Screw Information, Let Art Be Their Shield

Recently I’ve had an old annoyance flare up. I know what you are thinking and I don’t need any ointment… this annoyance irritates in other ways. The argument goes something like this: students need more exposure to informational texts so that they might be college and career ready. By itself this statement is completely innocuous, some of you might even say it was true. Here’s the thing I would agree with you if it were not for subtext.

You see, subtext is one of the very reasons that we study literature (a bigger conspiracy theorist than me might argue that CCCS doesn’t want you thinking about subtext). What happens when the Common Core standards demand more informational texts is that principals, who are exhausted from filling out a 90 page document explaining how they are going to hold their teachers accountable for their students’ performance on state tests, call their English teachers into a meeting.

At that meeting the principal tells the English department that they need to get more informational texts into their curriculum and they need to do it now. If this is happening here, it is happening in other places. As good as the Common Core’s intentions might be it is no secret that they have been adopted with the delicacy of a buckshot loaded into the sawed off shotgun that is APPR.

I’m tired of defending literature and its usefulness in college and career, just like I am tired of advocating for that extra music or art class. I’m terrified of what will become of culture if all we are reading are stereo instructions, I don’t care how well we cite them. Here is why we need literature… for the same reason that we sing songs or paint pictures or write (gasp) narrative, because it is beautiful. Regardless of your affection or loathing for Shakespeare it is undeniable that his themes are transcendent and it only requires a modicum of creativity to make these themes come alive to students.  Literature affords one of the few opportunities that we have to discuss big ideas with kids and as it continues to lose ground to only those pieces of text that demonstrate some abject utility, the more soulless a race we become.

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Where’s the Conservative Clamor Over Socialized Education?

Why is it that the conservative movement is allowed to pick and choose when big government is bad? Think for a moment. Government run health care is the devil come to earth, government is getting bigger and more expensive and that is what is ruining America. Yet look at what is happening in our educational system. 45 states have adopted the Common Core standards, effectively neutering local control of curriculum. Wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson himself who advocated local control for education (I’m certainly no constitutional scholar)? Certainly the government is not funding the Common Core directly, rather big business is and therein lies the answer to my own question. Apparently conservatives have no trouble removing local control from districts as long as corporations are making big profits, and there has never been a bigger cash cow (looking at you Pearson and your billion dollar profit) in education than the common core.

As for liberals…yeah I’ve got my eye on you too. Where’s the gripe about individual choice or corporate control on this one?

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You Can’t Talk to Me Like That! Pineapple Badge

I like that the pineapple can become a symbol for a movement, its not a fist in the air but it is something. Feel free to use the image if you want or make your own. I’m going to link the image to this article over at edGeeks because I like it and it spoke to me. Also check out United Opt Out National!

More opt out links:

Read this opt out of testing letter from parent – Get ready to be inspired!

OptOut Texas Facebook Page

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Weighing the Sheep

So this week we weighed the sheep. It took three days to weigh them all, I guess we had to weigh different parts of them each day. They were good sheep and I was proud to weigh them, they calmly submitted to the scales. I had been preparing them for the scales for weeks, giving them tricks to make them appear fatter. I taught them to try to look past the scales that would make them look skinny. Now the market will judge me to see if they are fat enough. I hope the weight is good.

Of course I really only get to influence them when they are in the barn, as much as I want to I can’t affect what happens to them out in the pasture. I have a hunch that some of them are eating grass while they are in the pasture and others are only eating what I feed them in the barn. Some of my sheep didn’t come to the barn at all on weighing day, didn’t they know how important it was? I wonder if they were eaten by wolves out there in the pasture. Maybe the wolves are in the barn.

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The Problem with Push and Presence

I suffer with anxiety, I have my whole life. When I was a teen I remember being physically ill with anxiety (mostly related to school). Recently my anxiety level reached a point that triggered intense panic attacks and major depression. This was a bittersweet experience for me. Of course it was terrible feeling that way and my teaching suffered greatly. I was no longer able to look my students in the eye as I just went through the motions of trying to keep it all together. With the help of my wife and my doctor I have been able to regain some semblance of control over my mind and have begun the real hard work of fixing the problem. When I take the time to reflect I can see signs of my anxiety level rising long before now. I actually had a panic attack this summer and nearly missed my first moderating responsibility at the Reform Symposium.

So what has happened? What has pushed normal, everyday stress to completely absurd levels? I wish I could say. I wish I could pinpoint it so I could eliminate it. But the truth, if I am honest with myself is that it is not a thing… it is everything. I am complicit in creating a life filled with tiny little things, each of which I grant a modicum of importance. Each of these things require a bit of my concentration until I am not able to concentrate at all. What I’m recounting here isn’t groundbreaking, in fact this phenomenon has been explored with reputable research. My brain has changed and I am going to fight to get it back.

What does any of this have to do with education you might ask? I think that the issue of presence, and how it has been robbed from us is at the fundamental core of what is simultaneously wrong and right with education. What I mean by presence is the ability to be truly and wholly in the moment, engaged in what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. Think about the simple ways this applies in the classroom. All of us have the desire to be truly invested in what we are teaching but many of us have been asked to shoulder a greater burden as staffs contract. Many of us are teaching four or maybe even five classes in a row. How many times do we think of what is coming up in the following period as we are teaching? This momentary thought pulls at our concentration and robs us of presence. I often ponder these smaller, unintended consequences that have come about as the educational system is gutted by short-sighted bureaucrats.

But I digress (I am an English teacher after all). For me he biggest metaphorical poster boy for this intrusion into presence has been my phone. I happen to own an iPhone, but I am certain the metaphor holds true for other smartphones as well. When I first got the phone I was transfixed, as apparently the rest of the nation was as well with how connected you could be. As the phone evolved I began to ask what I was being connected to. The phone was beeping or buzzing or dinging or boinging every other minute informing me of something. Each sound was connected to a unique event and my brain was trained to recognize the difference. When the email alert would go off it would activate my brain, and I would begin to ask questions like “who could it be from”, or “what could they want”. Once my brain was activated in that way I was pulled out of presence.

As a symbol of wanting to reconnect in a real way with my students, my wife, my children, myself I deactivated all push notifications on my phone. Beyond that I turned all notifications to manual. I’ve done the same with my computers as well. Now the only time my phone makes a noise is when it rings. I know what you are saying, why not just get rid of that iPhone? Have you played Angry Birds? But seriously… baby steps. Lets get back to sitting next to our students, or crouching next to their desks until our legs burn. Let’s take the time it takes. If those things that are interrupting you are so important… why aren’t you doing those things? This is how we will learn to love what we do again, because when you peel away all of the crap that is thrown at us teaching is about relationships. It always has been, and those damn noises and what they represent are keeping them from us.

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Lit. Chat: Who is the Ghost of Christmas Present?

I’m having a blogging identity crisis. This blog started out with advice about best practices and experiences with technology integration. I reviewed some tools and created some tutorials. Then as I began interacting with other educational bloggers I became more interested in griping, forecasting and daydreaming. Recently I got into a discussion with my 9th grade English class that inspired me to try to engage in a different online conversation… about books.

My 9th graders just finished reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and were very interested in the metaphors behind the second ghost Scrooge encounters. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a great metaphor for students to work on because it is ambiguous, but not so ambiguous that they get frustrated and give up working it out. Dickens gives the reader enough clues to attempt to work it out. Is the ghost God? He offers some insight into that question when he says:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us” (Dickens 48).

 This theory is problematic though, particularly if we think of God as the monotheistic, Judeo Christian God. The problem comes when the Ghost says that he has more than 1800 brothers. A Christmas Carol was originally published in 1843 so it seems clear that Dickens is saying that there is one Ghost for each year.

The Ghost dies at the stroke of midnight. If each of the Ghosts does the same… then there would only be one alive at a time, right? Which brings back the monotheistic God theory.

Other theories that the students had (as I beam with pride) were that perhaps the Ghost was a symbol of Time, like classic Father Time figure, who is born, ages and dies in the span of a year. Certainly his name is suggestive of a period of time. Coupled with the powerful imagery of the two children hidden under his robes, a powerful argument can be made for this theory as well.

Do any of you want to talk about this book with me or my students? Perhaps we could blog or even Skype about the topic.

 

Cited: Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Bantam Classics, 1986.

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Dark Souls Has Me Thinking… About Education

Ok, first thing’s first… I’m a gamer. There, I’ve said it. I’ve had a love affair with video games since the day my dad brought home an Atari 2600. I remember playing Asteroids with my dad, attempting to get the highest score. Then came the 8 bit Nintendo, and I bet you get the picture. Here I am 25 years later still playing, although now that I have children (and teaching) my playing is me alone on a Friday night after everyone has gone to bed.

Now that the backstory is out of the way, to my thesis. Recently I picked up a new game based on some compelling reviews that I read about it. I won’t bore you with details, because this post isn’t really about the game its about the metaphor the game inspired for me. But for the sake of my point I will tell you that the most intriguing thing about the game for me was that it was almost universally described as extremely difficult. As a for-instance, the game has no pause button. If you enter the menu during the game, you can still be assailed from all sides by enemies. Also, the game came with essentially no instructions other than a diagram of what each of the butons on the controller did. These things are completely contrary to current gaming conventions that typically involve lengthy “instructional” missions at the beginning of the game where the player is gently guided through the control system in a safe way. With this game you are thrown into the maelstrom from the instant you click start.

What does this have to do with education you might ask? The primary learning mechanic in this game is failure, which in this case is depicted by the death of your character. This is a mechanic proudly touted by the game designers as the tag line for the game is “Prepare to Die”. Every time your character fails (dies) you learn something. Don’t jump there, look out for that trap, this character has a weakness to fire that I discovered too late but I will use next time. There were times when I was so frustrated with the game that I would turn it off, but I would find myself pondering it when I wasn’t playing. What if I had tried that tactic instead, or what if I had taken the alternative path, would the outcome have been different?

As frustrating as the failures were, I found them to be a very effective teaching tool. I found myself taking great care not to make the same mistakes again as the consequences were so dire. Does our public school environment allow kids to fail enough? If failure is such a powerful learning tool how can we incorporate it into our teaching methods in a safe but authentic way? Is the type of intrinsic motivation that was generated by the mechanics of the game unique, or can these mechanics be produced in the classroom? Failure takes time if students are to learn from it and improve upon past mistakes, and time seems to be something in short supply in schools these days. What do others think about using failure as a teaching tool?

The Power of People: An RSCON Reflection

Something I often read as a hindrance to culture change in public schools is the isolation of the public school teacher. The idea that schools are filled with disconnected, independent contractors, working alone is a pervasive one. Some of this is self-imposed isolation, or “flying under the radar” in the vernacular. Teachers might wish to be left alone for any number of reasons, perhaps their practice is flawed and they don’t want to admit it, or perhaps they are flouting a school policy that they disagree with, or perhaps they are just so inundated with the work of trying as hard as they can to educate young people that they can’t spare a minute.

Some of the isolation of the public school teacher is institutional, it is created and fostered by the system. Think about the places where you work, narrow corridors of unconnected rooms where teachers are lucky to see each other for two minutes between periods. Converted classrooms that serve as lounges for faculty, where fliers for upcoming board meetings are hastily attached to walls with yellow tape. Faculties that have been spread so thin by diminishing budgets that they see twice as many students as they did last year. I find it more than a little ironic that a system that often treats all students as if they were the same has no such checks on the teachers.

Whatever the reason for this isolation, how ever long it has been here, it is bad for us and it is bad for our kids. Teachers are learners, and learners crave interaction of an intellectual nature. Think about how energized you might feel if you happen to have a two minute conversation about a new teaching technique while you desperately wait in line to fill your coffee cup between periods. We need to sustain that feeling, somehow, and I believe we can.

I used to believe that the system was too large, to corrupt, to entrenched to ever change. But I don’t believe that anymore. Systems after all are built and sustained by people and I have seen the power of people. People like Shelly Terrell, whose infinite energy has lead to dozens of projects that touch the lives of teachers and students all around the globe. People like Kelly Tenkely, who asked herself, why couldn’t I start a school, and did. People like Clive Elsmore who believed in the cause of education so fiercely he gave up hundreds of hours, with only a thank you for reward. All of the organizers on the Reform Symposium team including Lisa Dabbs, Melissa Tran, Ian Chia, Cecilia LemosJerry Blumengarten and Mark Barnes are doing amazing things all over the world and making a difference.

The Reform Symposium was just an idea until it was empowered by people.

Then it became something else. It became total strangers with common goals working together to learn from each other. Although the Reform Symposium was born of social media it has never been about that, it has been and will continue to be about people. So don’t lose hope. Ideas are powerful.

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The Best Thing I’ve Done Online, Wanna See?

On July 28th at 10:00 am the second iteration of the best thing I have done online will begin. The Reform Symposium began as an offhand comment on Twitter, evolved into a conversation on Google Wave (remember Wave?), then turned from an idea into an event. The conference brought together a disparate group of presenters who were willing to donate their knowledge to everyone who wanted to listen. To me it represents the full potential of social media and what can happen when motivated, like-minded educators are given the tools to collaborate. I have never actually met any of my amazing collaborators, but I consider them to be my dear friends. Try to imagine organizing a global conference for educators ten years ago. Would you be able to do it with free online tools? So if you are looking for some free professional development take a look at the schedule and see if there is something you are interested in learning. Better yet, volunteer to moderate one of the sessions. Hope to see you there.

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My Rage Against Grading (How Can We Rate What’s Beautiful)

Needing a respite from the relentless grading that occurs at this time of year, I thought I would share something I read this morning with you. After I have finished grading state standardized exams and local benchmark exams I finally get the chance to look at the projects my own students have submitted at the end of the year. My seventh graders have been experimenting with poetry. Many of them loath it, especially at first, but slowly and eventually many of them create something beautiful. Here is one of the poems that I read this morning.

I gave you everything I had.
I loved you, I held you when you were sad.
Like sisters, you and me.
I was the beach and you were the sea.
And after all these years
You left me in tears.
I thought you were my best friend.
That you would be there ’til the end.
I believed and trusted you
And all that you said.
You were everything to me.
But then you tossed me out.
Like a teenager getting rid of you favorite childhood toy.
I need you, I need you, I need you.
And I need you now more than ever.
I need you to tell me to do my homework and to watch my language.
I need you to talk to me and love me like we used to.
I have everything you gave me.
All the birthday cards, the postcard from greece, the shirt.
I hold them on my pillow at night and talk to them.
Like I used to talk to you.
Waiting for an answer, waiting for you to hug me,
To tell me everything’s okay.
That you’ll take me back forever and always.
My angel, I need you to tell me those things.
But you never will.
I gave you all I had . . . And I always will.

I honestly got a little misty when I read that. I thought it was too good to be original so I googled it to check and it seems to be an original. My existential question is how do I now assign a number to this work of art that means anything? While her classmates are writing about Xbox cheat codes, she has gotten it. She has created something truly beautiful and assigning it a grade, even a 100 diminishes it somehow. I want to meet with her and nurture this talent, tell her that I appreciate the way she has put words together and suggest other poets she might like. But I am certain she will want to know what she got on it. What have we done?

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