30 April 2008

Carnival of Education #169: Road Trip!

“Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” The Science Goddess laughed as Mamacita looked askance. “I’ve always wanted to say that…and since you’re driving this big yellow dawg across the countryside, don’t expect it to be the last time.”

“Yes, well I’m all for exploration. Too bad we don’t have Steve Spangler here to keep us entertained.”

“Not to worry. There will be plenty of entertainment on board. Are we ready to hit the open road?”

Nancy looked a bit nervous. “I’m not sure everyone’s going to fit on this bus. Maybe a cross-country road trip isn’t such a hot idea.”

“Nonsense,” said the Goddess. “Besides, we need a break. Let’s get started, shall we? Kiri---how about you get us organized using your strategy for having kids line up?”

Mathew jumped up to help. “I’ve learned that greeting students on the way into class each morning determines almost everything that happens thereafter. You get them lined up and I’ll make sure that they start things off with a smile.”

“And I can help things stay on a positive keel,” added Larry. “In fact, I have a list of 11 actions to take to maintain good management.”

“With this crew,” said the Goddess, “we’ll need all the help we can get.”

Once everyone was settled, Mamacita started down the road.

“Interesting that we’re starting off in Washington,” said Nancy. “Did you read about Carl Chew---the teacher who refused to give the state mandated test to students? We need to carefully consider what’s right for America’s schools.”

“I did. I'm not sure that he’s a hero,” J.M. Holland said. “That might differ from your opinion, but I do agree that we need to think about where we stand.”

Bill looked over. “I don’t think he’s a hero. I think teachers need to realize that they’re not the only ones at the table. They have to understand that the best decisions are those that are made when a variety of perspectives are considered and respected as plans are developed and implemented. After all, someone beyond us might just have something valuable to add to the conversation about our kids.

“You want controversy?” asked Darren. “How about teachers who put nude pictures or make questionable remarks on their Facebook pages? Maybe there should be more thinking about accountability.”

“I agree,” said Carol. “Seems like some teachers are making dumb choices with their social networking, in my opinion.”

“It’s not just teachers,” added Strausser. “I have students who have taken nude pictures of themselves or engaged in other risky behaviors---and they think nothing of it. It’s a scary cyber-world out there.”

The Elementary History Teacher joined the conversation. “Now, now---let’s not throw out any babies with the digital bathwater. I find that blogging is professional development at its best. I’m a much better teacher because of my personal learning network.”

“And imagine what such a network will be like as today’s youngsters grow up. I think that people would learn so much from just watching their own kids interact with a digital environment,” said Laureen.

"I've been learning a lot, too, about working in digital environments," said The Science Goddess. "I've had to step back and say 'Whoa.'"

Heather chimed in at this point. “Creative Commons Licensing will be more and more important in a world of eLearning. I have some tutorials to share, if you’re interested.”

Somewhere in the back of the bus, a group was singing “This is the song that never ends…”

“Oy.” IB a Math Teacher covered his ears. “Perhaps that group should have been on the short bus, if you catch my drift.”

“Even if they should,” said Daniel, “It’s quite the minefield to navigate when suggesting that a child might need to be tested for special services; but, I have some strategies and conversational protocols to share if you need them.”

IB shook his head. “It’s not identification we’re having a problem with, it’s the IEP meetings and their outcomes.”

“Are we there yet?” someone shouted at Mamacita.

“Don’t make me pull this bus over!” she yelled back. “You know that there’s going to be a test on all of this, right?” She sighed. “I sure miss the days where the lessons were more important than the test to those outside of the classroom as they were to those within. The daily experiences are what kids carry with them for a lifetime.”

Wendy spoke. “I’m still doing those sorts of lessons. You should see the problem-based learning students engaged with in order to learn about ponds. Their teachers had some very thoughtful reflections to share about the project.”

“I was thinking about the same sort of thing while visiting Biosphere II this week,” said the Loony Hiker. “What a great opportunity for student learning.”

“Maybe we just need to approach testing differently,” added Heather. “I really try to help my tweens have the confidence to realize that they are ready for the test---they’ve been working hard to learn all year in my class. Now, they just have to show it.”

Rob looked uncertain. “Times have changed, and I’m not sure it’s for the better. Teachers used to have a lot more authority in the classroom. I think I might agree more with Mamacita.”

“It’s true,” added Muse. “Sometimes, the tried and true ways of doing things---like teaching Hebrew---are better than the newer forms of instruction.”

“But unless we focus on changing instruction,” said Dave, “we can’t eliminate that from our discussions of why the achievement gap remains. We have to know that we’ve tried all we can that is within our control before being able to say that the students’ home environment is the cause. We have to change ourselves---not kids.”

Corey nodded. “I could agree with that, I think. While it’s easy to wonder if America’s entire education system is failing, we really have to focus on fixing what we can. We don’t need to start over.”

“It’s also important to not look at America’s high achievers as being so different from those in other countries,” said Matthew. “We might like to think that successful students in China and India are entirely focused on their studies, but if you take a closer look---as I have---you’ll see that they’re not so one-dimensional.”

“Still,” started the Eduwonkette, “we can’t ignore context when examining problems found within the school. I was taking a closer look at the recent outbreak of violence in Chicago, and I think that community level factors are very important in our discussions about what’s happening inside of classrooms.”

Jo said, “Speaking of violence, I’ve been thinking about the martial overtones present in ed reform. I’m not sure I like the words we’re choosing to describe what is happening in classrooms.”

“Are you including ‘A Nation at Risk’?” asked Sarah.

“I was thinking about that, too.”

“You know, it’s the 25th anniversary of that publication. I think that educators are continuing to be called to argue and work toward social justice as a result of that document. Maybe it is a call to arms, after all.”

Dan moved into the next seat. “That could be, but I think it’s causing some schools to play a game in order to save themselves from AYP. All it takes is reclassifying a few students here or there to change the subgroups and make it look like you’re closing the achievement gap.”

“There could be all sorts of reasons,” added the Goddess. “Hey, Mamacita, any chance of pulling into a rest stop in the near future?”

Mamacita nodded. “I’m sure we could. It’s about time for a snack, too.”

“In the meantime,” said Scott, “maybe we should consider some of those other reasons. For example, perhaps we have strayed too far from the basic mission of schools to provide a strong curriculum, discipline, and values for students.”

“I’m not so sure. I think there’s a struggle between experienced and new teachers because new teachers have the tools and know-how to make change happen---and this threatens the old guard,” said The Chancellor’s New Clothes.

“Perhaps we just need a different power structure,” said Matt. “I think a teacher led school (one which resembles a law firm model) would be very successful."

The Right Wing Prof nodded. “Or maybe schools need to take student evaluations of teachers more seriously. I don’t think that what students say is unsurprising---or at least it shouldn’t be to veterans of the classroom.

“Looking at how teachers are paid wouldn’t hurt, either,” added the Education Wonks. “Good teachers would welcome accountability.”

“Exactly,” said the Prof.

“At least you all are working,” said Old Andrew. “We’ve been on strike in the UK, trying to figure out all of this while ‘scabs’ were covering for us in the classroom.”

Mamacita pulled the bus to the side of the road, just in time for a picnic lunch by the world’s largest ball of twine. Educators piled out of the bus to stretch their legs in the sunshine. Three math teachers pondered the volume of the twine.

Ed said, “These real world examples of using math aren’t as good as abstract symbols.”

“Maybe so,” said Denise, “but they’re a lot more interesting to look at.” She smiled. “I just used some real examples to help students work with combinatorics.”

“But I’ve been starting with abstract rules in order to teach students about bases,” said Jose.

Linda overheard the conversation from the other side of the ball of twine. “I wish I had more time,” she said. “There’s no way I’m going to finish teaching all the topics I’m supposed to before the end of the year. I’m furiously downsizing my lesson plans.”

“I wonder what would happen if you let them listen to music while they worked?” said Jim. “It’s made a difference in my classroom with student progress in reading.”

“Teaching is quite the experience,” Mister Teacher said. “I’ve been thinking that there should be a game show which would give people a realistic chance to experience the life of an elementary school educator.”

“Would that be the prize…or the ‘lovely parting gift’?” asked Mrs. Bluebird. “Sometimes,” she said, “even students find that they reap what they sow and get their comeuppance.”

There was a commotion at the picnic area. Edna was dancing around, swatting at some bugs. “I’m afraid,” she said, “that my true colors about insects have been revealed to my students, too.”

Hube watched the scene with amusement. “That’s almost as crazy as what I was reading about.”

“And what was that?” asked Robin.

“Well,” he continued, “in Arizona, there’s a bill in the legislature which would keep public schools from teaching anything that is anti-Democratic or counter to Western Civilization. It’s a case of dumb meeting dumb.”

“I was thinking the same thing about banned books,” she said.

“All right,” said the Goddess, “it’s time to move on. Let’s get back on the bus. We gotta head down the road to get to next week's Carnival!”

29 April 2008

Last Chance to Carnival

In case the calendar is not being your friend at the moment, this is a gentle reminder that entries for this week's Carnival of Education are due today by 6 p.m. PDT. You can use the form over at the BlogCarnival, or e-mail me your info directly (the_science_goddess[at]yahoo[dot]com). Look for the Carnival to roll into this space for Wednesday. Come join the party!

28 April 2008

Detour Down Memory Lane

Back in the early days of accessing the internet from home (when AOL seemed like a great option), I belonged to a group of science teachers organized through LabNet. I wish I had a link to share, but in the intervening years (this was almost 15 years ago), the traces of our work seems to have disappeared. It was hosted by TERC, which is still an active entity. The databases, idea sharing, bulletin boards, and other vestiges are all gone.

This blurry photo is one of the last reminders of LabNet that I have:

I know it doesn't look like much. It represents The Pringles Challenge. The idea here is that my students were paired with those at another school across the country to exchange a single Pringles potato chip. The goal was to have it arrive at its destination in one piece while using the lightest smallest packaging possible. The whole thing was a blast. I can't say that my kids did a particularly stellar job with their ideas, but the internet had opened up a whole new world of possibility for me---and for my junior high charges in the wilds of New Mexico. (It's hard to realize that most of these kids will be turning 30 in the next year or so.)

LabNet may have become extinct, but it appears that The Pringles Challenge is alive and well. I can't wait to play again.

27 April 2008


You know that moment right before you understand something...when you have all of the puzzle pieces in front of you, but the clarity isn't quite there yet? I'm having one of those fuzzy times, perched on the edge of being able to say "I get it." Bear with me here, as I'm not going to be very articulate about all of this, but perhaps by sharing my thinking at this point, some gentle comments from the edusphere at large can help me finally put it all together.

What I want to talk about here is the whole idea of Classroom 2.0 (and by extension, Web 2.0). I think that I haven't been sure what this would "look like" within a school setting. It's not because I don't understand the value of a Personal Learning Network, but because the physical environment I work within doesn't match the virtual environment I have. I can blog, text, tweet, ning, wiki, and more to my heart's content as a teacher. I cannot, however, share those things with my students because we are set up to take away their cell phones and block their internet access.

Here are some pieces of seen as of late which seem significant:

  • Stephanie over at Change Agency blogged about Shift Happens---Now What? The post is about how buying more hardware for classrooms isn't the answer. We have to help the adults within our schools reach their own "A-ha" moments with the power of social networking first.
  • As Tracy points out over on LeaderTalk, the answer is not Blackboard or Moodle. They are filter friendly, which makes the Mordacs of the world happy, but they are nothing more than glorified word processing programs. They are islands cut off from interaction with the rest of the on-line world...no different or better than a physical classroom. In using those programs, we are fooling ourselves by using 21st century tools via 20th century methods. (Stephanie also chimes in with an I Read Blocked Blogs idea.)
  • It is not only the way we communicate with text that is changing...but with data, too. Flowing Data had a great post on rolling out your own on-line maps and data visualization while Bioephemera shared Is this a better graph? What a mind-blowing way to deal with data. It is interactive and animated. Information about location, size, time, and more are all neatly contained.

  • And the coup de grace was this speech on Gin, Television, and Social Surplus found at Here Comes Everybody. Whoa. It's not a short read, but I can't be encouraging enough that you make the time to do so. The idea here is that we are emerging from a media hangover where we have been consumers for a long time (primarily through tv) and we are now discovering that we are also able to be media producers. What will happen with the "surplus" of hours that were spent consuming...and now may be focused on producing?

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it's not, and that's the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, "If you have some fancy sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too." And that's message--I can do that, too--is a big change.

This is something that people in the media world don't understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race--consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you'll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

And what's astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they're discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they'll take you up on that offer. It doesn't mean that we'll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we'll do it less.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we're talking about. It's so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let's say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that's going to be a big deal. Don't you?

Yes, I'm starting to realize that it is going to be a very big deal. I'm thinking that the critical mass needed to overcome filtering and harness the power within 2.0 is just around the corner. John Dvorak said that "In all large corporations, there is a pervasive fear that someone, somewhere is having fun with a computer on company time. Networks help alleviate that fear." Maybe it isn't "fun" that corporations (or schools) are afraid of. Maybe they are afraid of the creative power that will be present.

I saw this message the other day: I'm struggling with finding a balance between action/learning by doing/creation and deep thought/innovation/reflection- craving time to think. I understand that. The possibilities to learn, to do, to create, and to think are truly limitless these days. At the moment, I'm in think mode about these things...but it shouldn't be too long before I'm ready to do and create more. Whoa.

Out of the Box Thinking

Over the last several years, I've had the opportunity to see some really good elementary science lessons...and some truly awful ones. As I think about what made the difference, some of it is due to general instructional expertise, some is due to the orientation of the classroom (teacher vs. student centered), but a lot of it seems to be tied to content knowledge.

In elementary schools, science comes in a box. I feel like that is a dangerous symbol to implant in young minds, but that's another battle for another time. Teachers have a manual with step-by-step instructions (including what to say) and prepackaged materials. Science by convenience. Teacher pull out the items, read from the manual, kids fill in worksheets...and Voila! they've taught science.

This would all be well and good except for one thing: kids have questions. Kids want to know why and how. They have their own hypotheses (often misguided, but at least they're thinking) and ideas. Some teachers are very good about allowing kids to ask and predict. Others are terrified to leave the scripted lesson and have some real exploration.

The other issue I've seen that gets in the way of real learning is the quality of the "output" provided. By this, I mean the worksheets that come with the curriculum (specifically those which come with the FOSS kits---STC is a far superior program). There is little or no critical thinking required by students. The lessons are wasted opportunities to have kids capture the process that is science. Again, this is not necessarily the teacher's fault. S/He is using what is there---and has been assured that the materials have quality. But so many were developed before a standards-based era where more rigorous thinking was required. The experiments themselves are still strong---but the lesson structure is not.

It is overwhelming to think about the kind of out of the box thinking that would be necessary to better support student learning in science. Teachers don't have time (or knowledge/expertise) to revamp things...and I'm only one person. I think that if we can get teachers to ask better questions during and after science lessons---even if they themselves don't know the answers---we'll be a lot closer to student achievement.

25 April 2008

There's Always a Back Door

I have never thought I would enjoy teaching elementary level students. I like kids, but I can't quite get past the idea of being contained with the same group of children all day every day.

The simple truth, however, is that having an elementary certification would provide more opportunities. Although instructional coaching is about working with teachers, it would be good to have the flexibility to work with small groups of young 'uns now and then.

My problem is that Washington is not particularly friendly where certification requirements are concerned. Adding endorsements is typically a time and budget intensive process. In theory, the state would like me to have 45 hours of elementary specific coursework and do a practicum (student teach...again...after 17 years...). That's not going to happen, no matter how nice having an official elementary cert would be. Another route would be to get National Board Certification at the elementary level---which the state would then recognize. Um, not interested in a 400 hour project that is nothing more than a crapshoot.

And then I remembered that in Texas, once you have one cert, you can add others by taking tests. Hmmm. I have a lifetime teaching certificate for Texas...so I'm eligible to add on an elementary endorsement. But will Washington recognize it if I do? Why, yes they will. I do have to get someone from Texas to verify that I've met the requirements...and then take another test here (Praxis II) in elementary ed. Not a bad deal---I spend ~$200 on testing and certification fees and very little time and energy acquiring what I need. Poof! I'm a certifiable elementary teacher.

For those of you reading this in horror---not to worry. I won't be your first grader's teacher. Although Washington's certification hoops are a real pain in fanny, they're there for a reason---so people with specific training end up in specific classrooms. It's the right thing for kids. On the other hand, with nearly two decades of experience (and almost an EdD), I also don't think it should be so blasted difficult to expand my certification. Good thing I've found the back door.

24 April 2008


Between Google Reader feeds, Twitter tweets, and other sundry sources, I am amassing a variety of tech sites that look like they may be useful in the future. I have to say that living in a digital world satisfies my inner packrat nature. In the real world, I am not interested in accumulating stuff. But in virtual space? Hey, why not. So in the spirit of sharing, here are a few links that you might find interesting, too:

  • First up is Weebly, where you can make a simple website. You might also have a look at Sprout. Perhaps this might be a way for me to establish a consluting, er, consulting presence.
  • Have you seen Docstoc? Here you can find all manner of forms and documents (education, legal, business...) for free. Let the uploading of lesson plans begin!
  • If you're using Photostory or other software with kids to make digital storybooks, then perhaps you might like to add some sound effects? Try FindSounds to easily search the web for just the clips you need. If it's a word you're after, Forvo has "all the words in the world pronounced" with over 180 languages represented.
  • Florida has developed a technology integration matrix to help teachers and schools evaluate their implementation of classroom technology. There are even videos embedded so you can see what things should look like.
  • Tom at Random, Etc. has a great collection of links to Data Visualization blogs. While I don't use these in my working life (yet), I find the ideas very interesting. I would like to see how to apply this with students and teachers. In the meantime, The Evil Tutor has some hilarious ideas to share about how not to display data....while Dipity gives you a way to make interactive timelines.
  • Searchme is a new visual search engine which reminds me of looking at things on an iPhone or iPod touch. Very cool idea.
I also got a new phone last week---my first in four years:

Is there anything else I should add to my digital locker?

23 April 2008

That's Wednesday, for You

You know what? It's Wednesday again. This means that there is another edition of the Education Carnival to explore. It is being hosted by The Education Wonks this week. They are always a tough act to follow, but I'll do my best when the Carnival rolls into the space next Wednesday. Start polishing your links now and sending them over!

22 April 2008


Because I work with nearly the k-12 spectrum, there's plenty of state testing to go around in my life. I like that the high school portion is spread out over two weeks in two separate months, because when it was done in two solid weeks (like we do with elementary), it was killer. I don't care that it's cliche to say that kids need routine---it's still true. My own students are in no mood to do anything during testing weeks (even those who aren't testing expect to have a free ride) and the little ones are having some major behavior issues because their days are topsy-turvy.

I don't really think the test is bad. I also like the idea of this once a year dipstick. What I don't like is how the results are used. Nevertheless, I do what I can to make sure that my own students are prepared and positive. Thursday, I handed out pencils, erasers, and pencil sharpeners to all of my test takers---and wished them well. I ended up staying long enough to read the testing instructions to all 400 of our sophs. (Aside: I would SO have kicked ass if that had been a DIBELS oral fluency test. LOL) Friday, I went down to check in with my kiddos. Finding the 50 in the 400 wasn't too difficult since students were sitting alphabetically. As the tables were covered with paper, I made sure to write a "Good luck!" note to each kid before they arrived and just ask how things were going when I saw them. (Kids aren't allowed to talk about the test and I'm not allowed to see it.) Some of the other science teachers thought these were wonderful ideas to do both days...but they didn't seem to make it downstairs to support their own kiddos. While I understand their disinterest in standards and the test, I also think that we need to do what we can for our kiddos who are having to bear the burden. This is the first year that my students have come away from the test smiling and feeling confident. Some liked my note to them so much they tore off the paper from the table and took it home. Yep. I'm creating a bunch of science nerds. Go me!

I've been officially trained to proctor elementary testing, so we'll see if I get called into action this week. If anything, it would just be for babysitting kids who need more time to finish. We had some kids last week who needed the entire school day. Poor things.

In my teacher life, there are still more standards to move kids towards this year, so even though the WASL is over, we'll still be hitting the GLEs and working hard. I wish that the science scores would be back in June---as they are for all of the other tests. It's a long wait until September to see how my little ones did with an April test.

21 April 2008

Growing Children, Shrinking Budgets

Milk Bag by pinkbelt

At least once a week when I arrive at my afternoon job, I can smell the school lunch from the parking lot. The intense aroma of garlic wafted across as it simmered in spaghetti sauce this past Monday...the seasoned breading on the chicken bits greeted me on Thursday. I have to say that I have had this experience nowhere else. The school lunch actually smells appealing. (I can only imagine how breakfast must be since I am not there in the mornings.) Considering that ~85% of our kids are eligible for free/reduced lunch, it's a good thing that the food can stimulate the senses as well as fill the stomach. No food is actually cooked in our school---the bulk of the work is done elsewhere in the district and then trucked over to us. Warming ovens (or refrigerators) keep the food in a ready state for everyone until serving time. The lunchroom is a buzzing place. Kids know how to enter their number into the keypads, pick up their trays, and get their food. For those of you who haven't been in a school cafeteria as of late, you will notice that milk no longer comes in cartons. It actually comes in bags like the one pictured above. You'll just have to imagine the scene with hungry children stabbing straws into these.

I have been thinking about the importance of our lunchroom because of some recent articles about the federal school lunch program. Susan Levine has a new book out with a historical perspective on the program (full review can be found here):

Nutrition advocates who wanted to see all children, rich and poor, fed nutritious lunches had to settle for “a school lunch program that was designed primarily as an outlet for surplus food.” Though the program would benefit millions of children, it was not especially well designed. In great part, the food that came to lunchrooms consisted of whatever happened to be in surplus at the moment, be it dried beans, beets, or butter. The program was housed in the Department of Agriculture, so farmers’ interests came first, and the Department did little to oversee states’ operation of their lunch programs. Indeed, from their perches on the Senate agriculture committee, Russell and his colleague, Allen Ellender, saw to it that states’ rights were defended from federal intrusion. State and local officials were free to set whatever criteria they pleased for participation in the program.

More fundamentally, and perhaps surprisingly, the program simply was not designed to feed all the children that needed to be fed. Federal appropriations were not pegged to the number of needy children, and states were required to contribute matching funds, which often were raised by charging pupils for lunch. The program provided no aid to old schools that lacked cafeterias. So, many nonwhite, poor, and undernourished students in crumbling schools did without while white, middle-class kids in new buildings were able to purchase meals on the cheap.
Unfortunately, Levine’s narrative concludes without giving the reader a good sense of how well the school lunch program currently operates. We read that in the 1970s, it was turned into an entitlement program and put on permanent appropriation. We also learn that the feds’ underfunding of the program provoked local officials to start contracting out cafeteria operations to private providers, like Sodexho. The feds also get called out for loosening regulations to permit junk food vendors into the schools.

But the reader does not get the sense that the program now works better than it ever did. Which it does. Agricultural interests, though potent, no longer dominate the program. Today, most of the federal support for the program comes in the form of cash, not surplus food. Administrative tweaks have helped to reduce discrimination and create more uniform operations nationwide.

Still, the program is not what it could be. Since Levine wrote a straight history, she did not include any suggestions for improving the program. So, for the sake of provoking discussion, please allow me to suggest a few possible reforms. First, make the National School Lunch Program free to all children. This would wipe out the stigma that deters children from participating in the program, and would also save localities heaps of paperwork. Second, decouple the program from the surplus commodity program entirely. Children should eat food that is good for them, not what farm lobbyists want them to eat. Third, require the federal government to pay the full cost of the meals served and forbid schools from having vending machines and ala carte dining. No parent of any sense allows her kid to choose pizza over broccoli and to graze on junk food each day. Why should schools? Fourth, have the federal government deliver the federal school lunch dollars directly to each child in the form of a meal debit card, good for one school lunch per day. This would cut reams of red tape and goad schools into serving desirable meals that meet current national nutritional standards.

Meanwhile, over at the WaPo, the current economic considerations of the program are raising some concerns about just how much families who pay can actually afford for a school lunch.
Each year Uncle Sam, in an effort to ensure the neediest children get healthy meals, gives schools a little more cash to help feed students. But school officials nationwide say the federal share hasn't kept pace with rising costs. This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department is giving schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from the poorest families, up from $2.40 last year, a 3 percent increase. In the same time, milk prices rose about 17 percent and bread nearly 12 percent.
The federal government provides $2.07 per meal for students eligible for a reduced-price lunch and 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive some foods, including meat, cheese and canned goods, purchased by the federal government.
School meal programs across the country are run somewhat like restaurants, relying on federal and state subsidies and profits from meal and snack sales and catering services to buy food and pay workers. Rising labor costs, coupled with the recent push for healthier meals, which has meant serving higher-priced foods such as whole grain breads and fresh vegetables, has squeezed budgets. Soaring food prices make it even harder to break even. "We do not want to serve our students highly refined sugar and flour products, which are more affordable," Parham told the House Education and Labor Committee, "but we are continually being pushed down this path."

Matt has a much better summary of all of this than I could hope to write here. At the moment, I'm just trying to think about what all of this will mean with the youngsters I work with each day. Will it mean smaller servings? Less nutritional food? Fewer students eligible for meals? For some of our kids, the breakfast and lunch served by the school is all they get to eat. We have kids who try to hoard leftovers (although the rule is that no food is allowed to leave the cafeteria) because they're just plain hungry...and it's a long time between Friday's lunch and Monday's breakfast. Is this what a 7-year old brain needs to be focusing on?

20 April 2008

Other Duties, Not Assigned

I told my principal this week that I was finally starting to feel "coachy." I've had a few people ask me for some specific support in the classroom---which is really what I want to do. I've been in the building for a couple of months now. People have gotten to know me enough that they feel comfortable letting me take the reins of their classes or wanting me to help in other ways. I like doing these things. I often wish I had a coach at the school where I teach---I'd love some help going from good to great.

But there are other things I am being asked to do, too, that I'm not really sure are within my provenance. I can't give any specifics; however, in general, these requests typically take the form of one teacher who is concerned about another and is asking me to do something about that. Now, I know that if the principal was to do that (which he never has)---I'd have to decline. That sets up a truly terrible agenda. "Hi, I'm here because our boss thinks that your teaching stinks and I'm supposed to fix it." Um, no thanks. However, if he encouraged a struggling teacher to seek me out for help, that's a different situation because the teacher is in control and gets to choose. After all, I'm the teacher's tool. The teacher to teacher requests feel murky to me. For now, I'm making decisions on a case-by-case basis. It's hard because people mention things with good intentions (to keep a peer from being frustrated or going down a path that may get them into trouble), but I don't know that I am really the one they should tell...let alone the right person to deal with the issue. However, I also don't feel like I can say, "It's not my job." If I'm there to support them, shouldn't I do what I can to make life in the classroom less of a drag?

I have lots of great coaching resources. There are all manner of books, websites, conference notes/handouts, and so on that provide a lot of insight about how to support classroom instruction. (There's also a nice article on instructional coaching here, if you're intrigued by the idea.) But there is nothing out there to talk about these unassigned duties others expect you to take on...the etiquette of it all. I'm hoping that I am using my powers for good, all the while wishing that job descriptions created clear---rather than fuzzy---edges around things.

19 April 2008

Today Is the First Day...

blah, blah, blah

Someone asked me what I was going to do this weekend. My answer was something along the lines of working on remembering what it is I like to do. After 2+ years of spending (nearly) every weekend doing grad school work---everything from researching to stats homework to revising 25+ page papers---I'm done with all of that.

I must have had a life before grad school. I can't quite remember where I parked it or exactly what it looked like. So much for putting up a "Missing" poster with an 800 number to call.

I think I'll start my search by doing some spring cleaning. Now seems like a good time to go through things in storage and see what's in the boxes. Maybe it's time to pull out some of those items and put them back into use. Perhaps others can be sent to the dump. I need to see which books from grad school I can list on half.com so others can be as, um, enlightened as I was. Someone sent me some new recipe books for Christmas. Did I like to cook? I guess I should get those out and see what looks appealing. The garden tools have been looking lonely and I saw some seed packets and potting soil. There's also this big "to do" list on the fridge---with things like sanding and repainting the rail on the stairs outside...and turning over the insulation the previous owners conveniently stapled in backwards. I have several bookcases full of novels. I think I used to enjoy reading for pleasure. I am definitely one who takes care of my introvert self.

So, this weekend is all about transitioning from one kind of life to another. As odd as it sounds, I am glad that I no longer have to choose between peer editing and cleaning the basement. In the meantime, if anyone sees my life gathering dust in a corner, shoo away the dust bunnies and send it on over, would you?

17 April 2008

Good News, Bad News

I saw a couple of my students as I was leaving school for my afternoon building. I asked them how they felt about their Science WASL experience from the morning.

One said, "It wasn't bad. I was able to answer the questions...and didn't write 'I don't know.' like I did for all the questions on the Math WASL."

Good news for me, but sucks to be Math. :)

What Is a "Science Generation"?

A recent summit at the American Museum of Natural History made the case for the support of a "science generation" as a national imperative. The idea was noble enough---how can science education be improved and what is needed to make change happen---but after reading the summary in Education Week, I'm not so sure that the discussion moved things in the right direction. Here's a summary of the major ideas that were proposed:

  • a laptop for every child
  • more college science scholarships, new programs to train science teachers, and more research funding
  • national standards for science
First of all, I'm not convinced that America is ever going to be able to compete with China and India in terms of the science, math, and technology workforce we develop. It has nothing to do with smarts, and everything to do with sheer numbers. This doesn't mean that science isn't an important area for children to engage and for citizens to develop an understanding of---but rather that should be the goal in and of itself.

Secondly, all of the ideas listed above will have absolutely no impact on student achievement in science unless classroom instruction changes. Just because every student has a laptop does not mean that teachers will give up their overhead projectors and whiteboards. Ditto for standards. They are the end, not the means. And all of the scholarship and professional development money in the world will make no difference if that doesn't make permanent changes to they way science in the classroom is currently presented.

I certainly support NSF funding (with significant increases), but if Congress and private business really want to make a difference at the public school classroom level, they need to provide money for strategies and practices that support student learning.

16 April 2008

Maybe We Could Get James Lipton, Too

I was dozing on the sofa last night, listening to Alec Baldwin interview Gene Wilder on TCM. While the discussion was not James Lipton-esque, I couldn't help but think of all those Inside the Actors Studio pieces I'd watched. Since my brain was in drift mode, it didn't seem to be a far leap to get to wondering what a Teachers Studio would look like.

This seemed like an interesting idea.

What if you had a highly selective school devoted to both training teachers---and enhancing their craft? It would have to be staffed by master teachers (not necessarily education profs/researchers) and perhaps attract an "Artist in Residence," such as Thomas Guskey or Linda Darling-Hammond, once in awhile. Do you think being a very exclusive place to learn the art and science of teaching would attract a particular kind of clientele---one which might not consider the profession now? What about being a site where experienced teachers would come for intensive inservice in a particular area in order to perfect their craft? It would be a retreat for people to celebrate teaching.

There are plenty of bubble-bursting details I could add to this, but for the moment, I'm liking it. What an interesting way to elevate the perception of classroom work---both for teachers and for the public at large. Anybody with me?

15 April 2008

It's Not a Job, It's an Adventure

If you have the time (about 17 minutes worth), I recommend listening to a "Tell Me More" broadcast over on NPR entitled Teachers Stumped by Budget, Discipline. It is billed as follows: Budget shortfalls and constant discipline issues are driving an alarming number of teachers out of the classroom. A roundtable of teachers talk about how they cope with these obstacles, and how these challenges will affect the future of the American education system.

At the table are two young male teachers, and a woman with over 30 years of classroom experience. Obviously, they have had very different experiences and viewpoints about the work. The woman believes that one must be "called" to the profession in order to be successful. I really disagree with this, although I hear this particular old saw quite a bit. The problem with it is that we tell our kids all the time that they can find success anywhere they choose as long as they are willing to make the effort...and then we turn around and say that only special people can teach. Do we tell ineffective classroom teachers that they must not have received some magical and ethereal message and that's why they do such poor work---or do we identify areas of improvement and support them? The men involved with the discussion are much more concrete about the issues involved with public education and teacher dissatisfaction: student discipline, poor working conditions, etc. While specifying these issues doesn't make it any easier to solve them, it is a start. Giving them a little national attention certainly can't hurt.

14 April 2008

The Problem With Hodgepodge

The field of education is replete with "educationese": all manner of terms which make us feel special and enlightened. They are the pretentious secret handshake of the profession. It was with great relief that one of the terms associated with grading is not nearly as precious as "transparent" or "capacity." It is darned plain. The word is "hodgepodge," and it is used to refer to a single grade which represents both learning and student behavior (e.g. on-time work, effort...).

Hodgepodge was the first word to come to mind when I read the piece in the WaPo on Do Grades or Standardized Test Scores Make the Student? The mother writing in is distraught because even though her son is topping out on AP tests, the SAT, and other standardized indicators---he is having trouble getting into college because his GPA is only a 3.275. Why is there the disparity? Because her son doesn't do his homework. He knocks the top off the classroom tests---he shows that he knows the information---but he doesn't play the game. Therefore, his teachers average in a lot of zeros. Their grades represent the hodgepodge problem. If they only considered learning, the child would have a 4.0.

This is very common with secondary school teachers---there is plenty of research out there documenting just how very unwilling they are to let go of hodgepodge grading. The primary reason cited is that teachers believe that work ethic behaviors are important. I agree with this, but I don't agree that they belong with a grade for learning. They should be reported separately. As a teacher, do you care more that the student has learned the material...or that he learned it in exactly the way you prescribed at the specific moment in time you prescribed it?

It is my suspicion that hodgepodge grading tends to play "Gotcha!" with boys (especially gifted boys) more than any other population. (This would be another great research project for someone.) I've had any number of young men over the years who refused to do their homework, but could ace any test. Punishment by zeros was in no way motivating. They had their own learning goals and that was that. I sense a similar attitude in the young man described in the WaPo article and also in something happening to Ms. Bees (read Part I and Part II of "Wonder Mother"). A young man turned in a project late: "He received a 248 out of 250 before the 50% penalty. The note I left him on his project indicated how disappointing it was for me to have to give such a low mark to such a good project, and that I hoped he would manage his time better in the future." Guess what? Mom is upset now---as she should be. In this case, Ms. Bees is only applying the grading practice set forth by the mentor teacher she is paired with, but one hopes that this lesson becomes more instructive about best practices in grading rather than parent dodging---because frankly, the practice (long-standing or not) is indefensible.

I would love to relegate the word "hodgepodge" to the same dustbin in which other educationese terms belong, but I don't see that its application is going to disappear anytime soon. As long as teachers---and colleges---continue to value grades more than learning, hodgepodge will be part of the classroom.

13 April 2008

More Random Thoughts on Technology

Someone shared this clip with me this week. It seemed timely in light of the recent Edutopia poll: What kind of tech support do you have at your school? (If you're interested in participating, send your 25 - 100 word answer, including your name, title, affiliation, and location to sage@edutopia.org.) It was ironic to receive this question at my mail address for the district which blocks the implementation of technology within the classroom at every opportunity. In the other district this past week, I watched teachers explore Del.icio.us, talk about using blogs with their primary students, share video presentations authored and voiced by 6 year olds, select streaming video clips from YouTube to support science instruction, and more. It is truly inspiring.

As for me, I've just joined Twitter. I'm still thinking about how to use this as a professional network, but I can see glimmers of potential. What is it that's important to share? What can I learn? I like the instant gratification of this communication medium. I wonder what it would be like to use this with students.

While I'm being random with my technology thoughts, here are a couple of posts worth your time:
  • Andrew over at Techlearning has a great description of how Bloom's Taxonomy applies to thinking in the digital world. This is a wonderful resource for teachers who are using technology to support student learning in the classroom as they design rubrics and look for evidence of thinking.
  • Liz has compiled her Greatest Hits, an assemblage of screencasts on how to use Google Reader, Twitter, and more. Here, too, I'm wondering about how I might use this with kids---and how I might use this with ye olde blog. What ideas do I have lurking in my files that might be fun to share in a video format?
What are you seeing and hearing for Classroom 2.0 technologies that is getting you excited?

12 April 2008

The Critical Mass

I was told that the last time the teachers' contract was up for ratification in this district, just 15% of the membership was involved. As I think about this, I'm wondering who The Union actually represents? On the face of things, they supposedly represent all teachers...but the longer I am in this business, the more I discover greater numbers of teachers for whom this is not true. They may have money deducted from their paychecks (and not by choice) to fund Union graft, but feel that there is no sense of their professional values present in what is negotiated. They are a silent majority---at least for now. It would seem that they are trying to figure out what the next steps will be.

More and more, I'm sensing that there is a greater mass of discontent with unions. Whether it's been editorials in the New York Times or posts and comments in increasing numbers of blogs (like From the Trenches), there is far more critique of unions now than when I first started writing. While I don't think the public at large would deny teachers the benefit packages (health, dental...) that come with the job, I do think that they are wising up to the stranglehold unions have that makes tenure a greater priority than good instruction for children.

I recently heard from a friend here who made the choice to drop membership and become a fees payer. It was a decision mulled over for awhile, but in the end there was a realization that membership carried an agreement that the things the out of touch prez and her Little Dictator sidekick promote are okay. It just isn't. In a meeting with admin, if the admin claims that a teacher has waived the right to due process, shouldn't the prez bother to ask the teacher if this is true---rather than roll over for admin? Should crying when you don't get the outcome you want (as is often the case with the LD, much to admin's amusement) drive the decision making process in the district? Shouldn't it be incumbent on The Union to demonstrate that whatever views they push forward are truly those of the majority of members? Because if they're not---and the admin knows that 15% of membership is behind union leadership---it's not a very strong bargaining position. It would seem that The Union was interested in survival, it should seek out this critical mass and find out how to represent them.

10 April 2008

The Mother of All Pep Talks

Tenth grade Science WASL testing happens next week. Meeting the standards is not required for graduation...and there are no penalties associated with not "passing." In other words, it really doesn't matter if the kids do well, but I still want them to be successful.

I've talked to my students a lot about not closing any doors. They might not need their scores to earn a diploma, but they do need them to access thousands of dollars in scholarships for technical school or college. Even if they aren't thinking they want to go to college now, I am suggesting that they keep the option available. Who knows what they will want in 2 years? Due to military careers or other life choices, they may not even go to college until 10 years from now. Why not ensure that their transcripts are able to support them in the future? I've reminded kids that they have worked hard at learning all year---just go out and kick some tail on the test. I don't really know if any of this is sinking in, but I hope this extra bit of carrot coupled with my expectations for them will be enough to keep them engaged next week.

So far, I've been fortunate in the sense that while other teachers are hearing their students say that they're not going to show up to school on the science test days, my kids have not made those admissions. At least not to my face. :) Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but that already feels like a leg up on things. About 30% of my students met the standards when they took the science test in 8th grade. While I don't think that 100% will make it over the bar as 10th graders, I'd like to think that more than 30% can. I'm not hammering them on the test this week. We are spending some time looking at some of the problems and talking strategies. I feel good about their general understanding of the inquiry process. I just need them to give it the old college try next week.

I asked the principal to come in and give us little pep talk to my students. He declined, of course, and sent the ass't. admin instead. My main goal with that was to reinforce some high expectations and support for their efforts. He did a passable job. We both know that overcoming the undercurrent of "The test doesn't count." would require the Mother of All Pep Talks.

08 April 2008


As I stood in the spring rain today and admonished first graders for the 1347th time not to run to the buses, I had fantasies about getting some really cool rain boots for myself. It is not uncommon for at least one child to comment about something I'm wearing while they barely restrain themselves from hurling toward the yellow dawgs waiting to take them home. "I like your dress..." comes across in some sort of Doppler effect as the herd charges past. So, hey, since they're looking, why not make it interesting and keep my tootsies dry at the same time?

I saw these last week. I think they're super cool. They are some serious rain-kickers. I would love them, but I'm afraid that they might terrify the 5-year olds. After all, we need them to slow down, not run faster.
Oddly enough, I have discovered that there is a whole world of fashion wellies out there. Who knew? There are buckles and laces...round toes and cowboy styles. I am most definitely not a shoe person, but I find all of the diversity here rather breathtaking.

I adore the ones on the left, but haven't been able to locate a vendor. The rubber duckies would certainly appeal to the younger crowd, and I find them rather fun, too. There are any number of polka dot versions (a fetish of mine).

So what do you think? A pair of each? :)

07 April 2008

Stone Supe

So I was thinking some more about the Rock Star Superintendent idea---and how many of these are coming from fields outside of education. I'm wondering if some sort of career experience within a school system should be a prerequisite for a leadership position. Or, perhaps leadership skills are exclusive of venue?

I realize that it would not be possible to expect any principal or higher up to have held multiple positions within the school system, but I can't think of a single admin who has been a bus driver, lunch lady, security guard, paraeducator, or administrative assistant. Some have coached sports or worked with co-curricular activities and clubs. Most have been classroom teachers. Is it more important for an administrator to know how to work a system...or to have a personal understanding of its constituents? How do we as teachers trust and respect a school or district leader who has no personal knowledge of what the daily work with children is actually like?

Several of the elementary principals in my morning district may give a nod to the supe in public, but otherwise there are consistent---and perhaps quite valid---grumblings about his lack of experience with both teaching and administration. (He's a military "retread," and this is his first job.) None of us are really sure if he has an interest in doing what is best for kids. There is little sense of true leadership---and much more reactionary thinking and doing. So, is he doing a poor job because of he doesn't have a deep understanding of public education...or because he doesn't know how to be a leader? If you can talk the talk, but can't walk the walk, maybe it's a bit of both.

06 April 2008

Where Is the Love?

In February, I posted about the Fine Romance I'm having with an elementary school. Two months in and we're still honeymooning, thank you very much. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm settling in nicely.

One of the teachers remarked about the "love notes" (her term) I leave in their mailboxes. You see, most of the time when I'm in classrooms right now, it isn't because I've been specifically invited. To be sure, the teachers are always gracious and they are used to having a coach around---but I am still imposing myself on their space. Meanwhile, there is always this underlying fear that a coach is the principal's lackey, sent there to spy and report on all of the ways the teacher is miserably failing in the classroom. The simple fact is that I am not anyone's boss and I am certainly not their evaluator. Whatever I see happening in their rooms---for better or worse---is a lot like being in Vegas: it stays there. Anyway, knowing all of this, I have been taking a few minutes after a classroom visit to write a thank you note. One thing I understand is that teachers feel unappreciated. Even if the kids adore you, they wear you down each day. Demands from parents and administration leave less time to be creative with lesson planning. And most of the time, when you are doing the very best you can---no other adults are around to see that...let alone say "Thank you."

The teachers are wishing that their principal would do something tangible like this. They have a need to be wooed and romanced---in a professional sense, of course. Everyone has settled into a comfortable relationship and they're hungry for that little spark again. They want signs that what they're doing is meaningful and appreciated. It's not always enough to know inside that you're teaching you're heart out and have the quiet acceptance of your peers and boss. We need someone to notice that we've done something new with our instruction...to be reassured that our partners don't want someone else. Their teacher hearts need nurturing. I'll see what I can do to talk to the admin and nudge him toward more reminders of this nature. He's a good soul. I know that if I call his attention to this and provide him with some ideas, he'll do the right thing by his staff.

As I've been pondering all this, I wondered if there's something more missing. I think that schools have become impersonal places to work. We are so worried about the professional image we give that we don't pay attention to the human elements lying underneath. I'm not sure what to do about that, except to spend time with each conversation asking about home life, special interests, and so on. Do I encourage a once-a-month potluck lunch for people to share a favourite recipe? Can I offer some activities (walking around the track after school, the occasional stitch-and-bitch...) without appearing like a cruise director?

What would honor you as a person within your professional life?

05 April 2008

Those People

One of the schools I work at serves a large number of families who are living below the poverty line (about 85% of our kids qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program). I am ever more impressed by the resilience of our students and their families. Parents who attend family events often arrive with their lunch pails (having just gotten off from work for the day) and look so very weary. I wonder if I am the first person to smile at some of them and look them in the eye that day. I could care less about the number of teeth they're missing, the well-worn clothes, or any other sign of difficult days they've had. What I do care about is that they love their children and want the best for them. No matter how hard things have been, these parents still show up at the school door to support their kids. I find that incredibly touching. It makes me all the more determined to make sure that while their children are in our charge during the day that they have the best classroom experiences we can give them.

Others in the community are not of this mind. There is an assumption that people living in poverty do so by choice (although some do invariably prefer the welfare route). If "those people" would just make some sort of effort (and get off of drugs/alcohol...and quit beating their children), that they wouldn't always be just one step ahead of the landlord. This misguided view point was reinforced for me in the comments section of an article in the on-line version of the local paper. The article was about a plan to transform the public housing neighbourhood in my school's attendance area into a multi-income level area. Here is one comment:

I, for one, am against this conversion. I say keep [that housing] a slum and keep the scum and crap of [our town] confined to one area. They are easier to keep under control if they are consolidated to one area of town. This makes the job of the police easier. Instead of the police running all over town to fix problems caused by these drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society, they could just camp out in [the public housing]. Ghettos raise property values elsewhere in the city. Letting these proven degenerates out into the city will only lower the property values of decent people.

I wish I could say that this particular view is rare. It's not. At my school, we are often reminded about how much the larger community discounts "those people." Here is another take on things from that same comment section:

I'm sorry to hear that you feel that I am scum and crap. I am a single mother of two children living on a limited income in [public housing]. I pay my bills on time. I do not do drugs or drink, nor have I broken the law and had the police come to my home. On top of it all I serve my country one weekend a month and did serve my country for over 8 years full time. I am a decent person. Not everyone in [public housing] are drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society. Many of us do not make enough money to live elsewhere without help. Maybe if more people took the time to find out who the residents of [public housing] are they would not be so quick to judge us because of where we live than for who we are.

I had to cheer at that. Not everyone in that position has the self-confidence to stand up, but this woman does. And there are any number more of people like her living there who are in the same situation. They are "those people," and I'm very happy working with them and for their children. I don't see myself as being able to solve the social problems that they find themselves in, but I'm not interested in making assumptions about why they're there or kicking them just because they're down. I admit that my lifestyle isn't much like theirs. We likely don't have a lot in common in terms of our backgrounds. What we do have in common, however, is that we're all doing the best we can for ourselves and the children in the school. That makes "those people" my people, too.

03 April 2008

Uphill through the Snow Both Ways

...five miles a day in cardboard shoes....and so on. Have you been waiting to pass along this rant to a child who complains about having to walk between home and school? You might have to wait to pass along this chestnut for a lot longer. Kids aren't walking to school anymore.

It's not necessarily because they're spoiled, lazy or over scheduled. According to a University of Michigan researcher, concerns about safety are the main reason that less than 13 percent of U.S. children walked or biked to school in 2004, compared to more than 50 percent who did so in 1969.

Why? Part of it is the structure of the environment---fewer sidewalks and tree-lined streets are built these days. Some of it is distance. Although not described in this current article, I remember seeing a study describing that the new cul-de-sac and other neighborhood layouts discourage walkers because it takes longer to get to stores and schools than a traditional block plan.

It seems a shame to know that this piece of cultural history is declining, but I do notice that fewer and fewer sidewalks and safe places for kids to walk are being built these days. If you see the same thing in your area, encourage your neighbourhood to apply for a federal grant to build sidewalks. You can find more information on this and other safe route ideas at the National Center for Safe Routes to School organization.

02 April 2008

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

I once saw the following saying posted in the faculty room of an elementary school: Somewhere in America, a future President of the United States is sitting in a classroom; let us hope she is having a nice day. When I think back to my own elementary experiences, I remember very few classmates ever mentioning that they wanted to be President (let alone girls), but there was always one---or at least somebody who had ambitions for a leadership role. According to the Washington Post, those days are gone. Many potential leaders of tomorrow are rejecting the idea.

A survey commissioned by the Girl Scouts of America included a random sample of more than 4,000 children ages 8 to 17. The youths defined leaders as people who prize collaboration, stand up for their beliefs and values, and try to improve society. It found that a majority of children and youths in the United States have little or no interest with achieving leadership roles when they become adults, ranking "being a leader" behind other goals such as "fitting in," "making a lot of money" and "helping animals or the environment."

There is further information in the article concerning some of the reasons cited by both gender and ethnic groups as to why they are either uncertain of their leadership abilities or unwilling to assume the role. If there's going to be more and more people choosing "follow" or "get out of the way," where will tomorrow's leaders come from?

01 April 2008

The Impatience of Achievement

How much forward progress can we expect a school to make within a month? A year? Can we measure student achievement in terms of weeks...or do we need a broader time span to adequately assess any gains that are made? I wondered about this while reading Glimmers of Progress at a Failing School in a recent Sunday edition of the New York Times. It's about an elementary school in Newark which is now in its seventh year of being a "failing" school. There seems to be an abundance of anecdotal evidence that change is happening---but what will test scores show?

As I watch the day-to-day efforts of teachers and paraeducators to help support student learning, I think about how those tiny baby steps each session will eventually add up. The problem is, will anyone outside notice? A child receiving intensive interventions may double their score on progress monitoring tests, but still be within the range of intensive services. For kids who aren't yet able to meet the standards, it would appear that this type of progress is still worthy of recognition and celebration. It means the schools are on the right track. Change takes time. Schools didn't become failures overnight---and we can't expect that they will be exemplary at the snap of the fingers, either.

I worry about the staff who work so hard every day to help kids move forward. As a coach, I fret about their stamina---and how to nurture that---in the face of a world which doesn't recognize the little moves forward and just the big steps back. How do we make the fruits of their labours more tangible and easily recognized? What can we do to hold the impatience of achievement at bay?

Mom and Dad Like You Best

Are you not the firstborn child in your family? Did you always have a sneaking suspicion that the eldest child received more attention and privilege than you? You may very well have been right.

A new study by Joseph Price of BYU has concluded that on average, firstborn children between the ages of 4 and 13 get more than 3000 "quality" hours of time with their parents than do their siblings. Quality time with parents includes minutes spent together on such activities as homework, meals, reading, playtime, sports, teaching, arts, religion and conversation.

Why parents spend less time with children as a family ages was not studied, but Price offered some reasons, including fatigue, age and a waning novelty. Another factor is that as the firstborn ages and has more "appointments" (school, soccer, playdates...), that tends to drive the family schedule.

As a classroom teacher, it is often obvious where kids fall in the birth order, especially the youngest. More than once, I've watched my attention-seekers and said, "I'll bet you're the baby of the family, aren't you?" Kids are always surprised. "How could you tell?" I suppose now I could use the graphic on the right to point out the number of minutes a day they've lost out on...and how they're trying to make up for it in my classroom.
There's much more to read and ponder in the article in the Washington Post on how Quality Time Seems Stacked in Favor of Firstborns.

The Faster I Go, The Behinder I Get

Now that my grad school classes are out of the way...and I have a cooperating school district for my research...it's time to jump on some things for my dissertation. Since it's Spring Break, this is about my last chance for a chunk of time to revise my existing dissertation chapters, submit paperwork for Internal Review Board approval for my survey, and get a whole new batch of proposal paperwork to the new school district. Sure, it doesn't sound like the most attractive way to spend the second half of spring break, but it is not as bad as trying to do all this while simultaneously working for two school districts. :)

Oh---and did I mention that I have my first round of orals in two weeks? The more things I seem to finish...the more new things pop-up with deadlines.

So, dear Readers, I'm going to be offline for a couple of days while I tend to other business. But never fear, I have a stash of six posts in my queue (some of them have been sitting there awhile). I'll start getting them published momentarily so that I'm a bit ahead of the curve here. Ration your reading carefully and I'll be return by Saturday, just in time to whine about going back to work on Monday.

Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement

If you're a regular here, you know the basic spiel about my doctoral work. My study is on how grading practices do or don't promote mastery goals in students. (I'm not going to restate the whole theoretical basis (again), but if you're not a reg or want a refresher, just click the EdD label and you'll see all kinds of things you can't unsee.) While my doctoral study deals with a tiny piece of the motivational puzzle, my broader interests are in how teachers create classroom environments which support mastery goals---from what they put on the walls to the words and phrases they use with students to the elements of the "hidden" curriculum. If we as teachers truly believe that we are about kids and their learning, do the actions we take match the end we have in mind? (This is the "congruence" idea I alluded to in a previous post.)

I was thinking about all of this when I saw this article on Science Daily: Cooperative Classrooms Lead to Better Friendships, Higher Achievement in Young Adolescents. Johnson and Johnson, the gurus of cooperative learning, "examined 148 studies that compared the effects of cooperative, competitive and individualistic goals on early achievement and peer relationships among 12- to 15-year-olds. The studies included more than 17,000 adolescents from 11 countries and used four multinational samples. No one was excluded from the analysis because of gender, nationality, or academic or physical ability. According to the studies, adolescents in classrooms that supported cooperative learning -- studying together to complete a project or prepare for an exam -- got along better with their peers, were more accurate on academic tests and achieved higher scores on problem-solving, reasoning and critical thinking tasks compared to adolescents who were in classrooms geared toward competitive learning -- studying alone knowing that success would mean only one winner and plenty of losers." (You can find a copy of the original Johnson and Johnson article here, including the methodology.)

This meta-analysis would match up well with much of the literature I've reviewed for my dissertation. While my study isn't about cooperative learning, the outcomes described here are consistent with those found in mastery-oriented classrooms. In fact, the authors do include a tiny piece of goal theory with their publication. These are all pieces of the complex puzzle of student achievement. I keep hoping that there will be a way to put them all together.