A Learner Rather | thoughts on teaching

Kim Severson of the New York Times reports on Atlanta’s standardized test cheating scandal and it’s once-famed Superintendent.

“I will survive this,” said Dr. Hall, 65, in her first public interview since a scathing 800-page report by state investigators outlined a pervasive pattern of cheating at 44 schools and involving 178 educators.

To say it all wades into muddy water would be an understatement. There is no apt analogy to compare the hit that Dr. Hall, the Atlanta school system, and the named cheating educators should and will take. Among other things, the  rumblings in the 800 page report that Dr. Hall was more interested in “adoration over achievement” are enough to seriously question not only her reputation but the policies which contributed to her “School Superintendent of the Year Award” and her “achievements” as the leader of the Atlanta school system.

We/I/Educators can rail against standard testing all we want to but the bigger problem is the leadership behind it. The tests will always be there, and perhaps they should always be there; however, when school superintendents’ are insistent on their value as proof that  they are doing a good job or that their policies are effective they commit the fatal error of valuing the what instead of the how. This is when cheating happens. Even if it is just 178 of 3,000, it’s still a product of the policy/demand. The “I don’t care how you do it, just make it happen” scenario is played out and it’s played out for a reason. It always happens. And the delivers of the message always insist that they didn’t do anything wrong or the good outweighs the bad or some other generic line while conveniently omitting that their orignal disregard of the how is why the trouble exists in the first place.

–ALR

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I’m not entirely sure Michael Agger’s “How to Write Faster” piece in Slate is less about speed and more about competency and practice. Agger aptly points out habits and tendencies of “fast writers”, but as an instructor I can’t help but think that the way those tendencies (deadlines, engineering time, focusing, personalized prewriting, composition as process, not procrastinating) fold into principles that should be taught at all levels of writing. The demanding nature of composing means it is not something that we can teach or expect students to “do faster.” However, what we can do is instruct in a way where speed and efficiency is a byproduct of good instruction and practice.

 

–ALR

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Jul/11

13

Hiatus

Apparently summers can be very time-consuming regarding both personal and professional matters. Loyalists, I will be back with a relaunch come mid-august. Others, make sure to check in here or at wordpress. In the meantime, read, write, or share something. Or, think about this:

When we make a decision, the picosecond the decision is made, no other decision is possible. The brain at that moment has only one configuration and therefore only one decision is possible. As Proust posited, a picosecond later the brain has a new configuration and an entirely different decision is possible. Ergo, free will is an illusion and decision making is determined by the configuration of the brain at the moment in time when the decision is made.

Dr. Michio Kaku

–ALR

No tags

Jun/11

10

end notes


Last week of school around these parts. Regular posting to resume shortly, until then use this video to remind yourself of what you will be missing out on this summer. Also, Louis Menand has a thorough critique/endorsement of Higher Education in this week’s New Yorker. There is a slight elitist-tinge to the arguments, however the scope and presentation is something to be admired. I’m not all that confident that we should continue to stick to the college as sole proprietor and authority on Higher Education, but at the least Menand  addresses and acknowledges that colleges are not only not doing all that they should be, but that the model of college as higher education must be reworked. If you get the chance to sit down and aren’t too burnt out on matters concerning education it is a worthwhile read.

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May/11

31

idle threats

Tweets as literature? English Lessons (which is a great new blog, on a website that I swear caters to exactly what I want) comments on a recent call to arms to use Twitter to transcribe Ulysses on Bloomsday (June 16th for the unfamiliar). And yes, your humble author has already attempted to reserve the lines that are the namesake of this blog. But I digress…

Are twitter and other “new ways of writing” a threat to genius, production, heightened understanding, learning, etc.? Sadly many teachers think they are.  But since when did altering our perspective, looking at things in a new light, or creating new art forms work against authentic learning? Reading and recreating Ulysses via twitter is akin to looking at the Mona Lisa from a different angle. Or, to use more literary analogy, reading Lolita one page a day. Is it equal to the experience of looking at a painting straight on, alone in your thoughts? or holing up in the corner of  a library, consumed by a narrative for hours on end? Probably not. But does it nullify the value of the learning experience? Not really. It just changes it.

–ALR

Addendum: Throw Dickens into the mix.

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Great post and comments over at weblogg-ed concerning the choice not to go to college. I threw in my two-cents worth early in the discussion and refrained from there on out because so many were speaking from a more-experienced and much more interesting background.

As an educator, it’s always a bit awkward when I express the idea to students and parents that higher education no longer equals four year college. Students, for obvious reasons, get a bit crossed up with the idea. With parents, the awkwardness lies in the making obvious ideas that go against what generations and generations have ardently believed. You’re not just telling them things have changed, you’re telling them that their struggles, accomplishments, and hard work throughout their education don’t necessarily matter to anyone besides themselves. It’s an existential crisis of sorts. Their educational experience is replaceable. No one knows how to react when they hear that.

–ALR

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Maria Bustillos has an excellent piece up at the Awl about Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, alchemists, and a new definition of knowledge, among other things. Summarizing the works and ideas of McLuhan while defending Wikipedia from those archaic enough to still attack it, she makes the point that our acquirement of knowledge is now, like wikipedia itself, collaborative and self-initiated:

There’s an enormous difference between understanding something and deciding something. Only in the latter case must options be weighed, and one chosen. Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic. Rather than being handed an “authoritative” decision, you’re given the means for rolling your own.

We can call this new way of looking at things post-linear or even “post-fact” as Clay Shirky put it in a recent and thrill-packed interview with me.

I hope most of us, as thinkers and educators, ditched the authoritative/universal truth/let me bestow information on you model long ago. However, reading this and this has sparked a new question beyond the “what are we doing?” and “what are we waiting for?” thoughts expressed by each author. Have we acknowledged the new student who forms his knowledge this way? Or in McLuhan-speak, Have we acknowledged how changing the framework has altered the picture itself? Some have done a good job of adapting to the new era, some know that our job is to give students the tools to  ”roll their own.” But do we need to better acknowledge that the student as learner is no longer the sole source for his or her own understanding? Is our instruction set up to do so? Should it be set up to do so?

–ALR

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They are publishing a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without  the “n word”. They think a play should not be performed by high-schoolers because the term comes up in a play that is very much about issues of race and slavery in early 20th century America. Why? Because they are offended. I’m okay with the generalizations because I’ve rarely seen anyone represent the middle in this argument (perhaps because there isn’t one). This is us vs. them. We see words and situations that may be offensive and find a way to teach, instruct, or lead a conversation on the topic, hoping that some good, some teachable moment about an ugly past can be realized and learned.

They see terms and say, “I’m offended, don’t do it” or use a weak line of reasoning to replace  a word with another word that may or may not be less offensive. Never mind what the author wrote or intended. Behind it all (I’m sure there are plenty more examples than these two) is a refusal to acknowledge reality, which leads to bad teaching, which leads to ignorance. I’m okay with not being on their side.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

–ALR

No tags

Aug/10

31

Enthusiasts

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking the basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

–Milan Kundera, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

It’s the first day here. Students wander into classrooms dazed and confused. Their looks reveal attempts to understand not just the lay of the land but also the lay of others. Friends. New students. Enemies. Authority.

Tone. Set the tone. Make sure they are walking into the right environment. Establish what is expected of them. Most of us are familiar with the evergreen advice passed down from administrators, senior teachers, and enthusiasts. It’s easy and somewhat necessary to follow this advice. Part of teaching is getting students to walk along the road. But following the road is not the thing that bad teaching insists it is. I want to set the right tone, I want to establish the regime, but I don’t want to end up running from Thebes after poking my eyes out.

–ALR

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1.

The first sound of morning jars most out of their sleep. It is never a subtle sound. If it were, the jarring would be nonexistent–a weekend rise, or a waking-up with nothing planned ahead. But the weekdays, especially the first few times around, jar. I turn over and see the clock, hit snooze, try not to hit snooze again and maybe wake up and stumble to the shower– time permitting.

From this point, I’m lost. I’m always lost in the mornings. The coffee helps wake up but fails to help the mind sort. Finding clothes, getting my keys, packing up– all seem to take five minutes longer than they should. Eating breakfast is a matter of time. Not real time measured in minutes, but time measured in causation. If I stop to do X, will this affect Y? Then there is the drive, which without routine would be difficult to navigate. But the feeling of being lost still persists, unable to recognize songs or understand the morning news.  Any given street is a haze of signage and stoplights.

Then there is the classroom. Things clarify slowly. The white board is blank and ominous and the first few words are difficult to put down. The agenda rarely appears without mistakes. Mistakes that an alert student may or may not notice. More coffee and prepping. Too many or too few copies get made. The machine jams and a simple correction feels Sisyphean. The return to the classroom often reveals a student, in their own haze, prepared to make an excuse or simply tell their story in their own unprocessed way. Then the bell rings, another jar.  Students file in, bodies moving awkward and heavy, tripping over desk posts or flopping into seats. They look at the board, stare off into the distance, or share a quiet conversation with a friend. Some take out homework, some search their bags swearing it’s there, and some insist it was never mentioned or asked for when they try to hand it in later in the day. The first few minutes are filled with silence and the abrupt entrances of the frequently tardy. We are all sharing it.

2.

Yesterday, Emily Sohn contributed a piece to the LA times recalling the body of evidence that supports the idea of having students (and teachers) start the school day later.

Now, fueled by accumulating research showing that adolescent bodies are designed to sleep late and that delaying school start times — even by just 30 minutes — makes a huge difference in how well teens feel and perform, an increasing number of schools around the country are ringing morning bells later than they used to.

So where do we go from here? The various data presented by Sohn demonstrates an increase in student performance, improved attendance, and a tendency for students to sleep up to an hour more. I find this last bit most intriguing because a frequent position for those against starting the day later note the students will just stay up later. However, the data shows the exact opposite occurs.

Even though the new schedule started just 30 minutes later, students actually went to bed 15 minutes earlier and got 45 more minutes of sleep each day. When interviewed, kids said they felt so much better from even a little bit of extra sleep that they were motivated to go to bed sooner and sleep even more.

The “big” question that arises out of this is: Why don’t schools and districts make this simple change? Why are we rooted in starting high school 7:30-8:00 when data and personal experience seem to dictate otherwise. Many will cry that kids need to learn to wake up early, to try to function when not at their best mentally and physically. Is their education the right time to learn this “skill” set?  The skills of waking up and facing the day when you don’t want to and working well on a schedule that can be inconvenient are necessary. Pushing back the day by thirty minutes or so does not make the application of these skills nonexistent. In addition, I have yet to read or hear a decent argument of how a half hour can drastically change logistics, more often than not the rhetoric on this subject is akin to lazy group think. Somehow it’s not right, or it is too difficult, for students to start their day at the same time as their parents. Or that it will be too difficult change the schedule for buses or after school events. How? I don’t know, but the rhetoric is out there, as I’m sure many of you have noticed.

Parts 3. and 4. forthcoming…

–ALR

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