Monday, January 26, 2009

Couldn't have happened to an apparently nicer fellow

The ALA announced its award winners for 2009. Neil Gaiman (may the winds of inspiration ever fill his lungs!), my favorite fiction author still drawing breath, has won the Newberry medal for 2009, for The Graveyard Book.

My heart leaped for joy at the news. I enjoy his writing a great deal, and thought that The Graveyard Book had a particularly smoky flavor. And I know I'm in good company. It's like being a fan of some sport that has an annual contest, a giant affair in which many thousands of people gather to watch the best in the sport compete. And deep inside, the fan knows that the outcome doesn't really matter, because s/he gets to watch the greatest. But when the fan's chosen team wins unexpectedly, the fan feels part of something greater than him/herself, even though s/he had absolutely nothing to do with any of it. (If I could have thought of any sport that had some kind of annual contest, a "Super Fest" or a "World Prize" or something, this metaphor would have worked out a lot more smoothly. A little help, sports fans?)

I haven't read EVERYTHING Gaiman's ever written, but it's a close call. Some of the older comic books, the occasional children's book, probably an introduction here or there. I read his blog a lot. It gives me an artificially close sensation to him--a man I've never met, a man I'd recognize and leave alone if I saw him in a coffee shop so as not to disturb his coffee-shop experience, seems like a friend of mine. And from everything I can glean from his public face (which occasionally includes blog posts under duress, probably a test of character of some kind), he seems like a nice guy. So, it couldn't have happened to an apparently nicer fellow.

Congratulations, Mr. Gaiman.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Preface and Intro

The preface has some inspiring words and what certainly seem like keen insights into the development of teachers. Jackson defines what she calls the "master teacher mindset," a way of thinking about and looking the craft of teaching which exemplifies really effective teachers. The defining point seems to be that instead of looking for hard-and-fast answers to questions that arise while teaching, a master teacher understands that asking the right question is the more important act (2). She suggests that all teachers can be master teachers with practice, a sentiment with which I certainly agree.

The introduction reminds me of nothing so much as a quiz in Cosmo. (Erm...or so I'm told.) You answer the questions, you give yourself a score based on your answers, and then the test tells you who your true love is, or what your ideal profession is, or whatever those tests are supposed to tell you. Or, in this case, what level your teaching practice rests at. I rank in as a practitioner, the third stage of four in this hierarchy of professional development, by exactly 1 point. As you can probably tell by my tone, I'm always a little skeptical of such things; it's like a horoscope. They're vaguely enough worded that they could apply to anybody. Some parts of the "practitioner" description are very accurate, but others are not. (I flatter myself that I have a pretty high awareness of both my skills and areas of needed improvement).

Having said all that, Jackon's primary objective in giving the quiz seems to be to initiate self-reflection and increase self-awareness. This reflection seems like it's going to be a key to Jackson's book, and I don't think it's something that can be over-practiced. So despite the teen-magazine feel of the beginning of the book, Jackson's purpose in the book seem to fit pretty tightly to my motivation for reading it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Various points

*Credit where credit's due. He probably isn't the first or the only current user of the phrase, but the incomparable Glenn Greenwald uses that title when he wants to get out a number of things on his mind. I can only aspire to emulate his dedication to his task, and I will never be able to emulate his knowledge and skill at his job. For the moment, I'll settle for emulating his Web 2.0 mannerisms. Each of the points below is worthy of its own posts, and each of them has a post in the works. But they're itching and urgent. And, honestly, I don't know where to begin with them.

*The limitations of reflection. Sometimes, after really hard days, I look at the disaster I wrought upon my students and hope that I didn't do them any lasting harm. And I think to myself, "I love my job. I love my students. I love my subject matter, and where I work, and my coworkers. I believe unwaveringly in T. Roosevelt's notion that 'Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.' I think about this stuff all the time. It has occurred to me that, many years from now, thinking about teaching might not be a bad job. All the time I plan and I consider and I research and I write. And this is the best I can do?" And I despair. Then I go home and I think about how I could have done it better.

*Systemic thinking, or, the teacher as low-level bureaucrat. I'm not very good at thinking about systems. I don't do well at making arbitrary decisions and then making other people do them. I can weigh pros and cons and make a decision based on the results just fine, but if I have to pick between 5 equally good choices, and then make 140 people a day go with it, I get sort of stuck. This is a tremendous downfall as a teacher. Turning in student work, passing back student work, transitions between classes and useful but less-than-exciting paperwork are all really important systems. However, they're pretty much arbitrary--I decide what I want to happen, and then I ask my students to do it. My memory tends to take a back seat to my knee-jerk decision-making process (which, incidentally, is why I write down my lesson plans and try to follow it like a playbook). So these (and other) systems, which could really make my life and that of my students much easier, if I really designed them well, tend to be ad hoc hand-me-your-papers-no-wait-don't kinds of things. It probably frustrates my students, and it certainly limits my efficacy. So I'll try to stick to one system for the rest of the year, and redesign the whole thing during the summer. I'm getting better at it, and I can prove it, but nothing works as well as it should yet.

*Iterative standards. A lot of standards in World Languages are iterative--you have to perform the same communicative tasks in a number of contexts in order to get credit for the standard. By my way of thinking (and there's a lot of thinking still to be done on this), a student can get credit for these standards in one of two ways--either through summative assessments, administered shortly after instruction / formative assessment / reteaching / etc.; or through an as-yet undesigned, week-long final exam that really tests a student's ability to perform all six major communicative tasks in a variety of contexts (16 after two years of high school Spanish, according to the state's Standards and Benchmarks document). This seems like an impossible contrast to me, and I don't know why. I have a hard time envisioning permitting a student to pick and choose which sections of the final exam they want to take; in contrast, the final exam would have to be really long in order to test all communicative skills in all required contexts (or even a reasonable facsimile of them). I guess I'm just having a hard time picturing the logistics of this. (See "Systems thinking," above.)

*Teacher dispositions, positive behavior support and ACTFL. My quadrennial issue of The Language Educator, a publication by the ACTFL whose core objective normally appears to be to provide universities with MEd programs an outlet for their extra ad revenue, has a couple of genuinely interesting and, dare I say, useful articles. One of them is called "Another piece of the language learning puzzle: Why teacher dispositions are a crucial aspect of student success," by Maura Kate Hallam. It ties high expectations into student achievement, mentions a few ways people are studying it and teaching it, and encourages teachers to be more aware. (It also cites the National Board definition of teacher disposition; sounds like a good basis for student review of classes. Elsewhere in the issue they publish the full list of NB standards for WLOE.) A lot of things about the article are interesting, but one in particular caught my eye: They quote a Latin teacher as saying, "[...] TESA [Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement] addressed the affective side of teaching, which is often easy for young teachers to forget about as they worry about content. Experienced teachers always need reminders about what makes a positive climate." It's true that we can forget about staying positive, and that there's more to teaching than the list of standards. Teacher disposition, like behavior reinforcement, seems to take a back seat to measurable content advancement in the contemporary classroom. But, like behavior reinforcement, if you don't have it, the content is meaningless.

*Never work harder than your students. It's the title of a book by Robyn R. Jackson. It's another "how-to-be-a-better teacher" book from ASCD. I have a copy on loan from my principal. As I work through it, I'll keep the post posted.

*Celebrate good times.
Each of my students has made huge progress this year, and our school community is starting to feel like an actual community. People (not just faculty and staff) are coming together to create positive social events. Just as could be expected from a group of people with a common goal and a common geography, we're all starting to row in the same direction, even if we're not always stroking on the same beat. My high school Spanish classes are getting better and better all the time, not just at Spanish, but at school. They're taking some lessons which (let's be honest) start out a little superficially, and often really turn them into something worthwhile.

Edited to fix typos and subject/verb agreements.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Information systems in schools

It is with a heavy heart the passing of one of our students. The dear departed was a terrific young man, a lover of sports and a great mind looking for a problem to solve. His brother was in the car accident, as well; he survived and seems to be doing as well as can be expected, which is to say, not particularly well at all. The funeral was today, but the copious snowfall kept me from attending. Michael will be missed; we are all extremely grateful that Shane is still with us. If there's anything I can do for Shane or the family, they have but to name it. Shane, you're not alone in our community, and we're all here for you.

In areas that I can do something about, I've been thinking about information--how much information does a teacher need about his students to teach them effectively? We cannot know everything; if teachers were omniscient, we'd be spies or oracles or something. So what do we have to have in order to teach our students? Below are some of the categories of information teachers have access to (or should). They appear in the order it occurs to me.

Prior knowledge
How good are students at (in my case) Spanish the day they walk into class? Maybe they were huge fans of Dora the Explorer when they were younger, maybe they're the nephew of a woman who married the former Ambassador from Guatemala. Students bring a lot to the table, and reteaching something that everybody already knows is a recipe for an unsuccessful class. So we need to know at the beginning of any class what information a student has access to, and how well she knows it. It also happens that our state mandates pre-tests for all required classes.

The typical tool for doing this is some kind of pre-test, often the final exam of the class. Each standard has several questions at each knowledge level, and at the end of what presumably is a 12-hour ordeal of a test, you know with a high degree of certainty what students know and how well they know it. You can then tailor your instruction to exclude stuff they already know and focus on stuff they don't already know, or even pick up stuff they don't already know but should.

Academic skills
Historically speaking, reading is the most important skill for educational success, because of the importance of gleaning information from written texts. This is followed closely by writing, because it's the most accountable method of determining how much a student knows. (A teacher can say, "I heard my student speaking in Spanish, and that should be good enough for you," but it's only been within the last not-too-many years (100? 50?) that audiovisual recording equipment has been widely available to confirm it. And since in a lot of ways our educational methodology was established in times long since past (see tabula rasa), AV equipment still doesn't have the role in education it maybe should. In any case, the ability to read and write are vital to success in schools. Thus, it behooves an instructor to know how well his students will be able to read the materials he gives them.

Fortunately, every standardized test in the country measures reading ability, to one degree or another. Several of them measure reading specifically (DIEBLS and the like), so that information is available. The reports can be hard to understand, and if (like me) you haven't been formally traned in reading methodology, it can be tough to know exactly what to do with it. Principals and reading specialists can help with that, and it's probably a good way to spark interdisciplinary cooperation and all the good things that we as teachers should be doing.

Apparently some people consider basic mathematical comprehension an academic skill, so we should probably come up with some kind of, I don't know, fill-in-the-bubble test for addition, multiplication, and differential calc.

The regular follower of this blog knows that I've spent a lot of time in the last X months working on school-wide positive behavior support. All of the literature I've read (all one book and some articles) say that whatever your tangible reward is, it has to be something of value to the student. Other research shows that students engage with content better when it interests them--and along with regulation, that just makes sense. And these are a few of many areas that knowing what motivates individual students is useful.

Of course, most students are unlikely to tell their teachers what motivates them. And there are reasons for this: 1.) the relationship between students and teachers. Students don't share stuff with teachers. 2.) the nature of teachers' jobs. Elementary teachers spend more than 5 hours a day with their students, but there are 30 students. Middle and high school students have like 150 students a day. (Not me--my high school only has 100 students. And I don't have all of them in class.) You can only get so close to that many students, particularly if you have to teach them math at the same time. 3.) the nature of interests. I've been interested in Spanish literature for 12 years now, but I've only been interested in Google Earth for 1, and international economics just since the world economy collapsed in September. A Borges story would always be welcome, an article on how to use Google Earth would have been welcome over summer break (or even over winter break), and a news story about trade agreements between the US and China would never get read. Point is, interests change. When you're 7, they change very quickly.

So, you listen carefully to what they talk about when they talk to each other. You try to watch the movies they say they like, and you try to remember that you're twice, thrice or four times as old as they are. Just because something is consumeristic, overly priced, or juvenile, doesn't mean it's not interesting to them. They are, after all, juveniles. (Comes from the Latin iuvenus.)

Worthy of a post by itself. For here, suffice to say that, if done properly, they can be very helpful. And if not, they're a colossal pain in the neck and a useless bureaucratic nightmare. Plus, they're getting more complex all the time.

Am I missing anything? Probably.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy 2009!

If I had any casual readers before, I'm pretty sure I don't now, what with a 3-week-long holiday-inspired silence. But to anyone who stumbles across this, happy new year! 2008 was a long, hard slog, with lots of opportunities to do good important work and personal improvement. So it's time to engage in the age-old and cultures-wide tradition of reflecting on the past and looking to the future. So, without further ado...

  1. Online. a.) This blog. I often lose sight of the forest for the trees, and vice versa. It helps to have a place to write down things I'm doing, the big trends I'm working on, thoughts on policy issues in education, and suchlike. More importantly for me, it's good to have a place where I can then leave them, knowing I can come back to them later. When I revamped the blog as a tool for teaching reflection, I said that I wanted to be able to organize my thoughts and find them again later. In that regard, it's been a success, I think. I have a dedicated reader who often comments, and his input is invaluable. It's also been helpful to have that perspective in a different context. So Ray, thanks for coming back. b.) Online and blended courses. It's a truism of our age that the internet is a powerful learning tool. It's also true that we're still inventing ways to use it effectively. But we have a good idea of what today's online courses should look like. This year I took a course on online instruction methods. I learded a lot about where the online classroom and the real classroom intersect and where they diverge. I'm more excited than ever about the possibilities that teaching online offers, and have started outlining what a blended coruse might look like in Spanish. In the process, of course, I get another good hard look at my course design methodology in the real world, always a good thing. c.) NetTrekker. In short, the answer to the question, "How do I organize the Internet?" One of my favorite toys of the past year, and now ranks with MSU's Rich Internet Applications as "the most flexible, user-driven education tools on the internet.
  2. The school community. The single most-written-about subject on this blog for the past year is school-wide positive behavior support. We have a system up and running; although it's too early to tell definitively, I think it's fair to say it's having the desired effect. Our focus is less on discipline and more on learning than it has been in years past. We're past the initial kickback, I think, and the students have realized that this isn't going away. So we hear people talking about behavior the way we're hoping for. And we the faculty and staff are making a conscious effort to internalize being positive. I'm curious to know if we're getting more positive phone calls home, more attaboys, more public celebration of success. If there's one thing I'm most proud of this project, it's raising the awareness (mine and others') of the importance of the celebration of success. It's still a question a lot of us are trying to answer, but we're asking the question more often than ever before.
  3. Professional development. I already mentioned the "online courses" class, and I'd be remiss if I don't mention here the immense amount of SW-PBS training I've gotten from Peg Bird. She's been immensely helpfu in implementing SW-PBS and thus in changing the culture of our school. In addition to these, the MiWLA conference is always a great pleasure to attend, to see what other people are doing in their classrooms and to keep tabs on what the national trends are. This year I went to a workshop on how to test out of your first two years of high school world languages, which has more or less literally redefined how I think about world language course production and what we should expect students to be able to do with language after two years of HS courses. I also attended sessions on webquests (which always seem like they could be a a vital part of any truly student-based education system) and video in class.
  4. In the classroom. My expectations for both my students and myself have increased dramatically this year, and I think that my means of meeting expectations grew, as well. My thoughts about what makes for a good Spanish class have clarified and been supported both by research and by experience, so the plan is to what I'm doing, only more of it and better.
  1. In the classroom. I'm looking to do a better job of "selling" Spanish to my students. Even the students who like Spanish class just like Spanish class; a lot of them don't really like Spanish. So my objective for this year is to help my students be excited about learning Spanish.
  2. School community. Our school has a newly-formed PTA. More parent involvement would be a great thing for our (or indeed any) school. Now, I and the other teachers need to figure out how to work with this important group; after all, they're our employers.
  3. Online. Two goals: 1.) Increase blog readership. It's nice to talk to myself using big words and neat fonts. And the organization afforded to me by this blog helps me nail down some thoughts. But feedback would be good, too. It's a decent model for teaching, actually: I want to move away from a model where the one doing the talking is seen as the center of the action, to a participatory format. 2.) Use more online tools, and use them better. As stated before, the Internet is THE go-to source for authentic communication tools--reading assignments, Spanish-language videos, etc. Used correctly, the Internet is also a powerful tool for building community. Now that I know right, I can do right.
Happy 2009 to all! May we all teach lots, learn more, have some fun, and, with any luck, read a good book.