Thursday, June 18, 2009

Putting on airs

When I was a teaching assistant during grad school, my title was John. My students referred to me by my first name; my colleagues referred to me as John; my professors referred to me as John. My school friends referred to me as Juanito Cobos, but that was sort of an inside joke.

When I was a substitute teacher, I referred to myself as an "itinerant educator." I would go anywhere, and teach anyone anything, including things I didn't know.

These days, I go to the same place to work every day. My school district has 300+ students in it; I'm the only World Languages teacher. (A lot of other teachers work WL into their curricula, particularly in the younger elementary classes. And we're starting to do some more distance learning with WL. So I'm not the only one teaching WL. But I'm the only WL teacher.) Because of this, and because I teach all grades except PreK, I call myself "World Languages Department Chair." Really. I have business cards. (They're not for people who might someday be bosses or colleagues. They're kind of a gag.) These business cards used to say, simply, "World Languages Department," as in, "I am the World Languages Department." But people kept assuming that meant that I work in the WL department, not that I work as the WL department. Not grandiose enough. So I promoted myself. It was a very nice ceremony, if I do say so myself.

Now, thanks to this article, I think I'll start referring to myself as an "applied cognitive engineer."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The ad link on read, "Stop Motion Sickness." When you click on it, it tells you ways to avoid getting nauseated in the car, on planes, etc.

What I read was, "Stop Motion Sickness." I immediately wondered when Henry Selick's new movie about vomit was coming out.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

People doing, etc.

Dina Strasser's take on Chapter 4 of Marzano's Art and Science of Teaching.

She's a better teacher than I am. She's a better blogger than I am, she's a better analyst and applied researcher than I am. And dammit, she's better at sarcasm than I am, too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Insufficient answers to pressing questions

Bob Herbert describes extraordinary results in a charter school (2 charter schools, actually--a middle school, and a high school that they made in response to their initial success in the middle school). 48 of 48 students in the graduating class are going on to college. All of these students face the difficulties educators point to--poverty, first to attend college, etc.

Eduwonk (hat tip for the article) frames this as the reason to have charter schools.

But my fundamental question remains unanswered--why can't we do this with public education? Why don't we? I think Eduwonk would say "Teachers' Unions! Vested Interests! Education Lobbyists!" Is my industry so politically powerful? Is it so short-sighted that we'd betray our professional principles and destroy our credibility?

At the same time I write this post, I happen to be listening to a Smithsonian Folkways podcast about labor movement folk songs, and it occurs to me that I toe the Union line pretty strongly. So let me clarify: I, of course, celebrate the success of all the students of Gaston Prep Middle and the high school (unnamed in the article). I honor the tremendous effort and sacrifice, and admire the professional dedication, of Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan, the educators responsible for creating and driving the schools that have helped this graduating class. I look forward to continued success from these schools. I don't question that in another educational setting these students would not have met anywhere near the same degree of success. I look forward to continued success from these schools.

What I question is, why wouldn't these students have had the same degree of success in their local public schools? What did this school do that public schools don't do? Why don't they do it?

The heart of my criticism of charter school is this: Charter schools and similar reform efforts are based on the notion of competition between education providers. The theory runs thus: as charter schools show their worth, non-charter schools will have to reform and improve student services, or parents will choose schools that will do the best job by their students. "Free and open market forces" will decide the distribution of limited resources--the victors will survive, the failures will dissolve. With the failure of just a few schools, we'll achieve a much higher degree of educational efficacy in education. And maybe that's the case.

But we already have a system of distribution of limited resources. It's called the "public education system." It is not immune from criticism: It is a near-monopoly; it's a bulky bureaucracy with many share-holders whose objectives sometimes work at cross-purpses; change is nearly impossible; every rule change has a million unintended consequences. Public schools fail a huge number of students, and these students are disproportionately the ones who most need help from the public sector--minorities and special-needs students.

But, and here's the rub of it, I think, charter schools and other competitive systems of education reform seek to dilute pools of limited resources, in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul. This inevitably leads to incentivizing "trade secrets," which is the opposite of what we want. If a school finds something that works that nobody else is doing, we want people standing on the rooftops screaming about it. We want successful teachers to be rock stars, the subjects of articles and TV specials, teacher educators, article-writers. We want their techniques studied, spread, maximized. To that extent, anything that charter schools can do to make us better, I'm all for it. I remain extremely sceptical, however, that diffusing the nation's education resources is the best way to do that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Activity analysis: "¡Somos Arqueólogos!"

One of the things I should do a lot more of is examining my activities to see if they're doing what they should, and how to improve them. My methodology teacher, Michael Braun (maybe more about him someday--he also taught me Spanish in high school, and looking at his classes would probably go a long way towards explaining why I think about teaching Spanish the way I do), suggested keeping a binder with assignment sheets in it, and writing notes on post-it notes. I'm going to work on having that system in place by the start of the next school year, but in the meantime, I offer you this:


Imagínate que eres arqueólog@, quinientos años adelante de hoy. Tú (arqueólog@) descubriste la casa en que tú (estudiante) vives.

¿Cómo es este domicilio tan raro? Identifica 5 cosas en la casa. ¿Cómo son estos artefactos? ¿Para qué crees que sirven? (Acuérdate: Tú vives en el futuro. El mundo es muy distinto. Imagina que no sabes nada de la vida actual.)

[Imagine you're an arqueologist, five hundred years from now. You (the archaeologist) have discovered the house in which you (the student) lives.

What is this strange structure like? Identify 5 things in the house. What are these artifacts like? What do you think they're for? (Remember: You live in the future. The world is very different. Imagine you don't know anything about life today.)]

LEVEL: This project was designed for 2nd-year high school students. There's no reason it couldn't be adapted for 1st-year students, or indeed for any time a description of the house becomes necessary.

OBJECTIVE: Students will describe objects in their house from the perspective of someone who doesn't know what they're for. This will help them think of common household objects in Spanish, contextualize vocabulary of common household objects, and establish background knowledge for comparisons of common household items in their house and a house in a Spanish-speaking country. It will also provide students with the vocabulary and language necessary to describe their houses to other students in Spanish.

1.1.N.RW.g Ask questions in writing about the attributes of places and things in their immediate environment and answer using a list of traits
1.2.N.R.c Understand written interpersonal communication on topics of personal interest such as preferences, family life, friends, leisure and school activities, and everyday occurrences (email, letters, messages, notes, and text messages)
1.3.N.W.c Write brief personal descriptions on familiar topics in Spanish such as self, friends, family, home and school

ASSUMED KNOWLEDGE: Students are expected to have an awareness of, but not yet be entirely comfortable with, the vocabulary of household items, and have a good working knowledge of words that describe physical features of objects (size, color, etc.).

ASSESSMENT: Students show their comprehension of the knowledge by successfully communicating with other students about the objects in their house. This is a formative assessment of vocabulary; it's also a practice activity for other activities to come.

STUDENT OUTPUT: Students' responses ranged from 3-5 word descriptions for each item to a bullet-pointed list in English.

THOUGHTS: I continually butt up against the difference between World Languages and core-content classes, just in terms of learning matter. In this activity, students aren't expected to learn anything new, they're expected to think about what they already know in a different way. This is designed to permit students' minds to focus exclusively on the language acquisition. I recently went to a conference that suggested it might be better on all levels if students are engaging in the culture at the same time as the language.

CHANGES: First, I need to clarify the expectations. Students did not know what was expected of them. Second, rather than having students imagine their own house a different way, it might be better to have them "excavate" a typical house of the Spanish-speaking world, being sure to include a few things the students probably don't have in their own house. (I still think it's important for students to look at their own activities in a new way, but maybe this isn't the format for it.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More reflecting than a diva's dressing room

SY 2008-09 is finally put to bed, and there's an awful lot to think about. I'm going to go into some of these points more fully in later posts, because I'm trying to get down everything there is before I forget about it.

FINAL EXAMS: The importance of comprehensive final exams became more clear to me than ever before; also, the limits of paper-pencil tests over the course of 3 days. If we're really going to test students' learning of Spanish, more and more I'm thinking that portfolios are the way to go. Note to self: find model portfolio evaluation systems. (Students present portfolios en español as final exam? That's in presentation mode of communication.)

STANDARDS-BASED GRADING SYSTEMS: My school is running on two fundamentally different grading systems, and I suspect that many others are, as well. The bulk of grades is based on the number of standards that students master (at some point, the definition of "mastery" becomes EXTREMELY important). Yet every trimester, we have to give students a letter grade for their cumulative GPA. We come up with arbitrary, counter-intuitive formulae to bridge the gap. To confuse the issue, the final exam isn't directly weighed into our "standards assessment / employability skills" formula, but it's worth 10 % of the final grade.

SYLLABI: For the next school year, we're going to have syllabi detailing what we'll be teaching, what standards the students will be held accountable for, and (presumably) how we're going to know, i.e., what assessments we'll be using. This is entirely a good thing, and by now for most of us it should simply be a matter of taking the information off of our curriculum document and putting it on to a piece of paper that students can read. We ARE all keeping our curriculum document up to date, right? Right? (trails off sheepishly)

SW-PBS: I found out yesterday that my school did not receive the Mi-BLSi grant we applied for. This means, among other things, that the system we grew last year will have to serve us for at least one more year. The good news is that the ISD's capacity for supporting the PBS program has increased substantially--our advisor has new resources to bring to bear, as well as new workers in the ISD itself. One of the main sticking points appears to be ongoing teacher training time, and that looks to be a BIIIIIIG deal.

STUDENTS LEARNING SPANISH: I'm still pondering what the results of the final exam mean. Most of my students did much better than they expected to (and as well as I expected them to), but fell down in some surprising ways--writing section, I'm looking at you here. So something's got to give there. In addition, I'm not sure that they learned to converse in Spanish as well as I'd hoped. So there's something to work on, too.

K-8 PROGRAM: Weaknesses in this program and its director are showing through the whole plan. Next year, there will be a year-long 8th grade Spanish program, so we're going to have to step it up a noch. I expect there will be a year-long 7th grade program the year after that, so I'm going to have to get a lot better really fast.

No doubt, more to come.