Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Inspirational quote of the day

...not that I'll be doing this every day, mind.

From the Accomplished Teacher e-mail: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." --Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman military leader and author

I hope everyone's holiday is going stupendously, and that Santa was kind!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

One step at a time...and sometimes the same step over

For the last several years, my professional development has been focused on instructional techniques that are good for all teachers, with a particular focus on Sprick et. al. for classroom management strategies, and Marzano for most everything else.  But in college, I mostly worked on strategies specific to second-language instruction, as that was going to be my focus.  There is absolutely no question that I'm a better teacher for being familiar with these strategies.

But recent experience tells me that I need to go back and bone up on some of my Spanish teacher skills.  Fortunately, last year I took a course for elementary certification, so I haven't forgotten how to do research.  I've pulled out Lee and Van Patten's Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen (1st ed.), my gold standard for applied language acquisition theory.  They're like Marzano sometimes, in that they do some more generalizing with specific support which are sort of more useful.  But reviewing through it, I'm finding lots of things I've forgotten in my rush to be teacher of the whatever (an award I'm not winning anytime soon). 

This week's focus: Have the learner do something with the input.  "Learners cannot be passive recipients of language," Lee and Van Patten tell us.  "Instructors should not simply talk at the learners or ask learners to simply read something.  The learner must be actively engaged in attending to the input to encourage the processing of grammar."  (p.107).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

QR codes revisited

I've poo-pooed QR codes as a technology whose time had not come.  I've wondered what they might be good for.  In the last few weeks, though, I'm starting to re-evaluate them.  They might be useful in a couple of different scenarios.

1.)  I think I might have the students stealthily put up signs all around the school, labeling what things are in Spanish.  (Hallway, locker, fire extinguisher, water fountain, and the like.)  A QR code could lead a student to a website with an embedded audio of the pronunciation of the word.  I would rather that it simply triggered something in the QR reader itself which caused the phone to pronounce the word, but I think I'd have to write my own program for that.  Or maybe hire one of my more knowledgeable friends to do it.  Failing that, audio website.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

2.)  The last 30 minutes of our school day is spent in something we call academic centers, despite the fact that it's the only period in the day with no mandatory academic content, and nobody is in the center of anything, except by accident.  It's what we used to call study halls, which also didn't make any sense, because few people studied, and they didn't meet in the halls.  The point is that many of my colleagues feel that this time could be better spent.  A few of us have talked about much more flexible AC's than we have now: students could sign up for the "I have homework to do" AC, and they would go to the cafetorium and be left alone by their babysitters...I mean, educational facilitators.  (Didn't I see this movie once?)  But they could also sign up for "Café Internacional," where they would explore the world through virtual field trips, or possibly speak Spanish to people not necessarily in their Spanish classes all hour.  They could sign up for a Socratic seminar: "This week's topic, the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Please have these 3 articles read and come prepared to participate."  They could, I don't know, sign up to conduct independent experiments in the science lab.  Work on an art project.  Interview important businesspeople by Skype.

I've been thinking about this, trying to figure out how we could flexibly take attendance at various locations at various times throughout the school.  (This is the only part of the process the state actually cares about: our legal responsibilities in a study hall extend to making sure that approximately the same number of people leave as come in.)  Then I read someplace that QR codes were invented by one of the many Denso subsidiaries as a quick easy tool for inventory management.  I thought to myself, if you think about students as widgets, then taking attendance is basically inventory.  Teachers all have computers; lots of QR code readers work on phone cameras, computer web cams, all kinds of things we already have sitting around our classes.  We already give students ID cards that they never do anything with.  They also are supposed to have their planners all the time.  It would be simplicity itself to put a QR code into each of these--for purposes of student confidentiality and the like, it could be the student's ID number rather than the name.  Then all we have to do is make our QR code readers have a settable location (which will remember the last set location and default to that every time it's fired up), read the ID on the QR, add the student's name (or ID number) and the location to a database, compare that database to a previously-generated centrally-located database of student names and expected locations, time-stamp the entry, automatically notify any number of interested parties of discrepancies in the two databases (either by push notification or by sending an e-mail, or, ideally, interfacing directly with our attendance-taking software (which is proprietary)), doing this quickly enough that one unassisted educational assistant could do 150 of them in, let's say, 10 minutes (that works out to be, what, 4 seconds a student? Lots of time.), and doing it easily enough that even the crotchetiest Luddite on the staff can do it.  Easy peasy.

Anyway, it seems like an idea worth exploring.  (And yes, I know we'll never get 100% compliance with cards and planners.  (Edit to add: They could carry their code on (or in) their phones, which many of them always have, for all the difference it makes.) Frankly, that's the least problematic part of implementing this plan.)

3.)   For a little silliness:

If I did this right, if you use a QR code reader on your smart phone to read this on your computer (or vice versa), it will take you back to this post.

Code generated using: http://createqrcode.appspot.com/

Monday, November 28, 2011

Did you know about this?

My normal source for clip art is openclipart.com.  Today it's experiencing some problems, so I google searched what I was looking for (in this case, a fork.  No, a fork onna tha table.)  And I found this: Clipart ETC.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teacher evaluations in public

In my local rag, Julie Mack blogs about (among other things) education issues.   In a recent post, she recapped the comments of an earlier post about Michigan's new "evaluate all teachers!" commission.  I know I promised I wouldn't read the comments in local rag articles, because they never serve to do anything but infuriate me.  But I was reading a blog post.  About comments.  And it infuriated me.

Generally, the tone of the comments were critical of the notion that the educommittee didn't contain any current educators, but did manage to find room for an administrator of the National Heritage Academies.  That's a criticism I share.

Much of the debate about teacher evaluation centers around the role of test scores: How much of how good a teacher is should be determined by how well her students do on a written test which will either, because of the huge numbers involved, be graded by a computer or "read" for, on average, two minutes?  The problem with this is obvious and have been rehashed time and again.  Too much of the outcome of one-off assessments are dependent on factors which teachers cannot effect.  Is the test a good one?  Did the student eat breakfast that morning?  Get enough sleep the night before?  What's the student's motivation for doing well on the test?  Did the student's teacher last year do her job?  Who is writing the test, what's their motivation, and what are they REALLY testing?

In response to these legitimate concerns, in the comments of her post, Mack comments legitimately that teachers are not the only profession who are evaluated using formulas designed by non-practitioners, using metrics beyond the control of the practitioners.  She cites her own profession as an example.  I'm not sure what her motivations for saying this is.  In context, she seems to be saying, "Everybody else is putting up with it, and so am I, and so should you."  It detracts from the notion that teachers specifically are under attack, but the easy response to that is, will her evaluation be codified in state law?  But the relative victimhood of teachers isn't really the point.  Mack's comments should increase our awareness of the fact that, increasingly, the decision makers of the world want to see data about efficacy, and sometimes, their idea of data has no actual bearing on our effectiveness at our job.  The pushback (or feedback, or collaboration, or negotiation, or however you phrase it--the distinctions between them is the subject for another time) against this practice should be intense, wherever it comes up.  I say this not in the spirit of contrariness, but in the spirit of best practice.  If these evaluations are going to help practitioners get better, then they absolutely must reflect the outcomes we want to see.  They should also carry with them the recognition that we don't necessarily know yet everything we want to see.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today in world language news

1.)  The NBPTS's daily e-mail included a link to this article.  It talks about an online game that a teacher uses to teach Latin.  It sounds like exactly the kind of thing I dreamed about doing: technology and immersive language learning.  There is a link inside the article to the Pericles group, who is making the website.  I hope to learn more about it; if somebody is doing this sort of work, I'm going to want to keep on top of it.  I wouldn't know, however, whether I would want to use something somebody else made, or whether I'd want to help them make it.

2.)  I've decided that next year, at the MiWLA conference, I'm going to apply to present a session:  Using cell phones in the language class.  I think I do pretty well at this, but ultimately the purpose would be self-serving.  I'd hope somebody would get up in the middle of the presentation and say, "This is stupid.  We've been doing this for years, and this is what I'm doing it which is SOOOO much better than what you're doing."  That would be awesome.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mistakes I make...

which my students could probably learn from.

I started writing an essay comparing and contrasting community and tribalism in my classroom.  I breezed through the introduction because I knew what I wanted to say and how I intended to say it, and started rocking through the second paragraph.  I stopped and re-read it, and somehow my earnest if uninformed essay about sociological structures had turned into a tongue-in-cheek review of the movie The Breakfast Club.

What I was missing is consistency--in this case, consistency of both subject and tone.  (I get playing with tone in a single piece; I'm pretty good at it.  So I know what I'm saying when I say that this was an inappropriate shift in tone.)  Everything I'd written was good, and they're similar in subject matter, but the movie critique (spoiler: the movie does not come out looking good.) has no place in the paper I'd set out to write.  When I tell my students, "Only make your paper about one thing," this is what I'm talking about.

The way I usually achieve consistency in subject in my formal writing is by using some kind of pre-writing device.  I like graphic organizers, and have come across some doozies in my brief but eventful time as an English teacher.  (I've also come across some real crap.  Shaping a Venn diagram like an apple and an orange may make a good visual gag for about 3 seconds, but it doesn't change the fact that Venn diagrams are bad pre-writing organizers.  I wish I were making this example up.)  Choosing a graphic organizer based on my intent for the piece helps me decide on the ultimate structure of the writing.  It also helps me stay on course throughout the pretty long and sometimes tedious process of actually writing the work.  It's like building a building: you pick a frame based on what you want the building to be, and then you build that.  From there, you add all the necessary bits to make it a house, and not just a neatly-stacked pile of girders.  If you have something cool that you want to explore further, that's fine.  The house still needs a shed, or a garage, or perhaps an interactive art installation.  But please at least consider the possibility that the middle of the living room may not be the best place for it.

The way I achieve consistency in my informal writing, like this blog post, is mostly I don't worry so much about it.  I keep it short, and if I have crap that doesn't actually support my original thesis (for example, I'm terrified of zombies and velociraptors, and have made significant life decisions based on the need to protect myself from them.  When the time comes, I hope the raptors go after the zombies.), I don't worry too much about it.  After all, this isn't intended to be a high-quality, published work.  If ever I turn it into one, I will engage in significant re-writes, in some places, probably starting from scratch.

Monday, October 31, 2011

More on "Getting it right"

For some truly spooky Halloween fun, check out this video on teacher evaluations by the NBPTS!

(No, it's not supposed to make sense.)  (EDIT: The joke above isn't supposed to make sense.  The video below IS supposed to make sense.)  (EDIT AGAIN: All right, my clarifying statement didn't clarify.  Ignore all my writing and just go to the link to watch a video about a report about a study about teacher evaluation.)


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why I do what I do the way that I do it

...it's more important for my students to speak than it is for them to conjugate verbs.
...there is only so much time, and I have to make it count.
..."I took three years of Spanish in high school, and I don't remember a thing."
...it's the best that I know how.  It's not the best possible, but it's what I've got.
...they have their phones.  Why shouldn't they be allowed to use them?
...my colleagues are brilliant.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A little Friday night naturalia

5 minutes of wandering through El Yunque, Río Grande, Puerto Rico.  It's good for the soul.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Unit cohesion is definitely lacking

A review of the year so far

I'm continuing my work this year on tightening my unit plans and making my curriculum an actual curriculum, instead of things I do one after the other.  The particular focus this year is on the ELA class.  We're training with Annette from the ISD, in accordance with the roll-out of the Common Core standards.  I've gotten better every year I've done it.  Except this year.  My units don't feel like anything.

I have no recollection of how I made my units last year feel like units, except through extensive repetition of the theme.  This leads me to wonder if my units were actually as good as I thought they were.  I've gone back over my unit plans and my lesson plans.  The unit plans, at least for Spanish class, look good on paper: a common theme, usually based on a cultural learning goal, attached to three to five communicative learning goals, each supported by a variety of structured input and output learning activities.  Most of them have several learning styles built in to them.  Most of them are everything I think they're supposed to be.

The lesson plans are less clear--they're working documents, so I often use shorthand phrases for activities (usually) detailed in the unit plans.  But sometimes they're burst-of-inspiration, let's-see-how-this-flies activities dreamed up just before Monday morning.  And of course they don't reflect 100% how the lessons were taught.  Towards the end of the school year, I stopped planning past halfway through Thursday, knowing full well that something in every class was going to keep me from getting any further than that.

But I watch similar lessons, based off of very similar (nearly identical) unit plans, this year, and I think to myself, what are we doing here?  What are we building up to?  I don't think I've lost the fire or the creative spark, but everything feels flatter than it did last year, more purposeless, less directed.  And if I feel it, you can bet the students are feeling it.

So the solution is to...what?  My next idea is to make communicative projects a more integral part of each unit's assessment.  As I type this, it occurs to me that once upon a time I had as a goal to do with chapter tests entirely, and have each unit's assessment BE the communicative project: a presentation, an interview, something which would require a range of communicative competencies to complete successfully.   So maybe by building the projects back into the unit plans, into the position of primacy I've always intended they should have, I'll be able to give the units the direction I feel they're currently lacking.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


In their infinite wisdom and their continuing efforts to "reform" "education" (read: make teachers do more and harder work for less money; the sorry ingrates should be grateful they have a job), the Michigan Senate introduced a bill to make Michigan a "Right to Work" state (SB 729, sponsored by Meekhof (R-West Olive).

No, wait.  The bill would only apply to Michigan's education unions.

No, wait.  It would only apply to education unions with membership greater than 50,000.

So it would only apply to the MEA, but they can't say that, because passing a law attacking one particular institution is unconstitutional.  Or something.

The sponsor argues that it will create jobs are something, like in Mississippi.

In unrelated news. the unemployment rate in Mississippi is 10.2%.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"Getting it right" update

One can find the pdf's at this site, were one so inclined.  More about this when I have the time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

I will want to know more about this

My e-mail box gets a daily dose of NBPTS propaganda.  It's a useful summary of recent news in education, and it is honestly these days where I get a lot of the most up-to-date stuff I post about here.  (Except the things from my local birdcage liner.  Those I get from the website of my local birdcage liner.  Which I don't use to line my birdcage.  On account of I view it on a $1000 computer.)  Also interspersed with the useful stuff is adverts for NBPTS products disguised to look like useful stuff.  However, since NBPTS is a net force for good in the teacher development world, even their ads are generally useful stuff.

Case in point: They're having a webcast right now to announce the release of a report called "Getting It Right: A Comprehensive Guide to Developing and Sustaining Teacher Evaluation and Support Systems."  I would like to log in to this webcast, but I'm not going to.  The dishes ain't gonna wash themselves.  However, I will be watching like a hawk to see if they release the report in pdf form.  I'd like to read it.  If we're going to evaluate teachers, we should get it right.  And an organization called the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards probably has something useful to say on the subject.

Friday, September 30, 2011


I just said that to make it sound like I work for a railroad company.

I subscribe to an ACTFL listserv for world language teachers.  Much of the time, it doesn't really add anything to my instruction; it's mostly people asking for help in doing work I'm not interested in doing yet (recommendations for exchange programs and the like), asking for recommendations on master's programs, or complaining about vendors trying to sell things on the listserv.  Really, guys? 5 posts a day for 3 weeks on the ethics of trying to sell Spanish books to Spanish teachers?

But on this morning's, one of the members asks an interesting question.  She wants to know how people are integrating Common Core into their world language classrooms and what the standards are.  I'm going to answer her in full over the weekend, and also hopefully secure her permission to re-post her question here.

But, in the meantime, the short answer is that there aren't any Common Core standards for world languages.  However, the standards for ELA look a lot, a LOT, like the ACTFL standards for world language.  Since the Common Cores are designed to encourage cross-curricular work, pairing the communication skills learned in, say, Spanish class can and should be used to explicitly reinforce the ELA standards.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Doodling in math class

This is from the Bloggess.  (I'm not going to link to her page because it's chock-full of language and themes I don't want to associate my mild-mannered and above all professional blog with.)

Any comment I could make would only ruin it.  View in good health.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guess I'm not done talking about it yet.

So I was just going to make a snarky drive-by comment on the dwindling popularity of merit pay as states face huge deficits (due in no small part to the bad bets of a few madmen in New York), and then get on with enjoying my Fair Day by writing curriculum and maybe playing pirate video games.  But I'm having trouble moving on.  So, for what it's worth, a few more thoughts.

There is no way this looks good for the reformers who pushed it.  At best, it was a bad bet on a motivating system that all available research suggested wouldn't have the stated desired effect.  A generous interpretation says that reformers* genuinely believed that merit pay would have an increased effect on teacher efficacy, and that their position is being undercut by current circumstances.  In this picture, as soon as the financial situation of the various states (and Washington, D.C.) improve, the merit pay will be back up and running, barring further research that says it won't work.

At worst, this indicates that the political proponents of merit pay aren't even willing to fund their own educational priorities.  That means that anything even remotely controversial or expensive, like mandatory universal pre-kindergarten education or 10.5-month school years, are all pretty much DOA.  Forget about expanding the Kalamazoo Promise country-wide.  They're not going to pay for what they believe in; they certainly aren't going to pay for anything else.  So they hope education reform will happen by itself, for free, or perhaps paid for by the Gates Foundation.

Because of the flavor of the political nature of corporatist education reformers, I suspect it was just a bait-and-switch for teacher pay and benefits.  "We can't afford to pay you a starting salary of $30,000, so how about $25,000?  But if you work hard, you can earn merit pay up to $32,000!  No, wait, we can't afford to pay your merit pay.  But your contract says that you're okay with a base salary $25,000.  So that's what we're going to go with that.  Okay?  Okay." 

Alright.  Now I'm done.  I think.

*"Reformers" is a hard word for me.  I'm an education reformer; I'm reforming education by continually trying to be a better teacher.  I wish the system were more supportive of those changes.  The word in this context means "people who have no particular expertise in education but want to rearrange the system anyway."  All of their ideas aren't bad, but merit pay is.

"Nobody could have foreseen..."

...that the merit pay hype would die off due to lack of funding.

Oh, wait, it looks like somebody did.  What was that, 2008?

For my English students, a reading assignment.  Why is my lede misleading as to the content of the EdWeek article?

And a bit of meta-blogging.  I've just told Blogger to post my labels at the bottom of my blog.  The good news is, the only people ever likely to see them is me.  The bad news is a lot of my labels are one-off jokes.  I learned the art of labeling blog posts from the oft-imitated, ne'er-duplicated Neil Gaiman, after all.  I can't find a way of making a tag cloud just of tags that appear more than once.  Any help from the universe on this one?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's this about then?

Privatizing teaching.  Who thinks this is a good idea?  Why? 

The Michigan Republican party, that's who.  As to why, I couldn't tell you.  It didn't work with maintenance staff, and you don't even have to have a degree to be a maintenance worker.  It didn't save money, it didn't improve efficiency.  Why, it's almost as if there's something here that isn't best served by race-to-the-bottom, get-more-while-paying-less mentality. 

It's going to be incredibly ironic (not to mention frustrating) if the only way we can have what we think of as a public school is to start a charter school.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Various items

Uncle Arne gives a speech.  I agree with basically everything he says, or at least everything in this bullet-pointed version as published.  I think the "doctors and lawyers don't work nine months a year" line is a little glib, but I am broadly in favor of increased school time.  

*Fun with Blogger stats, updated.  So in my post marveling over Blogger stats, I was amazed that I had people coming to my blog after searching for auto mechanics.  Well, it turns out that I actually wrote a post about auto mechanics.  'Course, it wasn't about auto mechanics.  Further, it turns out that the person who got here looking for auto mechanics left a comment on the blog.  It got caught in the spam filter.  S/he asked for advice on how to find auto mechanics.  Poor devil.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Good wisdom, vol. 2

The sooner you learn that it's okay to fail, the more enriching your experience as a teacher will be.  You will embrace your failures as opportunities for new beginnings.

--Lisa M. Dabbs, M.Ed.; "Twenty tips for new teachers."  Quoted in Edutopia News e-mail

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day!

Jenison, MI: "Unprecedented" teacher concessions will help districts halt layoffs, save programs.

In completely unrelated news, the US doesn't pay its teachers as well as many other places in the world, and its teaching cadre suffers for it.

The importance of context

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." --Abraham Lincoln

I read this quote and I loved it.  But because I'm a pretty skilled reader, and because I've seen Lincoln quotes abused and even fabricated before, I wanted to know more.  So, after a very little digging (it was the first non-"inspirational quote" site that came up on a google for "Lincoln quotes about labor"), I found this website, the Library at Northern Illinois University's Historical Digitization Project.  And in context, the quote means something different.

Lincoln is addressing an agricultural society in Wisconsin, a Northern state--the very definition of a Northern state, in 1859.  He's not talking about labor vs. capital at all, he's talking about how we get people to work; he's talking about free labor vs. slavery.  The coup de grace is that he's not coming down unambiguously in favor of labor.  He's outlining in broad strokes two different positions on the issue.  Pro-labor people (like me) like the above quote because it sounds like he's saying that money is less important, and entirely dependent on, work.

But consider this quote:

"Labor is available only in connection with capital –  nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it."  --Abraham Lincoln.

This seems to be in favor of capital, although if looking at it closely, the assumption clearly collapses into absurdity.  But this comes from the same speech, before the "labor" quote. Lincoln's not so pro-labor all of a sudden, eh?  He's not coming down on the side of pro-labor in this speech.  He does, however, come down on the side of pro-free-labor.

But it's still a fun quote to pull out this Labor Day.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fun with Blogger stats

Okay, so probably everybody does at least one of these.  Possibly more, if they find something interesting.  But if you'll forgive the self-indulgence, I thought I'd share some of the stats, not because of anything great about this blog, but because of something extraordinary about the world we live in.

This blog has been viewed over 3000 times by people who aren't me.  My average blog post has about 5 non-me viewers; the median is probably 4.  A few of them have as many as 20.  This isn't a huge readership, but it's a much bigger readership than the notes I used to write in the margins of my notebooks when I was studiously not thinking about my anthropology lecture; really, the blog is just a more complex, better polished version of that.

My readership comes from all over the world.  People from Russia, Singapore, South Africa, and Vietnam have all seen this blog.  Who knows how useful to them it was, but they saw it.  18 people from the Netherlands have been here.  18!  (Hallo!)  I have 6 followers: a few educators, my wife, one person who would, for his/her own nefarious purposes, follow anyone, and a couple of people I can't tell anything about.  I know I have at least 1 regular reader.  I don't believe he's following me under an alias, but he might, I suppose.  I don't know why he would choose to comment under his real name, then, but the ways of the mighty are mysterious.

People get here in all sorts of ways.  Lots of people get here by searching for "Never work harder than your students" or some variation thereof; if I'd known that was going to be my big traffic driver, I might have worked harder on those posts.  (But not harder than my students.)  Some people get here by searching for "kohn vs marzano."  Some got here by searching for notes on "Art and Science of Teaching," a few by searching for "components of a lesson plan," one guy got here by searching for "lesson plan for i am (and i mean it) not going to move."  I think it must be a book; it's not one I've heard of. 

Someone got here by searching the phrase "do we take the whiteboard for granted".  I wonder what they intend to do with the answer to that question: lead a whiteboard awareness campaign?  Replace all the whiteboards in their school with chalkboards?  Anyway, if the person who searched for that phrase is still here, the answer to your question is "yes." 

One poor soul got here by searching for "site:blogspot auto mechanics."  I wonder what I've written to make any search engine ever think that this was a valid result for that search.  I think about the searcher must have felt when s/he got here; all they wanted was instructions on changing the light bulb in their Mazda 6 (answer: you probably can't in later models; you have to take the whole front end of the car off.  It takes 2 mechanics over an hour.) and what they got was a diatribe against, say, Michelle Rhee.  How disappointed they must have been.  I take comfort in the speed of the internet.  At least their disappointment was lingering.  I like to think, though, that the confusion lasted for a while.

As I said at the outset, none of these things are meant as self-congratulations.  I didn't earn any of those things.  My miserable scribblings, more pre-writing exercises than drafts, and certainly not published-quality works, do not deserve to be taken seriously by educators from Florida, California, India, Russia, Germany, and Singapore.  More people have been exposed to my thoughts through this blog than through my teaching career, and that's shocking and humbling.  The digital world is a strange and wondrous place.  It's true that you never know where the road is going to take you when you walk out your front door, what adventures you'll be whisked away to.  The less explored corollary is that you never know, when you put out the welcome mat, who will show up at your door.

So thank you, dear reader, and to the people who wanted instructions on replacing the timing belt in their Ford F-150, sorry about that.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thursday night marimbas

Title: Two Mexican dances for marimba.
Performing artist: David Hall.
Album: Saudação
Composer: Gordon Stout.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The wisdom of Ray

Ray left this in the comments of the last blog.  I put it here so that everybody who stops by can see it.  And if it's just Ray and me who see it...well, at least I won't have to go into the comments in order to re-read it.

Have a great year and don't be afraid to take a risk and don't be afraid to fail because you took a risk. It is truly the way we all become better.
 You can't expect your students to take risks if you're not willing to do it yourself.  Let's have a great school year.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Big Idea of big ideas

Part II:

We've had key ideas of classes re-packaged and re-sold to us in so many ways, it's tough to know where to begin, or what action to take.  Here, to help the confused and unwary, a brief overview of everything.

(Caveat lector:  If you thought the last one was bad, go no further.  The concepts are murkier, the definitions are longer, and the jokes are worse.  There's even a bibliography.)
(Special note to education students: After reading this, you're likely to be more confused about one of the most important concepts in education than you were before.  That's okay: you'll be in the same position as everybody.) 

Monday, August 22, 2011

"How did YOU spend your summer break, Señor Cosby?"

Trying to learn how to do this, kids:

In other news, you can tell I'm getting tetchy to go back to school.  All my blog posts are imaginary conversations.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Good lord. What ARE you teaching these kids?"


The Big Idea of big ideas

Part I: Overview and background knowledge

"Welcome to English class, ladies and gentlemen.  We're going to learn a lot in this class."
"Excuse me, teacher.  What are we going to learn?"
"A lot."
"Well, right, you said.  But a lot of what?"
"A lot of English."
"Okay.  Well, I already know a lot of English.  Can I go?"

We've had key ideas of classes re-packaged and re-sold to us in so many ways, it's tough to know where to begin, or what action to take.  Here, to help the confused and unwary, a brief overview of everything.

(Caveat lector:  This goes on for a while.  Only click through if you have some time on your hands.)
(Special note to education students: The definitions below appear in none of your textbooks.  If you use them on your tests, your professor will fail you.  On the other hand, the business college is always ready to take dropouts from the other schools, and I hear they pay their interns.) 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Articles like this get my goat

From the local rag:

"Here is the list of Kalamazoo-area schools that failed to make AYP."

In all fairness, I know that the author, Julie Mack, is generally a proponent of public education, although sometimes it would be hard for a casual observer to tell.  On her blog  published not six hours later, she calls for a reform of NCLB.  Even in this article, she doesn't necessarily do anything wrong--she presents the information as it exists, in as succinct a form as the language will permit.

But when a parent reads this article, what they see is "Your school failed."  When an opponent of public education (or an "education reformer") reads this article, they see "Public schools fail."  Then there are the comments.  (I try not to read the comments in my local rag, because they inevitably infuriate me.  I understand that this is a common pattern among the comment section of newspapers online.  I read the first one on accident.)

Look, I'm on the data train.  I think we need good data to make the right decisions.  All stakeholders in education (which, the first comment on the "Your School Failed" article reminds me, is everyone) should have access to information about the achievement of their schools.  Saying that all schools are wonderful! obviously doesn't make schools better places.  There is no need to sugar-coat our shortcomings.  There's no reason we shouldn't ask the community for input on how to improve, and every reason to do so. 

This kind of thing, however, doesn't further that conversation in any meaningful way.  It casts aspersions in the guise of providing information.  It takes as its premise a flawed idea, the idea that naming and shaming is the first best tool for school improvement.  To reiterate, I'm certain that this is not what Ms. Mack intends to do, but I don't know that a reader could help but to see it as an accusation.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A timely webcomic

I don't remember if I've re-posted XKCD comics before.  But Randall Munroe is one of my favorite webcomic authors, and he often has keen insights.

Friday's was especially timely.  As I mentioned, on Thursday and Friday I went to a training (along with an extraordinary number of St. Joseph County's best and brightest) on Marzano's Formative Assessments and Standards-based Grading.  One of the key ideas of Thursday's training is that a traditional, letter-grade-based-on-a-100%-scale grading system is almost useless, and that averaging grades together is no way to show a student what she has learned.  (Friend and regular commenter Ray told me so in a comment in an earlier post.) 

Friday morning's XKCD:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another educator who does everything better than me...

...writes a blog better than I do.

Peter Pappas's blog Copy / Paste seems full of practical suggestions to do the kinds of things I want to do in my classes: project-based learning, student-centered and student-directed educational practices, critical thinking skills crammed into everything, clear and effective communication skills.  I was introduced to him through Larry Ferlazzo's blog.

Some favorite posts so far:

First day of school? Here's how to get students thinking.  Instead of passing out books, going over rules, etc., give your students an engaging puzzle to solve that involves communication and analytical thinking.  And then, just for kicks, have them think reflectively about the whole experience.

A taxonomy of reflection.  An application of Bloom's taxonomy of thinking to reflecting on learning.  This is the first of a four-part series.  It's an interesting framework for reflection.

Teachers, have the courage to be less helpful.  4 key points on how to make your classroom more student-centric.

How to tell a story: Five rules for better writing.  Actually a cross-post from someone else, but still good.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The trouble with grades

How many times have I written about grades?  (Well, Señor, if you were better about tagging your posts, you'd be able to find out.)  I'm brushing up my syllabi for the coming school year, and I'm pleased to note that relatively little needs changing for the first week or two of school.  This is excellent, and now I can focus on the other 34 weeks of school.  I feel like I'm in a position, finally, to begin with the end in mind.  (If you parse that sentence carefully, it's full of false assumptions, logical inconsistencies, two or three confessions of less-than-best practice, and possibly a spelling mistake.) 

One of the things we did in teacher college (I say it that way to liken it to "clown college," a slightly more prestigious organization) was to write out course-long rubrics.  "An A student in this class will have these attributes and display these skills and knowledge..." on down to at least a C student.  We stopped at C because evidently D students weren't worth defining; they were defined as the not-quite-critical absence of the skills that made all the other students A, B, or C students, I guess.

Now I'm doing that for my 2nd-year Spanish students.  This is an exercise I engage in periodically.  It's based heavily on ACTFL performance standards.  But they just don't fit nicely into grading categories.  At the end of year 2 of high school Spanish, according to the state, students should be performing at a Novice High level of communicative ability: able to function in familiar, formulaic communicative settings, with limited re-formulation of the language.  So, if that's the minimum required skill level, does that become a D-?  A C?  A B?  An A?  At what point am I penalizing students for not being outstanding? 

I'm going to a training on Thursday and Friday.  We're going to work on one of Marzano's books, I don't remember which off the top of my head, which talks about grading in a standards-based system.  Hopefully I'll know more after that. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Advocating for our profession

More on this later:


Monday, August 1, 2011

That's a little more like it

This is what I like to see from the national-level leader of education in our country.  (We can debate how important the national-level leader is in a system as de-centralized as ours some other time.)  He says that teachers should start out making around $60,000 a year, and end their careers making around $150,000.  We all know that he has been pushing a great many of the "reforms" that are so odious to teachers' unions: relaxed charter schools, increased "accountability" for teachers (and apparently some school-level administrators, as well), merit pay, etc.  With this speech to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, he indicates his awareness that under current circumstances, there is no reason for any competent person to become a teacher.  He also noted the political improbability of making that happen.
The teacher leader in me says that it's nice to see a national figure recognize something the appropriate value of teachers.  The cynic says that it's nice to see a national figure make a symbolic buy-off that will score political points without costing anyone anything.

Every year, at the district I last worked at, the superintendent took Teacher Appreciation Week seriously.  He and his wife would spend the week before that preparing little tokens of appreciation--satchels with messages of support, lapel pins of acorns ("The mightiest oak tree grows from an acorn"), and the like.  One day during that week he would make breakfast for the staff.  He would give a three-sentence speech, in effect saying, "I wish I could show my appreciation by paying you thousands of dollars, but instead I made you pancakes.  Thanks for all your hard work."  And we would all eat.

I've heard the wish for thousands of dollars, Secretary Duncan.  Now I'm waiting for my pancakes.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tech tools update

I looked at my calendar this morning, and found that it was the 23rd of July.  The start of school is right around the corner.  I haven't read a teacher tech blog in weeks, and those are normally among the highlights of the internet for me.  So I looked at some of my RSS feeds, and a lot of really intelligent people are doing a lot of really cool things.

Via iLearnTechnology, we have Automatoon, an online animator that uses HTML5, not Flash, as its basis.  This is important because Flash works badly on Macintosh computers, and not at all on iDevices.  (There are also some philosophical reasons for HTML5 over Flash, but I only barely understand them, and wouldn't deign to try to explain them.)  It's easy to use, and unlike other online animation features I've demonstrated here before (notably Go! Animate), with Automatoon it's relatively easy to start an animation from scratch, right down to the component pieces.  It requires a little more freehand computer drawing skill than I have, but I imagine most of my students are better at it than me.  This is a welcome addition to the world of visual learning tools and student-production-other-than-5-paragraph-papers tools.

Free Tech 4 Teachers points us in the direction of a QR code reader treasure hunt generator.  QR codes are those square bar code things that you see everywhere from magazine ads about perfume to, er, other magazine ads about perfume.  The idea behind a QR code, I guess, is that it's supposed to allow people with mobile camera devices to take a picture of the box and get a lot more information about whatever the code is attached to.  I saw them the other day on the tags in house plants in Lowe's.  Taking a picture of the code would take you to a website or something that gave you information on care and feeding of the plant, something that used to be printed on the tag.  I guess they had to get rid of that information to make room for the  QR code.  I don't really get QR codes; I don't know what they're really good for.  I feel like they're an answer looking for a question. 

That makes them a perfect fit for the QR code treasure hunt generator: students have to go looking for the questions.   *rimshot*  The idea is that students take their device, equipped with an appropriate QR code reader app (and the site provides some suggestions on where to find them), and go searching the school for QR codes.  They take a pic of the code with their device, the reader app reads it, and gives them a quiz-type question.  Students punch in the answer, and they're off to find the next question.  Setup seems easy enough: the teacher types the questions and answers (or copies and pastes them off of a text document) into the program provided, the program gives QR codes for each question, the teacher prints them off and hides them around the school.  S/he gives the students X minutes; the ones who come back with the most correct answers wins.

Again, this feels like an "almost there" technology.  I haven't fiddled with it yet, so maybe I'm missing something.  What I'd like to be able to do with this is an Amazing Race-type event: The answer to the question is the location of the next question.  Maybe it will work for that; I don't know.  I intend to give it a try, but I'm not certain I get the advantage over doing exactly the same thing, but having students take pictures of themselves at the appropriate locations.  If it's an excuse to turn short-answer quizzes into kinesthetic learning activities, I guess that's fine.  It feels like it could be more so, though.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Preview of coming attractions

So I never got around to posting my summer to-do list; I was too busy doing it.  That's probably okay.   I've got a lot on my mind, though, and I've got either ideas or drafts for the following ideas which I intend to write about:

The role of unions in education; possibly an ancillary on organized labor in general (hint: I'm broadly in favor)
Effective teacher and administrator evaluation
Effective student evaluation
The role of journals in my English classroom
Creating community in the opening days of school
Common Core standards and their implementation
Communicative learning in the mixed-level classroom
Technology integration and educational computer programs you'd like to see
Project-based learning

What's on your mind as we pass the half-way point of Summer 2011?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


This is the sort of thing that makes me just love the Internet.

I dare you to watch this and not smile. It's got EVERYTHING that makes a youtube video great--a baby monkey AND an iPhone.

Edited to add: Credit where credit's due: http://gizmodo.com/watch-this/

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Some sort of reform position from the union

According to the New York Times, the National Education Association has an official policy on student evaluation outcomes in teacher evaluations: Use them, but only if they're good tests.  The article does a good job of sampling the union's position and laying out some of the big picture of what this means.  (Full disclosure: I am a proud member of a local affiliate of the NEA.  While I'm not a union shill, the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking I was.)  From my perspective, the union's new policy feels like sense, and it resonates with my thinking on the matter. 

We need data to drive effective instruction.  We need good data about educational outcomes for students, and we need good data for educational outcomes for teachers.  (Someday we'll get to have the conversation about data for educational outcomes for administrators and school boards.  But in the meantime, teachers are the proxy for all those levels of the education machine.  And that's to put entirely aside the effects of poverty, parent responsibility, and all the other smoke screens we teachers like to release when people try to look at us too hard.)  This need for data means that we're going to have to include student testing in decision-making at some level; if data-driven decision making is going to be used to improve education, we need good data.

There are two key phrases: the more immediate concern is "good data."  Neither I nor any of my colleagues I've talked to about this (a pitifully small sample size; even if you count my former colleagues at my last posting, the total number of professional educators I've worked with adds up to less than 50, and the ones I've talked to add up to less than 15) trust any of the current assessments.  The disconnect between the assessments and educational reality is simply too great, for a lot of reasons, and it isn't necessarily because the ACT is "too hard."  It's not.  The reality is that assessments sample such a small number of learning goals, and do so in such a cursory manner, that drawing meaningful conclusions is tough.  Equally importantly, the current assessments are not really designed to evaluate the skill of instruction.  The good standardized tests assess really big ideas--critical thinking, drawing conclusions from data, things like that.  But they don't do it in a way that means a great deal.  Colleges have been de-emphasizing their focus on standardized test scores as an admission requirement, even as everybody else ramps it up.  The union's director of teacher quality makes a valid point: the Common Core curriculum might be a starting place for getting better standardized tests.

The second, long-term consideration about data is longer-term political.  I said, "if we're going to use data to improve education".  That wasn't a rhetorical flourish.  As trained professionals, many of us see the value in data (even if we lack the know-how, the resources, or the time to do anything about it).  But I for one don't trust the motivations of many of the people pushing "testing testing testing" as the new standard for teacher (and by extension public education) efficacy.  Many of them have a track record of being distinctly anti-public-education.  These are all the usual boogeymen for this blog: the Mackinac Foundation, private charter school management companies, people who think that a lack of officially-sanctioned prayer in school is de facto a reason to be against public education.  For many of these organizations (cue the "straw man" arguments, and I see your point), data-driven instruction may simply be another weapon to attack public education with.

Conversely, critics of the NEA (and, in this particular instance, I don't count myself among them) could argue a similar thing: In name, the union has accepted testing as part of teacher evaluations, while in practice rejecting any existing tests.  It will be at least a decade before the kind of tests the union wants are available, by which time this argument will likely be moot.  Good practice will show that high-stakes testing doesn't produce notably better education outcomes, and opponents of public education will move on to some other angle of attack.

So what's to be done?  Well, I can't do a whole lot about public policy right now.  Thanks to a recent vote in the Michigan Senate, my local union has less power than ever to do anything about teacher evaluations.  What I can do is this: use the (pretty crappy) data we have to make decisions about what's good for my students.  Make sure my learning goals are crystal clear in my head, and make sure my formative assessments are as good as they can possibly be.  Get the data that I need myself.  Make sure my class is so hard, when someone throws a standardized test at my students, they don't think twice about knocking it out of the park.  Make sure my support structures are so strong, that all of them get it.  Ray, I think you have the right idea:  What do you want students to know?  How are you going to help them learn it?  How are you going to know if they got it?  What are you going to do about it?  The key questions are the only ones that matter.

(Edited to fix spelling error in the title.  Thanks, Jamie.  Who's the English teacher around here again?)

Friday, June 24, 2011

A brief thought for further consideration

According to research, a great way of teaching background knowledge is to teach key vocabulary.  (Marzano has something rapidly approaching 6 books on the topic.)  It is very possible to know some information or possess some skill without having the vocabulary for it; for example, children from Spain conjugate verbs in the second-person plural imperfect without ever knowing what those words mean.  Another example is a basketball player who knows nothing about physiology or trigonometry, but has a free-throw average of 80%.   It is, however, very difficult to teach a concept without a shared vocabulary.  To give a skill without a vocabulary would involve simply modeling a skill over and over, and having the student mimic it.  To give knowledge without the vocabulary...again, modeling, maybe?  That's tougher, I think.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Portuguese Friday

A student sent me this link.  Great song, cool video, tight execution.

Edited to add a link to the lyrics.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Education reform, unions, first principles

Or, More Questions than Answers

I'm bashing my head against two posts: this one from Shawn Gude, and this one from E.D. Kane.  trying to figure out what it is that bothers me about them.  I agree with nearly everything they both say, but neither of them quite...do it for me.  In 6 Traits writing speak, I would give them a 5 out of 6 in Ideas, without quite knowing why.

Favorite lines:

"Ends are often regarded as self-evident. It’s a bit more complicated than agreeing that, yes, we all want an education system where students are well-educated. Reform discourse needs to include discussions of first principles, end-games, and educational values" --Gude

"[T]here is no doubt in my mind that corporate for-profit charter chains would be a mess; that the influence of the big foundations can create perverse incentives; and that the top-down approach of many reformers is a bad approach." --Kane

Things I have trouble with:

"So I support the unions, I just think they also need to reform. And I support the idea of charter schools and school-choice, I just don’t support the profiteering off of education that some reformers and corporate interests seem to want. I think charters, like unions, can be a great force for progress." --Kane

How do unions need to reform?  He seems to be in favor of all the things that unions do.
How can charters be a force for progress?  What do they bring to the table?  I'm glad that both of these people (much better than me at this stuff) are leery of charters run by for-profit companies.

In the end, we're left with the beginning.  Why do we educate our children?  Do we want to make our students ready for the workplace?  Well, yes, but is that all schools are good for?  If so, then we should probably just go back to apprenticeships as our primary vehicle for education.  That way, the cost is borne by the companies who will benefit from their labor.  If we want our schools to do more for our students than that, if we want students who think about things, if we want inventive, creative thinkers, that's something different.

And, of course, if we want schools to be vehicles by which the children of the rich and powerful remain rich and powerful, we have models for that, as well.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sudden insights

I'm putting the wraps on SY 2010-2011; it's proving to be deceptively difficult. I'll have a year-end review and a summer to-do list up, probably next week.  In the meantime, a few random thoughts:

1.)  In my Spanish classes, I'm shocked to discover that a great deal of my assessment of comprehension is in fact an assessment of production.  This is not a new problem for me; I seem to remember having written about it before.  I wonder why I haven't done anything about it yet.  Maybe it's because writing tests is hard. (/whine)

2.) This from my friend Qandeel:

I told her she was confusing coffee with crystal meth.