Apr 17, 2008

The history teacher can still do math!

"All the history teachers in the house who can do algebra say HO-OOOO!" "HO-OOOO!!!"

I been tutoring an 8th grader in algebra. He's a bright young man, and he has a great attitude about working with me and trying his best to do better in his class. He's got a strong case of ADD and struggles with keeping focused long enough to do the more complex problems, like solving systems of equations. He also seems to have some dyslexia-like reading problems.

He seems to have a good supportive environment at school - an aware math teacher, plus a special ed teacher who works fairly closely with him on how to modify his assignments. I find the idea of modifications challenging. Often it amounts to doing fewer problems, such as just doing the first couple in each set. But attention problems aside, what this student needs is MORE problems, not LESS. He won't learn it by doing three problems instead of 8 - but he might learn by doing 20 instead of 8. But that feels punitive, and it's impractical to give him triple homework.

One thing I find most interesting and difficult about helping him is he pretty well grasps the new concepts his class is learning, but he struggles with simple foundational math, on which the new stuff relies. He understands how to solve for y in the inequality -- but doesn't know his times tables (3x4?), and isn't solid in how to modify by a negative number. So we spend time on both, trying to shore up multiplication, both conceptually and just memorizing, and also working on new concepts. It's a great lab opportunity for my teaching. I can really attend to things like how to vary explanations so that if the first way doesn't make sense, a 2nd way will. And we have a hugely simplified environment: one student, one tutor, quiet environment with minimal distractions, no test pressure, and an agreeable motivated student. It's also great practice for working on teaching something that comes easy for me. Math's always been easy, so it's hard for me to relate personally to struggling with understanding it, or with learning times tables. So I can push myself on understanding exactly what he's clear on and where his struggle lies.

[It also makes it clear to me how much teaching is teaching, no matter the subject. Teaching kids math and teaching kids history are both teaching kids, and the subject matter is secondary.]

It's been a while, but I'm going back to the high school teaching next week. Woohoo! That is where the action is, and I can't wait to get back. I dreamed recently that it was my first day back and I was telling the class "Hey, you guys! I'm back! I'm so happy to be here again! Let's get going!" I woke up smiling, and thought "right on". It'll be a month of economics for 12th graders, who are so very very close to getting out of high school (jail) that they're counting minutes to graduation. Won't that be conducive to learning....

Mar 3, 2008

Why don't we just look it up?! Hel-lo!

I was teaching about terrorism as part of the foreign policy section of a 12th grade government class. [Man, we never got anything interesting like this in my government class when I was in school. It was all: 3 branches, separation of powers, executive judicial blah blah blah.] I have to go back to this because I'm back in college classes now instead of student teaching. But my mind is still in the high school with the students and classes and challenges of teaching, so my classes feel like they're in the way. Anyway, here's a funny thing from back then.

We started the unit with a modified version of a concept formation lesson on the definition of terrorism. I began by asking what are some prototypical examples (Sept 11th 2001, suicide bomber in the Middle East, etc.), and then we talked about what they have in common. Then I showed the students definitions of terrorism by the UN and the US Dept of Defense, and we looked for what was in those definitions that we hadn't found already by analyzing the examples.

So far so straightforward. Then we did the cool part which was to break up into pairs and have each pair look at a case that might be considered terrorism, but might not. Some examples: Sherman's March to the Sea; the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII; the Chechen rebellion; some of the groups working to end apartheid in South Africa; abortion clinic bombings.

We had a great extended conversation about how to evaluate these are terrorist or not, why some students would and wouldn't. Really high level, lots of good thinking from many different students. One theme that emerged was that the students were sympathetic to a group's goals, but not their methods. Then one student noted that it seemed like all terrorism is born of desperation -- hence their violent methods. I asked if any of them had changed their own ideas about terrorism from the cases we'd seen or the points that'd been made. One said he'd come to have a new idea of 'justifiable terrorism' from the cases we looked at.

Then another student, chronically and severely disengaged in all his classes, with equal parts scorn for the whole endeavor and genuine wonderment that we could truly have been filling an entire day working on this, said "Well, I mean, umm, why don't we just get a dictionary and look up the real definition." His facial expression was "duh!" He had to hesitate in asking it because he was so incredulous that we'd really just spent the last 45 minutes that way.

HA! Indeed, why bother with all this interesting thinking about different forms of terrorism, how they challenge our traditional notion of what it is, and all this yammering? There's a dam dictionary right over there on the shelf. Do you have way too much free time? How hard can it be to just get the real answer?!

I invited him to get the dictionary and read the definition to us when he'd found it. He did - it was the typical bland definition a paperback dictionary would have. Though he'd waited way too long to draw the veil of decency over our little exercise, at least we can wrap it up straightaway now!

How sweet. I noted that the dictionary's definition is a fine starter, but was impressed by the many good points the students had made, which advanced us quite a bit to a sophisticated understanding of the issues, such as whether states can commit terrorism and whether acts of war could be terrorism. And even that terrorists have motives that we might be able to empathize with, though we may deplore their methods.

And my young friend was happy to have cleared the water after all the mud had been stirred up from the bottom. There's a right answer - let's get it and be done with this marvelling at complication.

Feb 22, 2008

What a load of crap. Again with the crap.


This is a recent book review in the SF Chronicle for a book called The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby.

It starts out stoopid and gets worse fast. By the halfway point I was seeing red. You see, our education system isn't what it should be, and that's a dam shame. But it's better today than it's been before, and people are no dummer today than they've ever been. The problem is NOT that our education system is getting worse. Duh.

But there's prevailing myths that our schools are in crisis, going to hell in a handbasket, going down the toilet, falling behind Japan, or these days it'd be India, etc. These myths are fed by rightwing misinformation, false statistics, and biased reports, often based on data from standardized tests that have long been shown to be biased in favor of rich white kids anyway. It's part of their goal of defunding and privatizing schools, and of increasing the stratification of society by de-democratizing public schools. And these lies get picked up in the media echochamber and repeated until they become 'true'. 'Facts on the ground' as the Israelis say when they start a new settlement in the West Bank.

Here's some actual facts:
- IQ scores have gone up slowly but steadily since 1941 when they were first computed- standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, etc.) are would be unchanged over the decades, except that more people take them including lots more middle and lower students

- Parents of kids in public schools are actually quite satisfied with american public schools and their kids' education

- American kids' achievement is at least as high as kids from other nations like japan and germany

- Overall achievement by kids today is slightly higher today than decades ago, and has gradually increased, except that, again, a whole lot more middle and lower students fill our schools today as high school has been democratized to include all kids. (In the '40s, less than half of kids finished high school. that's obviously very different today)

This book's author claims there's an "intellectual decline" in progress, but we don't hear what that decline is. She then 'explains' that decline by claiming there's been a "degradation of the nation's educational standards." There's the load of crap right there. School standards are higher today than ever, and applied more widely to more students than ever.

This kind of crap offends me because it's taking up the flag for the rightwing hatred of poor kids and brown-skinned kids. Those groups of kids are disadvantaged enough in our society without attacking their schools more in the public discourse and by defunding them. It's anti-democratic, and it's wrong.

Don't think the rich white ruling class has been at war against kids who are poor and brown-skinned? Let's look at where all the increased funding and attention have gone since the Reagan Nation At Risk report (1983): gifted programs. And what's happened to poor schools? They've had their funding tied to standardized test scores which are biased against their students, and threatened.

It's a dam shame, and we owe it to ourselves to fight against it. Wanna learn more? You can start with Manufactured Crisis, by Berliner and Biddle. Filled with fascinating facts and analysis of the right-wing attack on public schools. It was written in the mid-90s, so they presaged the No Child Left Behind nightmare, and proved themselves all the more prescient.

Feb 14, 2008

There's days..... and there's days

Well. My university supervisor came the other day to observe. Boy did she come the right day. Timing is everything. It was a really good day. The students were engaged, and they were learning, and it was flowing and working and fun. They were paired up studying a document, and aside from the one or two whose refusal to engage is profound and stubborn and honed by years of practice, they were collaborating and doing it and wow.

And silly me, I thought This ain't so hard, I can do this, not bad ole boy. And then there was today. They come into today pre-on edge because it was sunny out and it's second semester senior year. And mid-winter break is next week, so check-out time is like Thursday morning. Then stir in all the emotional highs and lows of Valentimes, and all the sugar highs and lows of chocolate and candy bracelets and those little hearts that say Be Mine. Whew, what a day. If the supervisor had observed today she'd still not be done listing my failures.

But it's not me, it's not me, it's the students, I protest -- not sure how much I believe it. But there is something very real about the ebb and flow and roller coaster of the classes. This day they're good little listening boys and girls. The next day they're climbing the walls and hitting each other. Today wasn't poorly planned or disorganized. It didn't have unclear goals. It even had a video, the cheap way to entertain while teaching. Today the teacher next door called security during last period. No one was even clear how things started or what those girls were doing on the stairs for so long. I have to choose to not take it personally.

Tomorrow concludes my first stint teaching. Back to college for about 6 weeks to see what they know, then back again for another month in high school. Same students -- this much closer to graduation. I expect to be up to my eyeballs in reflecting. What assessments did I do, and what did I learn from them? How did my methods work and what would I try differently? What did I try to develop a relationship with all the students? What did I do to draw out the quiet ones, and what would I try to do it more effectively? etc. etc.

Meanwhile, I'm reading The Manufactured Crisis [Berliner and Biddle, 1995], debunking the constant right-wing harangue about the failures of America's schools since the 1980s, touched off by the A Nation At Risk report during the Reagan years. Very good. Here's a nice quote:

"This does not mean that all advocates for policies that would harm public schools have *hidden* selfish motives. On the contrary, some announce their selfish motives openly."

Feb 5, 2008

I Heart Jonathan Kozol

Just finished Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol. He's so good. It's a great reminder that the kids are the thing, no matter the bureaucratic hassles, and no matter the craze for high-stakes testing* that is so harmful to kids' learning. Right on.

When he gets political in the 2nd half of the book, he takes on the offensive push to privatize schools via charters and vouchers, and champions the needs of kids and teachers and learning against the emphasis on high-stakes testing. And he does it without the myth of the SuperTeacher. SuperTeacher is the guy in Stand & Deliver, or the guy in Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. Oh we love our superteacher stories in this country, but are they the basis for a successful education system? Why not allow our teachers to have a personal life instead of working 11-hr days 6 days a week (and for peanuts)? Doesn't the fact that it takes a SuperTeacher tell us that something's broken? Mr. Hair's On Fire needs a weekend, for crying out loud.

Or at least I do. I'm totally committed to my students, but I'm also totally committed to my wife and my life away from school. Superteacher is a fun tale, but it reveals a dysfunction. Our system ought to allow teachers to do well without requiring that they work themselves to death.

So thanks, Jonathan Kozol for saying it like it is, for encouraging teachers to keep kids the main thing even when the gov't is mandating kid-hating. And for giving us a mature alternative to SuperTeacher.

* From what I can tell, No Child Left Behind [which a friend calls "No Teacher Left Standing"] is an attempt to de-democratize education. Schools have always had the purpose of sorting our kids into high achievers and low, so that we know who is destined for great things. And our socioeconomic system keeps the right people in the high achiever group and keeps the group small. Woodrow Wilson spoke of the need for our schools to sort kids into a small group of leaders and a larger group of followers.

I think our leaders are attacking public schools so that their kids can stay the elite, few and segregated, with the widest gap possible between them and, well, you know, those other kids. So they tie the high-stakes testing to funding as a way to further penalize already undersupported disadvantaged students. They already have the fewest resources, the most inexperienced undertrained teachers, the crowdedest classes with the brokenest heating, and on and on. Now their schools get defunded. Add it to the top of the pile of ways our leaders hate the people.

Feb 3, 2008

And they're off !

Let the teaching begin! The class turns out to be gov't not econ. They're starting foreign policy and the teacher gave them some choice in what to work on. The areas that got the most votes were terrorism slash the war on terror; immigration; and health and the environment. (The others were nuclear nonproliferation, something else I can't remember, and Iraq, which came in last. Students today get barraged with Iraq the Global Warming, and the vote count was a clear plea for "not more about Iraq, please, anything but Iraq.")

So we're putting together a 2week foreign policy unit on terrorism. That's certainly not my own favorite topic - how icky, really. But there's loads of interesting stuff there, and it's a great chance to teach controversy and deliberation. In our training program we've been talking about teaching controversial material and teaching about controversies, and what are the limits on First Amendment protection for teacher speech on controversial matters. It seems there's little protection for 'academic freedom' and teacher free speech against complaints by parents or disciplinary action by the principal or school district. The courts see teachers as deliverers of chosen curriculum and when the principal or the school district is unhappy with what you say in class, the first amendment isn't a protection. Anyways, despite that, we hear that the city school district is actually dying to get more teaching of controversy into the social studies classroom. Students dig it, and it's a valued part of building democracy - deliberation, learning to disagree with an idea without attacking the person, studying a complicated topic and finding strong reasons to support your opinion, etc.

So here we are in terrorism for a couple weeks. It's not a unit my cooperating teacher has taught before. The upside is she's responsive to their interest. The workload side is we can't just open the foreign policy drawer of the file cabinet and pull out the time-honored finely-honed folder on terrorism and off we go. She has some materials, including a really good Choices unit, but it still means a fair amount of prep - at least for me.

We started this past week with what turned out to be a good discush about Afghanistan and the US covert supporting of the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The covertness added a cool wrinkle to the topic: since even most of Congress didn't know about it, yet were approving the secret funding for it, to what extent was it or was it not US foreign policy? Most of the students were into it. Yay!

This coming week we'll start with how to define terrorism. A Palestinian strapping dynamite to his chest in the West Bank, clearly. Klan lynchings, sure. But how about Sherman's March to the Sea? or the fire-bombing of Dresden or Tokyo? or the Mujahideen's rebellion? These'll be good for the students to wrestle with.

And I'll be practicing assessing their small group work and their participation in discussions realtime, and monitoring who I call on and who talks how much, and how well have I gotten to know not just the outgoing kids but all the kids even the ones who expect to never speak in class in 4 years of school.

ps -- Through the power of abbreviations, the agenda for my class on testing and assessment in college last week was to include "group anal and discussion". Group anal?! Whoa. WHOA! I don't really know what to picture for that, but I'm sure it's more than I signed up for.

Jan 22, 2008

a method to my method

Man, there's all these methods. When I was in high school there was, ohhh, 1 method for teaching: stand up in the front and lecture. And pepper your lecture with are-you-paying-attention questions.

"And so, class, who remembers who the president of the Confederacy was? Mr. Gerber?" It was one step away from the "Anyone? Anyone? Bueler?" scene.

But now we got all kinda methods. S.A.C. and socratic seminar and inquiry and town meeting and and and and. Who knew! I thought history class was about sit there and take notes all day all year. These kids today, they have it made. We get to learn all about these cool engaging methods that work well for getting 100% class participation and small team work and higher order thinking skills.

Boy is that ever the watch word. If we were still in corporate land and played buzzword bingo, like half the squares would have 'higher order thinking skills'. The other 2/3 would be 'reflection'.* Anyway, higher order thinking. The closest I ever got in school to higher order thinking was "ummm, how can I possibly memorize everything I wrote down while he was lecturing for the last 9 weeks?"

Bashing schools is everyone's favorite pastime - "kids today" and all that. But compared to desks in rows and furiously taking notes on monotone lectures about kings and battles? Alls I have to say is when were things better? I mean really? Was it better when my mother in law was in a one-room schoolhouse? Was it better when my parents got their knuckles whacked by the sisters for forgetting part of the prayer in Latin? Right. Of course schools are broken and should be so much better than they are. But they didn't used to be better. That's just old people who were good at school grouching about the young people.

So the good news is people have figured out all sorts of cool ways to help all kids learn, not just the ones who would learn no matter how lousy the teacher. Just in time, too, because student teaching starts next week. The hallways in my program are abuzz with questions about how we're going to get evidence for our university supervisor to affirm that we've demonstrated mastery of this technique and that subject matter and this way of relating to the students when we're still so green we don't even know which end is up yet. I guess it can't be that hard -- it somehow works every year.

* Criminy, what is it with reflecting all the time? Here, read these 4 papers for Tuesday and write a 2pg reflection about them. A what? And we have to do this like every hour on the hour. Reflect on this chapter, reflect on that paper, reflect on this sample lesson plan, reflect on this set of test strategies. In my past grad school life, no one cared a whit for how the important research made me feel. Why is that the thing - how it makes me feel?

So if you're wondering whether we all do quality work when we have to write a 2pg reflection for every single class meeting...... well... no. uh-unh.