Friday, January 23, 2015

The bilingual "advantage"

The bilingual advantage is a theory (I guess, actually a hypothesis) that states that the brains of bilingual children develop differently.  Specifically, it suggests that multilingual children are better at task-switching (going from one kind of thinking activity to another) and executive function (the ability to manage higher-order thinking skills). 

A researcher analyzed the working drafts of 13 years of conference presentations and finds that this advantage might be over-stated. I read about it in the New Yorker.

I have always been of the opinion that the advantage of speaking another language is your ability to speak another language.  I'm not embarassed to say that I've talked about bilingual advantage (the neurological theory) to sell Spanish classes and other programs to decision-makers.  It seems I'll have to take this new research under consideration.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A brief note

On the subject of solving someone else's problems 
in order to 
Avoid working on my own

A friend posted this article stub on another social media site.  The central thesis is that putting recess before lunch time increases students' consumption of fruits and vegetables by 50%, and it does it by increasing the number of students who eat them by 45%.  This is important because it means the kid who normally eats a banana isn't all of a sudden eating 3 of them. 

This led me to wonder why every school doesn't do it, so I asked my friend.  She said that in her school, students spend so long in line that they don't really have time to eat AND play.  One of her friends said that in another school, recess IS before lunch, but the total time is 30 minutes.  This makes it sublimely difficult to eat enough food.

I started thinking about lines then, and how one might speed up the movement of lines full of kindergarteners.  A quick Google search--"how to speed up lines"--mostly led to solutions dealing with writing concise computer code.  Changing the word "lines" to "queues" meant the results were all about networking.

It was about this time I realized that I was doing this as a deliberate strategy to avoid thinking about my own classroom management difficulties.  So, in order to stop procrastinating, I wrote a blog post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Various items

0.) I have not reflected, in public, at all about my job change or my shift to a younger grade.  I'm still surviving some parts of it, so I haven't really wanted to bare my soul too much.

1.) My principal sent us a PDF from the state talking about Michigan's new state exam.  Among other things, it's going to take pretty much all of the school year after Tax Day.  More importantly, though, they decided to use the bulk of their test questions from Smarter Balanced.  This is noteworthy because:
a.) The state Legislature adopted the Smarter Balanced assessment, until
b.) a bunch of anti-school activists (who don't care what the standards are, they don't like them) made it look like a federal power grab, which caused
c.) every Republican-run state legislature in the country take a "second look" at the standards.  In Michigan that meant
d.) delaying implementation of Smarter Balanced by a year,
i.)leaving schools and teachers who have been gearing up for this change for three years in the lurch,
ii.) with no information about how schools were going to be evaluated during the 2014-15 school year, 
iii.) while the State Board of Education solicited bids from competitors,
iv.) which we're all pretty certain is going to result in Michigan implementing the Smarter Balanced test.
So, in order to avoid implementing the Smarter Balanced test, the state has made an ad-hoc test which is almost entirely made up of the Smarter Balanced test.  Bravos, muchachos.  Muy bien hecho.

2.) On a lighter note, the moreTPRS listserv pointed me in the direction of "A Child's Guide to Language," a documentary about how kids learn languages.  It can be found in chapters on Youtube here.  This could be something I show to parents on Parent Teacher night.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

1 month reflection


"Implementing TPRS in the Elementary School"


Three weeks into the school year, I switched districts and levels.  For the past 4 years, I've taught 7-12 Spanish.  (I also taught a couple years of English, and this year, we started offering Spanish to 6th graders.)  Before that, I taught K-12 Spanish, and it's fair to say that for at least the first two years, my elementary school methodology was an utter disaster.  I got the hang of it after a while, I think, so that if the little ones weren't learning as much as they could have, they at least weren't wasting their time.


This year, everything about my teaching is better than it was the last time I taught elementary school.
1.) Learning goals.  I understand what learning goals are.  I used to think I did, but I didn't.  I understand the difference between learning goals and learning activities.  Most importantly, I understand their use and their limitations in second-language classrooms.
2.) Classroom management.  I am a much better classroom manager than I was, I think.  We spend much more time learning Spanish now than we used to, and it's much less about control and much more about creating community.  I also know just how deficient I still am in this area, which makes me shudder to think of how bad I used to be.
3.) Curriculum.   I know much much better what students should learn in order to be successful at a language, and I understand much much better how well they're supposed to know it.  This began when I stopped using textbooks as a curriculum map, and continued when I learned about using word frequency counts as curriculum guide.
4.) Instruction.  The quality of instruction is much higher.  It's both more engaging and more effective.  Not only are learners engaged and contributing, the instruction is hitting them, as it were, where they live, by doing the things that need doing to learn a language. .  Students can learn about language the way I used to do it, as is evidenced by the fact that some of them managed to do so.  But it turns out that it was far from the best way.
5.) Assessment.  While I'm back to a curriculum that focuses on assessing a fairly arbitrary vocabulary set, it's a much higher-quality assessment of the arbitrary vocabulary set.  At least as importantly, I know how to get the information I actually need from those assessments.
6.) Intervention.  Language intervention was always sort of a tricky subject for me.  I'm not a reading specialist, and frankly, anything I've learned about language acquisition I learned through some mechanism other than my teacher training (at least, until about 3 years ago.)  But now I understand a little bit better how students (especially young students) learn language, and by extension I understand a little bit better why they might not be learning.  This suggests some of the ways I can identify and support students who are having trouble.  It also suggests ways of shaping instruction so as to avoid those troubles to begin with.

Current status:

The basis of my instruction is to use Spanish in a comprehensible way that students find interesting.  Everything else is at best extra or at worse a waste of time.  Dr. Krashen goes so far as to say that "interesting" isn't enough; it needs to be compelling, so compelling the students forget they're listening to another language.  After you have their interest, repeat high-frequency vocabulary until your students are fluent with it.  Fluency means that, when you ask a student actor a question, s/he answers correctly without hesitation.  (This definition comes from Blaine Ray, one of the creators and main propagators of the TPRS method I use.)

Of course, elementary school students are a different breed.  I teach up to 4th grade, and last month I taught 6th grade.  I'm here to tell you there's a lot of learning that goes on in those 2 years.  However, so far, it's played pretty well to the 2nd graders and up.  They're interested in the stories, they want to see what happens next.  I'm using enough of their own cultural references that they're getting it.

 But kindergarteners? Fuggedaboudit.  What are kindergarteners even interested in? 

In my head, my stories are varied enough in form and content to hold attention.  However, kindergarteners' attention spans are really short.  Maximum attention spans, common wisdom goes, equals students's age + 1.  That means most kindergarteners, at the beginning of the school year, can pay attention maybe 6 or 7 minutes.  In a 30-minute class, that means changing activities 5 times. 

I'm really going back to fundamentals here.  I can provide comprehensible input that young learners find compelling, and change activities 5 times in 30 minutes.  In fact, it isn't hard; it just takes--surprise--preparation, a focus on what works.  I'm not hurting anybody, nobody's going to be dumber after I teach them Spanish, so I can slow down, do this right, and make sure I'm doing what kids need me to do. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A veteran teacher shadows a student

OK, so the co-author of Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins, has a blog.  (And there goes any free time I once had.)  My friend Jamie points me in the direction of this post.  (By the way, Jamie, you may or may not have known that the owner of that blog is a big juju guy in the education reform [in the right way] world.) 

A veteran shadows 2 students for 2 days--a sobering lesson learned

This is a valuable reflection from the perspective of an administrator.   The key take-aways are breathtaking in their directness, and she has a number of immediately applicable suggestions to improve the daily experience of students.  (It's fairly gratifying to me that a number of her takeaways are things I already try to do.) 

One of the most interesting points here is where she asks her student if the student would be missed.  The student laughed at that prospect.  While I like to think that I make my students feel welcome, I don't know if I'd make them feel like they'd be missed.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Digital tools for a busy Spanish teacher

All of these are off the various listservs I subscribe to. 

Spanish listening: .  Offers videos of native speakers speaking, followed by short comprehension quizzes afterwards.  It could be a good source of comprehensible input.  Some sorting and pre-viewing might be necessary. 

Cuentos en Powerpoint  The website's target audience is pre-school aged native language learners.  It contains a large number of stories in PowerPoint format, which might be a good alternative to a classroom set of readers.  Highlights include a few books students might already know (Maisy, for example), books about shapes, colors, opposites, etc., and--I almost can't believe this--a dual-language book in Spanish and Náhuatl.  I may try to learn to read Náhuatl now.

Lingt language:  This website, if it functions as advertised, might be a game-changer.  The idea is that a teacher creates an audio assignment and distributes it to students via computer.  It says it can be set up to provide some kind of individualized feedback, but I don't know how effective they could possibly be.  Compare this, by the way, with the MSU CLEAR tools; they might have somethng similar. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Whose job is it to advertise a school?

This post isn't really about charter schools, although it's going to seem like it at first.  It's about market forces--what they're supposed to be, and what they actually are. 

As I understand it, the thinking behind schools of choice are that parents will choose to send their students to the schools that best educate their children.  As parents put their children in schools, they will send their money to the best districts.  The worst districts will gradually die off as students move away from it, leaving them without enough money to fund them.

This doesn't quite go far enough, because traditional public schools have a deeply entrenched history of unions.  Unions have a warping effect on free-market forces, because they prevent money from flowing naturally.  They prevent the tough decisions being made, they stifle innovation, they engulf schools in red tape.  Enter charter schools(1), which I suppose could unionize if they chose, but in practice almost universally choose not to.  Enter right-to-work laws, meant to uproot unions from the bottom up (2).  In the name of improving education outcomes, and in no small measure, in the name of making it cheaper.

This line of thought, as best I understand it, begins in a neoclassical understanding of free markets.  (Among the many things that I'm not, the top two things on the list are an economist and a houdun priest.)  In the neoclassical model, the three base assumptions are that a.) people act rationally, b.) individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill needs or wants and firms act to maximize profits, and c.) people act independently based on good information (3).  This is only a model; approximately nobody really believes that this is the way the world works all the time.  They just assume it works close enough to this to make it worth pretending.

I'd like to take a swing at applying each of these to the education world as it exists in Michigan.  Bear with me, and feel free to chime in.

The first assumption is that people act rationally.  Their decisions make sense as best they understand it.  They rarely act randomly or against their own interests.  In this model, parents and students will choose the best schools.  I have no beef with this particular assumption.  It stands in direct contradiction to the notion of community schools, but so do a lot of other things I believe in (like racial and economic diversity). 

The second assumption is much more interesting.  Individuals act to maximize their ability to fulfill their own needs or wants.  This suggests that, within the confines of acting rationally, parents and students will pick the schools that will get them into the best college.  Or the one that has the best educational outcomes, or the one where the parents don't hate the principal, or the one that has the best football team, or the one where their kids don't get picked on, or whatever it is they think they want.  This raises the questions of what it is parents want from schools.  What we're told parents want is good education outcomes.  As my flurry of questions suggests, though, it's more complicated than that. 

But the third assumption is the one that troubles me most.  In order to act rationally and maximize utility, consumers need good information.  What "good information" is, largely depends on what people want.  If what they want is a winning football team, it's easy--just look at the win/loss ratio of the football team.  If they want a football team that will make their kid a better football player, that's a tougher question, and requires a different kind of information and a greater sort of statistical analysis.  Now imagine they want a football team that will teach their kid the value of teamwork and dedication and tenacity, and that playing is more important than winning.  We almost don't have the questions for that, much less how to find the answers; all the data that we have runs counter to that line of inquiry.  The only way those consumers could find out if any given product is the one they want is to enroll their students in the program and see what happens.  The quality of information is less than optimal, and there's no clear way towards making it better.

This same sort of confusion exists in learning, only worse.  We don't really know what we expect from schools, except that we know we want our kids to be better upon leaving than they were when they entered.  They should also get better, faster than they would get on their own.  Other than that, the objective of schools is a little ambiguous.  Do we want to train good people or effective people?  If we have to choose, which do we prefer?  If we have to pick one, do we pick inquisitive, which could lead to rebelliousness, or obedient, which leads to being easily duped?  Critical thinking is my go-to skill; what does society want me to do when a student's critical thinking tells her that she shouldn't be sitting in school?  And the information that we do have--grades, standardized test scores, behavior grades on report cards, parent-teacher meetings, phone calls from the principals--don't really answer which schools do the best.  Schools that give the best grades might not have a difficult curriculum.  Schools that fail all their students probably have no idea what they're doing.  Schools that have a perfect bell curve are most suspect of all.  Standardized tests mostly assess a student's ability to take standardized tests.  Parent-teacher meetings can either become gab-fests, with no information of substance, or sessions of passing the buck.  So with a lack of information, and no good way of clarifying it, parents are unable to make good decisions. 

Enter the ad campaigns.

Since the invention of capitalism, we've been making life-altering decisions with not much information.  And the way we do it is by ads.  Ads can raise awareness of a new product and they can inform consumers of what products are the best.  In practice, however, they end up playing on emotion much more heavily than they do on information. And they're absolutely crucial to the way we decide what to buy.

And so we apply these same ideas to school.  We have no good information, no good way of finding out what the information is, and by the time we find out what we need to know, it's too late.  So we turn to advertising.  Parents need to send their students to schools, and the ones with options will do their best to get them into the best schools (4).  It is now incumbent upon schools to convince parents that they are the best.  Since we're all still guessing what parents want, that's kind of a neat trick. 

Now we get back to the present.  I work at a small district with a declining enrollment--not because we're the worst school--quite the opposite, in fact.  Our ACT scores are best in the state, we consistently have among the highest MEAP writing scores, our special ed test scores are almost knock-your-socks-off good, many of our students go on to prestigious colleges, and many more find satisfactory work in the skilled trades.  Since sports appear to be important to parents, it's worth noting that our football team has been in the state semifinals most years and has 11 state championships; our cross and track teams are outstanding; we can count on our women's basketball and volleyball teams being district champs.  To all appearances, we're exactly what everybody should be looking for in a school district. 

And yet. 

The population of the county is decreasing and getting older.  It's a problem for all of our county's district, as it is for many places in the state.  We're one of the least-well compensated school districts in the county, and in the 25th percentile in the state. 

Our latest step increase is tied to student enrollment.  This suggests that we have some responsibility in recruiting students.  It is my position and that of my colleagues that it is our job to teach students, and administrators' jobs to get students into our door.  And when our administration thinks otherwise, then what?

(1) We'll ignore the general practice of cronyism that we're experiencing with charter schools.

(2) We'll ignore the political ramifications of destroying the most powerful mobilizing force on the side of the Democrats.

(3) This is paraphrased from Wikipedia.

(4) We'll ignore the classist assumptions that all parents are able to make these choices.