Thursday, December 29, 2016

Beginning teachers need to learn to teach.

Teaching's a profession. Like all professions, it takes training ... and practice. This practice can't be found in a Wheaties Box and it's can't be found on Twitter.

To be a teacher, you need to be an intern, an apprentice, a beginning teacher. In the beginning you need to get help and guidance from experienced teachers. You may be smart and may have gotten good grades in college/high school, but that doesn't mean you can teach.
  1. Your "digital native" status is not even worth the paper it isn't printed on.
  2. Your youth is worth nothing (and for a while, you'll be paid accordingly).
  3. Your opinions about how to teach are worth pretty close to nothing.
You'll have to learn from the older teachers. They didn't learn math using a MacBook nor do they Tweet every random thought, but that doesn't mean that those older teachers don't have a lot to offer. Some of us are hidebound, curmudgeonly old bastards, but you must learn to look past that and filter out the years of accumulated irritation at Professional Development.

Six weeks in summer camp can't replace six months of teaching actual teenagers under the supervision of an experienced teacher, nor will those six weeks ever prepare you in any meaningful way. On the other hand, there are plenty of people in TFA who MIGHT make good teachers someday.

Vilification is just as silly as beatification. The problem I have with TFA is the tendency to assume sainthood of someone who is treating two years in public school as temporary thing, as if some court sentenced them to 2 years of community service for the crime of not acquiring a 6-figure income job.

Now that you're a teacher ...

This profession is unbelievably screwed up in many ways and we're going to need you to keep it together long enough to pick up on the difference between stupid shit that sounds good (a "deepity") and good ideas that sound stupid at first.

You'll see both kinds.

From whence, "Deepity"?

We (and by this, I mean people who make decisions and influence school boards) listen to the opinions of people who haven't ever been teachers. We take seriously the suggestions and complaints from CEOs and computer wizards who couldn't be bothered to finish their own education. We listen to Andre Agassi's opinions about the ideal school and take him seriously when he says he wants to start a school and he knows what works with kids and how teachers should teach ... except that he quit school in the ninth grade and turned tennis pro at the age of 16. His father was supposed drive the kids to school but took them to local tennis courts to practice instead. How is this supposed to instill confidence in his opinions about how schools should be run for the majority?

Here's a talking head:
“Both sides ignore this fact: The classroom performance of beginning Teach For America instructors is about the same as that of education school graduates just starting out. On average, both do poorly. More supervision and support would help both groups. How does aggravating the feud make that happen?”
Let's set aside the idea that more Supervision would help because Supervision never helps a first-year teacher. Help and support from other teachers would help.  Supervision does nothing.

What scares me is the idea that this starting incompetence is the norm, that the classroom performance of TFA teachers equals that of "education school graduates" ... if that isn't an insult to the TFA, then someone's not paying attention.  TFA are supposedly the best and brightest of the Ivy Leagues and the top-notch colleges. Shouldn't we be striving for a level of competence higher than that of the people who failed out of every other program in college, that of those who were so bad at everything they settled for an education degree?

Scott MacLeod, in MindDump, quoted this guy, who said, in part,
re: “Let’s-find-and-fire-the-bad-teachers”
The problem with the approach that Friedman and others advocate is that it assumes we have all these wonderful, high-quality teachers just waiting in the wings to take over the jobs of the bad teachers we fire. In reality, there is no such supply, even in a bad economy with high unemployment. We have a shortage, not a surplus, of great teachers—and so it’s naïve or shortsighted (or both) to think we can somehow fire our way to a great educational system.
This is true. If you fire someone in the middle of the school year, there aren't all that many applicants that are worth even as much as  John Garner's assessment of the Vice-Presidency. Your ad on SchoolSpring will get a lot of response because it's really easy to push that button, but the candidates' qualifications will be dubious at best.
There are almost four million K-12 teachers in the United States, which is more than twice the number of lawyers and doctors combined. Teaching is America’s largest profession. And so we need teaching to be a job that an average person can do reasonably well, which means we probably need to rethink how the job is structured. ( Justin Snider )
Holy mackerel.

"Change teaching so that the average person can do it well." Why not improve it, instead? Why do we care what some economists have found and what some random blogger says about it?

"If the teachers can't measure up, then we must measure down."

I can't accept that.  We need more teachers than lawyers and doctors because those two professions aren't needed by a third of the population for 7 hours a day for ten months of the year.

Where do you come in, newbie?

You come in right here. You read things. If you've read this far, you'll probably make a great teacher.

How to be a Math Coach

As a long response to Math on the Edge, I have a few questions for prospective and current math coaches. Hereafter, I will use the words "we" or "us" to refer to me and/or to the "teachers who you plan to coach".

Here are nine questions. If you can't answer "Yes" to at least one of these nine questions, then you have no business being a "coach".

Subject Matter Knowledge:
  1. Do you know more about math in general than we do?
  2. Do you know more than we do about a specific topic in our subject?
  3. Have you done research in our field that would prove useful to us in the classroom - a new understanding, a new meaning?
  4. Have you spent time creating content that other math teachers have found useful?

Relevant Experience
  1. Do you have experience (that we do not have) teaching our subject at the grade levels we teach?
  2. Do you have significant experience teaching our subject at any grade level?
 Teaching Techniques
  1. Do you know teaching techniques that we do not - new ideas that we could learn from and improve with? Theoretical knowledge is useful.
  2. Do you have a lot of experience teaching anything at any level - experience that might inform someone in a completely different situation? Practical knowledge is useful, too.
  3. Have you done research into teaching that would prove useful to us in the classroom -- cognitive research into children's learning or a change in the philosophy of classroom management or the use of a new technology that makes a true difference -- to the extent that you know this work, know what we might do to improve?
"Yes" to any one of these? Great. If not, don't expect that any of the people you are pretending to "coach" will take you seriously.

If you said "No" to all of that, you are not a coach ... you are an intern and I am coaching you.  I may learn a lot from you, but only as a test subject or a guinea pig in my experiment.

Coaches teach their teams, guide their teams, or at least pressure them into doing things in a certain way together. These people make the team successful, improve the team. If they don't, they're fired. If this isn't what you think you're doing, don't call yourself a coach.

For 1 - 4.
I enjoy talking to, and working with, people who know more than I do about a topic. My education was in engineering, not in pure mathematics and not in secondary teaching. It is refreshing to have Mike Olinick in to give a cryptography lecture to an auditorium full of high schoolers or Jeff Suzuki to give one on an important aspect in math history.  If I could convince Don Steward to fly over and work with us, that would be very cool. Dan Meyer's a good speaker and a good coach and he has ideas that resonate. These people all have something in common: they've worked with math in ways I haven't. I can learn from them and others like them. Even if their contribution is a different way to work with math, like Fawn Nguyen's Number Talks, or - these are people from whom we can learn.

If you haven't worked with math in ways that I haven't, if you don't bring anything new to the table, if you aren't improving our/your instruction in SOME way, then you have to be outstanding in some other way.

For 5-6:
If you don't have any experience, what can you offer me? What are you basing your "coaching" on if you have never done any teaching yourself? The bar is higher for you because my field is so very different and my difficulties and problems are not solved by amateurs and dilettantes.

What do you base your "advice" on, if your sole experience is teaching a existentialism course at a small New England prep school? Your research? Your work as a content aggregator? Your charming personality? If your opinion contradicts my own experience, then you need to really convince me that you aren't just another blithering idiot on the Internet.

For 7-9:
If you can't say WHY your new idea/technique is a good one, then I'm not going to take your word for it. I might implement it in my classes but only after considering how the change will play out, what I might do to measure its effectiveness, or at the very least consider how the class is currently running so I have a clear and concise memory to compare the "after" version to.

If all you have is a "yes" in 7-9, then you're gonna need your research, your "proof" or at least a damned good explanation. I want to see that your research/evidence applies to my discipline and my grade levels. Don't tell me that I need to change my HS math classes based on research done on K-2 students. I look very skeptically on any statistics that include Singapore and Hong Kong, or Finland and Norway.

I understand that I am not completely up-to-date on everything to do with teaching. I'm using technology a lot, in some very interesting ways, and my students are doing things I'd never imagined in the 80s and 90s. I read others in the #MTBoS and I travel quite a bit to hear them speak. But I know there's a lot going on out there and I'm in the middle of a very poor section of a tiny state.

SO, if you're going to come into my classroom and tell me to change, for example, to Proficiency-Based Grading, then you had better understand it yourself. If you are going to tell us to re-imagine our teaching in a certain way, then you NEED to be competent in its variations and minutia.

If not, then you're not a coach, you're a pain in the ass.

DO NOT do as our curriculum coordinator did: raise up a book at the first *weekly* in-service (2.5 hours each) and announce that you had just read this idea in this book and you think we all should do it. If you haven't been trained in ThisWork, haven't done any work in or research in ThisWork and your only teaching experience is as a less than stellar elementary teacher whose "specialty" was social studies ... then you shouldn't be a math coach.

DO NOT speak to a faculty meeting and say, "I don't know anything about what you're doing but I've just been hired for this new job to help you with your teaching. Here is a list of topics that I can help you with by *Googling* them for you", which is what two fresh new admin did.

DO NOT insist that teachers adhere to the practices of your 4th grade classroom when you are attempting to "coach" us in these new ideas that you don't particularly understand. We're all adults and most of us have master's degrees and we average 15-20 years of experience in our fields, some of us more than 40. You're not being cute. You're not being clever. You're being a pain in the ass.

DO NOT walk in and say "I'm the Math Coach" and proceed to tell us nothing new, even going so far as to use material from *my own website* in your presentation (true story).

I could continue but I've got to get back to work.

Bring something to the table or GTFO.

Monday, December 26, 2016

New Year, Same as the Old year

From Poor Elijah:
We raise academic standards on paper even as we’re compelled by policies and pressured by politics to lower them in reality. We crow about “standards-based” grading, as if teachers will miraculously agree about what “proficient” means more than we now agree about what a B means. Our “objective” scoring rubrics rest on the distinction between sentences that “wander” and those that “meander.” Advanced placement is less advanced, and everybody takes algebra, even if it isn’t really algebra anymore.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

End-of-Year Testing

(I started this article several years ago. Just getting around to editing and publishing these drafts.)

I love the idea of End-of-Year testing in a purely hypothetical sense. Students should be able to demonstrate what they've learned. The teacher doesn't grade it or write it. The students can't weasel out of it. A group of math people decide what "Algebra I" should entail and write some questions to measure it.

The test is never perfect, as NY teachers will hurry to emphasize, but it is out of the hands of the teacher and that is good. We should not be afraid to let our students measure themselves against a common standard and we should be open to change if the unexpected happens. SATs serve this purpose as well.

Differences between what you expect them to get and what they get are the prime indicator. If your grades are all As and your kids can't succeed in appropriate tests, then you need to review what you are doing. If the majority of kids can't succeed on an EOY exam, then you the teacher needs to make a determination: is it the individuals, the exam, the curriculum, or me? If you are passing kids and the next teacher isn't, someone might need to adjust.

In theory, EOY exams should be perfect for this - it's just too bad that they'll be useless for it.

not linear.
The State of Oklahoma requires these tests and they will *attempt* to write them to be an honest assessment of the skills that should have been acquired in any particular course. Just like Texas, just like New York Regents.

What will happen is that End of Year testing, like WilyECoyote, is going to run full-speed into the Cliffs of Reality. The "passing" score will be set to 60%, then too many kids fail so it's quietly lowered to 45%, or 35%, or lower. If enough people still can't pass the test, the cut-score will be lowered again. Or you wind up with the weird raw score conversion charts of the NY Regents (right).

So ... is it poor preparation and teaching or poor test-making?

The graph that's been misunderstood
by admin everywhere.
Or could it be that the test is trying to apply the "Higher Standards" that everyone is crowing about? You know the trope: "Raising the Bar improves performance."

Unfortunate reality #1: If you raise the standard, more people will fail to reach it.
Unfortunate reality #2: Calculus kids do better on their SATs than Algebra I students. Selection bias. Duh.

What should we do?

Avoiding all EoC testing is silly. Pretending that some "3-week portfolio question is demonstrably superior" is the canard put forth by all those people who have never watched or judged a science fair. Individual teacher-written final exams are suspect because of quality-control issues and because of grading irregularities. Department-wide final exams are probably the best unless your state has Mr Honner holding your Regents exams to account, in which case, go with the Regents.

Unless your school just voted to eliminate all finals in light of the transition to Proficiency-Based Grading, but that's another post for another day.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


Does applying hard deadlines really make students learn to meet deadlines? 10 points off for each day late? Or does it just give an excuse to the procrastinator (or the kid who knows he's not that good at the task) that he is no longer responsible for the low grade?

Is our Calvinistic work ethic really a good thing here? Has anyone really considered its effect on the students and the climate of the school?

For all of those who so desperately want deadlines, let me propose one ... set yourself a deadline and then pay $10 per student per day late returning those essays.

end broadside ...

Here's what I feel works better:

Set a deadline if you have to, one that makes sense. Set it for Friday if you REALLY plan to grade over the weekend. If you're going to procrastinate, don't get on their case for it. Taking points off for lateness doesn't make your assessment of the work any more accurate. Grade the work and the lateness separately.

You can certainly set a deadline but be reasonable about it. Allow a kid to hand it to you as you walk out the door - the fumbling and muttering will make him feel bad enough - and you'll probably give him time to proofread and print it.  Maybe he's just yanking your chain, but perhaps he's not.

"Here's how well you did" is far more powerful when you are discussing the work itself. 

"Okay, give it to me tomorrow morning so I can look at it first period and get it back to you" may occasionally be taken as a sign of weakness and an excuse to persist in tardiness ... but far more often, it is a sign that you want good work rather than hasty work.

And it's a policy that fits much better with Proficiency-Based Grading.

Customer Service

Customer: “Excuse me.”
Me: “Can I help you?”
Customer: “I’m trying to return this orange juice.”
Me: “What seems to be the problem?”
Customer: “It’s brown.”
Me: “Oh, wow. When did you purchase it?”
Customer: “The 19th of this month.” *hands me her receipt*
Me: “Miss, this receipt says you purchased this orange juice on the 19th of last year. You bought this 367 days ago.”
Customer: “Yes, and it’s gone brown. I’d like a refund.”
Me: “Did it not occur to you that orange juice would expire over the course of the year?”
Customer: “I thought if I waited until the 19th of the month again, it would be okay.”

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Attendance Follies

Lunch - students can be anywhere: gym, cafeteria, wandering outside, playing long-toss on the grass, teacher's classroom, library meeting. They decide, they go. No problem. Nobody takes attendance, duty teachers simply pay attention.

Next is a student-driven tutorial time (they decide their schedule and which teacher they'll go to).

"We have to take attendance for this study hall/tutorial time! Panic! Here's a roster! Here's a second roster! Find each name in three different locations, mark absent or present in two others."

Of course, right after this, attendance is taken in their next class.

Exactly why are we panicking over the one time period but not the other? What all-fired difference does it make anyway? This is a student-driven tutorial time anyway.


I've got to get back to work.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

SAT Prep Course, part C Resources

Resources are in the Dropbox Folder:

I've sorted through and organized a bit.  Everything is in PDF form. Some are from a test prep company that shall remain nameless; I tore apart the book and scanned it. Some are from another test prep book from 25 years ago, long out-of-print, also scanned. Other material has been cribbed from my math tests from various classes and mixed with problems from whatever source I ran across. Your value may vary. The practice tests are from ETS.

  • Because you may need to go back this far. I know that many mistakes are made here -- any students who scored below 500 should renew their acquaintance with this material. This is fractions, and percents, and ratios, and which is bigger. 
  • A collection of questions based on the newest category (The Heart of Algebra), as well as Algebra I papers, practice sheets and other questions.  I was surprised at the number of questions in the Practice tests that directly required writing equations to find a scenario, or writing systems of equations and solving them.
  • The amount of Geometry in the test has decreased significantly from the 2014-style tests to the 2016-style tests. There still some, so we need to review it, but the focus has shifted to Algebra.
Practice Tests from the ETS.
  • Placed here for convenience. You could have downloaded them yourself, but Dropbox allows you to get a whole folder. So there's that.
Further notes, cautionary lectures and other miscellaneous materials will be placed in the main folder after July 4th.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

SAT Prep Course B, Topics

I spent some time looking over the sample test and "sorting" by topic (or Proficiency, if you will). This list will morph a bit as ETS reacts to to results of the first few administrations, but it feels very much like it always has, with some updates.

My philosophy is to move from the obvious and the simple to the complex and multi-stage in each topic. Level one questions through level 4: "Easy", "Medium", "Hard", "Ignore Unless".

If the students are answering easily, jump to later questions. If they screw up, add in more scaffolding. Everything I do in SATPrep has already been "taught" - I provide the review and some test-taking strategies that are specific to the SAT. I also believe in using the old ETS question-type of Quantitative Comparisons as they provide a great opportunity to have good Number Theory discussions.

Here, then, is what I see:
(Please add anything in comments)

  1. compound fractions, mental math.
  2. rate, ratio, proportions 
  3. percents and decimals
  4. Pythagorean Theorem
  5. Pure Radicals ( √300 = 10√3)
  6. Stats: five-number summary, central tendency & number theory.
  1. linear functions
  2. scatterplots w/ writing equations
  3. inequalities
  4. linear systems - all three methods
  5. bar graphs, line graphs, odd choices for independent/dependent, other graphical interpretation. These are now included in the reading section.
  6. stats (mostly central tendency) and probability
  7. functions and function notation
  8. quadratics and complex numbers
  9. late algebra 2: rational, radical, polynomial functions
  1. Lines and angles
  2. Similarity (proportions, part-part or part-whole) and Congruence
  3. Right triangle trig
  4. Circles
  5. 3d shapes
  6. Pythagorean Theorem, radicals ( √300 = 10√3) as used in geometric questions
  1. Grammar - common grammatical errors. These are fun.
  2. Graphical Interpretation for the math that has been mixed in with the Reading
  3. Vocabulary - Latin and Greek, looking for patterns.
  4. Essays types - more about rejecting English class writing in favor of brutally efficient five-paragraph format.
  5. Reading non-fiction for content and vocab rather than talking skills
There is no teaching of reading skills at this level, only exposure to more reading. I assign essays, research, and articles written by college professors, scientists and other intelligent writers. "The Median Isn't the Message" by Steven Jay Gould, for example. In choosing, I look for complex sentence structure, dense thoughts, broad vocabulary and a willingness to assume the reader has a brain.

Next: some of the worksheets and problem sets.
This may take a few days because I want to wrangle things and rename files.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

SAT Prep Course A, the Set-up

So, you've been allowed to create an SAT Prep Course (or assigned one). What now? Pat yourself on the back and be ready for a wild ride.

The first thing in your planning is to eliminate the idea that this will be a math class, taught like any other math class, made up of students who resemble a typical math class.

If your assignment is anything like mine have been over the years, you will have an incredible mash of abilities and a mandate to "Do something".  In no other mathematics scenario will you get a math class with honors pre-calculus students and informal geometry students at the same time. In one sense, this is a recipe for disaster. It can be managed, however.

To start with, your students will all suck at math. (No, really!) Even the best ones have forgotten the most basic ideas. √300 = 10√3 - what magic is this? Proportions and fractions - who knew?

Your goal is to teach everything from pre-algebra to pre-calculus in one-half a credit ... partly by "quick reminders" and 10 question quizzes, and mostly by a thorough cleaning-out of all the topics the test won't cover ... and they don't cover a lot.

Of necessity, the tests are very predictable in their choices of topic and question. They are predictable in their style. This is what makes them good comparisons from year-to-year.

It is at this point that many people pooh-pooh standardized tests and decry the amount of time spent preparing for them and wringing hands over the lack of engagement ... fuck that.  You need to be on-board with testing, just this once.

You need to be encouraging and instill a sense of us vs them, us vs the test-makers.  This is a competition between your students and some question makers ... and your students can win this thing.

Yes, the test is biased against black, Latinos, poor people -- so what? They still need to win this game. Yes, testing is bad, but rebelling against the system is stupid because it doesn't make you better at testing, or at taking the SAT.  "If you aren't taking the SAT, why are you here?"

Yes, this is taking time, which is why your school isn't asking the actual core courses to include this stuff.

I can tell you which questions are easy or difficult, and why, without seeing the test. By the end of your first week, so will your students.

Finally, this is not a math test, nor is it an English test. It can be manipulated and out-thought.  The essay isn't meant to be graded by your kindly, old Dr. Phillpots, chairman of the SHS English department, and 35-year veteran teacher. It will be read by (maybe) college graduate, or high school graduate, earning $10 per hour, given 45 seconds for each one. All of the math test will be scored by a machine.

Fortify yourself. Your new Prep course will run against everything you think of as a typical HS math or English course. Repeat the mantras,
  • "Us vs Them". 
  • "It's not a math class, it's a prep class." 
  • "We won't cover everything. We are reviewing (and maybe filling in a few holes). You've already taken Geometry."
  • It's scored on a curve."
  • "We're always looking for improvement."
  • "The course is pass-fail. The test is a number in search of an improvement."
So let's get going. Action Step One:

Get the four sample tests and scoring guides and answer sheets from (make an account, if you have to) on the practice test page. Take the first test and read through each section carefully; familiarize yourself with the general type of question, seeming difficulty, topic. This will help you understand what I'm talking about when we discuss things further.
 You should start with reading the sample test through from start to finish. This is NOT the test you took when you took an SAT before applying to college. The format is different, the pacing is different, the topics are slightly different and more advanced, and the resources that your students will have access to are immensely different.

If you want to take it yourself as a refresher, feel free. Download, print, and go. Follow the directions and stick to the posted times.

I'll check back in again in a couple of days.

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?