgotten. Students have a pretty good idea, too. By the time they reach high school, they have stopped asking, "when will I ever use this?" because they know they won't get a straight answer. Most have decided it doesn't matter. High school has its rules. Play by them, and play well, and you will get a good score. Don't, and you won't.

It is this sense in which high school is a game. But then so is much of life. The great economist Frank H. Knight used to argue that Homo sapiens (wise man) was a poor scientific name for humans. He much preferred Homo ludens (game playing man). Humans, he said, are constantly engaging in competitions. They have an amazing ability to understand "the rules of the game" and to abide by them. It is this, he argued, that keeps us out of a Hobbesian "war of all against all." We refrain from stealing not because there is a policeman on every corner, but because we accept the rule that we shouldn't do it (which is, to a significant extent, because we know others have accepted the rule in relation to us).
I have to say that these ideas make me a little sad. I'm not going to disagree or step on Roger's Truth for the simple reason that I don't have to walk in his shoes. I haven't had the same experiences---past, present, or future. I'm not sure that the "social contract" evolves in the way described, but that's what makes it so intriguing to think about. What I do want to say is, in my own Pollyannaish way, that I hope that (high) schools are more than just learning to play the game. It may not be the Truth we have, but it's the picture I'd like to work toward.

I was also thinking about a question that came up during my presentation in Portland a couple of weeks ago. We had been talking about not assigning grade penalties for late or missing work. One of the attendees asked "What do you say to people who claim that we're not preparing kids for college if we don't assign those penalties? Students won't be able to turn things in late in college." My answer is simply that the kids I worked with last year were 15 years old---they were not in college. As such, they made choices that were typical of 15-year olds. A lot of brain growth is happening...lots going in the pre-frontal lobes which impacts decision making. My job is not to treat them as if they were college students. My job is to help them learn to make good choices so that by the time they get to college, they'll be ready for whatever they are asked to do.

I'm also not convinced that No Late Work is true of every college course, but I didn't feel like bringing that up there. There used to be a teacher in one of the junior highs in the area that we high school teachers referred to as the "Pre-AP Nazi." This woman drove her students into the ground, in part because of all these little rules that she claimed were true of high school. For example, she told her kids that they could never use a pencil because that's what high school teachers would expect. She went on and on about this. Was it true? No. Her list of threats was extensive---all in the name of preparing students for high school as she thought it was or perhaps wanted it to be.

So, here we are---educators each with our own Truth...our own motivations and approaches to what the ultimate outcomes of our jobs will be. Whether or not I agree with or like them all isn't terribly important. I actually like the diversity of ideas and models out there. I think it serves students well to see that there is more than one way to view the world---and they can choose from there which version of reality they wish to adopt and shape.

03 December 2008

Cliquing Around

I've mentioned before that I'm not much of a kool-aid drinker. I respect and am thankful for every group that is making positive efforts on behalf of science education. I can't help but think that all of this collective action could make a difference for kids. My big but in all of this is that there are a few groups which get the lion's share of attention and voice---although they do not represent the majority of school districts. This same representation is present at every. single. planning meeting. I am really starting to chafe against this.

One person who is also new this group recently mentioned the alienation and frustration by many school districts who feel left out of the discussions. This is a dangerous observation. We cannot claim that we are interested in effecting change when just the same small clique makes all the decisions---and has been doing so for years and years. I understand the need to honor their commitment (and, in some cases, their economics and power base). I just think that continually tapping the same "expertise" is not the way to go. They've had a strong voice for several years---long enough to show some effects one way or another---and there is not much of an impact. Perhaps it is time for new minds and new alliances to be brought to the table. Perhaps people who have a direct line to the classroom need to be the ones with the greatest voice.

It's time to do some clique-busting.

28 November 2008

Taking False Comfort in Numbers

I think that the comfort many teachers find in calculating percentages, averages, category weighting systems, and other mathematical manipulations while grading is a belief that these practices are indisputable. "Your child has a 78% average because..." It's there in black and white. Can't argue with the numbers, right?

I was thinking about this again after the NSTA presentation I did last week. Some of the participants mentioned that they are required by administration to update student scores in an on-line gradebook each week---which automatically calculates an average, etc. How are you supposed to implement best practices when the tools and expectations are "old school"? Excellent questions, with no simple answers. The kind of change they're needing is a systems approach---and I'm more focused on the classroom. There are likely some ways to manipulate the weighting system in those soulless automatons of grading software such that categorizing things as "formative" gives it an insignificant impact. Perhaps there are other workarounds, as well.

The other part of the question that was worth noting was simply the idea of the audience for these automated grades. An on-line grading system bypasses the student for delivering information. I can see certain advantages to that (depending upon the student) and know that other stakeholders (parents, administrators, athletic coaches...) have their own needs for student grades. However, there is no way to guarantee that these outsiders to the classroom understand what the grade represents. I was reminded of two recent articles (one in ASCD and one in the Washington Post) which compared parent tracking of grades to watching the stock market. From the WaPo:
Parents and students in a growing number of Washington area schools can track fluctuations in a grade-point average from the nearest computer in real time, a ritual that can become as addictive as watching political polls or a stock-market index.

The proliferation of online grading systems has transformed relations among teachers, parents and students and changed the rhythm of the school year. Internet-based programs including SchoolMAX and Edulink are pushing midterm progress reports into obsolescence. Prospective failure is no longer a bombshell dropped in a parent-teacher conference. A bad grade on a test can't be concealed by discarding the evidence. A student can log on at school, or a parent at work, to see the immediate impact of a missed assignment on the cumulative grade or to calculate what score on the next quiz might raise an 89.5 to a 90. Report cards hold little surprise...

"You can walk around this building and every kid knows exactly how they're doing," said John Weinshel, a teacher who administers EdLine at the school. "The curtain has been stripped from the wizard. There's no more mystery. The grade book is open."
It's the last paragraph that bothers me. As long as there are zeros for missing assignments, points taken off for late work (or added for bringing boxes of Kleenex and cans of food), averages, and so forth---how does a kid know how s/he's doing? The grade book may be open in terms of scores, but how those scores are derived is still very much a mystery in most schools. I think that schools may be giving themselves a large dose of false comfort in assuming that just because gradebooks are on-line that the grading process is less of a crapshoot to most observers.

Are we afraid of using professional judgment when evaluating students? Why is that? Is it because we, as educators, lack enough training to discern which student work meets the targets...but don't want to admit that? Are there other reasons why we take such false comfort in the numbers representing learning?

26 November 2008

The Long and Short of It

For the first time in several months, I have a bit of a break. Since I worked on Saturday, I was allowed to take today off in exchange. Since tomorrow and Friday are state holidays, I have a mini-vacation to enjoy. I have to say that for a short work week, the two days at the office were long.
  • State budget cuts claimed three people from our department...and our boss will be gone in two weeks. I understand the financial bottom line, but the human element makes my heart hurt.
  • I was more or less next in line to lose my job...and am still not 100% safe. However, I made a proposition to split my position with another department in the agency. I am now the state test queen (as half my job). I understand that this looks a bit crazy from the outside, but I've been pondering this for several weeks now. I could read the writing on the budget wall and knew that I had to make my own destiny. There are aspects of this deal that bring a smile to everyone who is involved and once I broached the topic, it went through in a week. What this means that the part of my "old" position that was funded with soft money will go away (breathe a sigh of relief) but the new part is "exempt," meaning that the new boss can decide to just fire the 160 of us in that position on a whim. All that being said, I'm still less likely to be standing in the soup line come Christmas. How long before the budget cuts get me is anyone's guess. If I'm still hanging in there by the end of June, I think I'll be okay for the next year or two.
  • Someone from NSTA read the previous posts and contacted me about writing a book for them. We'll see if I'm ready.
  • Several of my major projects were put to rest this week (all two days of it). I'm always glad to get loose ends wrapped up.
That's about the long and short of things at the moment. Best wishes to you and yours, should be celebrating American Thanksgiving this week. I am ready to snack, watch football, and ponder the Black Friday circulars.

23 November 2008

Peeking Around the Corner

So, I did my presentation at the NSTA conference yesterday. Truth be told, I was a bit bummed about things leading up to this. I knew I had the last time slot on the last day of the convention. Even if it's been a few years since I've gone to one of these events, I remember getting "Conference Fatigue" all too well. By the last day, you're ready to just go home. Meanwhile, I also discovered that my presentation was scheduled way off-site from the conference. Anybody who wanted to sit in was going to have to schlep their way over from the comfort and convenience of the main convention. So, I made 25 handouts, but figured that 10 people sitting in would be a worthy turnout.

That isn't what happened, however.

Instead, I had well over 100 people crammed into the room---sitting in the aisles, up at the presentation table and standing in the doorway straining to listen. I'm not sure how many others turned away when they saw the throng...and I know the fire marshal wasn't poking around because the number of people was well over the posted room occupancy. Wowser.

The experience was very validating---not so much for me personally as for the topic itself. Grading has arrived. When I talked to a few of the attendees about their "hardcore" attitude of staying to the end, they said that this was an area of need for them and I was the only one on the schedule talking about it. Others who chose to stay after the presentation to talk to me mentioned that they were trying to do some of these things at their schools---but it was a lonesome experience. It is indeed hard to implement something like this on your own. I got asked about presenting at other schools. Would I come? Would I talk to more than just science teachers? Would I answer the phone/e-mail if there were questions? Of course. But how sad is that people are all out there struggling on their own little islands of grading.

I had a friend mention earlier in the week that leaders should always be up ahead, peeking around the corner. From my experiences yesterday, I got a good look around the corner at two things in particular. First of all, grading practices are about to reach the tipping point in secondary schools. I expect a lot of growing pains. Secondly, the role of data visualization in all of this is going to play a major role. Every time I pull out microcharts, dashboards, and other tools, people go nuts. I can see them spark---you can see the epiphanies happening all over the room. Makes me smile every time.

What I had to share---and what people needed---does not fit neatly within a one-hour session. An hour is barely enough time to scratch the surface...and, of course, the more resources and knowledge I accumulate, the more I want to share and support. If the economy was better, I would seriously think about hitting the road as a consultant. After all, I can see what's around the next corner.

22 November 2008

NSTA: Days 2 and 3

Yesterday (Day 2) got off to a good start. I met @MissBaker of Extreme Biology, who had made the cross-country trip from Maryland to talk about blogging in her classroom. There was quite the variety of familiarity with blogging and grade levels taught in the audience, but she did a nice job of differentiating. It's always good to meet someone from the cyber world.

The rest of the day wasn't really worth writing home about. There was a presentation of one guy's work he does with pre-service teachers where I wanted to scream "Why are you wasting their precious time with that crap! Help them learn good instructional techniques!" I went to cheerlead a colleague, whose presentation seemed to be well-received. And at the end of the day, I sat in (for a very short time) on a session about facilitating conceptual change in science. Holy cow. This guy whipped out his transparencies and waxed rhapsodic about the post-Sputnik era. He even asked if any of us remembered some curriculum that came out just after Sputnik. Um, look around, dude---most of us in the room weren't even born yet. After he asked if anyone had heard of "the learning cycle," I bolted.

As for today, there are only morning sessions. Lucky me, though, I get to present during the last time slot of the last day. Will anyone be around to participate? I think not, but that's all right. Certainly a lot less stress that way...and I can head up the road for home soon after.

It's been a different sort of conference for me. It's not been packed with learning, but the goal was really just to connect and support different people. So, mission accomplished. It will be hard to back to the grind on Monday---away from a big comfy hotel bed and open schedule. But hey, there's always next year.

20 November 2008

NSTA: Day One

First of all, I'd just like to address the rumors. I would like to assure you that I did NOT throw my panties at the Mythbusters. Sure, I thought about it. Who hasn't? I also recognized the danger of squealing like a pre-teen at a boy band concert when they came out onstage, but my dignity remained intact throughout the presentation. My BFF assured me that this was a "wise choice."

As for the rest of the conference, well, hey, anything would pale in comparison to spending time listening to Jamie and Adam talk about their professional and personal experiences. It's a different sort of conference for me---the first I've ever been to where I know lots of people: both presenters and attendees. This makes things nice. I get to meander around and be the cheerleader for any number of people. It is also nice to be someplace where I don't really have any responsibilities. I can just learn and enjoy like anyone else.

My favourite t-shirt slogan I saw today? "Protons have mass? I didn't even know they were Catholic."

Tomorrow, it's back out to the Oregon Convention Center for another day of concentrated science geekdom...panties included.

19 November 2008

What I Could Do for You

I don't know if you've seen Zuiprezi, but you should definitely have a look. I am totally prepared to do something morally ambiguous just to get my hands on a login for beta testing. Go see this presentation in action---even if the content is like Greek to you, the format is very engaging.

Now, does anyone know what a gal has to do to be invited to play?

16 November 2008

Rage Against the Machine

My hunch is that every subject area (math, reading, science...) has its own infrastructure in terms of special interest groups. There are, of course, schools; but there are also parent groups, business interests, publishers of instructional materials, test-writers, professional organizations, and so on. The composition of the mob can vary---as can where the ultimate power lies---but there is no getting away from the sad truth that outside the safe confines of the classroom walls, education is a very political business.

I, however, am not a very political sort of animal.

I worry that while we say we are about leading change in science education, that the same voices keep being invited to the table---and therefore, the message is also the same. Not very changey, is it? And yet, if you appear to slight the establishment by not including them in various conversations, this can also be a danger. So, how do you get new ideas and broader participation without the old school turning against you?

I'm thinking that there has to be some way to honor the regular contributors---perhaps ask for their "help" or participation with some things while bringing in others for different meetings? Do we slowly introduce new to the old---adding one or two new voices to the entrenched PTB? I just keep thinking that as long as we continue to conduct business as usual, we're going to get the same old results. How do you nicely tell the old guard that they've had their opportunity, and "Thanks, but no thanks" for their continuing offers...that we're going to go in a new direction? Is there a diplomatic way to rage against the machine?

Non-Sequitor P.S. I haven't been to a National Science Teachers' Association convention (regional or national) in a few years, but there is one in Portland this week. Are you going, too? Drop me a line if you're interested in getting together.

11 November 2008

So, Tell Me What You Want

We've kicked Professional Development around quite a bit here and elsewhere in the Eduverse. "PD" is one of the most dreaded events in any school year---not only do most teachers hate sitting through it, they're not so hot about leading it, either. Ditto for admins. As for me, I've had my own horrendous experiences and I've had a few jewels along the way, too. For those sessions I've been asked to deliver, I would say that my range of experience runs along the same paths. I've gotten significantly better in the last three years, although I still have a lot to learn.

My own improvements have been coupled with higher expectations for others. If I can figure out how to avoid Death by Powerpoint, so can others. If I can find a way to incorporate best practices, other presenters can, too.

I put this out there because an upcoming project of mine means packaging a whole bunch of PD for teachers. So, here's what I need from you:
  • The name(s) of any PD providers who absolutely rocked your socks, and/or
  • A description of what it was about a particular PD session that made it so powerful for you.
If you knew that training was coming, whether you wanted it or not, what would you hope would be the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down?

10 November 2008

A/K/A Mental Health Day

Education Week recently reported on how teachers use discretionary time, which is a fancy way of saying mental health days. The cited study noted that "Like professionals in other fields, teachers appear to be dipping into their sick time in order to take care of errands, do the holiday shopping, or extend a weekend." Okay, Readers, put your hands in the air if you've ever used a discretionary absence. (Yes, my hand is raised, too.)
Teacher absence is correlated with a small but significant decrease in student achievement, and it tends to occur disproportionately in low-income schools. It is also costly: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics put expenditures on substitute teachers at about $4 billion annually—costs typically borne by individual schools’ discretionary budgets.

The pattern detailed in the analysis suggests that teachers exercise “some amount of volition or control ... in the placement of those absences,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst with the center and the analysis’ author.

Armed with better information on those patterns, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can craft incentive programs to keep teachers in school, it concludes.

The discretionary absences made up 56 percent of all teacher absences. And while percentages of nondiscretionary absences, including long-term illnesses, jury duty, and bereavement, stayed relatively stable over the course of the school year, the percentage of discretionary absences changed seasonally. Absences rose throughout the fall and peaked in December. They fell in January and February, only to rise again by the end of the school year. Discretionary absences were also more likely than other types to fall on Mondays and Fridays.

Although the article goes on to suggest ways that districts address this issue, none of them get to what I think is the heart of things: teachers see these days as time they are entitled to have. As long as teachers work outside of contracted time (evenings, weekends, holidays, summers) to prepare lessons, grade papers, engage in professional development, or anything else which forces them to trade personal time for the rigors of the job, then they will take mental health days. It is a trade. "I have to spend my Saturday giving feedback on these essays...but I can take off next Friday to catch up on the chores." I'm not saying that this is the right thing to do, only that this is how these things are often reasoned.

I do think that teachers who use discretionary leave and then head out on the golf course or generally make the fact that they're playing hooky known around town are making a poor choice. If you're going to be "sick," then at least have the good sense to stay home during working hours. Or, if you have to be out, be sure to be traveling far far away where no parents or administrators will see you.

So, what is the answer then? Kids are in class from Monday to Friday. Teachers need to be present when the kids are (and oh, how we complain about chronically absent students)...and yet, it is ignorant to assume that excellence in the classroom (including grading, planning, and collaborating) can fit within the 7.5 hour contract day. Do districts need to create a new form of leave---one that is for planning time? Perhaps instead of offering 10 sick days per year, teachers could have choices within that. For example, 5 assigned for sick leave and 5 for planning, depending upon your needs. There needs to be some way to recognize the outside work that is to be done and provide an honest avenue for teachers to complete it.

09 November 2008


Clix hasn't given up on me yet, apparently---although my blogging has slowed down quite a bit in recent months. I don't know how "Uber" I am, but I feel like one of the old guard. In a couple of weeks, this blog will turn four. It's not old enough to send to kindergarten, but it has outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed a lot of the eduspheric field. Little notices like this one will keep me going for awhile longer.

There will be several interesting weeks ahead. As noted elsewhere, our state has a new education leader. This has a very direct impact upon me and the work I am involved in, so there will be a period of transition and also one of preparation for the legislative session that begins in January. Will the WASL go away? Will I be called to provide testimony on other potential changes to science education? How will I support the implementation of our new standards and their impact on over a million children?

America appears to be poised for change these days...embracing it, even. Amongst all of this large scale and personal level change, I'm glad to be able to have this constant steady space. So, thank you, Clix, for staying on.

06 November 2008

When Advocacy Ends

I've worked with all sorts of parents over the years. I expect them to advocate for their children...and I also expect that advocacy will evolve over the years. Supporting your seven-year old should be different from supporting your seventeen-year old. It doesn't mean that your love for the child changes. Instead, parents should be looking to help students develop problem-solving skills throughout the years. I always worried the most about those rare students who had parents that excused everything---who had children who could do no wrong. I wondered what would happen to these kids in the workplace. Was mommy going to show up and tell the kid's boss that s/he shouldn't expect the worker to show up on time every day or focus on their job instead of playing games?

For other students, however, there is a different kind of transition. I'm talking here about students with 504 plans or who have IEPs (and are high-functioning). These children often have highly-involved parents (and not necessarily in a bad or overindulgent way)...but once they leave the cocoon of the public school system, they don't always have access to the accommodations that they have been previously given.

There was a recent article in the WaPo about students in this situation who are trying to transition from high school to college.

A generation of students accustomed to receiving help for special learning needs is entering college. The percentage of students identified with learning disabilities who graduate from high school and go on to four-year colleges jumped from one in 100 in 1987 to about one in nine last year. And those who go on to any kind of post-secondary education went from a third to almost three-quarters by 2003. But some are finding that the transition isn't easy.

Many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or memory troubles have had years of education shaped by intense parental support, involved teachers and legally mandated school safety nets.

But what colleges must do is far less defined legally, and professors and administrators at some schools seem to remain skeptical about the needs that students might have. Schools must provide assistance to students, but only if the students disclose their disabilities.

Most students don't. Some are tired of being labeled. Some are unable to afford the extensive and recent cognitive testing that most colleges require as proof of disability. Some just don't get around to it until they start failing classes, at which point it's often too late to salvage the semester.

Even if colleges and parents continue to provide support, I still wonder if there is some sort of point where these accommodations end. While I am sure that the ADA could have an impact on employment---are there employers out there who will oblige Attention Deficit Disorder? Or will there be an assumption that a 30-year old has acquired the self-management skills to work in their chosen career? Is society at large as tolerant as we must be within the confines of the public school system? If not, what do we do to ensure that when advocacy from outside ends, students are ready to move forward on their own?

04 November 2008

Get Thee to a Voting Booth

Or Post Office.

Or City Hall Drop-off Box.

Or wherever you vote.

Yes, it's (finally) Election Day 2008, and while I don't vote (I'm Canadian), I do encourage those who have such privileges to exercise them. I'll be watching several races closely, for my own personal and professional reasons, and will be anxious to get home from work, pop some corn, and settle in with the news programs and Twitter.

May the best candidates win (click to embiggen).

Image Credit Unknown

03 November 2008

What Shall We Test?

In Washington, we've had a statewide assessment for Writing (grades 4, 7, 10) for as long as we have had state tests. I have been ambivalent about this test for several years now. As much as I believe in graduating students who have good writing skills, I don't know that this belongs as a performance area to compare schools and growth. There is also the question of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent developing and scoring the tests each year. Finally, the feds only require that we test reading, math, and science (with the first two currently figured into AYP). Why lump more expectations upon schools than is necessitated by the legislation? I'm guessing that I'm not the only one thinking about this. I see that Maine is looking to cut its statewide tests for writing.

I was thinking again this week after reading a WaPo article about the decline in time spent on science in elementary classrooms due to focus on other tested subject areas:

Science advocates recommend 45 minutes to an hour of science instruction daily starting in upper elementary grades. But many elementary and middle schools now offer half as much science as they did before the law was enacted. Middle schools that used to teach a full year of science and social studies now may offer a half-year of each. Elementary schools have squeezed the two subjects into one block of time to make room for more reading and math.

While this observation might not really qualify as "news," what is new is the realization that NCLB requirements in science may well lead to a positive impact. "Science advocates predict that school systems...under pressure from the new tests, will begin to restore lost hours of instruction."

I'm not sure where the time will come from. Personally, I am a great advocate for integrating more non-fiction reading (science topics) and using experiences in science as a springboard for writing in elementary classrooms. Many elementary teachers agree with that philosophy...but lots of administrators do not. "Reading" and "Math" mean using the district programs (e.g. Open Court, Investigations...). To "implement with fidelity" (a la Response to Intervention) means no mingling can occur. There is going to have to be some sort of detente between the teacher and admin camps before we can seriously look at restructuring the precious bits of time we have available for student learning.

It is a shame, to say the least, that subject areas are left scrapping for time based on their importance to testing. I've heard many a social studies and world languages teacher musing on what it would be like to have a tested area---how they might have more serious consideration if that happened. It's sad to think that the answer to the question "What shall we test?" is leading to such narrow curriculum options for children.

02 November 2008

The Symptoms of Grading

Does a dislike of grading indicate a "symptom" of the lack of fit between what teachers are asked to do and actual practice?

Susan Brookhart's (1994) observation is one of my favourite quotes on grading. I remember it every time I see something on Twitter concerning a teacher who is fussing about stacks of papers or have a conversation with an educator about classroom frustrations. I think about the years I viewed grading with the same amount of disgust.

In the last few years, I've changed my outlook. It doesn't mean the paperwork went away, but the way I used it shifted. Grading became an exciting proposition...and why shouldn't it be? It is a teacher's opportunity to find out what is and isn't working---and get creative about how to reach more students. Those assessments are gifts to be unwrapped: the ultimate surprise party.

I think part of the reason teachers tend to view grading with disdain has to do with the traditional approach: mark answers incorrect, count up points, calculate a percentage. This is incredibly tedious and the bang for your buck is pretty small. Unless you're going to track how many students missed each particular item and then cross-reference that with the standards each item was targeting, who cares that the class average was 82%? That approach really doesn't provide you with anything useful in terms of adjusting instruction. And yet, we're stuck in that mode for the most part. This is the disconnect observed by Brookhart. Actual practice doesn't get us toward the goal of supporting student learning in this case.

Can we change what's happening? We can---but there are really two pieces here that we have to work on. The easy one is getting teachers away from counting points and calculating averages. It doesn't mean that marking papers is going to go away (especially when those marks help kids understand what was done right/wrong), we just don't have to be nitpicky and engender habits in students which cause them to focus on points instead of learning. The second piece of changing practice here is more difficult, because it is the most precious commodity in education: time. It's not that the grading itself is more intensive, it's the opportunity to reflect on what you see and think about what course corrections need to be made. Classroom work is often based on submitting yourself to the tyranny of the urgent---and the simple truth is that students will be showing up again in the morning and you need to be ready. We tend to frontload our thinking that way, as opposed to increasing our focus for after the lesson.

This leaves me wondering about whether or not there are any public schools out there which have been able to restructure their resources so that student contact time is maintained, but opportunities for teachers to plan and reflect are increased. Is the answer smaller class sizes? Four day weeks with students with extended class periods...and one day per week as teacher workdays? Is it possible, I wonder, to assign 1.5 teachers to a group of kids so that every teacher could have some extended release time for planning and collaboration while their partner worked with students? None of these solutions are cheap, but I wonder what the collective costs are in terms of loss of learning for students. How does it impact their earning opportunities over a lifetime? How much extra might society spend building and staffing prisons? Is there a point where things start to break in the direction of schools?

In the end, grading is just one symptom of schools which are in need of better support. Perhaps addressing what we can within this realm is only piece of healing classrooms, but it represents taking one step in the right direction...a place to start.

01 November 2008

Searching for the Muse

Here it is, November, and I'm still trying to get my poop in a pile. The new job is not conducive to blogging, for several reasons...but I hope to massage this space into something that works well for everyone. I'm still looking for the right muse.

By far, the worst aspect of my new job is the amount of time I spend on the road. I have quite the commute, but with the economy as it is...and housing market not so rosy...well, it doesn't make a lot of sense at this particular time to move (even with the price of gas). At the same time, I'm also finding it nice to have physical space away from the office and closer to my familiar "old" life.

When I first started this job, I was warned about the E.F. Hutton aspect to things. And during the week, I'm very mindful of that. But when I get out to lunch with my friends or exchange some playful text messages with people I used to work with, or even just grab a late night bite to eat at my favourite hangout, I am very glad that I don't live where I work. It keeps me from becoming my job. At least I hope so.

At the same time, having 2.5 hours of windshield time everyday creates a whole different sort of "tired." By the time I navigate my way through the rush hour maze to get home, I'm not finding a whole lot of mental energy is left available for blogging.

Meanwhile, the kinds of things I run across would be wonderful to write about---trust me, I'm enmeshed in all manner of tall tales with this job...but, the information is often privileged. I have to really pick and choose the specifics of the projects I share here. There is also an awful lot of Kool-Aid I'm asked to drink: the special interest groups all have their own concoction. I have to tell you that I'm not much of a Kool-Aid fan. It goes against my "Every Kid. Every Day." philosophy and my frustration with adults who are only looking out for their own interests. The Kool-Aid sellers are specialized around a particular cause or approach (hence the cult-like Jonestown reference). And, man, are they are out to tempt me with their wares.

I find this a rather curious position to be in. I am not someone who is able to give special favours to anyone else...and the fact is, I wouldn't even if I could. If anything, the presence of so many special interest groups where science education is concerned is a sure sign of Darwinian forces at work. Their diversity is astounding...as is their competitive nature. Playing favourites would seem to be a very dangerous kind of game.

But, oh, the Kool-Aid I'm asked to sample.

The days have a variety of roles for me to fulfill. Sometimes, I'm just an appendage, representing someone else at a meeting or sitting in with a process. There are other times when I feel like the person in the parade with the trash can and shovel who has to clean up after the elephants---the result of promises made by others and not kept translates to me trying to make things pretty again. I don't know that I'm "old," but I am "experienced," and this translates to different things in the office---especially when it comes to mentoring young women who are starting out with their various careers. It's not a role I've had before. And amongst all of this, there are a few flashes of brilliance here or there---the times I get to work alongside teachers in schools or really dig into the kinds of work that will make change happen in this state.

In the past few years, many good people have left my former district. I have yet to find a single one who has any regrets. Sure, you miss certain individuals, but to get a different view and see that there are educational arenas out there which are not dysfunctional (and in denial about what/who created that) is a relief in that you know you made the right choice. Whatever sacrifices and changes to your life the decision had, no matter the ripple effect, the current situation is the best of all possible worlds. At least for the present.

Perhaps somewhere in developing that happy state of mind, the Muse to blog will return.

25 October 2008

Cyberspace and Meatspace

Like most of you, I am bombarded (mostly by choice) with information from a variety of on-line sources. I subscribe to a wide selection of feeds in my Google Reader account and while I primarily "follow" educators in Twitter, they are very diverse in their interests and what they share. All sorts of ideas tend to percolate up. I save the ones that intrigue me most for a few days and then decide if they belong in more "permanent" storage (add to delicious account, blog...) or if I just need to let them go. But given this time to ruminate, I am often surprised at the various connections that are available out there. My big "A-ha!" for this week has to do with how the ability to share and create using tools from cyberspace is causing ethical questions in meatspace.

Two things I saw last Sunday started my thinking, but it wasn't until a seemingly unrelated tweet was passed along Friday night that I finally made the connection. The first idea was posted by Will Richardson over at Weblogg-ed. He wrote about Our Kids as Criminals---a concept pulled from Lawrence Lessig's new book about "how we need to start rethinking traditional copyright law in the context of these easy sharing and copying technologies. And what’s especially relevant to our conversation is that he frames it in the way this all shakes out for our kids. In talking about how the government continues to create laws that 'wage war' against the copyright infringement that many youngsters engage in every day."
In a world in which technology begs all of us to create and spread creative work differently from how it was created and spread before, what kind of moral platform will sustain our kids, when their ordinary behavior is deemed criminal? Who will they become? What other crimes will to them seem natural?
I find this intriguing. There are lots of people out there (and of all ages) who are using 21st century tools to engage in incredible work that doesn't always follow the traditional rules. Is this okay? Should we ask them to conform to the "old ways," or do the rules need to be updated?

And then Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock threw out this video of Clay Shirky speaking at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. His point is that since the invention of the printing press, people have been complaining about "information overload," but maybe that isn't the right way to look at things. Perhaps we really need to be talking about "filter failure," or the ability to just get the information we want and need. Now, this is a long clip (~25 minutes), but certainly worth your time.

The most interesting part for me is when Shirky talks about the "cheating via Facebook" scandal from earlier this year. (I blogged a bit about this, but again, it was Bora who really initiated this conversation.) The story goes something like this: a college student organized a study group for a chemistry class he was taking. The meetings took place on Facebook as opposed to in a library or someone's house. The university charged the student with over 100 counts of cheating. Here again, we've got some sort of moral dilemma when we mash up Web 2.0 technologies with the "real world." According to Shirky, the point of contention is not the formation of a study group itself. It is the number of people involved. You see, if you have a "live" study group, you will have to limit the number of attendees (only so many can sit around the table in the library) and the norms of the group will develop to prevent free loaders. It will be obvious if someone is showing up to just collect notes and ideas, but contributes nothing. In the cheating-by-Facebook case, the university contended that with well over 100 people in a group, there had to be at least one free-rider: someone who was therefore cheating and had been enabled to do so by the group's founder.

And this is where my thoughts stopped on Sunday. I couldn't deny the possibility of free-riders as groups both increased in size and could also have nearly anonymous participation. And these are not traditionally operated groups---they are self-organized and directed, rather than managed in a top down way. And yet, I wasn't so sure that this whole Facebook thing qualified as "cheating."

Take this blog, for example. In a real world sense, the content is "mine." I write it. I create the posts. However, I choose to share these ideas with you...and in doing so, I give up my ownership in some ways. Might someone cheat and "steal" my content and call it their own? Sure. I'm not sure what I could actually do about that...and I'm not convinced it would be worth the time and energy to do so. The only way for anyone---a blogger, an artist, a performer, and so forth---to retain exclusive rights to their work is simply not to share it with anyone. And what good is that?

I was stuck at this point with my thinking until someone else passed along a link about The Trouble of "Free Riding" on Friday night. (Thank you, Twitter!)
The idea of "free riding" is based on a couple of key 20th-century assumptions that just don't apply to the online world. The first assumption is that the production of content is a net cost that must either be borne by the producer or compensated by consumers. This is obviously true for some categories of content—no one has yet figured out how to peer-produce Hollywood-quality motion pictures, for example—but it's far from universal. Moreover, the real world abounds in counterexamples. No one loses sleep over the fact that people "free ride" off of watching company softball games, community orchestras, or amateur poetry readings. To the contrary, it's understood that the vast majority of musicians, poets, and athletes find these activities intrinsically enjoyable, and they're grateful to have an audience "free ride" off of their effort...

The second problem with the "free riding" frame is that it fails to appreciate that the sheer scale of the Internet changes the nature of collective action problems. With a traditional meatspace institution like a church, business or intramural sports league, it's essential that most participants "give back" in order for the collective effort to succeed. The concept of "free riding" emphasizes the fact that traditional offline institutions expect and require reciprocation from the majority of their members for their continued existence. A church in which only, say, one percent of members contributed financially wouldn't last long. Neither would an airline in which only one percent of the customers paid for their tickets.
First of all, can I just say that this article has the best term I've read in a long time: meatspace institution. Maybe it's been out there for awhile and I've missed it. But I haven't seen anything which so ably captures the common drudgery of so many places and things.

More importantly, however, the article makes a point that perhaps we're creating a problem where there isn't one: "We don't need to 'solve' the free rider problem because there are more than enough people out there for whom the act of contributing is its own reward." In other words, having an on-line study group of 100 people is not a moral issue because of the nature of cyber interactions. In the real world, you'd have a problem. We don't have to solve issues that don't really exist, in that sense.

Using this blog again as an example, what this also means is that these new forms of media don't have participation as a requirement. I can choose to post a lesson plan I developed---but readers here neither have to comment nor share one of their own. It doesn't mean that you can't. It just means that we are each free to make our own choices about interactions here. It is not a 1:1 environment (as we might expect with a meatspace study group) and I don't think it would be functional if it was. That is the beauty and power of this type of space.

Now, this doesn't take care of problems directly associated with copyright as the various spaces clash, but I can't help but think that there may be some lessons there. (And I may not be able to resist getting Lessig's book to see what he suggests.) At best, we can ask that people respect copyright laws (which vary from country to country---and in a cyber world I'm unsure how such borders would be determined). Enforce them? I don't know that they can be. Is someone going to prosecute every instance of filesharing, "right-click-saving" of graphics, cell phone camera captures of artwork? It's just not possible. That doesn't make copyright infringement okay by default, it just means that we are going to have to approach these issues in a way that makes sense.

In the meantime, I'm starting to wonder what the future holds. Students don't need us to gather information for them. They don't necessarily need us to teach them about how to use web 2.0 tools. If we do provide them with a basic skill set, they will learn for themselves---differentiating resources and strategies to best suit their own needs. As educators, we will still have a large role in this, as well as helping students continue to improve. But I think it is already past the time where we will be able to reasonably impose meatspace rules in a way that makes sense for cyberspace activities.