Sunday, January 19, 2014

Diane Ravitch and the Common Core

Diane Ravitch gave a speech criticizing the Common Core State Standards.  This isn't a surprise; it's sort of been her schtick since they started talking about them.  And the more I learn about them, the more I agree with her criticisms.

First, a starting position.  Writ large, I believe that all students can learn, and that a teacher's job is to help them do it.  All students can think at profound levels, they can analyze new information and evaluate arguments and all of those things.  At least at higher levels, they can think abstractly enough about their learning in order to realize that it doesn't matter what novel (or article or whatever) you're reading, the higher-order thinking skills can be applied equally well to anything.  Teachers can almost categorically up their game and encourage these skills.  A long checklist of standards does not lend itself to this sort of depth of knowledge, and so a shorter list of better standards would at least in theory be more helpful.

And for a long long time, we've written off as lost causes those students who can best benefit from really high-quality instruction techniques.  Students with learning disabilities can almost universally learn more stuff than what schools have historically taught them.  When school special ed support systems focus on what students CAN do, rather than what they can't, they can make huge progress.  This is not to suggest that high standards cure autism, but rather to suggest that autism doesn't make you incapable of learning.  The earlier high-stakes regime has meant that schools are no longer able to forget about its neediest students--ELLs, students with learning disabilities, students with behavioral problems, the gamut, are now held to the same standard as everyone else.  This should help focus intervention resources where they're most needed.

As Ravitch notes, though, there are real consequences to giving a test to a student when everybody knows that the student is going to "fail" it, particularly when the fault lies not in the students nor in the teacher but in the test.  The people who developed the standards were mostly not educators, and didnt' have a lot of experience in writing educational standards of this kind.  None of them were early-elementary educators, which seems like an utter miscarriage of common sense.  PreK through second grade is the time when schools can have the biggest positive (or negative) impact on a student's education.  To exclude those educators is to ignore the reality of the profession utterly.

Most damning of all, though, from an education view, is that there is no way to change these standards.  Our state standards were clunky, but it was possible to change them.  (In the case of the World Language standards, they were also written by a small committee of world-class teacher leaders, and even they managed to muck it up some.)  The English standards went through three drafts that I'm aware of between the time state-level standards began and the time the state adopted the Common Core.  But these--when we find out that there is no way to instruct first-graders on the deeper meaning of Stelaluna and the symbolism of the trees, to whom do we write to change them? 

The next 10 years is going to be an interesting time in education.  Watch this space for occasional not-particularly-insightful missives from the field.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A couple of stubs, possibly for futher consideration

1.)  Last night at the State of the State address, Gov. Snyder talked about expanding access to Pre-K.  Good.  Can we just make it universal in Michigan already?  He also talked about expanding the length of the school year.  Good.  I'll have some thoughts on what that might look like later.

2.)  They did an interview on NPR's "All Things Considered" today with an education reporter from New Orleans.  After Hurricane Katrina, 7500 teachers were fired en masse from the New Orleans Public School district.  They sued the district for wrongful termination and won, and were awarded in the process 2-3 years in back pay.  The numeric total was estimated at $1.5 billion, which would clearly bankrupt the school district and everyone attached to it.  90% of New Orleans's student population now attends a charter school, so who would pay this 1.5 bn is unclear.  This story is fascinating to me.

3.) To follow more closely: the International Journal for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.  Although I'm a little concerned that it's little more than a vanity project for TPRS teachers, it still has some of the biggest names in language acquisition theory publishing articles in it.  Those two facts together lend credence to TPRS.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Article dump

These three pieces have been in my tab for a while now, because there's a lot to think about in them.  During break, I didn't want to think about them, and now that shool's back on, I don't have time.

Applied linguistics: Carol Gaab, one of the pillars of the TPRS community, explains what it's all about in Language Magazine.  (h/t moretprs Yahoo! group)

Tech: Bring Your Own Tech by somebody who was doing it before it had a name. 

The Game of School: It's never a good idea to take teaching philosophy from stuff somebody's re-pinned.  But this was clever, and I thought bore deeper consideration. 



Saturday, November 2, 2013

Day of the Dead, National Novel Writing Month, and Krashen's bibliography

Today is the Day of the Dead, and I would be remiss if I didn't post this.  It's a beautiful little story that illustrates effectively the sense of exuberance of many Day of the Dead celebrations, a concept that some Americans struggle to understand. 

It's also National Novel Writing Month, which means I'm going to take a swing at writing one of my novels again.  I wrote 576 words yesterday, and so far this morning, I've written another 406.  Both of these are pretty far off of the 1200 daily average one needs to hit the target 50,000 by the end of the month, but I'll make it!  I'm pretty sure I know where the story goes next. 

Stephen Krashen just posted a bibliography to the moreTPRS listserv.  It is a collection of a whole lot of studies done in the last 50 years, comparing the effectiveness of implicit language learning versus explicit language learning.  I post it here mostly so I can find it again.  If I ever end up getting a doctorate in language acquisition, this is probably where my reading will begin.

SKrashen: Evidence that "implicit learning" (subconscious language acquisition) results in L1-like brain processing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gen Y Yuppies and happiness

A friend of mine put on Facebook an article called "Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy."  It's from Wait but Why, a blog I've never read before, so I don't really know what the author's (or authors') angle is.  As a representative of Generation Y (as defined by this guy--I always thought I was a GenXer) who is generally pretty pleased with myself, I thought I'd see what the buzz is.

Without stealing the guy's thunder, he makes the generalization that a person's happiness is the difference between how they expect their life to go and how it actually goes.  The lives of people of my age or younger have turned out to be much more difficult than we expected them to be.  He places responsibility for this on our unrealistic expectations, caused by a ridiculously successful period with the Baby Boomers.  Also, we all think we're special.

I make it a point not to read the comments of non-education-themed blog, but I suspect I wouldn't have to go far down before somebody blames public schools for the destructive "I'm special" idea that everybody 35 and younger supposedly has.  "Can you believe they give ribbons to everybody at track and field day?"  "Everybody has to be recognized, so nobody gets any attention."  And so on.  I suspect strongly that this straw man I've chosen to attack would like the alternative even less.  The alternative is schools (public and otherwise) choosing who is special and who isn't.  And, honestly, if there's one thing we've demonstrated beyond any doubt, it's that we're no good at predicting who's going to be successful.  It's true that not everyone is "special," as the author defines it.  It's equally true that anybody could be, and it's not my job to tell someone they're not.

So I'll keep making sure that every kid in my room gets caught doing well once every two weeks and preparing them as best I can for a world that doesn't care how clever their memes are.

PD The blog in question is hosted on, which strongly suggests that the author himself is a Gen Y Yuppie.  For what it's worth.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wherein I try to write about everything, and it doesn't go so well

The beginning of the school year is off to a banging start.  I felt better prepared than I ever have.  As always, sequencing a curriculum is a marathon, but I feel like I've gotten a better start off the line than in previous years.  More interestingly, the path forward is pretty clear.  It's almost...too easy.  All it takes is a committment to do the work and the time to do it. 

Last year, I ran the after-school homework make-up program.  We're continuing that program this year, even though a number of important teachers on our crew are still dubious about its value in their own teaching.  The middle school teachers seem to be taking advantage of it, as are the language arts teachers.  We've made some changes this year to make the "mandatory" part of the assignment more mandatory.  If you don't come to an assigned ASAP, it's a day of in-school suspension, just like it would be if you skipped a detention.  That hasn't changed.  But this year, if you don't finish your work in the Tuesday session, you automatically go to the Thursday session.  If you don't finish your work in the Thursday session, you spend lunch and your non-core classes in the office on Friday.  We'll see how that goes. 

The big difference is that this year, I probably won't be running the program.  We have an exchange student who speaks very little English--so little English, it was difficult to explain that I want to help her.  Because I only have so many hours in a day to do things that are not my job, I have to pick between the two.  Exchange students are supposed to come to our country with a certain level of English language competence.  I don't think this girl has anything close to that.  The school isn't responsible for giving it to her, but I know what it's like to be far from home with no idea what the people around me are saying--and she is in a MUCH worse state than I was when I went to Spain.  So I'll see how much English I can cram down her throat in 2 hours a week.  In that time, we'll do some English language training and as much homework tutoring as I can give her.  This is not going to end well, but nobody will be able to say I didn't try.  Of course, maybe that's what she's thinking, too.

The political climate for educators has not gotten any worse for teachers in the last four months, but then, it's hard to imagine how it could have.  The legislature made some silly choices last session that are just now starting to pay out--making mandatory the Pledge of Allegiance, for example--but they haven't done anything to make things worse.  They won't fund Common Core implementation, so the biggest reform in education since NCLB (and probably since a lot longer before that) will have to be paid for out of schools' general funds.  It's a good thing teachers are grossly overpaid, because schools won't be able to afford raises for a long time.  The state appointed a board to pick a singe state-wide teacher evaluation tool.  I like their short list--the usual suspects appear, Danielson, Marzano, a few others I don't remember right now--but I have no faith that the system will be implemented with fidelity.  Most especially, I don't trust that the evaluations will be used to improve teacher practice, and not to "hold bad teachers accountable" (read: fire people the administrators don't like).  (As a sidebar: I've also had conversations with other crew members about a teacher-driven model of evaluation and training, but in the current environment, too many of them feel like they would be training their competitors.)  Well, also most especially, I don't trust that the state will adequately fund the training and implementation procedures.  

How's TPRS going?  Pretty well, all things considered.  I'm now good enough to know I wish I were better at it--I feel like I could be moving things along a little bit faster, if I knew how to keep things interesting.  I'm now answering questions on the listserv, instead of just asking them (or, more frequently, anxiously reading the answers of people who ask the questions I'm not smart enough to).  For the first time, I'm going to have a regular homework assignment, because I'm confident enough in my in-class assignments to worry about what the students are doing when I can't see them.  I've internalized the standards enough that I can incorporate them into a lesson nearly on the fly, and if my paperwork isn't all in order, it's actually well on its way. 

The school's PBiS program seems like it's off to a good beginning.  We had all of our lesson plans written, and from my observations, they went off pretty well.  The proof is in the pudding, though.  Everybody knows what they're expected to do; now we'll encourage them to do it.  We have some pretty exciting possibilities for prizes.  Last year nothing jelled.  Here's hoping this year it goes better.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Best school comic strips

From the imcomparable Larry Ferlazzo.

More later.