Saturday, December 6, 2008

What is the purpose of public education?

No, really, I want to know.

I know what I think the purpose should be, but I'm pretty sure that the current system is some sort of purposeless monster stumbling around like a headless chicken while we argue about whether to bring it back to life with electricity, clockwork or good old-fashioned black magic.

(Okay, that was a little grotesque.) It's just that I've become pretty convinced that we can't fix anything until we can agree as a society on what we want our public education system to achieve.

What do you think is our purpose? (Multiple purposes are acceptable, I suppose.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dear Hollywood: Go make insipid movies about some other profession

One of the requirements for my first session of grad classes this summer was to watch Freedom Writers and discuss the different assumptions the students & Ms Gruwell brought to school. Luckily, our professors are open to critical interpretations of everything, so we could have a good discussion about the problems with the Hollywood version of teaching.

How is she only ever shown teaching one class a day? What about her other 150+ students, are they not good enough for her field trips and dinners and such? Seriously, she may have taken two extra jobs, but you can't make me believe she had enough money to buy 180 copies of every book she wanted her students to read. (Where am I getting this number? I teach six classes of between 25 & 30 students each year, so I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that she has at least as many students as me.)

There are a lot of other issues with this movie, and the whole genre of heroic teacher movies. As a recent op-ed at the NY Times explains:

While no one believes that hospitals are really like “ER” or that doctors are anything like “House,” no one blames doctors for the failure of the health care system. From No Child Left Behind to City Hall, teachers are accused of being incompetent and underqualified, while their appeals for better and safer workplaces are systematically ignored.

Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

If the only way to be a good teacher is be as self-sacrificing as Ms Gruwell, then we have a problem. Actually, there's no "if" about it. Chris Lehmann, principal of SLA often talks about issues of sustainability and system in teaching. Just the other day he had a good post, in which he said:
But if being a great teacher is only achievable by Herculean effort, we're going to always struggle to create systemic reform. What do we need to do to make it easier for more and more teachers to always make that right choice toward careful crafting of curriculum?
I don't know, but I know that it's something that needs to be figured out.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The end of summer break...

It's been a while. Honestly, after school let out I just needed a break from anything and everything to do with education. I've had a great month of vacationing, visiting and being visited, et cetera, and now I'm hopefully refreshed enough for the next round.

When I was still a student, mid-July would still be early summer break. I would still feel like I had all the time in the world until I had to think about school again. Instead, my summer break is about to come to an end. On Monday, I start the first session of classes for my master's program. I'm excited!

In preparation, we have a variety of assignments. Right now I'm reading Critical Pedagogy by Joan Wink. I shan't bore you with my reading journal (half of it is scribbled in the book anyway) but I do have a couple of thoughts to share:

1) I like being a student! I was sitting on the couch, scribbling a note onto a sticky after highlighting a bit of text and I looked up and said "This is fun." I miss reading and engaging with texts on my level when I'm teaching, and I miss the feeling I get when I'm learning and making connections. It's still there, sometimes, but there's so much more going on.

2) How did I get to be so good at being a student? I've been trying to figure out where and when and how I learned all these skills that so many of my students still lack as 10th graders, partly so I can figure out how to help them be better students. The hardest things for me to teach are the ones I don't remember having to learn. I know I learned them at some point, but...?

Friday, May 16, 2008

What would a time-traveler use to keep a journal?

I'm one of those crazy history teachers who likes to use creative writing assignments. They're a good assessment on a variety of levels and they give me a chance to help students develop historical perspective.

Throughout the year my students have written postcards from the New World, made "phone calls" from war-torn nations, written letters to the editor on whether the US should participate in World War 2 (in June 1941) and created "monuments" to imperialism. I like these assignments, but as I'm thinking about next year, there's some changes I want to make.

The first change is the obvious update--can we find ways to incorporate 21st century tech in these? (Yes) More importantly, I'm rethinking my class "notebook" and I want to create a more organized, unified system of assignments. I want to be able to tell my students, after appropriate introductions to "how we do things" to add an entry to their "time-traveler's journal" about this and then let them loose to create.

So, I'm asking, how do I set this up? What tools & tricks can you recommend to make this work? What online tools would work well for submitting assignments? (Class blog, forum, wiki, something completely different?) I especially want it to be flexible enough to include more than just text, centralized enough that they'll see and respond to each other, and easy to use. (I know, I don't want much at all.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Brief Hiatus

Hey guys-

I'm not saying I definitely won't be posting anytime soon, but... I'm in the middle of grad school applications, moving and the usual end-of-the-school-year craziness, plus going to the doctor a lot. (Don't worry, I'm fine. Just dealing with the usual issues from having a chronic problem.)

Before you know it, though, it'll be the end of May and I'll have more free time than I know what to do with. See you then!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Read this!

Harold Shaw has a series of interesting posts up about "Learning from a Master Teacher":

The whole sales transaction took about 45 minutes and I learned a great deal about operating my new chain saw. When I bought my first chain saw, I walked into big box store, went to tool aisle, picked up box, waited in line for a cashier, paid money and walked out in less than 10 minutes. I had never owned or operated a chain saw prior to this, so I took it home, not knowing if it worked or how to operate it safely. Looking back I am very lucky that I didn't injure myself seriously in my ignorance.

That was my initial lesson from this master teacher. Looking back at it here are some of the lessons he taught me."...

Go read them, and comment. His ideas are interesting, but I'm not coherent enough today to do them justice in comments.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Democratic Education vs Standardized Curricula

Pragmatically I get the purpose of curriculum, standards, et cetera. I'm not even sure I want to live in a standards-free world. I like having an idea of what is expected of me and my students during the year ahead of time. I like the idea of deciding that certain knowledge and skills are important. I also like not making up my curriculum from scratch! There are things that I teach that I wouldn't have thought of and have made me learn more about aspects of US history that I previously didn't care about.

I have this problem, though. An idealistically mandated curriculum is a form of authoritarianism. I object to authoritarianism in all aspects of life. I live in what is supposed to be a great republic!

People scratch their heads over low voter turnout in the United States, especially among the young adult crowd. I think a large part of the problem is that people don't have practice with democratic institutions outside of voting. It's not just schools, but schools are part of the problem. Schools don't teach democracy because they're undemocratic.

Consider for a moment the irony of memorizing the democratic process because you are forced to by someone you didn't elect, have no influence over, and who runs their classroom like a totalitarian dictatorship.

Mandated curriculum makes truly democratic education nearly impossible. When teachers are teaching based on a decision they had very little input into, then they're more likely to teach as authoritarian authorities. Sages on the stage, not guides on the side, as my education professors would say. Learning is messy, it leads you into tangents and no-exit alleys and all over the place if you let it. You can't, though, if you see teaching as following a set-list slavishly.

"Why do we have to learn this?" is a pretty depressing question to deal with if you're teaching something you don't think is important. After all, telling your students "because a faceless bureaucracy said I had to teach it to you" doesn't really do much for their motivation either. The answer should be something like "because it's interesting and useful" or, even better, "because you asked to!"

I don't know how you reconcile mandated curricula with democratic teaching. How do teachers provide students choice (proven to be one of the best motivators out there) when they are given none?

Next time: Why I think this is so important. Also, a possible middle way through this dichotomy.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

But how do you do that?

Sometimes I read articles/weblog entries about education and I see myself in their description of a student poorly served by the current system. Seriously, can anything be more depressing?

I was a good student. I worked hard without succumbing to the insane class-rank/GPA obsession of the overachievers I was surrounded by. I got complemented by college professors for my writing, discussions, analytical ability, etc. I've never thought of myself as slow, needing a lot of directions and so on, in fact, I thought of myself as comparatively independent.

Yet none of that has prepared me for the reality of being a teacher.

My senior year of college I took the hardest education course I'd ever had. I don't actually remember the title, but it was an educational media course that was also taught as an extreme constructivist class. It was the hardest thing I'd done in my life until I actually started teaching, and then I realized that all the things that had frustrated me about that class were what life was really like in the classroom. What felt like too much and yet not enough direction was a perfect replication of the situation of the classroom teacher.

Nowadays. I realize that there's a lot I want to do, and I read about it, but I just can't put it into practice. I see great ideas and then I think "So how do I do that in my classroom, in my circumstances?" and I get stuck. The fact that I sometimes feel like I need step by step instructions for management is part of the problem too. It's like I got so used to being told how to do things as well as what to do that I can't see it for myself.

I want to be a teacher who provides engaging, relevant education full of interesting activities, whose management style and confidence allows them to let go when necessary, who comfortably uses and teaches students about digital tools. (And a lot of other things, too. I have big goals.)

I don't know how. It's my favorite complaint. It's also something I need to get over.

(but I don't know how!)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

How do you teach the incomprehensible?


You have a total of 3 hours (in two 90-minute chunks, minus the usual housekeeping time) to teach your students about the Holocaust and other modern genocides. You have some state standards to guide you, but they focus on terminology (what is genocide?) and a laundry list of genocides to mention. Your students will come to the first lesson fresh from spring break.

How do you teach this weighty topic without trivializing it?

I don't have an answer. I struggle with this every time.

The hardest thing about teaching history, for me, is to do justice to the tragedies of the past without turning it into sensationalism. It seems there's a fine line to walk between glossing over what happened (11 million people died) and turning it into a horror-show (look at these pictures of concentration camp survivors) that, rather than building empathy and compassion, appeals to the enjoyment of the grotesque that so many of us have learned from tv and movies. How do you use the tools of modern media to tell a real story, with real people? (Now I'm starting to sound like Claude Lanzmann.)

My students, by the way, are fascinated with the topic. I don't know how to respond to that.

Part of my problem is that I spent an entire semester studying Nazism in college. It was a senior seminar, so we read a lot, had the sort of discussions that continue for an hour after class is over, and thought long and hard. Everything I do will seem too shallow after that, I suppose. I can't take the reading and discussion of a variety of "biographies" of Hitler and easily turn it into something my students can do in a block, and yet I want to. I can't show Shoah. (I'm not sure I want to, really.)

I'll probably do what I did last year, and piece together fragments of the things I'd love to spend more time on. I just know it's not good enough. It never is.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review Quizzes

Sometimes I do this thing where I give a pop quiz.

The first time I do it, everyone panics, because I'm not a pop quiz type. Then I say, "no, no, it's ok. It's a review quiz. Don't worry." Everyone gives me this look like "What in the world are you talking about Mrs M? Are you crazy?" and I explain.

A review quiz is a pretty simple idea that always amazes me with how well it works. I give the students a quiz. It's all identification, short answer questions so that when I read their answers I really know what they know. They spend some time taking it like a real quiz (books and notebooks out of sight, no talking, no questions asked.) I tell them they can get out their notes and they switch pens and start looking up everything they don't know. Eventually, I collect them and take them home and look over them, marking them up with corrections and suggestions but giving a lot of leeway in grading.

I'm always surprised by how motivating they seem to be. I'll get a few students who just keep working with their books closed even after time is up, because they'd rather remember it than look it up, and eventually get it all. The majority of students will have to look up about half of it, and I can get a feel as I walk around about what's been working or not lately. A few students will have almost nothing on their paper at first, but rather than give up, they work diligently to figure it out when it's notebook time.

This also gives me a good chance to fix misconceptions, point out common errors and take notes on what to review before the actual test. Great for long units like the current one (World War 2).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Veropedia to the Rescue! Maybe?

I have a confession to make:

I love wikipedia.

I may be a history teacher, but my memory is just bad enough that I double check myself on dates all the time. Wikipedia helps. Sometimes I want to know more about a time or place I'm not an expert on (just because I teach history doesn't mean I know all of it, people) and wikipedia is a great starting place. Sometimes I just need a source of public domain/creative commons licensed maps and photos. Wikipedia comes to my rescue! Sometimes I'm really curious about the death tolls of different wars and disasters, and not only can wikipedia help, but the arguments on the talk pages make for great reading.

However, I'm smart enough to know better than to use it as my final word on any bit of info. I don't really recommend it to my students for research, although I have pointed out that if they use it as a starting point, that's fine.

A Solution?
Veropedia, looks like a really cool thing to me. From their FAQ:
Veropedia is a collaborative effort by a group of Wikipedians to collect the best of Wikipedia's content, clean it up, vet it, and save it for all time. These articles are stable and cannot be edited. The result is a quality stable version that can be trusted by students, teachers, and anyone else who is looking for top-notch, reliable information.
This seems like the perfect solution for someone looking to have their students take advantage of wikipedia but leery of the ever-editable nature of the project. My one concern is the fact that the editors in charge of vetting seem to just be people involved with wikipedia with a good reputation within the site. However, I've spent enough time reading talk pages to know that this means that they'll have decent standards.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Scramble for Africa

The Current Game*

Set up: The board is an outline map of Africa. Make it as simple as possible-- a few major physical features (Nile River, Suez Canal, Congo River are all that's on mine) and that's it. Each student is a European nation seeking territory in Africa. I set up six players per board (Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal) giving each player a set of colored construction squares and a goal. The goals are based on the actual goals/empires, for example, Britain is trying to create a transcontinental (N-S) empire. The students get colored squares based on the power their nation, so Britain has the most.

Play: Students take turns placing their squares one at a time to claim territory in Africa according to their nations' goal. They may overlap, and play until everyone has run out of squares. The board at this point will be a jumbled mess of overlaps. That's good!

War: There is no peaceful solution to these territorial conflicts. Like nations throughout all of history, we solve our disputes by strength of arms in the ancient game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. To ensure fairness, all wars must be monitored by the teacher and are best 2 throws out of 3. Loser removes their square and cannot re place it. (I tell them that those soldiers are dead, so they can't go conquer some other territory with their ghosts.)

After you've solved all the wars, it's time to determine the winners. Each nation reveals their goal and we figure out who, if anyone, actually met their goal. Sometimes no one has, and sometimes a few lucky throws lead you to a clear winner.

Wrap Up: I tend to follow this up by displaying a map of colonial territories in Africa ca. 1914 and ask them to do a little compare/contrast between their own maps and the real territorial divisions. Depending on how well your various students play RPS, it can lead to some pretty realistic maps. We discuss how the real map makes sense in terms of the students' goals in game and then move on to the rest of the lesson on Imperialism in Africa. (If you don't teach in the block, that will probably be next period. This does take 30-45 minutes depending on class size and wars.)

Someone else did it Prettier

The day after I taught this lesson this year, I found this Scramble for Africa board game online. There are some serious differences -- their game includes points values for colonies w/preset borders, dilemmas based on historical situations, and a more real win condition. The basic goal is the same.

The Plan for Next Year

Based on my simple game and the pretty one I found this year, I'm going to try to do a SmartBoard version of Scramble for Africa. I will set up the board as a blank Africa made up of hexes, which will change color to be claimed by a country. I still plan on setting national goals, rather than the points-based system, but I will add some scenarios to exploration and probably a movement system. I'm not sure whether I'll keep the conflicts over territory--the creators of the other Scramble for Africa game had a good point about how little violent conflict there really was between European powers. I'm still working on a lot of details, because this will move from being a group game where every student is involved (with 4-6 Africa boards out) to something that is whole-class by necessity of using the SmartBoard.

* I'm not at work where all my binders/files are because it's break, but when I get back I'll post links to my goals and details of set up if you want them.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


To be honest, I've been feeling a lot of doubt lately.

Doubt that I'll ever be the teacher I want to be, or at least good enough to not hate myself.

Doubt that I'll ever get this classroom management thing sorted out.

Doubt that I'm doing anything right, even when things seem to go well.

I have a lot of posts stored up in the old thinker (actually, over on my backpack) but I can't bring myself to write any of them because what's the point? I clearly don't know anything compared to everyone else out there.

I don't have a personality that makes classroom management easy to figure out. I'm non-confrontational and shy by nature. I have issues with the idea of myself as an authority figure. I have issues with the rules that make up high school that I still feel I have to enforce. Sometimes I can convince myself that I'm getting better at this, and maybe it'll take me longer than others I know to figure it out, but I'll get there anyway. Sometimes I think I'll never get "it" and maybe good teachers really are born and I should give up.

I don't know which one is right, and that's the problem. If I really am destined to be a terrible teacher forever because of my lack of classroom management skills, then I should get out sooner rather than later, right? (That's what I've been reading a lot this week.) Yet the people who've actually seen me teach don't seem to think so. Am I just too hard on myself? I don't know.

Honestly, I can't even begin to imagine what I would do with myself if I didn't teach.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Imagining the Invisible Teacher

An artist is invisible in their work.

Despite this, I can wander around art museums with my mom guessing at the particular Impressionist who painted something and we get it right often enough to earn a solid B.

A masterful performer is one who makes it look easy.

If you don't know what's going on, dressage looks like the easiest equestrian sport. Somebody sits on a horse, doesn't move much, and the horse backs up and walks sideways and maybe dances around a little. What you can't see, but can probably guess at, is the incredibly amount of training that goes into preparing a horse for this sort of competition. You can't ask any old hack to do a capriole and expect results. The riders, too, must be the best. A beginner can get on a horse and yank its head around and kick it and get it to go the right way at a trot, but it takes someone who knows their stuff to communicate with miniscule movements of feet and hands while looking relaxed.

I was going to keep going, but I think the analogy is obvious. The masterful invisible teacher does a lot of work to become invisible. Their presence, in fact, is necessary for the creation of the masterwork, the classroom full of independent students engaged in their learning. You can't get the same result from throwing a bunch of kids into a classroom with some computers and a vague goal any more than you can get that dressage performance from throwing me on a camp pony.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Finding a Vision

I'm in a strange place with teaching right now.

On the one hand, there've been several reminders lately of how much work I still need to do at classroom management. I'm back to the place I was at the end of last school year, bemoaning all the situations that happen where I don't do anything, or do the wrong thing too late, because I don't actually know what I should do in response to that student. It's frustrating because just a few weeks ago I had a series of days where I felt like I was totally "on my game" and able to think quickly enough to make intelligent choices in classroom management. I started to see it, really, I swear I did! Where'd it go?

On the other hand, I've been starting to really get a clear vision of what I want my classroom to be. I have all these ideas I've been working on, introducing pieces of into the classroom, and generally spending a lot of time behind-the-scenes working out the details of how and why for everything from assessment to pedagogy. It's like I've been walking around blind in a maze for the last 3 years, occasionally stumbling into the right thing, and then suddenly I left the maze and got a chance to view it from above.

On the gripping hand, however, I realize that those sorts of visions are only part one of trying to get better at this teaching thing. I'm good at big-picture vision, and dreaming up interesting ideas. I'm also good at reflection, seeing where I went wrong. The problem is, I'm not so good at translating those two things into actually doing all the nitty-gritty work right and making the right decision in the moment. 'Great idea, poor implementation.' That's me.

I used to call this "follow-through" but that's not quite it. I got follow-through: I come up with an idea, I do it, I keep fussing with it. What I don't have is "not-starting-over-again-when-the-going-gets-tough", aka persistence. As nice as all these visions for next year are, they don't help me do a good job for the next 4 months. Rather than give up on working through this tough, winter stretch and planning how I'll do it better next time around, I need to be focusing on how I can bring all these ideas and realizations into the classroom now.

To that end, I've been giving myself assignments. These are specific things that I can work on, have a finite end point, and I can use in the classroom right now. Currently, my assignments to myself include:
  • Fixing presentations. Less text, more images. Less bullets, more story. Seems to be in vogue around the ednet right now.
  • Organizing test questions. My big plan for next year is to introduce an assessment scheme modeled on Dan Meyer's, but adapted for my standards, content, and students. To that end, I need a reliable bank of test questions on every standard I teach, organized by substandard (WHII9a,9b,9c, etc) and tagged by difficulty (still working on that part). So, every time I write a quiz/test for the rest of the year, I'm going back and tagging questions, adding new ones, and generally trying to do this as-I-go rather than all-summer-long. It's actually making me do a lot more thinking about the questions I write, which is good, because I hate writing tests and slack off on them usually.
  • Including processing/transformative assignments in class time. I wrote about this a little before, but it's become a big thing for me. Any time I plan a lesson and I think 'there's not enough time, have them do it as homework' it's a sign that it's time to reevaluate the lesson, make sure I'm keeping it simple, and make time.
I'd been meaning to write about some more of my stuff that's worked lately, and post some good links, but I've been ignoring the internet lately. I'll be back, don't worry.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Games, dream electives, and why I want a 20th century history course to be taught in 11th grade.

It's been a busy week. I've been starting a new semester, new units, generally trying to do a better job of staying caught up and taking a Spanish class. I wanted to make sure that I posted a couple of thoughts before they escaped my brain though.

1) I love it when I can make a game out of something to introduce it. This week was the "Scramble for Africa" game. (The day after I finished playing it with my classes, I found a nicer "Scramble for Africa" game someone had made. I now have a whole plan on how to make a totally cool, SMARTboarded up, version. Next year, though. Now I need to concentrate on teaching World War 1.)

2) World/European History and American history classes should all stop around 1890. Then you should do a 20th century/modern history class that combines the two. Seriously, February-May is annoying. I teach about World War 1 in US and then the next week I'm teaching it in World. I feel like I'm getting planning whiplash. It's not exactly the same curriculum, since the emphasis is different. (Example: with the Great War, in US I emphasize why we got involved and the 14 points, whereas World emphasizes the actual course of the war, Russian Revolution and overall Treaty of Versailles effects.)

Considering how much I had to reteach my US class that was supposed to be in the World curriculum, and how truncated those emphases are without each other, it makes much more sense to devote an entire course to the 20th century and include both perspectives in it. (This might also give us a chance to do a better job at including Latin American, African and Asian perspectives on a lot of these events.)

3) I'm working on a dream electives list.
  • There's already the "Media and American History" one that Tom and I wanted to teach together.
  • I also want to teach "History vs Hollywood" as a semester course. The students would vote on 5 "historical" movies for us to examine, and it'd be very project-centered, encouraging them to use the research on the accuracy of the movie to jump off into research/projects about the time period.
  • "Italian City-States: A Historical Soap Opera" would be fun, although I'd need to dust up on my Florentine intrigue.
  • I also have always wanted to teach a social history-oriented elective that went at about the same pace as the regular World History courses. This would be my chance to incorporate all the pieces I think are missing from a standard history curriculum: art, music, clothing, food, daily lives of real people, social structures, literature, gender, advertising, propaganda outside of wartime, race outside of slavery, etc.
What history-related electives would you want to see taught? What changes would you make to the structure of the social studies curriculum?

Finally, how many of you agree that all high school history and english should be taught as humanities courses? (History provides the context in which we practice those language skills. English provides the great literature that we read about in historical context. It's a match made in heaven.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Calvinists more likely to Cheat

No, not really.

However, a recent study examined the connections between a person's fatalism and their likeliness to cheat. The results were pretty striking:
"those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were more apt to cheat when given the opportunity as compared to those whose beliefs about controlling their own lives were left untouched."

Read the article if you're curious about the methodology of the study. I don't know enough to really evaluate them for myself, but the findings match with my observations as a teacher. The students who cheat tend to be those who look at grades and test results as something I do to them, or something they just get, no matter what effort they might or might not put into it. The students who actually see their grades as something they earn are less likely to cheat. (There is an exception to that rule: students who are pressured into achieving good grades to the point that they feel they have no choice.)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Cursive is Dead

Cursive is dead.* Praise your favorite deity!

When I get handwritten assignments from students, most of them print. The ones that write in cursive, I curse. It takes me several times longer to read most student cursive and that distracts from paying attention to the content, which is what I'm grading here.

Obligatory no-I'm-not-just-young-and-lazy note: I can read cursive. I can even write it better than most of my students. (I remember the capitals!) I can read it well enough to decipher letters written a hundred years ago. I haven't written in it voluntary except when I sign my name or write with a certain type of pen.

I have heard people complain about the death of cursive due to computers and the widespread existence of printers. I think they're missing the point: cursive has been dying since the invention of the ballpoint pen. Writing in script is much easier and more useful when you write with something in which the ink is loose and flows quickly (quill pens). When you write with something that is stingy with ink, like your standard bic pen, cursive is actually more work.

Although I think the ability to read script will stay useful, considering all the documents written in it, I think that it is time to make it a much smaller part of the elementary curriculum. It's dead. It has no reason for existing, beyond signing one's name.

PS: This is directed at the people out there who still make their students write exclusively in cursive.

PPS: This will lead to a larger exploration of issues about tech and "in my day" and the like, but not today. It's Friday.

*Inspired by an instant message conversation...
"Andrew: there was a huge ridiculous project for stats due today. Doing advanced statistical calculations by hand. its just tedious and useless and time consuming and bleh. I got 5 hours of sleep
Me: ugh. I guess doing them by hand proves you know them or something
Andrew: I hate when I'm too angry to get the assignment done, thats a stupid feeling . . .its like, a required relatively basic stats course I don't understand why she wants that.
Me: because you're in grad school now, and grad school is HAAAARD. or some such nonsense
Andrew: but its not even hard in a intelligent way! its hard in a time consuming and unnecessary way! COMPUTERS WERE MADE TO HELP ME**
Me: but when the prof was in grad school, you had to do it all by hand and it was good enough for her.***
Andrew: I disregard that reality
Me: have I told you about how I think cursive is dead and shouldn't be taught or required in school anymore?
Andrew: . . . no, but I agree
Me: aww, then I don't get to argue my well-reasoned explanation at you! I'll just go write it up in my teacher blog instead."

**How many of your students are having this conversation about your class right now?

*** Seriously, don't even start telling me about how you can use a slide rule or studied calc back when you had to look up logs in the back of the book. The microchip is here to stay. Get over it.

Why are you a teacher?

I've always wanted to be a teacher.

This is mostly true. There was a brief time where I thought I wanted to be a programmer instead, and some doubt in the middle of college. Otherwise? I've wanted to teach practically since I entered school.

I still remember, the summer before my younger-brother-by-3-years (I have 4 brothers) entered school, I made him come to two weeks of "school" with me. I don't really remember what I had him do, except that he had to spend 2 hours with me and what the chair he sat on looked like.

Since I can't even remember not wanting to be a teacher, I wonder about other people who teach. How did you realize you wanted to be a teacher? Did you doubt your career choice as a pre-service teacher, a newbie? Do you doubt it now? How do you deal with doubts? How did you decide that teaching beat out the alternatives you'd considered?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Problem with Curriculum

This one is Dan Meyer's fault, again. Dan has a set of posts out there on good presentations* that I think any teacher who lectures even once a year should read and take to heart.

He said:
Expect your audience to have exactly 20% your enthusiasm. Thus, if your enthusiasm level is only at 70% throughout your presentation, the best you can expect of your audience is 14% enthusiasm. 14%! That's science, people, don't try to argue me on this. If you aren't feeling it, please don't inflict your tepid emotional state on the rest of us.
When I looked through various data and figured out what, out of the curriculum my students didn't learn last year, I realized that it all had something in common. The material my students don't learn is the stuff I don't ask them to do something with. Whenever I ran out of inspiration or time and ended up just lecturing/having them read about something, they tested poorly on it. This seems so obvious in retrospect, but seeing the pattern in the benchmark tests and making that connection was actually pretty amazing at the time.

So, for this school year one of my big goals was to have students transform information as much as possible. Even when I introduced a topic through lecture or reading, the goal was to make sure that I always did something else with that information afterwards. What that has meant for my classroom is a lot more creation on the students part, which is definitely a good thing. The less I talk and the more they do, the better.

I just finished up grading midterms and an overall end-of-semester grading frenzy last week, so I've been thinking about what I failed to teach in the first semester this year. There were a few things that I didn't spend enough time on the doing, or wasn't clear enough about originally, but overall the goal of doing things has been helpful. What's left on the pile of "things no one seemed to get" are now the things that I don't care about.

This is the problem with curriculum: How can I make them care when I don't?

I'm a history teacher because I love history. Love love love it. I'll spend hours discussing it for no reason other than the fun of it. But there are things on my curriculum that I don't care about. That I don't see as important. That aren't part of what makes me passionate about history. (There are also things on my curriculum that just aren't true, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.)

I was talking to our new AP and social studies overseer about this problem recently. He used to teach World History, so he knows exactly what I'm working with. He feels that the state curriculum is just a jumbled mess of facts, and if we're going to teach from it and teach well, we need to make the connections between those facts for ourselves and then make them explicit for the students. (What Dan calls the "through-line".) This really clicked with the problem of curriculum for me: I can't explain the connections when I don't see them myself.

I'm not familiar with the standards/curricula for history in every state, obviously, but in my experience they're mostly the problematic type. Have some facts your students should know. (Abe Lincoln was president of the US during the Civil War.) Standards shouldn't be a list of facts but a story framework. What matters is the connections, not the facts. History is interesting because its a story. So make the story the aim of the curriculum.

If nothing else, it'd make my job easier.

*Dan Meyer, How to Present

Sunday, January 20, 2008


I've been thinking. (Yes, yes, you could smell it/hear the gears turning, me too.)

I really just want a chance to talk to other secondary social studies teachers about ideas, lessons, et cetera. To post my "stuff that works" and see theirs and generally actually collaborate with our people doing what I'm doing in my subject.

Is there interest out there for this sort of thing? Or am I totally blind and missing it?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Math teachers have got it goin' on.

I'm quite jealous of math teachers.

I thought about teaching math, back in the day, when I knew I wanted to teach something but had no idea what.* I love math. I didn't do any serious acceleration in high school, but I took AP Calc my senior year and loved it. (Got a 5 if you care about that sort of thing.) I've always been a history nerd, but it was always nice to take a break from the seemingly endless reading and writing to solve some problems. There's just something so addictive and satisfying about solving a hard math problem, isn't there?

My AP Calc teacher, Miss Hawes, greeted us the first day of class by telling us "You will all get 5s." She was serious. She was also terrifying. I loved her. Sure, we did a ton of homework and it was hard work, but she really knew how to teach math. She had that dry sense of humor that only math teachers can pull off--you know, where they're making a joke while explaining a very complicated problem and five minutes later you go "That was a joke!"

I'm reminded of her, and of my jealousy for math teachers, by stumbling onto Dan Meyer's posts about assessment. One of the things I always admired about Miss Hawes was the way she handled tests. On every test, you had the opportunity to do test corrections to receive points back on the test. The way it worked was that she'd hand back the test and announce 5 or so students (it was a class of 16) who were tutors because they'd done well. The rest of us would get tutored by them to figure out how to fix what we'd got wrong. She'd then set aside some class time and the tutees would be interviewed about their test, why they got it wrong, and prove they'd figured it out by doing a new problem for her. If they did well enough, they and their tutor would get points added to their test grade. If not, they could go back to their tutor and try again.

This sort of approach seemed like sheer brilliance to me then (and was I ever so proud of how often I ended up on the tutors list) and I still carry it around in the back of my head as "how assessment should be done." Dan's approach is a bit different, but the same idea that the student should be able to get credit for mastering a skill they'd not got at the test is behind it. I really admire the way he's broken his curriculum down into its elemental pieces, because I know that took a lot of thought for him.

So why am I jealous of these math teachers?

I don't know how to do this in social studies. My curriculum is content-focused, not skill-focused. I want it to be skill-focused, but I have to work within the reality of the dread end-of-course test. I do think I'm going to spend some time with my thoughts on essential social studies skills so that I can break them down into elemental, assessable piece and do a better job of instructing & assessing them in the future. However, I'm not sure how to integrate this with the rest of my curriculum. How do I deal with a reality of high-stakes, knowledge-based testing? How do I remediate whether or not a student knows standard VUS8b "transformation of the American economy"?**

I constantly struggle with this, and I haven't found any good answers.

* I'm not a math teacher because I cannot explain it to other people. I used to try to help my brother with his algebra homework. I'd look at the problem, solve it, and he'd ask. "What did you do?" "This." "Why?" "Cuz that's what I needed to do to solve it?" "How did you know?" "I just did." Not very helpful, huh? (Besides, I wanted to major in history anyway.)


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Free Money

No, I'm not giving money away. :)

From USAToday:
Could Free-Reading offer a glimpse of the future, when big, bulky — and expensive — textbooks go the way of the film strip?

Newman thinks so. "This is a shot across the bow for a lot of people," he says.

Schools spent $4.4 billion for textbooks in the 2006-07 school year, according to Eduventures. While that's only about 1% of total expenditures, the prospect of free, state-approved materials could profoundly influence how schools spend money — and what publishers offer, Newman says.

"If suddenly you don't have to spend $100 million every four years on textbooks, it's not found money, but certainly it's money that could be applied to other kinds of educational endeavors."

I like this idea of not spending money on textbooks, although I have to ask: who actually buys new ones every four years? I think our cycle is six or seven years.

So, here's the question: If you could go textbook free due to free online resources, what would you spend the textbook budget on?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Where's the Teacher?" Moment Today

Picture, if you will: A classroom full of students. The desks aren't really arranged, but pulled into random groupings of 2 and 3 and 4. Everyone in the room seems very intent on their notebooks or their laptop, talking quietly with those in their group. You look around the room for the teacher, and you can't seem to find her. Nobody's lecturing, and several people get up and walk around the room to talk to others about something before going back to work.

I actually had a student stop by and be unable to find me in the room (even after someone told her I was there) until I came over to her. Feeling truly invisible now!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Things that Work

I'm currently finishing up the unit on the Industrial Revolution with my 10th graders. This unit has been going pleasantly well, especially compared to the jumbled mess it was last year. To finish it up, we're taking a look at some of the effects of the I.R. in order to have students write an editorial as if they're a reporter in 1830.

The set up is that they're moving around the room to different stations with information, pictures, music, etc on topics such as "child labor", "modern buildings" and "industrial production." The thing that's making this work well, rather than just be ok, is that I asked them to not only list positive or negative effects for each topic they examined, but also discuss how the negatives could be fixed with their groups. Wandering around the room clarifying ideas in their information, prodding them to consider negatives and positives not directly specified, and asking them about their suggestions for improvement is my favorite kind of teaching. Small conversations in which I can poke and prod at their ideas and see things start to click. Without having to outright say it, I got a lot of "so that's why we have laws about that nowadays" out of them. :)

My favorite overheard remark:
"I know how to fix this one--have kids go to school more." *sees me walking by* "I never thought I'd say that." I smile.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Ledge

TMAO of Teaching in the 408 has a fabulous post about the Ledge. Go read the whole thing, even though I'm quoting it a lot here.
You get up on the ledge as a young teacher when you realize that there is no formal system of accountability anywhere. The evaluation process is an outright joke, your intern advisor calls you exemplary, and your BTSA lady pops in so you can fill out some forms.

I miss my student teacher evaluations. My supervisor was an incredible, former high school principal who knew more about teaching than anyone I've met (in-person) since. He could tell me what I was doing wrong and suggest ways to fix it. He made me cry on a regular basis. He knew that wasn't a problem though--crying was part of me dealing with how hard doing this thing right was, and how much I still had to learn. When he praised me, I deserved it.

You’re up on the ledge when you want to know how to get better, but there’s nothing there. The vast store of practical strategies you took from your alternative or traditional route credentialing program seems to be running a little dry and district PD is either non-existent or an exercise in futility. There is no formal plan for post-competency-acquisition development, unless it is in the areas of technology, and you already know how to use PowerPoint.

This year, my district finally got it about PD. They cut down on the floofy offerings, offered actual sessions on 21st century strategies, sessions on other relevant topics, and listened to the survey they sent out last year. The result? I'm going to more PD sessions than I have to, because they might actually be of use to me.

This is not the norm.
It gets worse when you do get better. Your level of quality as an educator changes, but title, position, responsibilities, and compensation remain stagnant. ...

You realize the profession incentivizes mediocrity. It does not drive people to show movies all day, or let kids text and screw around in class – ineptitude takes folks there – but it does incentivize using the same lame worksheets you used the last time around, the same crap readings, head-butting against the same, predictable failures to comprehend and achieve. Because the only lever school leaders have to lean on is the level of caring inherent in the individual teachers, the only thing driving you to do more is to care more. But there’s a limit to your caring, and a limit to the effectiveness of your caring.

I can't reuse stuff I hate. I pull out old lessons and just look at them and go "how could I teach this crap?" So I spend hours and hours recreating lessons, coming up with new ideas (or hoping for inspiration because I'm flat out and don't WANT to give in and lecture) and then the lessons never go as well as planned.

I look around at teachers who copy everything they need at the beginning of the unit because they know exactly what they're doing ahead of time. They spend very little time planning, go home right after school, stay caught up on their grading, and get a lot more sleep than me. I want to be them, I want to relax and not ruin the rest of my life for this job, and I can't. I care too much.

But how long is that going to work? How long before I burn out?

This is my third year doing this. No wonder so many of us don't make it to 5.

Friday, January 4, 2008

5 Dangerous Things

If you think kids these days are overprotected, this is worth a watch.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

How Teaching is like Writing which is like Everything Else

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Bear, who maintains a slice of the writer's life blog that I find fascinating. She likes to say that "writing is like everything else" because of the number of analogies she and other authors come up with to explain the writing process.

Teaching, I suspect, is not quite like everything else, but planning is like writing and other acts of creation. You know: sometimes you get a great idea in a flash of intuition and you go into flow and it just keeps coming, sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get those words on the page but you have to do it, and sometimes you just plod along but the words get there somehow. When all's said and done, you wonder if the readers can even tell the difference between intuition like fire in your brain and the long slow pull.

The reason this connection between planning and writing is interesting to me is that it explains why I get so much more done on my last period planning days than my 2nd period planning days: flow. When I know that if I get into a groove I can just keep working until its exhausted, I'm much more likely to make the effort to put myself into the focused state of mind I need to plan. When I know I'll have to go back to class (not teaching--running a study hall, ugh) at 9:55 no matter what I'm in the middle of, I'd rather do something mindless like enter grades and copy things.

All that considered, no wonder people complain about students not thinking and not engaging with the lesson: why should they put the effort in when no matter where they are, the bell will ring and they'll have to go to their next class?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How do you learn?

One of those things we try to do as teachers is to teach kids based on their own learning styles. Sometimes we even try to help them think about how they learn. We give them learning style inventories, get them to reflect on what methods worked for their learning, get them to do that whole metacognitive thinking about thinking thing. (Well, some of us do. This is something that I'm not very good at, actually.) I wonder, though, how much other teachers understand their own learning processes. How do you all learn?

This question is inspired by the realization that my own learning style has been getting in the way of my teaching.

I learn very inductively. (After a distracted quarter of an hour of research, I'm still not sure if that's actually the word I want.) That is, I learn best by taking a pile of specifics and doing the work on my own to turn them into generalizations. I like to stuff myself to the gills with information on whatever topic I'm currently researching, and then I let it all ferment. I find connections, I sort, I sift, I go off on wild tangents that still connect back to the main topic, and after a while it all clicks. All that mass of information is organized into a nifty little outline, with conclusions and their supporting data, along with the occasional sidenote sticky fact. A few months later, I've forgotten the supporting data but the conclusions have become a firm part of my mind.

Because I learn like this, I tend to feel that everything needs context. "If I'm going to expect my students to understand x," I say to myself, "I should tell them about y and z so they can see why I think x is true."

Sometimes this urge is a good thing.

More often, it's not.

One of the main things that connect lessons I come away from feeling like it just didn't fly is that in my zeal to show you x, y, z and their funny cousin q, I got away from the basic principle of all design: keep it simple, stupid.

I need to constantly ask myself questions like:
  • "Teaching with primary documents is great, but do I need to expose them to this many different sources on the topic?"
  • "Do they really need to know the answers to all 10 of those questions to get the essential understanding I'm aiming for?"
  • "Will this information actually help them make sense of things or just bog them down in more facts to memorize?"
  • "Am I making the narrative behind the information clear enough or just expecting them to see it because I do?"
I'm actually pretty excited about this realization, because I've finally gelled a vague frustration into a thing that I can do something about and I did something about it today while planning. Nothing like a little success to build up confidence. ;)