Saturday, May 21, 2016

Flexible Pathways are not that well understood

For the nerds out there:
The text of ACT 77.
State DOE Introduction to the Law.
State DOE's Flexible Pathways webpage.

What the law says, in essence, is that schools must accept (acknowledge) and give high school credit to learning that takes place in a non-traditional setting. For example, a passage from the introduction lays out some of the possibilities for this outside-the-box learning:
Act 77 explicitly references several types of experiences that may become components in a PLP. These include: “applied or work-based learning opportunities, including career and technical education and internships; virtual learning and blended learning; dual enrollment opportunities ...; and early college programs ...” While there is an expectation that each of these categories of learning experiences will become more readily available to more students, this should not be seen as placing a limit on the possibilities that may be included in a student’s flexible pathway to graduation. (emphasis mine).
These internships, or college courses, or dual-enrollment opportunities are all at the course level and this is where the confusion comes in.

The way so many people are misinterpreting this law is in thinking it requires or even suggests that teachers must allow for different assessments for each student within a course. A fellow teacher was speaking to me (working through his own thinking, really; I was merely a sounding board) about a student who flat-out refused to take a history test -- he didn't like the course format of typed papers (Google docs), and tests with hand-written short answer and multiple choice questions. He wanted to make a video or a Powerpoint, I can't really recall which.

If you listen to my admin and others, the PLP aspect of the law would require my colleague to accede to the request. I've been told on several occasions that (paraphrased) "Flexible pathways requires that we give students the opportunity to prove proficiency in many different ways in your course.

That's flatly not the case.
Personalization is also manifested through the expectation that students will be able to engage in “flexible pathways to graduation,” defined as “any combination of high-quality academic and experiential components leading to secondary school completion and post-secondary readiness.” This concept is not to be confused with the idea that students choose from a limited menu of pathways that are pre-designed by educators. Rather, the emphasis is on “any combination of high-quality academic and experiential components.”

The drafters of the legislation chose their words carefully, always referring to  "high-quality academic and experiential components" and reiterating that the components would include "Work-Based Learning, Career and Technical Education, Virtual/Blended Learning, Dual Enrollment, and Early College." They intended to allow for non-traditional "courses," not to allow student to veto any assignment they didn't like and switch it out for something else.

In fact, they come right out and say it in the bill:
(d) An individual entitlement or private right of action shall not arise from creation of a personalized learning plan.
Individual districts may change the intent of the law to include in-class variations and treating children differently whenever they throw a temper tantrum, or get their parents to tell the school that home Internet service is "cancelled because the Internet is making children stupid" and demanding that there be no online components to a math class (true story). If the district decides that, I'm going to follow that ruling, but not because the law said so.

Crazy Lady Showed Up to Preach

Nothing says Spring in Vermont quite like the arrival of the flowers, the greening of the mountains, and the chirping of crazy people in the parking lot.  We're all about free speech up here. You can say all that, even though some of it's "fightin' words", and we'll simply ask you to move to the sidewalk.

Instead of railing at students who couldn't care less and making them uncomfortable unnecessarily, why not work to change the conditions that created the problems you see? 

Oh, wait, you're a bigoted asswipe with an ego and a religion that doesn't actually care about people..

My bad.

Monday, May 16, 2016

No Bells - part two. Focus

I ran across an article: School Bells Interfere With Learning but unfortunately it has some points backwards. It misinterprets much of the what and why of bells and classes. Let me explain.
"... because we partition students into neat packages called subjects, they are implicitly taught that learning is something we do in compartments."
Actually, this is called focus (or uni-tasking) and we aren't partitioning the students at all. We're separating the subjects for three reasons: so the students can concentrate on one thing at a time, so that the most competent teachers for each subject can teach them and so the students don't have to have the exact same schedule of learning - each is able to specialize in his or her own way.

It's a NEW IDEA called differentiating.

Since students aren't going through the day in lockstep with all of their classmates, we must keep to a schedule so that everyone's time and preparation can be utilized most effectively.
If you try and introduce a little bit of another subject in your subject, students object, saying "This isn't English, Mr. Wees. Teach us Mathematics." (I've actually had students tell me that). Where in the real world is learning sectioned off like this?
Frankly, everywhere. Learning is always focused on one topic. When was the last time you attended a college class called "College Algebra and British Lit as used in Cobol programming?" Teaching at the elementary grades is cross-curricular by nature. The higher you rise, the more likely you're going to specialize. Not only is each student's course mix different but the levels are, too. One freshman may take Honors Algebra2, Spanish 3 and H.English but the other takes CP English, CPAlgebra1 and Spanish1.

Then, there's competence. I can teach Physics and any level of math, but I'd be fooling myself if I thought I could do Biology, History or Latin. I hate it when some other teachers try to teach math because they invariably screw up and I'm sure the English teachers would complain about my writing style. Even within a certification area, teachers have strengths and weaknesses. Some teachers are great with Geometry and others aren't.  Calculus is beyond many and some don't have the patience for pre-algebra or consumer math.
"Mathematics do English (and other languages) when they explain their discoveries to other people. Biologists use geography to decide where to start their research. All of what we learn is interconnected, and more of these connections need to made obvious to the students. This is not easy to do in a school with nine 45 minute separate blocks."
Ignoring the grammatical weirdness, this is the crux of his problem. Just because we are dealing with a vast interconnected world doesn't mean that the best way to learn is by studying the whole thing all at once. The connections cannot be made clear to students until the students understand the two (or more) things that are being connected.

There is also a huge difference between "learn" and "use." I use English to explain my thoughts on math but that doesn't mean I can teach English and it doesn't mean that mixing math and English will improve the learning of either. (Educational pundits went to school but that doesn't mean they know how to fix it, either, but I digress.)

The argument that connections can't be made in 45 minute blocks is precisely the reason many schools went to 90 blocks. Not that it helped anything.
"Maybe we should even rethink how we schedule kids, and consider other instructional models. There are schools where there are no bells, no classes like what you would see in a traditional school, just kids (and adults) learning."
I want a school with no classes.
Cliche alert! 

When will otherwise well-meaning people realize that the vast bulk of their students are not "natural students" who, "unlike themselves", have greater interest outside of the classroom than in?

There's a reason that these schools are few ... they don't work for most kids.

The "no bells, no classes" scenario ... there's also no learning. These schools are filled with the spoiled rotten children of money. In return for the kid's chance to pretend to learn, the schools pretend to give them an education, whitewashing over the fact that the kids have little interest in anything and school is below "nothing" on their lists.

The teachers think they're being "cutting edge" and "understanding" and the school is "so 21st century" that your head might burst from the fuzzy good feelings. I've seen this kind of school go straight into the tank. Fortunately for the kids, their parents have plenty of money because that education isn't cutting the mustard.

Those kids who can do the "unschooling" kind of thing are the ones who could pick up a "Perl for Dummies" book and teach themselves programming over the weekend. They also tend to have parents who take the place of the school.

Those aren't your kids. Or my students.

Work is Not the Enemy

Doesn’t it seem strange that we can have a shortage of skilled labor, a crumbling infrastructure, and 6% unemployment? How did we get into this fix? Are we lazy?

All around us, society has slowly redefined what it means to have a “good job.” The portrayals in Hollywood, and the messages from Madison Avenue have been unmistakable. “Work less and be happy!” For the last thirty years, we’ve been celebrating a different kind of work. We’ve been aspiring to other opportunities. We’ve stopped making things.

We’ve convinced ourselves that “good jobs” are the result of a four year degree. That’s bunk. Not all knowledge comes from college. Skill is back in demand. Steel toed boots are back in fashion. And Work is Not the Enemy.

(channeling Mike Rowe.)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

What's high school for?

In May of 2011, Seth Godin asked: What's high school for?

"Perhaps we could endeavor to teach our future the following:
  1. How to focus intently on a problem until it's solved.
  2. The benefit of postponing short-term satisfaction in exchange for long-term success.
  3. How to read critically.
  4. The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority.
  5. An understanding of the extraordinary power of the scientific method, in just about any situation or endeavor.
  6. How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.
  7. Project management. Self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people.
  8. Personal finance. Understanding the truth about money and debt and leverage.
  9. An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever.
  10. Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving.

Not a bad list, I suppose.  Goals, if you will. They're good goals, obviously, but if the Internet is any evidence, very little of this seems to be necessary to survive in America as an adult. To thrive is another matter.

You can make the case for each of these being necessary in the RealWorldtm, but how many am I responsible for and can they be taught? How many should a high school graduate be proficient at before setting off and can we as educators stop them if they haven't demonstrated each one?

The first one. "Focus intently".  Exactly how do I teach that except by setting consequences for not focusing intently enough, or for not solving a problem quickly enough? That seems wrong. Too many kids will quit under the pressure. We can talk "grit" all we want. We can add this into our ever-expanding list of "Transferable Skills" and demand proficiency. We can bluster and pontificate but the student who falls short through ADHD or a conflict with a teacher ...

Postponing short-term satisfaction for long-term gain is a laudable trait. Pretending to teach it and measure it is unworkable. This will be a "Yeah, check that box and move on" situation. I can see the rubric now:
Proficient with distinction: "Held off eating the marshmallow for thirty minutes before succumbing."
"Reading critically" is a phrase that sounds intelligent but falls short in practice. You cannot teach students how to read critically. You can tell them of tricks to reading but that stops being productive quickly. High school kids CAN read; what they need is the background knowledge and worldly experience to be able to tell which parts of that text are bullshit.  They need extensive science courses to refute the VERY compelling counter-arguments. It's difficult to counter anti-vaxxers, for example, if you don't understand biology, chemistry, and probability and statistics. It's difficult to convince them if you haven't got a good handle on psychology, too. Fools are so damned good at being fools.

Being able to "lead". I like that one. Expecting every teenager to lead, or even work collaboratively with peers, is a fool's mission though.  Few kids are competent at what they do - that's why they are learning. As I've said before, learning is not the time for collaboration. Working with already learned information is the time collaboration can happen. Beyond collaboration, leading, is not for every kid.

Understanding the scientific method is why we have them take science. Not my fault if Organized Religion seems to be actively fighting that every step of the way.

Understanding this leads to
understanding self-management.
Multiple-form presentation - definitely. First, though, the kid needs to know those various methods and know all the things he wants to talk about. That's why we teach them Foreign Languages, English, Science, History, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (FLESH TEAMS).

Project management - how much of this should we leave until after the foundation work is done? Science Fair is a great example of this. Give them the background, then have them experiment. I'm totally for doing science fair -- I think the parents do a wonderful job with those boards.

The expectation of universal self-management is a pipe dream for teenagers. There's a reason they're not allowed to rent a car, smoke cigarettes, take a pill without supervision, ... the works. They're learning self-management. College kids don't even have it yet. Hell, many adults don't have it yet. How much of society do you expect me to solve here?

Ah, yes. Consumer skills. Personal finance. The "Truth" about money. Kids know how many things work - and don't care about the rest yet. They get the idea of "I earn money. I save money. I spend it on rebuilding that 1959 Studebaker." Whenever my admin talks about "Consumer Skills", it's usually a stupid reaction to "Kids can't write a check" or "Look at the College Debt Crisis -- We need to teach them how to avoid that!"  I'm here to tell you they aren't that stupid ... and nobody understands how to make a amortization schedule, not even the bankers. 

"Life-long learner." What a meaningless cliché. All that aside, how exactly does one tell if a student is a life-long learner if he's only just beginning his life? Is that diploma retractable? Do we call him up in 30 years and send a repo squad for it if he hasn't learned something in the last ten weeks?

"Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving."  Bottom line, looking at every graduate I've shaken hands with as they walked back down the aisle,
If you give them a problem they NEED to solve, they'll be just fine.
I look at this list, and many like it, and I shudder when I think of the teachers who will be pushed into focusing on this at the expense of teaching content. You can't think critically without knowing something to think about. You can't teach many of these non-measurable skills (which doesn't make them unimportant) but unless you stop expecting teachers to measure the unmeasurable in order to provide accountability to those who have no idea what schools are supposed to do, you're only perpetuating the problems we face.

End of Rant. Thanks for reading.

I've got to get back to work.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ego of the Ignorant

Self-centered world-view ("I don't need it so neither do you.") coupled with ignorance of the many negative effects on those children who could have accomplished something.

It's the evil twin of "I don't DO math."

Having taught SATprep for many years, I can tell you that the English side of this test isn't very hard - and easier for adults than for teenagers who haven't had as much experience in literature nor the practice in writing. The math side does contain topics that are obscure if you aren't currently enrolled in Algebra II, so I can understand that part.

Tragic, really. What strikes me the most is that this was retweeted so much with comments like "You're my hero!" 

I call shenanigans.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

It's nearly time for graduation and you know what that means ... more bitching about grades and discipline and willful teenagers being allowed to walk with their class (or not). It's also time for everyone to comment on what the seniors are wearing beneath their robes. 

Did I say "seniors"? I meant "female seniors" because the boys wear a dark color and the girls wear white ... a white robe made of cheap satin and quite translucent. When a boy wears a black Batman t-shirt, no one can tell. If a girl wears anything other than a plain white t-shirt, the colors show right through. It's like that girl at the right wearing a blue striped shirt. If she dares to wear a colorful bra that shows around the straps of her halter top under the robe ... well, "That just won't do."

That's right, an all-covering robe isn't enough. If admin can see the bra strap or the pink Hello Kitty t-shirt through the cheap-ass fabric ... go change. Instead of simply ordering a better robe or letting the seniors choose which color to wear, admin decides to change tradition because of colored t-shirts.

"All seniors in the dark color."

By The Way, they forgot to mention this to the school board, community, parents, and until recently, the seniors themselves.

Now, I'm still okay with things at this point. Elegant solution to discrimination, clothing and dress code issues, blah, blah, blah. Those cheap white robes were terrible. If this had stopped there, I wouldn't be complaining, and neither would most everyone else.

White robes too clear = everyone go in dark color. Nobody would have given a damn.

See? Easy.
HOWEVER, when you are in a conservative and still very hide-bound and occasionally discriminatory school district, and are considering making a change to a long-time tradition such as the color of the graduation robes (decades-old tradition), the very last thing you should do as an admin is remark that it will also help you with the LBGT kids problem.

God dammit.

Now, instead of a simple sartorial decision, everyone starts looking around for someone to bitch at and about ... and so they did. Some blame the LGBT kids for forcing a change (they didn't); the old assholes are talking about how those damn LGBTs are so entitled (they aren't); how there's something wrong with them anyway; why can't they just accept the color we've chosen for them and be happy about it; we're not even comfortable with them in the ceremony anyway. Other seniors are adding to the pressure. You'd think the color white was more important than the diploma and we were still in the 1960s.


When are we gonna learn?