Thursday, April 29, 2010

Moral Quandary

When I read statements like this,
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1 (NIV)
and then read facts like this one tweeted by the Madville Times,
average wage, SD/US: 76%. Cost of Living, SD/US: 91%. And you like this status quo?
I really start believing I have a moral obligation to write "Get out of South Dakota" on the bottom of each paper I grade and return to students.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

SHAZAM: Some Comic Geek Stuff

Bloggers or assorted lifehack experts frequently publish lists of things they wants school to teach.  The lists frequently include bromides like Polonius's "to thine own self be true."  Quite frankly, I wish we could teach some comic books because comic books sum up most of the "how to succeed" points that many of the lifehack blogs enunciate.

For example, this post on Hilife2B tells readers to "become really good at one thing."  Nearly every superhero has one skill:  The Thing and She-Hulk are strong; Green Arrow has mastered using a bow; The Flash is fast;The Human Torch controls his flames, and The Invisible Woman controls her force field.  Each strives to master the particular strength.

The other things comics teach is SHAZAM.  For any youngsters that might stumble upon this blog, Shazam is the acronym that Billy Batson utters to turn into Captain Marvel.  SHAZAM stands for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.  If you don't believe me, ask Wikipedia.

Outside of the fact that SHAZAM is fun to type and say, the work provides two important reminders.  First, the qualities it supposedly stands for are important to succeed in nearly every endeavor.  Second, it's a reminder that one needs people to look up to and learn from.  This post about creating a personal High Jedi Council elaborates on the point (I apologize for mixing geek genres to try to prove a point; I promise not to make any Star Trek reverences in this post.  Also, please note that I blanch at the idea of including Oprah on any list of mentors, but its his high council, not mine.)

The most important thing that comics teach is that one has to accept contradiction.  Mastering a skill and learning to rely on oneself seems to contradict the idea that one frequently needs help.   Many of the superheroes are technical geniuses, but many others rely on ancient weapons like swords, bows, or whips.  More importantly, the heroes who master the old weapons frequently defeat villains who have technologically superior tools.

In the NCLB era, no one's going to let me teach a high school comic book class.  It's tough to create a standardized test with bubbles that spell SHAZAM,

Monday, April 26, 2010

Weird Short Takes

Take 1:  I really don't know what to make of this headline Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking - Times Online.  I seriously doubt that anyone will be able to converse with beings who can traverse a galaxy. Humanity's survival may depend on whether we have a more virulent equivalent of smallpox than they do.

Take 2:  While teaching mythology today, it occurred to me that Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger, Terrel Owens, and Donald Trump all seem to be characters like Achilles or Agamemnon.  The Wall Street Bankers remind me of the capricious gods who seemingly get pleasure from ruining humans' lives.  The bankers use derivatives and the gods used blind Fates, but the results still seem unnecessarily catastrophic.  I probably read too much into stuff.

Take 3:  Success manuals usually emphasize passion or charisma or originality, but I wonder if they ignore energy.  It seems to me that people can be successful if they're smart, hard working, or stubborn, but most successful people have a higher energy level than mere mortals who may have three or four of the other qualities..

Take 4:  I may have to revisit this little tidbit, but I think that it's really cool that Agatha Christie was as disorganized as I am.

Take 5:  Do Boobs Actually Cause Earthquakes?  The article is actually more bizarre than the headline.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pop Culture and Teaching: A Brief Observation

The Starship Enterprise needs at least five different personalities to "boldly go where no one has gone before."  Whether it be Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu or The Next Generation's Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and Troi, the crew seemed to need different personalities to carry out the mission.  The Fantastic Four has Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing.  Each of these characters has a distinctly different personality.  Schools seem to have Miss Trunchbulls or Miss Honeys or Coach Cleats, and they seem to be living stereotypes not personalities.

It seems to me that schools who are tasked with helping students take society beyond where it is now are being taught predominantly by one or two personality types instead of six or seven.  I don't know if businesses limit the types of personalities that they hire or not, but it seems to me dangerous to have too much homogeneity.  Bear Stearns seems to illustrate that fact.  The company had too many gamblers and too few whistle blowers.

I may be finding similarities where none exist, but it seems to me schools would be better off with a few more more Worfs, Spocks, and Human Torches.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Short Musing

Last night, Cory and Travis were at IgniteSD engaging in ideas.  Tonight, I was working on prom.  They were working on the future while I am stuck in the past.  These rather depressing ruminations make me wonder if South Dakota isn't illustrating Richard Florida's theories.  If Florida is right, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Vermillion, and Madville will soon leave the rest of us in the dust.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of Corruption and Silver Linings

The good people at Badlands Blue have plugged this blog on Twitter, so I really don't want to cast aspersions on their interpretation of Governor Rounds being named one of the nation's worst governors, but I really think that they are missing a few of the benefits that come with corrupt governance.

Hiding donations and making sure that family members on on the payroll seems to come straight from the Huey and Earl Long school of governing.  If South Dakota is to be governed as if it's Deep South Dakota, then we might develop our own William Faulker or Flannery O'Connor instead of leaving regional literature to Wyoming's Craig Johnson.

Johnson is truly a great writer, but this corruption might mean that South Dakota won't  have to limit our sights to regional literature.  We could find our own Shakespeare and have him write a South Dakota version of Hamlet.  If something is truly rotten in South Dakota, perhaps the Governor could begin political testimonials by saying, "Alas! poor Janklow, I knew him Daugaard; . . . "  State policy could be dictated with decrees such as "This above all to thine own self be true/but give no money to the schools."

Most importantly, we unenlightened voters might view corruption as madness, but "there is method in 't."  I'm sure Rounds intends to stave off the 2012 disasters that some say the Maya predicted.  After all, if "the world's grown honest/Then is doomsday near."  Corrupt politicians surely mean that the world has not yet become honest.

We benighted folk of the hinterland just need to remember that "there are more things in heaven and earth, . . . /Than are dreamt of in [our ethical] philosphies."  I for one look forward to practicing either a Southern or Elizabethan accent.

Summer Reading List

I should be correcting papers and cleaning my nest that is liberally feathered with the books and papers and comics.  In another life that nest was a love seat.  I decided to do something much more important; go through the stack of books on various to be read piles and pick twelve to read this summer.  A few are re-reads because I think that it's important to re-visit a few titles.  Here's the list:
  1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  2. April 1865:  The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik
  3. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  5. Where God Was Born: A Daring Adventure Through The Bible's Greatest Stories by Bruce Feiler
  6. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
  7. The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene
  8. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Reason, Faith, and Revolution:  Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton
  10. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
  11. The Question of God:  C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
  12. Go Put Your Strengths to Work by Marcus Buckingham
That's the official hope to finish list.  I'll have a Grisham book and a graphic novel or two in my bag for down time when I'm at the NFL national debate tournament, but I won't count those.

I'm always looking for good reads.  Leave some suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Another Modest Proposal That Will Be Ignored

It's Spring, and in the words of Willy Loman, "I'm tired to the death."  In a season that's become a metaphor for renewal, fatigue seems out of place.  The dissonance between what my energy level is and what I think it should be has prompted this post about a calendar proposal that no one in South Dakota will adopt.

The school year should not be a nine month marathon with a three month vacation  Instead, it should be a series of six or nine week sessions separated by two or three week breaks. 

I would suggest that one of the two week breaks be scheduled around the Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year season and another around Independence Day. The rest should follow the normal session.  The calendar should take into account holidays like Thanksgiving, Presidents' Day, and Martin Luther King Day.  Local districts could set a few others.

That's it; it's simple and clean.  I don't have any stats about effectiveness or cost.  It can't be worse than the calendar that most of us work under now, and I'm positive students will learn more, so I'm pretty sure no one will think about adopting it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Chart about Art and Inspiration

Lapham’s Quarterly has a chart illustrating the substances various artists have used to compose their work.  In the spirit of honesty and the avoidance of plagiarism and hypocrisy, I first became aware of this chart while reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

 

 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Some Sunday Morning Thinking Out Loud

Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything came out in April 2009.  I haven't read the book, but I disagree with both the title and the subtitle.  That being said, religion's failures may prove a bit illustrative.

Using Christianity as an example, religion seems to illustrate that agreement on large goals produces unity or accord.  Christians believe that a Jewish man who lived and was crucified a little over 2000 years ago rose from the dead and provides salvation for the whole human race.   It's unclear, however, if a Russian Orthodox bishop and a pentecostal snake handling clergyman can agree on any implications of that statement.  They certainly don't agree on what constitutes proper practices to illustrate their shared belief.  I won't even bother to try to go through the history of great and small religious wars that illustrate that these differences can have disastrous consequences.

In the same manner, educators, politicians, business leaders, parents, and students all agree on a large goal: students need to be prepared to succeed in an ever changing and increasingly complex world.  No one, however, agrees how to achieve that goal.  Although no one may be going to war over NCLB or a liberal arts curriculum, the debate's vitriol rivals that of the arguments over proper communion or baptism practices.

It's clear that the devil owns the details, and we are all living mobile Venn diagrams situated on a shifting plane.  (I don't know if that statement is mathematically possible, but it seems a usable image.)  Venn diagrams illustrate the elements that a set shares or excludes.  As the plane shifts and the arcs move, different elements become shared or null sets.

The problem inherent in the religious arguments or the debate over educational reform is that people seem to believe they own the doctrine.  Maybe those involved in doctrinal arguments ought to see the ideas or the details or first principles as "shared" rather than "owned" the arguments might be less vitriolic.  At least that's the idealistic thought for this Sunday morning.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Schools and Branding

At Dahle Communications, Travis examines the Disney's magical branding skills.  Today, we had scores of students miss class to attend a music contest, so I had a bit of down time.  I asked my seniors what school could have done differently, and I asked a class of juniors what could be done to make them give a damn.  I some of the expected answers, fewer worksheets and the ever popular "make it fun," but for the most part, I got serious answers.

Reflecting on those answers, it seems that schools are taking the wrong lesson from Disney.  We spend hours trying to be relevant or entertaining.  There's no way we can match Disney, Universal, or HBO, and there's no way that schools can match the urgency of full time job, especially for a 15 or 16 year old,

Rather than focusing on entertainment schools need to protect their brand.  The sense of purpose needs to be clear.  Students don't know how classes tie together or what the school's mission is or should be.  Students probably reflect their parents in that regard, but schools bear the blame for not taking care of their brand and taking care of their primary function.  In fact they don't even clearly enunciate what that function is.

Right now, schools seem to be places that have hollow cavities where their souls should be rather than places that are far more magical than Disney's Kingdom.  Maybe they need to learn from Disney and steal the magic back.  Concentrating on developing and maintaining a big picture brand might be a good first step.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Election Day Wisdom

all over South Dakota a small minority believers in the democratic process are casting votes in municipal and school board elections.  A few folks far wiser than I have offered some important observations about the process.  On this day, I will let their wisdom stand without comment.  I'll let their enlightened cynicism stand without comment as well.

In the first place God made idiots.  This was for practice.  Then he made school boards.--Mark Twain

The great thing about democracy is that it gives every voter a chance to do something stupid.--Art Spander

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.--H. L. Mencken

Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.--George Bernard Shaw

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.--Sir Winston Churchill

Vote: The instrument and symbol of a free man's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.--Ambrose Bierce


We always want the best man to win an election. Unfortunately, he never runs.--Will Rogers


Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.--John Kenneth Galbraith


An election is nothing more than the advanced auction of stolen goods.--Ambrose Bierce

We stand today at a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction.  Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.--Woody Allen

Monday, April 12, 2010

More from The Checklist Manifesto

A long time ago, in some random apartment far, far away, I read a book entitled The Amateur; the book contained a preface that stated that an amateur is someone who thinks that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly, but a professional is someone who thinks if something is worth doing it's worth doing well.  I've always liked that definition, but Atul Gawande has a more detailed definition in The Checklist Manifesto.

Gawande claims that professionalism demands selflessness which he claims is accepting responsibility for others (182).  His next criterion is "an expectation of skill," "an aim for excellence" that professionals should have in both "knowledge and expertise" (182).  The third criterion is trustworthiness, the idea that one should be responsible "in our personal behavior toward our charges" (182). 

According to Gawande, all professional endeavors emphasize these three criteria; few, however, emphasize discipline both in "following prudent procedure and in functioning with others" (182-183).  He claims that "this concept is almost entirely outside the lexicon of most professions including [medicine]" (183)  Most professions, according to Gawande, emphasize autonomy.  Discipline, he says,
"is hard--harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness.  We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures.  We can't even keep from snacking between meals.  We are not built for discipline.  We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail.  Discipline is something we have to work at" (183).
Gawande's analysis rings true. Checking for proper MLA citations in a research paper or grading punctuation exercise sucks.  So does taking roll at the start of every hour or grading late papers.  There's no need to mention faculty meetings or department meetings. The failures to get papers back or pay attention to detail reflect the failure to follow prudent procedure. 

In education, however, it's also difficult to function well with others.  Teachers seldom function with other professionals.  We close the door and do our thing.  Gawande uses aviators as prime examples of discipline.  It seems to me that there is always a flight crew:  a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, flight attendants who work together during the flight.  Maybe if teachers formed education teams on a daily basis instead of those weird teacher assistance teams that create paper work without solutions, personal discipline might be easier to develop and maintain.

Some Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax along with Some Cabbages and Kings

Last Night, HBO premiered Treme, a new series set in New Orleans after Katrina.  The series is produced by the same people who produced The Wire, one of the best television series ever.  It also features some of the same stars including Wendell Pierce.

This new series may not reach the level of The Wire, but I started wonder if students and teachers twenty or thirty years from now will have "must have viewed" lists like we have "must have read lists."  I don't believe books are going extinct, but their impact on culture may not be as great as it was for previous generations.  So, will everyone look at Tony Soprano or Greg House as the epitome of contemporary tragic heroes?  Will Mad Men be the example that one uses for verisimilitude or Saving Grace the standard for internal conflict? And finally in the spirit of asking too many weird questions, what would the canon contain?  Everyone agrees that people read a Shakespeare play or three along with Eliot's, Frost's, and Whitman's poetry for example; what are the ten films or TV programs that would go on the list?  (My apologies for only including the dead white males on the literature list.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Examining The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right (Part 1)

I first became aware of Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto from C-SPAN's Book TV.  One Washington Journal interview is here.  Of course you can watch an entire speech on YouTube.



His thesis is simple.  Simple, well written, checklists save lives in the operating room.  It doesn't matter if the hospital is in the US or India or Jordan; when the surgical team used checklists, the number of infections and other complications dramatically decreased.

I intend to post more later, but three or four things stood out from this book.  First, Van Halen's demand from a bowl of M&M's with all of the brown candy removed was really a checklist.  Gawande quotes David Lee Roth who claims, "When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl, well, we'd line-check the entire production.  Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error . . .Guaranteed you'd run into a problem" (80).  Today is Sunday, so I guess it's fair to say that Van Halen believed the scriptural injunction that those who are faithful in the small things will also be faithful in the large things.

Second, Gawande  reports that pay for performance programs for surgeons have had modest results.  In fact, he concludes that "incentive programs have thus far been expensive, incremental, and of limited benefit" (91).  Merit pay advocates probably will just skip that page.

Third, Gawande reminds readers that "ticking boxes is not the ultimate goal here.  Embracing a culture of teamwork is" (160).  In short, one should have a goal and use things like checklists, computers,or homework assignments as a tool to achieve that goal.

Most importantly, Gawande reminds readers that failures must be studied.  He writes, "[w]e don't study routine failures in teaching, in law, in government programs, in the financial industry, or elsewhere.  We don't look for patters of our recurrent mistakes and devise and refine potential solutions for them" (185).

It seems The Checklist Manifesto has some implications for education.  Teachers, students, and administrators all seem to repeat preventable errors.  If checklists can save lives in the operating room, perhaps they can help in the classroom.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Two YouTube Videos Every Speech and Debate Teacher Needs

A Useful Warning about Mistakes Inherent in Visual Aid Speeches



 A Reminder about What Every Persuasive Speech Needs

Friday, April 9, 2010

What's This Book Going to Cost Me?

Daniel Pink's book Drive has gotten great reviews.I haven't read it; I plan to this summer.  I really hesitate to comment on a book that I haven't read, but the reviews for this book scare me.  The reviews all contain descriptions and quotations similar to those Laura Vanderkam has in her recent review. She writes,
. . . Pink offers a different prescription. The best motivation, he suggests, is intrinsic, that is, when people want to do the work because they find the work itself fulfilling. That doesn’t mean such workers don’t want to be paid well. They do, of course, and they also like free coffee and in-office massages as much as anyone else. But leaders who understand this higher level of motivation compensate people in a way that “takes the issue of money off the table, so they can focus on the work itself.” They pay their employees well for their industry, but equally important, people aren’t pitted against one another through compensation schemes that pay some people way more than others for the same work. These leaders create an environment where people want to do their best. This involves giving people lots of autonomy over their time, their tasks, their techniques, and their teams; providing them an opportunity to work toward mastery of their professional craft; and imbuing their work with a sense of purpose. [emphasis added] (What Drives Us by Laura Vanderkam, City Journal 5 March 2010)
Based on this review, Pink believes that people ought to have a calling rather than a job.  Michael Lewis explains the difference,
The distinction is artificial but worth drawing. A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it -- often to the detriment of your life outside of it.     There’s no shame in either. Each has costs and benefits. There is no reason to make a fetish of your career. There are activities other than work in which to find meaning and pleasure and even a sense of self-importance -- you just need to learn how to look.(Lewis, Bloomberg 10 December 2008)
In South Dakota, however, callings have consequences, as The Madville Times points out South Dakota pays the lowest wages per job of any state in the nation.  The Times points out "[i]n 2008, the per-job average here was $40,726. The next lowest state, Montana, posts $1462 more per job. The national average per job is $56,116.  According to the Times commentators, the story is  much more bleak; salaries in South Dakota are only about $33,000 whereas the national average is $42,270 (The Madville Times 6 April 2010).

Callings are wonderful.  In Greek mythology, Prometheus had a calling to bring humanity fire.  Clergy, missionaries, and doctors have callings to preach the gospel and help the poor and suffering.  Police and firefighters have callings to protect the public.  Most teachers claim they don't work for the money; in short, they claim to have a calling to teach.

In an ideal world, Pink may be right and his ideas may make workers' lives better and improve employer/employee relationships.  In South Dakota, however, private employers and school boards are more likely to use Pink's ideas to put  negotiations for higher pay in the same category as requests for "free coffee and in-office massages."  In other words, higher salaries are frivolous and a teacher's calling will be "so compelling that [the teacher] should be happy to build the teacher's "entire self around it."  Of course anything that rewarding should be done for the joy of doing it; therefore, no salary is really needed.

That's my fear; I may be wrong, but I doubt it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some Random Theses Nailed to a Random Bush on the Plains (part 1)

Martin Luther had 95 theses that he nailed to the Wittenberg Church door.  I suppose I should clarify that it was the Castle Church in Wittenberg in case any random Lutherans want to pick nits.

I'm fairly certain that his counter-cultural ideas were developed over time.  In other words, he didn't just sit down on a Halloween night and think up 95 ideas.  I'm also fairly certain that he borrowed and adapted a few of them.  I hope the Plains Lutherans don't declare me a blasphemer for using their founder's concept.  I really don't want to be force fed lutefisk for the next 7 years. I don't know if I'll every get to 95 total theses, but ever so often, I'll post one or two and see what happens.

Thesis the first:  Self-Esteem is overrated and perhaps destructive.  From a an article entitled "Theodore Dalrymple on Self-Esteem and Self Respect,"
In short, self-esteem is but a division of self-importance, which is seldom an attractive quality. That person is best who never thinks of his own importance: to think about it, even, is to be lost to morality.
Self-respect is another quality entirely. Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others. It requires an ability and willingness to put oneself in someone else's place; it requires dignity and fortitude, and not always taking the line of least resistance. [In Character, 3/28/10]
 Thesis the Second:  Walter Mosley's Blonde Faith is an excellent book, but it can't be considered a classic because of lines like "realizing in few seconds I'd be dead" followed closely by "I think I smiled, and then the world went black."  The first person narrator can't die.  He's the one telling the story.  Dead people don't tell stories, and they certainly can't tell you how they died after they're dead.  In the case the problem is exacerbated by Mosely's great sense of history and place.  He reminds readers that the 1960s were filled with racial tension.  Blonde Faith's verisimilitude should make it a classic, but Easy Rawlins's narration of his own death means the book doesn't make the canon..

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Modest Testing Proposal (Yes I Know It's A Cliche)

I was one of the staff members selected to help administer the South Dakota state-mandated DSTP test today.  South Dakota requires all who administer this test to swear oaths to several major deities not to reveal any details of the test or use the term evolution.  We can't even say that the test has evolved from earlier versions.  Those oaths are sanctified by burnt offerings of mammals, fowl, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.

While watching the young minds deal with the conundrums that the state allegedly paid some publisher a million dollars to create, I had an epiphany:  opposing the test is really counter productive. 

South Dakota should expand the test.  Every person who currently supports the NCLB and its mandated tests would probably leap at the chance to take them.  South Dakota Public TV could even broadcast the test taking and announce the results.  It could be a local version of Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?  The show could be called Are You Smarter Than Next Year's Senior? 

This plan should be a win-win situation.  South Dakota Public TV might get some extra revenue from this wonderful program.  Those who think that testing will force teachers to finally do their job and teach will get to show how great tests are by taking them and proving that those tests illustrate practical knowledge that everyone needs to succeed in business without really trying.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reform and Philosphy

The wonderfully titled blog "It's Not All Flowers and Sausages" has a great post about how policy makers discount teachers' opinions.  Mrs. Mimi, the alliterative pseudonym chosen by the blogger, uses an EdWeek article as a genesis to make several wonderfully provocative points.

The EdWeek article begins,
Perhaps at no other time in the history of American education has there been more publicly available information about what teachers think about their profession, their students, and the conditions under which they work.
As advocates pore over the results of teacher surveys being conducted nationally, at the state level, and even at individual schools, observers are beginning to ask questions about how the information can be used to inform policies to improve teachers’ working conditions and promote teacher and leadership effectiveness.
Mrs. Mimi brilliantly observes, 
Just because we're saying it doesn't mean that the Powers That Be are listening, taking us seriously or think that we have anything intelligent to offer. I've worked at educational research organizations and more often than not, the concerns of Real Teachers are met by eye rolling. EYE ROLLING! By people who claim to care about education...
Every teacher who has expressed a good idea to a principal, superintendent, or school board member has had the experience she describes.  She later asserts,
In MY SCHOOL (Friends, one of the biggest arguments used to discredit our words is that they are too contextually bound...meaning, they are too tied to our actual schools rather than the system at large
Finally, Mrs. Mimi asks the million dollar question,
How about we say enough with the surveys? How about we actually invite a REAL TEACHER (or better yet a WHOLE BUNCH OF TEACHERS) to the table when these policies and decisions are actually being made?!?!?
I think I have several answers to that question.  Most of them will make me sound far too bitter to be taken seriously.  Instead, I'll try to sound cerebral, even though that effort will ensure that I won't be taken seriously.

Let's get on with it anyway.  In Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes,  "I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them."

What Tocqueville saw in the early 1830s still holds true today.  It's for that reason that policy makers probably never read books like Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action or web articles like this one that enunciate the following principles that would allow teachers to become more active participants in school reform discussions.
1.  Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.
2c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
3.  No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as
    laid down in (1) and (2).
If policymakers were to follow the principles listed above, teachers would be able to participate.  The people whose jaws drop at the mention of teacher involvement might argue that mere classroom teachers are not competent to participate in important decisions.  These are the same people, however, who argue that nothing is more important than the current cohort of students.  If the latter is true, then it seems illogical to hire incompetent people to husband that resource.

Following these principles means that no constituency in the reform debate will get everything s/he desires, but no one will lose everything.  Further, teachers would not just be survey numbers, they would actually be participants in the discussion.  They could challenge the ridiculous suppositions that led to the current mess.  More importantly, the powers that be could not say "Suck it up and shut up!!!"  Teachers could not be coerced into accepting policies that make it possible to test but not teach.

Teachers lost everything under NCLB and seem set to keep losing under the new proposals.  Using philosophy as tool to get to the table is a long shot, but the results of having real teachers at the table would probably produce workable effective reforms. At worst, it will get the same reception that teachers get when they offer suggestions now.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sisyphus, Hypocrisies, Myths, and Baseball

When the teacher who writes posted about correcting and moiling, I commented that correcting stacks of papers is "emulating Sisyphus."  I spent part of today pushing the correcting rock up the hill only to have it roll down on me several times.

While correcting, I came to the conclusion that blogging makes me a hypocrite.  Maybe other teachers think their posts through, but all of the posts here are first drafts.  Because most posts are dashed off quickly, they contain errors that teachers mark on students' papers.  Thank God for cognitive dissonance and the ability to rationalize.

Mythology teachers, however, know that seeing faults in others but not in one's self leads to tragic errors such as those that befell Prometheus or Oedipus.  I'm willing to take that risk today because baseball is back.  The myths show that Oedipus will eventually be seen as blessing not a curse, and Prometheus will eventually shed his chains and leave the mountain.  Baseball means he world is renewed until the World Series in late October and early November.

The previous paragraph may a rationalization, but it's a damn good one.  I'm off to watch some baseball.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Epic Sadness

I had hoped that the Clash of Titans remake would do two small thinks.  First, it would take myths and heroism seriously.  Second, it would be a good movie.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, I'm going to be disappointed.  I haven't seen it, but these reviews mean that I'll wait until it's on HBO.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; after all, the publicity emphasized one of the most stupid movie lines of all time, "Release the Kracken."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Some Bricolage on School Reform

At his blog Larry Cuban on School Reform and Practice, Larry Cuban discuss Americans love for change and how that relationship affects education.  (I think that Cuban can put his name on his blog because he no longer teaches, but that's a post for a different time. He can also put his name on his blog because he has more letters after his name that I do.)

Cuban makes two astute observations about how Americans view change and schools.  First, Americans think change is good.  More importantly, change and improvement have become synonyms. 
To put it bluntly: Americans believe that change is good. We need look no further than commonplace patterns that pervade our daily lives. Car models change every year. Elections move public officials in and out of office every few years. And Americans love to move from where they were reared to other places. Change, then, is common; it is no big deal.
Not only is change seen as worthwhile, many Americans also confuse change with improvement. They are different concepts. When a married couple divorces, one spouse sees it as joyful emancipation and the other as a tragedy. The divorce qualifies as a change but each spouse views it dramatically different. Change is not necessarily improvement; improvement is in the head of the beholder. [Larry Cuban 4/3/10]
Cuban illustrates that this confusion detrimentally affects education; ". . . teachers are blamed for being opposed to reform when their fellow Americans see it as a prized 'good,' one that automatically leads to improvement"  [Larry Cuban 4/3/10].  He then goes on to parse the differences between "incremental change" and "fundamental change."

Education seems to face a deeper problem than Secretary of Education Duncan who wants change that goes beyond tinkering or a public confused about the difference between change and reform.  Joshua Hammand's and James Morrison's The Stuff Americans Are Made of:  The Seven Cultural Forces That Define Americans, A New Framework for Quality. Productivity and Profitability indicates that teachers may increasingly be labeled obstructionists.  Hammond and Morrison claim that the seven forces are
  1. Americans demand choices
  2. Americans believe impossible dreams are possible.  (Insert your own windmill joke here.)
  3. Americas love both big and more.
  4. Americans want everything NOW!!!
  5. Americans are willing to forgive mistakes and move on.
  6. Americans like to improvise.
  7. Americans love the NEW!!!
If Hammond and Morrison are correct, public schools face a daunting task and will receive little or no sympathy from either the general public or policy makers.

Schools can't compete with McDonald's or Walmart when it comes to offering choice or being big.  Further, the idea that 100% of students should be proficient in reading and math can be spun as an impossible dream that schools should attempt to achieve.  It's a small step from trying an impossible dream to firing people who can't make the impossible happen.  In addition, educators concentrate on each student's present circumstances, but the main focus is always the student's future.  Finally, no institution supported by local property taxes and politicians' whims can expect to keep up with all that's new.

Lest I appear too negative, Hammond and Morrison also offer hope. For example, standardized tests make improvisation impossible.  These tests also demonstrably limit the choices in each school's curriculum.  However, education leaders at the national, state, and local level need to use the paradigms that these researchers have identified to teachers' and students' advantage.  I'll try to use a few future posts to offer the views of a teacher and blogger from South Dakota about how that little impossible dream can happen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Of Sticks, Hammers, and Carrots

The Answer Sheet blog points to a couple of items of concern.

First, it reprints an open letter from Jim Horn to President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan about reauthorizing NCLB. The key quotation,
Despite all the politicizing of the teaching profession, at heart teachers remain child advocates and cultivators of the next generation of citizens. Teachers want children to succeed and flourish, but it is not because they have been paid to do so. A student’s growth and well-being remain the teacher’s most ardent concerns, despite the fact that she is undervalued, demonized, ridiculed, mistrusted, and paid less than most other professions that require the same level of education and training.

If a child’s test scores are to be used to make decisions regarding a teacher’s most basic needs for adequate sustenance for her family and for a dollop of dignity from her principal, then you risk damaging the teacher-student relationship that goes as far back as Socrates.
Second, a report on Florida's efforts to "hammer" teachers.  The term "hammer" comes from one of the bill's authors.  The legislation would tie teacher pay directly to student test scores.  Districts could not take into account years of service or education.  The key quotation,
This approach could easily spread beyond the borders of Florida. It’s everybody’s business.
The Florida approach can easily find a home in South Dakota.  The State currently offers few legal protections for teachers or any other workers.  That fact won't stand in the way of people's perceptions that teachers are overpaid, lazy people who teach for the thrill of June, July, and August.

Teachers need to make it possible for their students to learn.  They should know their material and how to communicate that knowledge.  Although Socrates famously argued that he know nothing, he obviously know enough to ask great questions. Test scores won't show whether teachers help students learn, know their material, or promote asking great questions;  test scores illustrate whether students can take tests.  That's it.

Further, high school students need to take responsibility for their education.  As a wise man once told me, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink; you can send kids to school but you can't make them think."  Tying test scores to continued employment or pay automatically allows students avoid thinking and learning.  They get to put the responsibility on someone else.  In fact, they can fail every test and every class, and it will be the teachers' fault.

The efforts to link teacher pay or job security to student results indicate a lack of reading skills.  Proponents will probably admit to using a carrot and stick approach because the best teachers will get the "carrot" of higher salary while the poor teachers will get the "stick" or in this case the "hammer"of lower pay or unemployment.

A careful reading of the story, however, reveals that the boy never got results while using the stick to punish the donkey.  The more he "hammered" the donkey with the stick, the less work the donkey accomplished.  It was only after the stick became an extension of the boy's arm and was used to dangle the carrot in front of the donkey that the donkey began to pull the cart.

The people who love NCLB or who support the Floridan bill seem to assume that testing will produce students who are better prepared to work or attend college because teachers who have been doing absolutely nothing for the past fifty years will suddenly start teaching and thousands of new applicants will eagerly seek the benefits that come to teachers whose students pass NCLB mandated tests.  They are wrong on both counts.  A high school career that allows students to blame someone else for their failure to learn will produce graduates who need extra workplace training or remedial college classes.  The proposed changes to NCLB and the Florida approach will make the teaching profession more desirable for only those people who enjoy being "hammered."  In that case, future teachers will have to be drunks or masochists or both.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Grammar Help

This Twitter site and this webiste from the Wichita Eagle help people deal with grammatical conundrums.  So far my favorite has been noted by the Bookslut Blog.
"Affect" is usually a verb. "Effect" is usually a noun. Kryptonite affects Superman; its effects are debilitating. 
Grammar and superheroes, what could be better?

A Post in Which I Flatter Myself and Add Another Life Goal

This post at "Musings From A Not So Master Teacher" got me doing some introspection.  John Spenser posits that some teachers don't fit the basic teacher stereotype.  He calls these teachers "indie teachers" and lists 5 criteria for identifying these creatures.  I've broken his original 5 criteria into a longer list that include his specific examples and then  indicated whether I fit the criterion or example. 

"Prefers indie, or at least non-mainstream music."  My favorite albums are Warren Zevon's The Wind, Sam Phillips's Martinis and Bikinis, and Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around.  I think I qualify under this criterion.

"Doesn't blush at a self-published book."  I miss here.  I'm not saying I wouldn't self publish, but I would not like it.

"Tends to vote independent and uses strange labels (I'm a left-leaning libertarian, I'm a green moderate) in the process." I think being a fine and profane gentleman fits.  I've never voted a straight ticket, so I probably meet this one.

"This teacher is skeptical, but not necessarily cynical, toward social institutions like schools, government, corporations."  I think that government should be big enough to keep corporations in check.  Lately, that's pretty big.  Schools have a purpose, but they ain't Jesus.  I think I meet this criterion.

"[T]his type of teacher doesn't "love" public school so much as loves the learning process."  All I can say is "Preach it, Brother."

"Tends to share and sees horizontal collaboration as more valuable than being forced to use an "expert" resource."  I steal good ideas whenever I can from whomever I can. I also tend to look at the idea or tool or philosophy behind the concept rather than the purveyor's title or credentials.  I'm pretty sure that I meet this criterion.

"In other words, this type of teacher likes to share links, share resources, share ideas, share content."  I'm a bit of a hoarder of ideas.  I willing to talk about ideas all day.  I'd say I meet only half of this one..

"You'll see a Creative Commons license on blog posts, for example."  I haven't done this, but I would like to.  Still, I honestly can't give myself credit for meeting this one.

"Develops resources rather than using school-imposed curriculum," I use my own materials exclusively for one of the classes I teach; I play nice and use some of the "official" materials for classes that several of us have to teach.  I think I fit this criterion.

". . . doesn't depend on schools to fix discipline issues, etc."  Defenestration is the most beautiful word I know, especially because many of the young ones in my class believe I may actually defenestrate one of them before I retire. I fit this description pretty well.

"Tends to be open to new ideas, supportive of paradox and contemplative."  According to the Keirsey Bates test I'm an INTP, so I'm pretty sure I meet this criterion.

"At it's worst, this can look like chincy, cheap idealism.  At it's best, it becomes innovation."  I don't know if I'm innovative, so I'll take a half point here because I know that I have an idealistic streak at times.

"It's no wonder that you see so many indie teachers quoting Seth Godin's Linchpin."  I don't have the book, but I'll probably read it now.  I do, however, have a Seth Godin action figure.

If my math is correct, I meet 10 out of the 13.  Given that the list contains some pretty specific examples, that's not to bad.  I'd like to add one more criterion that one must have to be "an indie teacher."  One must realize that teaching is probably a craft.  A few might be be able to make it an art.  No matter how much the politicians claim otherwise, it will never be a science.

Education needs more innovative, skeptical, contemplative, independent individuals.  If I don't meet the criteria for being an indie teacher, I should.  I guess I'll add meeting these criteria to the life goals in the post that precedes this one.  I'll add another smaller goal.  No more introspective posts for at least a week.

A Few Comments about Goals

A year ago, I wrote a post about my desire to become "a fine and profane rural gentleman."  I am doing quite well on the "profane" part; I need to keep working on the "fine" elements.

I now have a second life goal.  In Blonde Faith, Walter Mosley has his protagonist Easy Rawlins describe himself and his friend as people who "were well read and willing to talk about ideas."  I like this idea so much that I may be willing to avoid being profane while talking about certain ideas.

Let me be clear that I've always had the latter goal, but Mosley phrases it more pointedly than I can.  As to the former, being an walking contradiction suits me.

One thing that scares me is that I'm running out of time to reach these goals and the those that other people haven't phrased so well for me.  I'm on the wrong side of 50.  Donald Miller describes my situation with a great metaphor.
"Soon you will be at that part of the book where you are holding the bulk of the pages in your left hand, and only a thin wisp of the story in your right"  (Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts:  Life, God, and Beauty on the Open Road, xii)
 I think I'll go read now, so I have some good ideas to speak about, profanely or otherwise.