Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This Research Applies to Students Who Try to Do Biology In English Class Too

Few good multitaskers exist according to the New York Times.  The key quotation:

In the meantime, Mr. Strayer and the researchers say most people should not expect to successfully supertask. And they absolutely should not try to do so behind the wheel of a car because, he said, they face significantly inflated crash risk.

“Some readers may also be wondering if they too are supertaskers,” said the paper by Mr. Strayer and his colleague, Jason Watson. “We suggest the odds of this are against them.”
 Most students probably will take 2.5% chance that they are supertaskers.  Gotta love enthusiasm.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Salve for the Soul from an Android and a Geek

Click and Enjoy

A Random Question about Accountability

 Michael Steele, head of the RNC, apparently isn't responsible for the staffer who took people to a lesbian/bondage themed club.  High school teachers, however, are responsible for how their students perform on NCLB tests. 

Most stats say that kids are away from school 91% of the time.  I have contact with my students about 55 minutes a day.  I'm willing to bet that Steele has more contact with his staffers than I have with my students.  Isn't there a double standard here?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Reaping the Whirlwind

This is going to be a long tweet more than a full post.

I just finished teaching an ACT Test prep class.  It wasn't a horrendous experience, but it encapsulated everything that's wrong with education in the NCLB era.  In class, students exhibit some of the same attitudes, but a two hour evening class really brought the problems into focus

First, the kids were satisfied.  Many seemed to believe that they knew everything that they needed to.  If all of them were going to get a 30 or above they'd have every right to be a little smug.  Most of them won't get over 26.  The overblown egos can probably be blamed on the self-esteem BS that started dominated education long before NCLB.

More importantly,  the kids were totally incurious.  They wanted only the right answer, not why the answer is correct. Not knowing why really won't help them get the right answer on the real test, but it will get them out of class more quickly.  One must have priorities.

Socrates is famous for claiming that the unexamined life is not worth living; satisfaction combined with a lack of curiosity probably make self examination impossible.  Those qualities probably also make education impossible.

Since this post started with a biblical allusion, it seems appropriate to end it with "herein endth the rant."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Geek Gear Part 2

Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? Mark 8:18

This week, let's look at stuff to help people remember, sort of.  Once again, I point out that I'm not a paid endorser of any of these items, but I'd be willing to be if someone offered.

Flash drives/thumb drives/USB drives/memory sticks/those things that plug into the computer but always get lost are hardly new, but the Lacie imaKey is pretty cool.  It's flat and narrow so it fits in ports that always seem to be too close together to actually hold two different external drives. 

Our school's computer system is pretty good, but once or twice a year, we experience a day when we can't access the server that contains all of our saved material.  I use the Lacie to hold back up folders for classes that I teach during each semester.  That way, I'm not totally lost when I show up and hear the announcement "teachers will not be able to access the H drive today."

I also load two other items on the flash drive.  First, I should admit that I learned about both of these from Lifehacker.  One is the PortableApps suite.  Open Office is great software that allows kids to do homework without bowing down in submission the Microsoft Empire.  Kids are kids and some will forget to save as a .doc; the portable apps allow me to open the Open Office assignments that they email me.

I am getting older and more forgetful, so I have a flash drive reminder installed.  It pops up a little message that reminds me to remove the flash drive before shutting down.

Feel free to leave any helpful teacher gear tips in the comments.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Evangelicals Debate Basic Principles

Brian McLaren causes consternation.  I don't know if I agree with his theology, but anyone who can mix postmodernism and Christianity is someone I'd like to have dinner with.  McLaren's website is here.

Saturday English Teacher Weirdness

While roaming across the inter-webs, I happened upon a post that refers to this novels tournament bracket.  Round 2 is here.  I guess that makes this bracket of young adult fiction the NIT.  Then there's this idea for poetry brackets.  Silly me, I had no idea novels season was almost over, and I thought poetry season started in June.

If lit teachers are going to copy the sports world, we should go all in and play fantasy authors.  (I am aware that the use of the poker term "all in" matched with a fantasy game could be considered an evil mixed metaphor, but I prefer to think of it as a clever bit of misdirection.)

The rules could be fairly simple.  Each team would need six novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists,or short story writers.  Each team must have three male authors and three female authors.  Teams must include authors from the ancient world, the Middle Ages, the 17th Century, the 18th Century, the 19th Century,and the 20th Century.  The team must have American, British, European, and Asian/African authors.

The inclusion of non-American/British authors and the demand for gender equality makes it difficult to stack a team.  For example, I wanted Shakespeare, Twain, and Confucius, but, off the top of my head, I couldn't think of women authors from the other time periods to get all three.

20th Century: Flannery O'Connor (American)

19th Century: Jane Austin (British--She published most of her works between 1810-1815)

18th Century: Mary Wollstonecraft (British)

17th Century: William Shakespeare (British)

Middle Ages: Thomas Aquinas (European)

Ancient World:  Confucius (Asian)

Players earn points every time one of their authors is quoted or alluded to in major news publications or on-line news sources like time Time, Newsweek, CNN, or The New York Times.  Leagues could pick five to ten acceptable publications.  The scoring could be simple:  1 point for an allusion, 2 points for a direct quotation.

For example, my team listed above would get a point for this CNN article that mentions Confucius.  I'd want extra points because poetry about garlic is under-appreciated, but that's a different discussion. Whoever has Twain would get points for this NYT article.  If someone has G.K. Chesterton, they'd get two points for this Time editorial.

Although I started this post as a joke, I might try to flesh this idea out and use it in my world lit class next fall.  I do an allusions unit and try to compare some the authors we cover to American authors the students have studied.  I also have them do a quotation response notebook.  This game might make them a bit more willing to look for quotations in actual reading instead of running to a quote book as a first option.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Angry Politics. Part 2

I guess I should have read Messers. Heidleberger and Dahle before I posted.  They see the same anger I do, and posted so early I now feel redundant.

Angry Politics

I am by nature an angry man.  I consider the Incredible Hulk an acceptable role model.  I use anger as a crutch to get through the day; it’s the only way I can motivate myself.  I’ve had only one dentist use “laughing gas”; the buzz made me angry.  Lately, I've been drawn to Justified, the television program whose protagonist claims "I guess I never thought of myself as an angry man."   His ex-wife, however, asserts he is " ...the angriest man I've ever known."  I suppose it’s for these reasons, and numerous others, that my wife worries that I carry around an unhealthy amount of anger.

Even though I'm drawn to anger the way the way a mechanic with a foot fetish is drawn to pedal pumping, this Peggy Noonan editorial frightened me.  Noonan writes, “. . . I am struck now by how, when I worry aloud about this and say to a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, that I fear something bad is going to happen, no one disagrees. No one says, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” They say—again, left right and center: “I’m afraid of that too.”

I’m a little young to actually remember the Sixties; I was only 10 years old during the Summer of Love, and my recall of the news reports Martin Luther King riots, the Chicago Democratic Convention Riots, or Kent State are so blurry that they resemble dreams more than actual memories.  I remember the Operation Rescue protests, the Rodney King riots, Clinton hatred, and Bush hatred more clearly, but none of that ferment seemed as widespread as this current rage. Like Noonan, I think some of this current fury is something new.

It would be nice to blame only one side; the Tea Party people or talk radio blowhards for instance have done their fair share of harm.  The problems, however,  run deeper.  No leader seems to have enough respect to convince everyone to "play nice."  In short, there are no adults, and the young run around believing that their opinions carry the weight of facts "that can't be wrong."  Everyone seems to have forgotten that most people err out of ignorance not malice.

In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett has Kasper Gutman say, "Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice."  Although Gutman is a rogue, he deserves to be listened to.  To be judicious is to be "characterized by good or discriminating judgment."  Judicious's  synonyms include "reasonable," "sober," "sagacious," or "enlightened," qualities all American leaders need to exhibit in this acrimonious era.  Gutman would surely agree that anger is something that can never be practiced judiciously. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Question

I have read Stephen Covey's book and dozens of articles about David Allen's GTD.  Both methods have their strengths.  I think that I prefer roles to contexts; as a teacher, I have one work context, @classroom.

I wish one of these methods or any other method would explain how one can motivate oneself to do hated tasks.  If everything relies on will power, then any system is only as good as a user's will and his or her ability act on that will. More importantly, all systems are as weak as any person's will to do whatever it is that they don't want to do.  If that analysis is accurate, these guys their publishers, and the marketers of all their productivity gear are really ripping people off.

As a teacher, I wish that one of these systems would help teachers explain to students how to do work that they don't want to do.  A fellow teacher who was fortunate enough to retire about 10 years ago claimed that he had never worked a day in his life.  I feel as if I'm working every second of the day, and I think students feel the same way.  I'm old and afraid of starving or being homeless or not being able to help my kids pay for college, so I force myself to work.  I'm not sure that my students are ever afraid, so they need some other form of motivation.  (My wife will probably say that a method that doesn't rely on fear and its related stress might be more healthy as well.)

I'm not sure any answer exists.  If I find it, I'll write a book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Wednesday Triple Post

Three things in education that waste my time as a high school teacher and have no educational value.

Supervising Study Hall
Homecoming Parades

Feel free to add your own triples

Diane Ravitch Interview

This hour long discussion between Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss is well worth the time for anyone who cares about K-12 education and the pernicious effects of NCLB.

South Dakota Political Debate

I know I'm a little late with this post, but this exchange between South Dakota debate luminaries Travis Dahle and Cory Heidelberger about Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota's lone Congressperson makes me glad that I don't have to judge this round, at least not until the primary.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Exec Pay Limits Not the End of the World As We Know It

I wonder what the spin on this NY Times article will be?  Execs didn't leave big corporations that took bailout money and therefore had limit exec compensation.

I would swear on a stack of Bibles (which I do have) or $100 dollar bills (which I don't have but would use if I did) that the the people opposing caps on executive pay claimed that all of those companies would lose their best people and that there would be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth along.  I think they also promised the possibility of 7 scenarios of nuclear holocaust, but I could be wrong.  That was probably an AIG ad.

If I had to guess, the spin will be the NY Times is liberal and hates money because it says "In God We Trust."

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Recommendation

I spent part of the weekend watching C-SPAN 2's Book TV.  Yes, that means I really don't have a life.  Anyway, this program presented by the authors of The Spirit Level was thought provoking.    They also have a website that describes their work in more detail. 

The US income gap had widened dramatically in my lifetime. I don't know enough to comment intelligently, but it seems as if the idea that more equal societies are healthier and happier should give everyone pause. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Geek Gear Post 1

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)

My mother clings to this verse as she constantly reminds me that she "raised [me] better than that."  She did her best, but she's only as good as the raw material she's been given.  When it comes to organization, she needs to pray that the "when he is old" clause in the proverb will kick in before I approach Methuselah's years.

I thought that I would use Sunday to point out accouterments that allow me to function despite my lack of innate organizing skills.  I should point out that I'm not a paid endorser of any of these items, but I'd be willing to be if someone offered.

I love 3x5 cards,  They're convenient for taking notes during meetings, keeping daily to-do lists, and organizing larger projects.  I use this Renaissance Art Leather Card Case.  I can put cards on both sides; one side has blank cards to write notes or keep track of kids who are absent or who didn't do an assignment that I'm grading for a completion grade.  Also, I am getting to the age that forces me to write stuff down, or I forget; so I keep random notes on this side.

The other side contains cards with reminders of what I want to do in each class or a list of "must-do" tasks.  The best part about these cards is the feeling that I get when I tear up one because everything on it is completed or the school day is over.

The card case also has an inner packet that holds between 10 to 12 extra cards

I try to color code cards as well.  I use white cards for note taking, a melon colored card for tasks that I should do at home, buff colored card for work tasks, and a green card for errands that require me to spend money.  When I'm ambitious, I print off cards from DIY Planner. I use the 4-up version and a paper cutter.  When I'm not, I buy non-neon packs of assorted-colored cards.

I'm not organized; I still have to sweat dozens of details that I shouldn't, but this piece of equipment allows me to function and get the really important stuff done.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

From Jason Peters at The Front Porch Republic

Teaching literature well is partly about perpetuating your own tastes. That is inescapable and seldom to be repented.

More Education Debate

The current education debate prompted by Diane Ravitch's new book seems premised on the idea that the current education system is reparable. The proper incentives or threats, depending on how one views testing, should be able to make teachers teach and students learn. As a teacher, I'm not sure schools can be fixed.

Contrary to what George W. Bush asserted, not every child wants to learn. In fact, school is often an interruption in a student's life. Any particular class pales in comparison to hanging out with friends, a job, extra-curricular activities, and other classes that are either easier or more relevant. Relevance is, of course, relative.

In my experience, high school students want to get good grades so that a good college or university will accept them. In their minds, the grades should reflect that they did the homework, passed the tests that they crammed for, and jumped through whatever hoops they encountered. The one thing they resist is actually learning. At my most cynical, I believe that given a choice between learning how to cure cancer with a B or getting an A with cancer remaining a curse on the planet, most students would choose the A. No school reform is going to change these attitudes.

The students aren't totally at fault here; colleges, parents, counselors, scholarship committees, and teachers all feed the attitude.

Further, it seems to me that no sane person would create the current system. Certainly, no one starting from scratch would create schools as they currently exist. The first question policymakers need to ask is what should a school be?

I don't know what an ideal school would look like, but it would have to be far more flexible than schools currently are. It would probably be more diagnostic and corrective than contemporary schools. It would have to connect material across the curriculum far better than the current system does. Of course, no one seems to agree about what should be taught, let alone how subject matter should be taught, but those debates seem to take place in a framework that assumes the current system.

There may not be a universal answer, but a bit of Utopian idealism might help move the debate toward better policy solutions.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Education Reform Debate

At The New Republic’s online symposium on education reform, Kevin Carey attacks Diane Ravitch’s baseball analogy. He writes, “Diane, you live in Brooklyn--haven't you heard of the 2009 World Series Champion New York Yankees, whose nine starters averaged 25 home runs apiece during the regular season? If the teachers in the Bronx were as good as the baseball players, students there would learn much more.”

Everyone has heard of the New York Yankees. Carey, perhaps, hasn’t heard that there are small market teams that have to make do with a single all-star or three or four all-stars. Schools are small market teams who have to rely on Sabermetrics and a few defensive specialists, not the bombers who earn the Bronx its fame.

Further, the fact that the Yankees “averaged 25 home runs apiece” doesn’t really help his argument. Under most state implementations of NCLB rules a team average isn’t good enough. Every player needs to hit .300 and 25 home runs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Some Observations about Technology and the Web

I've been fascinated by David Gerlenter's observations about the Internet and it's impact.

I love this assertion:

"The Internet is no topic like cellphones or videogame platforms or artificial intelligence; it's a topic like education. It's that big. Therefore beware: to become a teacher, master some topic you can teach; don't go to Education School and master nothing. To work on the Internet, master some part of the Internet: engineering, software, computer science, communication theory; economics or business; literature or design. Don't go to Internet School and master nothing. There are brilliant, admirable people at Internet institutes. But if these institutes have the same effect on the Internet that education schools have had on education, they will be a disaster."

I can't agree more that effective teachers need to know their subject matter before they teach. I also can't agree more that education schools have been a disaster for education.

The most fascinating part, however, was the assertion that the question "if this is the information age, what do our children know that our parents didn't?" has a specific answer. According to Gelernter, The answer is 'now.' They know about now." He continues, "Nowness is one of the most important cultural phenomena of the modern age"

I see nothing to argue with in these points; I am, however, frightened by them. If he is correct, then knowledge of the past and preparation for the future cease to be important. Equally important, reflection is nearly impossible if one is currently in the moment.

Gelernter, however, is optimistic: ". . . the Internet could be the most powerful device ever invented for understanding the past, and the texture of time. Once we understand the inherent bias in an instrument, we can correct it. The Internet has a large bias in favor of now. Using lifestreams (which arrange information in time instead of space), historians can assemble, argue about and gradually refine timelines of historical fact. Such timelines are not history, but they are the raw material of history. They will be bitterly debated and disputed — but it will be easy to compare two different versions (and the evidence that supports them) side-by-side. Images, videos and text will accumulate around such streams. Eventually they will become shared cultural monuments in the Cybersphere."

I'm not so sure. It seems to me that lack of knowledge of the past makes it possible to use Orwell as a blueprint not a warning. If there is no real knowledge of anything but "now," then the evidence can be massaged in a way that makes the debate and the evidence used to support each side position suspect. It will be theater not fact.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Today was a good day to teach mythology and drama.

First, Ross Douthat writes, "Americans believe in evil, but we’re uncomfortable with tragedy. We accept that there are wicked people in the world, with malice in their hearts and a devil whispering in their ears. But the idea that many debacles flow from choices made by decent, well-intentioned human beings is more difficult for us to wrap our minds around."

Later, Daniel Larison takes issue with Douthat's analysis about tragedy, in its literary sense, and the Iraq War here and here. Later, Rod Dreher takes up the idea of the tragic and the new revelations about the Pope and the European/German sex abuse scandal.

For at least one day this year, it was easy to show that Oedipus or Hamlet matter in the "real world."