Sunday, December 16, 2012

What makes a good school-wide support system?

I've been heavily involved with a new, mandatory after-school program for students with missing assignments.  We call it our After School Assistance program, ASAP.  I think our councilor found that name someplace.  It's kind of like a detention, but instead of getting one for behavioral problems, students get one when they have less than a C- and are missing assignments.  We've been running it twice a week for three weeks now.

[Quick standards-based grading justification of this policy: Obviously, in a traditional grading system, 0's on a homework assignment can kill a student's grade faster than anything.  But if you're in an 80-100% standards-based grade system, missing assignments aren't that big a deal to the grade, so why have a special intervention program just to solve that problem?  My thinking, as an advocate of both ASAP and standards-based grading, is that, in a SBG system, you need a certain level of proficiency to pass the assessment.  The homework, whether it's graded or not, is meant to help you do that.  If you ace all the assessments, you obviously don't need the practice for proficiency.  If you don't, then the homework's extra practice might be just what you need to help you get the standard.]

We started the program before we had all of the logistics worked out, and part of that was because I really wanted to get it started.  Teachers complain about homework assignments all the time.  So even without all the lines of communication being operational, we started pulling students in after school.  For the first few weeks, teachers asked me, "How do we do X?"  My answer was usually, "I don't know.  Let's tell the student and the student's parent that she has to come, and we'll work it out from there."  With a couple of notable failures, that seems to work out.  It's gotten me to thinking about how I would assess this program's achievement so far, and that leads me to ask, what makes a good school-wide learning support system?

So, spitballing: A new program should address a need the school has.  It should not take the place of something a teacher should be doing.  It should not get in a teacher's way, or place an undue burden on the teacher.  It should remove a concern that a teacher has about a small minority of her students, so that she can focus on better instruction for all students--it should deal with small numbers of students with similar learning challenges.  It should not enable the systemic marginalization of a minority student population--it shouldn't keep the tough cases out of sight and out of mind.  It should SOLVE the problem, not just change the problem or make it look like something else or allow the school to say they have a program in place--it shouldn't be window dressing.  Like all things in school, it should have learning as its goal.  Like all things in school, it should be student-directed.  Like all things in school, it should be data-informed.  (I've decided I reject the phrase "data-driven.")  It should help answer one of the key questions: What do you want students to know and be able to do?  (Curriculum.)  How are you going to give it to the students?  (Instruction.)  How are you going to tell when students get it?  (Assessment.)  What are you going to do with the ones who don't get it, and what are you going to do with the ones who do?  (Differentiation; interventions and enrichments.) 

I feel like this program is still in its infancy, as is my capacity to evaluate it.  But I think it still scores pretty well: It definitely addresses a need of our school, and I definitely have the data to show why we need it.  I think teachers get great benefits for the time they put into it: they fill out a form and agree to give students 50% credit for late work, and in exchange they don't have to chase students for work they need to get done.  Students who need extra practice or time or structure get it; students who don't, don't have to sit through it.  We have, I'm guessing, about an 80% success rate: with very few exceptions, students who come to ASAP finish their work that day.  I don't know how many multiple-offenders we have, but my impression is that it's a relatively small number.  In all, it seems like a good school-wide support system.  There are improvements to be made, but it seems like a good start.

Readers, what do you think?  When schools create programs to help teachers do their jobs better, how do you know they're working?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unions, RTW, and the teaching profession

Full disclosure: I'm a union guy.  If (when) RTW passes the Michigan legislature, I will still pay my union dues.  I think unions are a net positive force, both in terms of economics and in terms of productivity.  If occasionally they end up on the wrong side of history, or defending somebody stupid, or killing the business they purport to serve, well, you can't be right all the time.

After I wrote the introduction, I've spent the last 4 days trying to write something intelligible about the subject.   Every tme I think about it, though, I frankly lose my breath at the sheer audacity of what has happened here in Michigan.  I can't be rational about it; I don't see the other side's point of view; Gov. Snyder's justification for changing his position is so flimsy as to be laughable; Sen.  Schuitmaker's assurances that she is not anti-teacher no longer seem like pleasant half-truths, they seem like insults to my intelligence wrapped in stationary.* 

I'm scared for the following reason: every year I have been a teacher, my job has gotten harder, more demanding, and more complicated.  I champion many of these changes, and I think that if there's any work force on earth that should embrace lifelong learning as a professional quality, it should be teachers.  But it's also gotten less well compensated, and the profession is being systematically denigrated.  Public schools are seen as the problem, most notably in situations where poverty is the problem, both with the students and with the public schools.  It's as if I were, I don't know, a butcher, who is told he has to become a surgeon, who will be compensated like a lumberjack, and treated like tripe.  And I feel that way WITH the union protection.

I saw the union as a way to restore some measure of dignity to the profession.  We're never going to be paid what we're worth; we're public employees, after all.  But I get the distinct impression that people resent us for even ASKING.  Look, my job is 30% harder than it was last year; my retirement health care has more than doubled in cost, my pension has gotten more expensive (yes, I know about private-sector pensions going the way of the dodo; maybe if you'd had a union, your employer wouldn't have been able to steal all your money with no guarantee of repayment), I am less likely to retire before I stop being an effective teacher than I ever was before, and dammit, I'm still good at my job. 

But now the official policy of the state of Michigan is that solidarity is wrong.  Unions are not a force for good to be respected, they are a cancer to be broken.  There is no way for me to see this as anything other than a political attack and a battle in the class war.  (The rich are winning the class war, by the way.  I just expected to be able to put up more of a fight for longer.)  And right now, there's no way for me not to take this as a personal insult. 

*During the Great Teacher Purge of 2011, when Michigan passed a state law that made being a teacher much more expensive, I wrote Sen. Schuitmaker an e-mail imploring her not to vote for the package.  She sent me a 2-page typed letter in response, with her signature in actual pen at the bottom.  It was very nice, it expressed her opinions, and assured me that her children go to public schools, and she wants nothing but the best for them.  I believe this; I no longer believe that she thinks public schools are what's best for them.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Longer school days

Thanks to the efforts of a public/private partnership, 5 states are going to experiment with longer school days: 

NPR: Days to get longer at some low-performing schools

This is probably a good thing.  It all depends on implementation, of course, but longer instructional periods should roughly equate to more learning.  If we're going to make longer school days, I for one would prefer to eat into summer break, but that's not my call.  I understand why a district would opt for longer days instead.  Among other things, Secretary Duncan argues that longer school days also helps to keep students safe in districts with lots of violence, like Chicago, his home turf.  That aspect of it had never occurred to me, since I have the great good fortune of coming from a more-or-less violence-free upbringing.

 The thing that troubles me, though, is Sec. Duncan's attitude towards why we haven't adopted longer school days as a national model.  He treats the arguments of teacher compensation and "who's going to pay for the toilet paper" as minor nuisances.  Call me cynical, but when I heard him say that on the radio, I could almost hear his next line: "Teachers have to buy toilet paper anyway; they could just pick up some extra."  I'm not opposed to teachers working harder, working more, working better, working together, working differently, even buying school supplies.  We're all in this to do what's best for kids.  I'm opposed to decision-makers assuming we should do it for free with a smile on our faces, because it's what's best for kids.  During scheduled school times, an administration has the right to tell teachers what to do and where to be, as long as it improves instruction, and with the possible exception of planning period, depending on contracts.  Anything outside of that is kind of extra.  We all know we can't do our jobs well in 6 hours, but there are only so many hours in the day.  Now, if Sec. Duncan would like to wash my dishes....

Monday, November 5, 2012

"The Force isn't real? How about 4 billion dollars?"

Hmm.  This bears thinking about.  First reaction: Good on him.  He sometimes does some surprisingly grand gestures with his oodles of dough.  Second thought: $4bn buys a lot of education reform, for good or ill.  And Edutopia is a solid resource for teachers looking for best practices.  It's big on (the right kind of) collaborative learning, game- and project-based learning, learning for everyone, and formative assessment.  So, despite the potential for an incestuous donation of $4bn from him to his own education organization, there are worse ways to make a big splashy gesture towards kids.

George Lucas will donate Disney $4 billion to education, HuffPo

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Changing everything

I think I’m a pretty good teacher.  Most of my students like my class.  Most of the ones who don’t, don’t for all the right reasons.  “He speaks Spanish too much,” “he does something EVERY DAY,” that kind of thing.  Barring extenuating circumstances, all of my students leave my class a little better at Spanish than they came into it, and on my best days, they leave a little better at life, too.  So when students come back to me after a long break, or even a long weekend, and say, “I don’t remember anything,” I just sigh.  For a while, part of my solution to that was more homework.  Now, of course, what I hear is, “I don’t remember anything.  And I didn’t do my homework.”  So I’m always looking for better ways to make thinkgs stick. 

To that end, I went to a training on Friday for a world-language teaching methodology called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS).  It blew my mind.  For non-language teachers reading this, hold on for a little while--there’s a little bit of education theory at the beginning, but this isn’t really an article about pedagogy.  It is about change and professionalism and being scared.  It’s also a little bit about faith and whatever the opposite of faith is--doing the impossible because you’ve been shown how and why it works.

I have a pretty straight-up communicative language acquisition methodology.  That means that I think the underpinning of good language instruction is comprehensible input: you have to give learners examples of the new language that they can understand.  You then repeat this process ad infinitum.  Whatever level your students have, you speak to them just a little bit beyond that level.  My rules for providing comprehensible input are these: 

1.)  Give students examples of key vocabulary in lots of different contexts: visual, audio, read, written, spoken, heard.  That will give them a variety of hooks for their learning to latch on to. 

2.)  Value comprehension above production.  Babies get to listen to a language for 3 years before anyone expects them to do much more than grunt.  We educators don’t have that long, but we can still be mindful of the way the brain learns. 

3.)  When you do ask for production, making oneself understood is more important than grammatical correctness.  Verb conjugation charts and grammar lessons and noun-adjective agreement and subject-verb agreememt are important aspects of the language, because they make communication easier and better.  But in terms of speaking, they’re less important than getting the main idea across.

4.) Above all, translate as little as possible.  As little as possible, for me, turns out to be like one word in forty.  Draw a picture, act it out, dance, show a video or a cartoon clip or a song, anything you have to do to get students to understand WITHOUT telling them the English meaning.  The brain creating meaning is what language learning is, so the key to language learning (so my thinking goes) is to have the brain creating that meaning for itself. 

TPRS starts with the same base assumption: language learning only occurs when the brain creates meaning out of new language.  It then flips it on its head.  It translates absolutely everything.  You don’t introduce a new word without telling a student what it means.  The theory is that having to create new meaning is more work than the brain needs to do, and it gets in the way of REAL language learning, which is processing the meaning over and over and over until it becomes natural.  Instead of becoming a crutch, the translations become a spring board for creating meaning, which happens by processing a small amount of language (say, one sentence) in a lot of different ways, over and over until it is automatic.  Blaine Ray, the presenter at yesterday’s conference and the first developer (I think) of this method, likens it to practicing the piano rather than learning grammar, or even learning vocabulary.


The differences between what I think works and what I saw on Friday are subtle, but profound.  Apart from the differences of view on translating, there’s an issue of vocabulary.  I try to cover a vocabulary set--people in school, buildings in town, the doctor’s office, for a total of 10 to 20 words--with accompanying practice activities every 2 or 3 days.  In a school year that averages out to about 3 words a day (not including verb conjugations), for a total of some 500 words the students know well, plus some 1000-2000 extras that they’re expected to understand but not be able to produce.  (Those numbers are arbitrary and based on personal experience, not research.)  TPRS promises that at the end of Spanish 1, you will know 150 words.  The good news is that they’re the most commonly occuring 150 words in Spanish, and you will know them like crazy.  There are other important differences, like the role of students in the class and what it means to be proficient at a language, but I need more time and experience to process those.

Here’s the upshot:  TPRS is EXACTLY in line with my learning goals.  It gets the job done.  Students understand Spanish, they speak Spanish well.  After two 30-minute practice sessions, Blaine had a room full of new learners reading a 1-page story in German.  By the end of Spanish II, his students were taking the AP test and having success on it.  It’s creating language learners.  However, it cuts directly across the grain of my thoughts on how to get it done.  The question then is this: Am I a good enough teacher to do what is demonstrably best for my students?

The question of course answers itself.  But it is MUCH scarier than I would have guessed.  I consider myself a professional.  I learn new teaching techniques all the time. I pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t and change my instruction accordingly.  I try really really hard to synthesize seemingly contradictory best-practice theoretical requerements.  But this--this is a whole other kettle of fish.  Adopting a straight TPRS curriculum will mean all of the following things.

1.)  My curriculum work over the last seven years will be essentially meaningless.  The TPRS curriculum is based on acquiring the vocabulary most useful in most situations, and not at all about mastering communicative tasks.  My learning goals and practice activities, my carefully constructed classroom management system designed to encourage respectful student interaction in Spanish, all of my work to adapt Marzano’s framework to a language class, all out the window.  And just when I was starting to get it to work well.

2.) The state standards--a list of some 70 things that a student is expected to do by the end of Spanish II--are essentially meaningless.  The standards which I thought were central to learning--the interactive-mode standards--are actually the least important.  All of the culture is going to change, too, and I have no idea how.

3.)  I’ll have to start TRANSLATING.  I cannot emphasize enough how big a change in thinking this is.  I imagine this is how hard-core Catholics felt after Vatican II.  That is not in any way hyperbolic.  I’ll have to accept that what I’ve always thought was best, isn’t.  For the benefit of my current and future students, I’ll have to accept that I did less good and maybe even some harm to my past students.

4.) There is so much uncertainty.  The uncertainty is not in the numbers, nor in my personal experience, but in dedicating myself to a whole new way of doing my job.  Waking up tomorrow morning will not mean the same thing that it did on Tuesday.

All of this change and personal discomfort, and for what?  Is what I’m doing so damaging that I can’t keep doing it?  Some of my students are very good, and they’re not always the best students.  So, back to the question: Am I enough of a professional, enough of a teacher, to change everything, up to and including the questions I ask myself about my day’s progress? 

The question answers itself, really.  I’m going to try to look at a different way.  I now have a methodology that I hae seen work, with enough step-by-step elements to it that I can do it consistently, and enough flexibility that I will still have room to react to my students’ needs.  That sounds like a good day's work to me.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Career paths for teachers

In an interview with Education Week (paywall), 2012 National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki argues against traditional pay scale steps and columns.   Instead she prefers a model of advancement with a clear career path laid out, in which skilled teachers don't necessarily just go through the motions or become administrators.  As they become teacher leaders, master teachers, and veteran teachers (I think she was kind of spitballing with the names), they would have a different responsibility set and a different pay scale to go along with that.  She also talks about her position is not so different from the one espoused by the unions, unless one has a cartoonishly simple understanding of the union's position. (She's not as condescending as that, though.) 

I like the idea of having a career advancement path, but I'm also leery of who would write the rules.  This kind of change would be hard to get right, and the consequences on a school-level could be pretty harsh, on teacher morale if nothing else.  Hmm.  It will be interesting to see if anybody has already implemented something like this, and how it works for them.  Mieliwocki says that 90% of schools are run on the step-and-column system; I wonder what the other 10% are doing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Quick note

I'm getting ready for the day, but I just read an article by Audrey Watters at Hack Education.  Among other things, she talks about a jam session she attended with another open-ed guru.  This inspires her to riff on the theme of process vs. product.  I've tried very hard to focus my education on learning outcomes and specific targets--a product.  It may be that, now that I'm starting (just starting, in my 7th year in the business) to know how to do learning goals well enough to do it consistently, I may spend some time reflecting on the process of learning, and maybe practice riffing a little more.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

When I find stuff I don't have time to deal with

Acceso is a bundle of digital learning materials for intermediate-level Spanish learners (2 really good semesters of college or 2 good years of high school).  It's meant to replace textbooks.  I'll have to evaluate this before next school year; I already have people asking me about Spanish 4.  If this isn't too underneath their ability level, I might try to use it.  (Found here.

National Novel Writing Month starts in November.  Their website is here:  I don't know if I have a point with this, but every year, I think, "It's NaNoWriMo in November.  Maybe I'll write a novel."  So I'm noting it here in case I want to do somthing about it; maybe I'll judge student interest in having some sort of novel-writing support group.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Present me is very very happy with past me

Last year, I designed a project.  I turned my school into a small city, gave each of my student a map to exactly half of the city, and had them talk on their cell phones to give each other directions to points unknown.

It was HARD.  I had a print copy of the school's emergency exit map, but nobody seems to have a digital copy.  So I had to manually create that.  I had to assign street names to the hallways and store names to all the classrooms (the easy part).  I had to secure permission from the administration, the custodial staff, and all of the individual teachers whose rooms I would be turning into churches and ice cream stores and municipal government buildings.  (Not a problem, everyone said.  Go for it.)  I had to find a system for keeping all of those papers organized as I was hanging them up.  That was the hard part.  Last year I was one step away at all times from dropping an armload of papers all over the place and ruining everything.  But I got it all up in time for the project, and from my perspective, it went very very well.

Flash forward to this year.  It took me about 45 minutes--one planning period--to set the entire project up.  And this year I'm doing it with three classes. 

As I was agonizing last year over how to do all of these things, I made a lot of good decisions for longevity of the project.  I made all of my materials reusable.  I kept them uncharacteristically well organized.  I made the project's outcomes align with what I wanted the learners to know and be able to do.  We're going to call this one a lesson design win.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beginning of year reflection

I feel like I'm doing a lot of things right so far; I feel better prepared, vis a vis classroom management and curriculum layout, than I ever have before.  My CHAMPS program is working out nicely, and my classroom token economy system has been shockingly successful.  Our school is making a lot of structural reforms which, if we take them seriously, will make vast improvements in our student achievement.  Most of my students seem pretty excited to be in class, and if I'm not quite up to 100% Spanish yet, I feel like I'm pushing in the right direction.  In all, a good strong start to the school year. 

Next on the self-improvement list: 1.)  Improve the turnaround time on my homework.  I always say I'm going to, and then I get a little better, but never quite enough.  2.) Get my Spanish III online class up and running for realz.  I'm almost there; the ISD contact person who has been helping me has been doing a tremendous job.  3.)  Integrate our iPads.  The iPads are in and waiting, so I just have to figure out how best to use them.  I have some ideas: speaking quizzes, etc. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Today's to-do list

Yesterday: I made a significant start on beginning-of-year organization.  Today I'm going to keep doing that: Finish syllabi, take a look at some of the online contact I have available to me, clarify portfolio contents.

New tasks: Design review materials for Spanish II.  I have Spanish II classes of widely disparate abilities and exposures.  I'm going to try to design materials to get as many people as possible up to speed as quickly as possible--I want to start new material in two weeks.  I did this fairly well last year, so I think I'm just going to juice those efforts up.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Today's objective

If it's August 15, I must be scrambling to get the new school year ready.

Today's objective:  Review and revise beginning-of-year paperwork (syllabus, rules, procedures, etc.).  Look over Wong and Wong's "First Days of School" and Sprick's "Discipline in the Secondary Classroom" as a refresher.
Draft new paperwork: Portfolio sheet and 2-year topic outline.  (Notably for Spanish 1 and the middle schools.)  Review portfolio assessment from Edutopia, Curtain & Dahlberg's "Languages and Children," and Shrum & Glisan's "Teacher's Handbook."
Get all paperwork possible ready to print and copy when I go in to school tomorrow.
Any time left over should be spent reviewing new "Michigan Learns Online" materials and setting up online supplies through CLEAR.

All that should only take me, mmm, 16 hours or so.  I should be done in time to start tomorrow's to-do list.

Monday, August 13, 2012

This year's opening salvo in teacher evaluations

The Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief e-mail I get once a day, and rarely take the time to read all the way through, pointed me to two excellent resources about teacher evaluations. 

The Christian Science Monitor does a good job of running down the value and issues of teacher evaluations in today's online issue.  Among the highlight quotes include Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond: "I went from being very enthusiastic about [value-added test scores] to extremely worried," and the counter from Dan Weisberg of the New Teacher Project: "How long do you want to wait until we have a system that satisfies all the concerns?"  The article touches on the complexities of adding value to standardized test scores, the power of effective feedback to teachers and the impact that it can have on students, the importance of teacher involvement in designing effective evaluation systems (including incentives), and some of the horror stories of objectively excellent teachers getting terrible reviews through flawed systems.  In all, a good introduction to the topic, I thought.

Aaccording to this article, the Achievement First academies of New York seem to have the balanced approach to teacher evaluation figured out.  A variety of evaluation techniques--observations by trained observers (including other instructors trained to the task), value-added test scores, and student surveys --give teachers much more valuable feedback than what the article portrays as the "traditional" teaching method--a score determined by a laundry list of practices that the observer looked for in her biennial visit to the classroom. 

Included in the same e-mail was a tip towards the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards's new resource for evaluators of teachers: the Video Observation Program.  The idea is to provide observers with videos of what good teaching looks like across a variety of subjects.  I'm reminded of my poor principals who come into my class and listen to me speak Spanish for 45 minutes--they have few resources to determine how well I'm doing my job.  (If after 6 weeks my principal can't understand me and my 7th graders can, I think that's a growth measurement.  But it's tough to fit that into a rubric: "How much more content do the students know than the principal?"  Doesn't really work.)  They can look for general best practices: Do the students know why they're doing what they're doing?  How engaged are the students?  How is the instructor assessing learning in an ongoing way?  But in terms of content delivery, how is one principal supposed to know the differences between good teaching in ELA, math, science, social studies, X number of world languages, phys ed, and technology?  NBPTS wants to provide principals, for a nominal fee, a library of videos.  This is an excellent idea; I wish it were available for free, and not just targeted at principals (and other teacher leaders).  I think it would be a valuable part of a teacher's self-improvement kit, too. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

And now we return to your regularly scheduled reflections

I took the month of July off from school things.  I've been doing no concrete work, and whenever I've thought about my classes, I've tried to think about something else.  The idea behind that is this:  For many summers in the past, I've woken up most days, all summer long, thinking, "Okay, I'm going to do school work today."  And then I don't, and I'm disappointed with myself.  Well, this year, for a variety of reasons, I did school work through the entirety of June.  When July came, I told myself that I could use some down time. 

So I guess it's not really taking time off, so much as it is recognizing reality: I'm not doing any school work.  It's been great for me, anyway.  I've done a lot of things I've been trying to do for a long time.  I grew basil and made pesto.  I painted something without adult supervision.  I used a binder clip to hook a battery to an LED and make a sort of flashlight out of PVC pipe fittings.  I've been exercising, and I've gone to the dojo once a week for two months.  I finished taking Stanford's iTunes U course on computer program design principles, and have started re-taking the iPod/iPad programming course, now that I know a little something about writing programs.  (It's still well below what the professor on the videos expects from his real students, but he'll never know.) 

But August starts on Wednesday, and I'm going to be kicking it in to gear.  I've still been learning about how to learn and how to teach, I've just been avoiding thinking about practical applications.  As a result, I have a back log of really exciting possibilities that I want to get to work on; I think I'm going to come out of my corner swinging with both fists.  Stay tuned for a goal list and some plans of action.  In the meantime, here's something that my friend Jamie sent me to chew on:

What are you most looking forward to doing when you get back to school?  What changes do you hope to see, and what changes do you hope to make?  What do you hope hasn't changed at all?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Learn a language in 90 days

This is a post by Maneesh Sethi about learning a language very quickly, from the perspective of a motivated learner.

Here are the highlights of the post:
*Less than 3000 words make up 80% of the occurences in a language.  Learn those, and you're well on your way to fluency.  Spend your first 30 days memorizing 30 of those words a day.  This will form a strong basis for learning from context. 
*In the next 30 days, keep memorizing 30 words a day, but expose yourself to the language as much as possible.  Figure out words from the context you find them in; when you come across new words whose meaning you can't figure out, make a note of them.  Look them up later and add them to your cycle of memorizing words.
*After that, keep memorizing.  Now, spend as much time as possible socializing with people.  Go out with friends.  Hang out at cafés.  Interview people.  (Tell them you're writing a book about the area.  That's worked for me.  I still consider writing that book sometimes.) 

He also suggests materials and mental strategies for learning new languages.  His methodology is very strongly immersive: He recommends thinking in the new language, hanging out with people who only speak the new language, and constant exposure to new vocabulary.

This fits in well with my experience and my theoretical training.  I think I've told the story here before about my semester in Spain.  It had 2 take-aways, in terms of learning:

1.) I learned more Spanish in 4 months than I had in 6 years, and let me be clear: I was GOOD at Spanish before I went to Spain.  I don't just mean on vocab/grammar tests and writing academic papers, although I was good at that, too.  I mean I had no trouble making myself understood in any context that I had any knowledge about.  I had no real difficulty in reading even difficult literature.  None of this is bragging, because my first 72 hours in Spain were a humbling (which is not to say humiliating) experience.  I learned Spanish nearly exponentially in the first 2 months, and after that I still learned very very quickly, so quickly I didn't have time to notice how much I was learning.

2.) About the same time I got to Spain, a Norwegian named Sten arrived in Burgos.  He didn't speak any Spanish at all when he got there.  He spent the next 3 1/2 months partying, renting apartments with native Spanish speakers, hanging out in bars and cafés, and going to concerts.  When I left in December, Sten spoke Spanish nearly as well as I did, about every topic except the academic stuff I'd been studying at the university.  Again, I was good.  But Sten did almost as well in less than 4 months as I had done in almost 7 years of dedicated study. 

How does this help me as a Spanish teacher who can't afford to drop his students off in Spain for 4 months?  Well, it still outlines a kind of timeline.  More on that later; I just wanted to get this down someplace I could find it again.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Processing student feedback

For a class evaluation, I gave my students a form based on the NBPTS World Language standards.  For a variety of reasons, mostly accidental, I only ended up giving it to my Spanish II and my Spanish I classes.  By nature, these students are the ones most inclined to like class; they signed up for it, after all.  For that same reason, though, they're the ones most likely to call BS if there's a problem, I think.  I've just finished going over them, and here are some of the highlights:

On a scale of 1-5, in both classes, I averaged better than 3 in every category.  My median and mode scores in every category were also 3 or better. 

The 2 categories I did worst in were "forming constructive relationships with students and families" and "knowledgable about how students learn language."  As far as forming constructive relationships, the dissaatisfaction can come from a lot of different angles.  I wish I'd asked a more specific question.  Is it the "family" part I don't do so well on, or is it the "students" part, or is it the "forming relationships" part?  I know I don't call home as much as I should to say nice things about students.  I'm working on it, but it takes a while.  The "students learn language" one was surprising to me.  I thought I did pretty well.

My consistently lowest scores were from my Spanish II class, who mostly came away with the impression that I don't value diversity and I don't understand the different ways students learn.  In short, I think, they don't think I valued them as individuals.  That's too bad, because I loved them as individuals. 
One of the classes thought things went better in the first semester, when I spoke more Spanish, than the second semester.  They seemed to think we had more fun.  The other class thought it was fun most of the time.

I got pretty high marks for knowledge of language, culture, and assessment.  The last one sort of surprised me; I keep trying to re-vamp my tests to they test what I want the students to know, but I don't think I'm there yet.  One student wasn't fooled.  S/he gave me generally high marks, except when it came to assessment. 

The students all think I know Spanish really well, which is good, because I do.  I feel like I'm sort of cheating putting that question on there in order to make myself feel better.  (Not that I feel bad, but I knew I was going to score 4 or better in that question.)  But if I don't ask it, how will I know if my students don't believe I can speak Spanish? 

Here's the takeaway: I know my stuff, but I'm not connecting with the students in a way they understand.  Some of that may just be the nature of trying to connect with them in a language they don't speak, but connecting with students is a good goal to work towards.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

iPad Apps to investigate further

Not a lot of processing in this post, just a place to put some links where I can find them later. It looks like our school will have a small number of iPads for students to use or for teachers to use in class, so big chunks of this summer will be spent trying to use the resources that will provide for us.  (What an awful sentence that was.)

Ed Tech Teacher compiled a list of iPad apps, organized by learning tasks, called "iPad as...".

Richard Byrne directs his readers to an app called GoClass, which might have some interesting useability.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The simple brilliance...

I don't even know where to start. 

In the research science world, it is not uncommon to write articles, even whole books, that the authors fully expect maybe 30 people to read.  My seniors' research papers on capital punishment were read by more people than that.  They do it because it's important to increase the body of human knowledge.  And who knows?  It may turn out that your obsessive attention to mating strategies in prarie grass will be the thing that saves the earth from extinction; it's been the premise of many an action flick.

The Ig Nobel awards are given to scientists who make people laugh, then make people think.  In a world with titles that stretch on forever, giving precise summaries of the article to the few people who can understand them, it's easy to forget that the profound can also be funny. 

This is all a run-up to the most useful piece of self-improvement advice I've seen since Gimli's "Breathe" speech from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  The 2011 Ig Nobel award for Literature went to John Perry of Stanford University on his article, "How to procrastinate and still get things done."  (Chronicle of Higher Education 1996). In it, he lays out the principles of structured procrastination.  The key tenent of this idea, and the life-changing (or possibly life-reaffirming) concept, is simple: "the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important."

With nothing further to add, I will leave you to comtemplate the wisdom, as I go search for something less important to do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rome wasn't built in a day

So...this looks awesome.

"ORBIS is Stanford University's Geospatial Network Model of the Roman Empire."  It will help students understand the geography of the Roman Empire better than the Romans did.

h/t Free Technology for Teachers.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

New dream

To drive the 30,000 miles on the Pan-American Highway, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, or possibly in the other direction.

By dream, of course, I mean "thing I will never do, even if given the opportunity.  Because if given that opportunity, I will have much better opportunities available to me."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

An easier way of getting voice mails?

So I'd like to have my students do more one-way speaking.  In fact, that's one of my major pushes for tech development in my classroom.  Students have all of these cell phones and whatnot; can't I use them to have students leave me messages?

There are a variety of tools available, but for a variety of reasons, all of them are clunkier than I would like.  Maybe SpeakPipe is the answer.  One embeds the app into one's blog, and hey presto, one is collecting voice mails from people who visit the blog.

It doesn't look like it would work like a voice mail box, like I was thinking at the beginning of this post.  (Ah, I was so young and foolish then!)  But a computer with a mic would allow a student to leave a message.  Hmm...Now all I need is more mics.  As always.

h/t Free Tech for Teachers.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I should be a game designer

Well, I shouldn't: as Carrie says, "You have no follow-through."  But the power of games to teach us complicated concepts, critical thinking skills, and cost-benefit analysis, to name three things, is amazing.  Check this out:

She designed a game to teach her mixed-heritage daughter about the slave trade.  And that's just the beginning.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On change

I don't have the same job my teachers did.  Maybe I have the job they were supposed to have; I don't know.

I don't have the job I thought I would have when I finished my teaching internship and graduated from college, and I didn't have the same job leaving my internship that I had going into it.

I certainly don't have the job my university trained me for.  I don't know what to make of that fact.

I don't have the same job I had when I started this job.  I'm coming up on the end of my sixth year.  Every year still feels like the first year, because every year it's a different job.  Some of the work from previous years, I did well, and I can keep it.  But not as much as I thought at the time.

This isn't the job I signed up for.

It's much, much harder.  And much, MUCH better.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


A timesuck is an activity which I (and I suspect others) spend inordinate amounts of time unconsciously or semi-consciously doing, in spite of myself.  They're the little things that keep me from getting more tests graded, from getting enough sleep at night, from redesigning tomorrow's lesson plan, this time with added differentiation.  I list a few of them here in the hope that seeing them written down will make me more aware of them, and better able to ignore them when I need to.

*Reading just one more blog about educational technology
*Looking up acquaintances on Facebook
*Looking up acquaintances on Facebook whom I then don't friend
*Finding out more about the TV show I'm watching and the actors in it using IMDB
*Getting just a little bit further in whichever video game I'm playing on my iPad
*Vocabulary PowerPoint presentations--it seems I'm forever making vocabulary PowerPoint presentations, half of which I never use, because there are better ways to present the vocabulary than PowerPoint
*Researching fascinating, but not exceptionally relevant, bits of history trivia (Y'know why a space shuttle's solid rocket boosters are the size that they are?
*Writing reflective, self-deprecating lists on Blogger

Jeesh.  No wonder I never have any time.  I'm BUSY!


Sunday, April 29, 2012

The simplest questions present the greatest mysteries

..and it's the mystery that lasts, not the answer.

I need to provide students with prompt feedback, record someplace semi-permanently the numerical results of assessments,  and keep track in a useable format which students need to re-take which parts of which assessments.  Is there a way of doing all of this that DOESN'T mean I spend 6 hours a day managing student data?  I'm not spending that much time on it now, I'm just doing a really bad job of providing prompt, meaningful feedback.  That makes the other tasks easy.  On the subject of time management, where do I find the time to reflect on my instructional technique, let alone adjust my learning activities, once I have all the data I need to make meaningful decisions?

How can a student practice listening and speaking in another language?  For the reading, vocabulary, and grammar sections of a test, I have all sorts of differentiated practice activites that a student can do on her own time.  On the listening and speaking sections, not so much.  Not good practice; those are the two sections I care most about.

On a related note, since those are the sections I care most about, how can I weight my tests to reflect my educational priorities without destroying my students' GPA, given that the parts I want my students to do best at are traditionally the parts they do worst at, at least at first?

Turning our attention to the English class, how do I instruct satire?  More to the point, how do I know when my students understand satire?  I can imagine giving a test with a question like, "Give an example of satire," but I'd be afraid they would mess with me in their answer.   And if they don't mess with me, doesn't that prove that they don't understand satire?

Despite what my opening statement says, I would really appreciate some insight into these solutions.

And now, for something completely different, I steal somebody else's tech discovery: Time Maps!  It connects the geography of the WHOLE WORLD, plus a timeline of 5000 years, with brief but quite thorough outlines of what's going on in each area at pre-determined points in history.  As someone with a decent memory but more interest in big-picture than detail work, I could never connect what was going on different parts of the world at the same time.  Now, I don't have to.  Someone smart has done it for me and put it on a web site.  It makes it much easier to connect related but disparate events through time and space.  I can easily see having my students do a "tour of the history of the Spanish-speaking countries" as a "when you're done" activity during a computer lab trip.   (h/t iLearn Technology)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Welcome to the world of 3D!

To end my spring break blogging flurry, 2 links from Free Tech for Teachers, both dealing with digital models.

The first post talks about 3DTin, an in-browser tool for creating 3D images of things.  Now you know I love me some Google SketchUp,  but an in-browser tool would be a LOT better for school work than a dedicated program.  It looks really fun, and fairly user-friendly (for 3D drafting software).

The second post talks about Autodesk Homestyler, which lets you design a house, drop in rooms and furniture and maybe even textures, and then pop it up into 3D.  I wish I'd known about this 2 months ago, when I was prepping the house design unit.  Now that I know about it, I'll be looking for excuses to use it.

My first iBook...

...isn't for Spanish at all, but English.

I'm starting Hamlet with my seniors.  (Sometimes I wonder if I'm insane, or if I just don't know what I'm doing.  They have like 8 weeks left, for pete's sake; why am I starting the hardest part of my class now?!  Because, that's why.)  So, as sort of a lark, I put iBooks Author through some of its paces.  I found an audiobook version at Librivox, and downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg.  (If all I wanted was the text, it turns out it's SUPER easy to copy and paste text into a new digital textbook.  Not a huge surprise, but still.)  The goal is to have the audio book just read the page that you're looking at, so that you can follow along as the actors perform.  We all know Hamlet isn't meant to be read, it's meant to be seen.  This can take us a little closer to that goal. 

The British National Theatre has some pretty excellent educational resources on their web site, and among them are great resources for a recent production of Hamlet.  On iTunes U, they have a short clip of Rory Kinnear, the actor who played Hamlet, performing the first soliloquy ("Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt....).  So I took that and embedded it in a video player, right there in the textbook, next to the written text.  You can watch the performance on your iPad, while you read the relevant bit.  If I had but world enough and time, I would do that to the whole bloody play.  But one thing at a time.

I guess the point is that the possibilities are pretty awesome.  It's an exciting time to be a teacher.

Also, for fun, I dropped in an interactive picture of Denmark, and a 3D model of Konsborg Castle, which is where the action nominally takes place. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Google continues to take over the world

...and I for one welcome our new lizard overlords.

Bill Ferriter talks about using Google Docs to pre-package digital materials, so students can use them in their digital projects.  The main advantage, of course, is that they can spend more time working on the project, and less time looking for the perfect picture.  (Always tremendously frustrating.)  He also goes on to extol the virtues of collaboration, ease of use, and finding materials licenced for re-use (instead of downloading a picture, video, or sound bite that somebody else owns).  In all, an excellent idea.  Now if only I could convince my school to create Google accounts for my students....

Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers points out that the Google Art Project, which had a huge scope to begin with, is now enormous.  With Google Art Project, you can see works of art from museums all over the world.  I've already used it a little bit in my Spanish classes, to show works by Picasso and Dali and Varo.  Mr. Byrne points out something execllent: If you sign in using a Google account, you can create your own galleries and collections.  Not only does this mean I can create galleries, so I don't have to go searching for the same 10 paintings all the time, but also that I can have my students create their own galleries based on themes.  For my Spanish students: "Find me 10 pictures by Velazquez.  Find me 10 art works created in the Romantic style.  Find me 10 works about (or at least arguably about) the Spanish Civil War.  Find me 10 works of people doing household tasks, and describe in detail what they're doing."  For my English students: "Find me 10 works that have the same tone as the book we're reading.  Find me 10 works on the topic of unrequited love / family / loneliness.  Find me a work that you find stunning/beautiful/ghastly/confusing and write a page describing what it looks like, what you think/feel about it, what the artist was trying to conveigh; use descriptive adjectives/averbial phrases that express time/complex sentences."  Now, if only I could convince my school to create Google accounts for my students....

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates does my thinking for me

Another winning quote:  "Professionalism isn't a courtesy, it's a self-interest."

From here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

TPRS resource

TPRS is an instructional strategy that involves teaching a second language by having students build a story around some core vocabulary or grammar concepts.  The idea is that the learners learn the language as it's used, not as vocabulary in isolation, and certainly not by memorizing verb charts.  I've dabbled in it with limited success; I use it as one of my tools, usually supplementary to other instructional techniques.  Come to think of it, it's probably more of a practice tool than an instructional technique.

It's something I would like to know more about, though.  It plays off of what I understand to be best practice in language learning: use the language for communication; use it in an engaging, interesting way; work in a variety of instructional and practice techniques; alter between communicative methods and communicative modes; make the students the focus of the classroom, and not the teacher or the textbook or the standards.  I'm kind of trying to scrape together the $300 or so that the formal training session would cost.

In the meantime, Jeanette Borish writes about her experiences with the methodology here.  She has some interesting insights, and overall, she appears to appreciate TPRS.  She has 30 years in the business, too, so she should know her stuff.

Monday, April 2, 2012

More early spring-break thoughts

The Legends of the Sun Pig, a blog I don't know (via Making Light, a blog I do know) ruminates on being the second-best swordsman in Caribastos.  Strive to be the best, it says, but take some time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Wise words.

It reminded me irrevocably of this, though:

Be careful not to shoot yourself in the belly looking for a fight you can win.

Sometimes the metaphors just write themselves.

Technology in education

What can we reasonably expect technology to do in education?  In the last 30 years, computers have promised a great deal and delivered a great deal, but what was promised and what was delivered were not always the same thing.  As we move out of the era during which desktop computers are the ONLY way to do computing, the new thing is tablet computers, led by the gold standard, the iPad.  What will this new technology be able to do for us?

Audrey Watters, at the oft-cited but never duplicated Hack Education, wrote an interesting article about educational technology as a MacGuffin.  It's good for hooking us in to the plot, but it's only meant to hold us in place until the real plotline gets moving.  For explanation, she quotes a speaker she heard at a conference:"something that provokes learning, but isn't."  Technology is a good trick for getting students to pay attention, or a force for making teachers re-analyze the efficacy of their teaching strategies, or a way to show the school board that a staff is taking the problem of the day seriously: "See?  We were trained on a software product that helps us keep track of bullying instruments."  It's a good place to begin these conversations, but it was never meant to carry the whole party by itself.

In my own practice, I look to technology to do three things: to scale up good practices more easily, to make individualizing instruction and practice a little bit easier, and to take my students to places in the world I can't afford to send them for real.  Having said that, almost everything in that last sentence is wrong.  When I say, "In my own practice," I don't mean I actually practice this very well.  It's what I move towards.  When I write lesson plans, I look for places to do this.  It isn't very deeply ingrained in my day-to-day life yet, but I hope I'm moving in that direction.

Scaling up means to take something which works on the small scale, and to make it work reasonably well in a setting a hundred, a thousand, a million times bigger than when it was designed.  Starbuck's has succeeded because its business model was scaleable.  Hundreds of small, local coffee roasters and cafes, which clearly have a superior product, cannot say the same.  (Water Street is a happy exception, and may it long remain so.)  Scaling up is an issue I don't think that the education world has dealt with especially well yet.  Ironically, a lot of the education reform movement has its roots in scaleability of good practice (I'll write that doctoral thesis another day) and it's something that no ed reform movement really takes very seriously.  This is where technology comes in--we can put computers in a lot of places we can't put teachers.  Students can interact with computers much more frequently than with teachers.  (If I divide the number of minutes in class by the number of students I have in that class, each of my students is entitled to approximately 90 seconds of my time.)  So if I can translate a good practice on to a computer--a communicative activity where a student has to comprehend target vocabulary to complete a task, or a video chat with the ambassador from Spain--I can presumably reach a much larger number of students.

Individualizing instruction is terribly important, and in a lot of ways, feels like the opposite of scaling up.  That is sort of not true, though.  Good practice looks a lot of different ways, and individualizing instruction is all about finding the kind of good practice that works best for a given student.  An individual teacher can take care of HUGE swaths of this simply by increasing the variety of teaching methods s/he uses.  (A constant struggle for me, and I imagine for lots of other people, too.)  If a lesson plan calls for an aural-intensive lesson, providing a visual or a kinesthetic experience as well is helpful to ALL students, but especially those who learn best in that way.  Technology makes that easier to organize.  However, when I said it was "easier," it's not: it's just easier at time of instruction.  Planning it is as hard as planning anything else, and I think that's the reason I don't do it more often.  (That's probably true of educators more broadly, but I haven't read the study that shows it, so I can only speak for myself.)

The only clear victory for me in the world of ed tech is in taking my students around the world.  My Spanish II class had to find an apartment in Barcelona a week or two ago; it was awesome.  (Thanks to the MiWLA presentation of Amber Kasic-Sullivan for the idea and the unit plan.)  I've had my Spanish 1 students explore Chichén Itzá; there are some new laser-rendered drawings which are just extraordinary.  (I'll dig them up and put a link in the comments later.)  Using Google Earth and its acompanying street view, students have had to follow directions through downtown Oaxaca, Mexico; I've shown them big chunks of St. James's Trail, through northern Spain; we've visited my dad's ocean-side restaurant in Puerto Rico.  It's remarkable how little vocabulary students need to know in order to conduct 80% of these lessons in Spanish, so win-win there.

More thoughts about this later.  This is really only the summary of the piece I want to write about ed tech, so I might need to wait for a longer break to work on it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The old grey lady justifies my job, so I don't have to

Hey, it's my first social media blitz, where I post something to all my social media fora at once!

The New York Times writes about the benefits of bilingualism.  Conclusion?  People who speak two languages are smarter.  At all kinds of things.  Many of which have nothing to do with what we think of as linguistic processing.   Including, evidently, inappropriate punctuation to increase dramatic tension in a sentence where none would normally exist.

Anyway, read the article.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spread the word to end the word

I've used this Ta-Nehisi Coates quote before, but it bears repeating: " "[...I]t's always wrong to treat individuals as a 'collection of others.'"

Some students have gone even further, taking aim at one of the two most odious epithets I hear every day. Good on them.

PTHS: Spread The Word To End The Word 2012 - "I'm Eric" from McCoy Studios on Vimeo.

This is my new need-five-minutes-of-community-development lesson plan.  I'm left with one doubt: Is this part of my initial lesson on how to behave, or is it something we watch as a response to an incident?  Either way, I'll bet my 7th graders will have to watch it by the end of the coming week.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Partial success: This year's debates

So we have finished our debates in English class this year, and while they weren't an unqualified success, they were much improved over last year.  Students' arguments were much better prepared and much better structured.  They didn't quite work all the way through the structure; their closing arguments were more like summaries than rebuttals, but they paid enough attention to their opening statements to make their summaries.  Their cross-examination questions were often actual questions, and not just statements.  Their statements of position were consitently backed up with traceable research, and if their sources were sometimes less than reliable, at least they weren't articles from the Onion.  I haven't read their reflection papers yet, but it seems like they have gotten more out of it than last year's class.

There are things that they didn't do, a clear indication that they didn't know they were supposed to do them.  As often as not, they just read off of their source material, which means that I saw the same 4 speeches 6 times.  I don't know that they ever understood why I had them research both sides of the argument, but they did give some indication of arguing from a place of sympathy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Flipping Spanish class

My colleage Brendan and I frequently talk about flipping our classrooms--assigning initial instruction as homework, in the form of videos of us (or other teachers) delivering the content.  This would free up class time to answer questions or work on more intensive projects.  We look for Kahn Academy videos and other methods of providing content. Right now it's just talk, but I think we are (independently of one another) going to spend some time this summer trying to make it happen. 

Peter Pappas outlines how he started flipping his classroom, and how we might start even before the year is out.

As a bonus Peter Pappas blog entry, he answers the question, "What would schools look like if students designed the school?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A reader solves the QR problem

How Natalie C. found her way onto this blog I'll never know (by which I mean I'll look at the Blogger stats later, if it occurs to me), but I'm glad she did.  She presents a solution to taking attendance with a QR code which is simple and free.  Full instructions are just a click away

The Sparknotes version is this:  She created a Google Docs form which included all the information she wants from her attendees, then created a QR code from the address of the form.  Attendees shoot the QR code with their smartphone cameras, their smartphone takes them to the form, they fill out the form, click submit, and bam.  A Google Docs spreadsheet takes the information and puts it in neat rows with a timestamp and all.  Very clever!

This might be a little involved for my purposes.  I just want to point a camera at a student and have a computer register that the student is there, all official-like.  But still, this is slick, and I can think of a few other ways to make that useful.  More about that later.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sudden Insights!

Ed Week headlines: Study Finds Sudden Insights Key to Learning Words.  (This is a subscription thing.  I got cheated in through the side.  I'll summarize.) 

As a World Language educator, I spend a bunch of time repeating key vocabulary words in ways that I think will help students remember it.  Turns out, I might be...maybe not exactly misplacing my efforts, but let's say...not focusing my students at the right time.  They make an initial hypothesis of a word, and then refuse to let it go until the hypothesis is undeniably proven false.  Turns out, though, that given enough context, people are really good at making initial guesses.  Besides, when we forget our initial guess, we get a chance to guess again.  We remember the word when a.) it's interesting or important that we know it, or b.) we've guessed correctly enough times that it sticks.  (That last sentence is an interpretation.)

So this effects my instruction in two ways: 1.)  I need to be looking for ways to create aha moments.  2.)  My focus should be on creating concrete, rather than abstract, moments.  We understand the concrete; we can really only do abstract when we have either a lot of concrete to work with or a lot of practice at doing abstract.  One way they do this in the research is to put a new thing with two know things and say, "Get the [new thing]!"  Not only do children correctly identify the new thing, they generally remember what the new thing is called.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

QR re-revisited

This website has an app that will take what you type in, create a QR code for it, and, when you scan the code, play the text-to-voice audio.  That's pretty cool.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My next research project

...will be entitled, "A comparison of remediation strategies to behavioristic barriers in the linguistic transfer from L2 input to L2 intake."

The subtitle will be, "Why won't Spanish students just LISTEN?!?"

In slightly less silly news, Apple had their big "education" reveal on Thursday.  They revealed a new, upgraded iBooks, which will allow multi-touch digital textbooks.  This brings us one step closer to a world in which our textbooks talk back to us.  They also revealed a program called iBooks Authors, which allows anyone to turn anything into a multi-touch digital textbook.  This brings us one step closer to a world in which textbook companies are merely the biggest of the publishers, and not the only sources of organized material.  Hopefully, this will cause them to a) critically re-examine their business model and reorganize into smaller, more flexible publishing companies with increased focus on high-quality, variable-use peripherals, and less focus on giving students pre-chewed information and "higher-order thinking" questions that don't actually relate to anything in the textbooks, or b.) collapse underneath their own weight.

I look forward to playing with Authors, but I need the next generation of the Mac OS before I can download and play with it.  It's on the to-do list, though, possibly for the afternoon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Groupthink and education

In "The Rise of the New Groupthink" (New York Times, tiered subscription model) by Susan Cain, the author argues that for a variety of tasks, solitude is the best mode of working.  Despite this, business and education press ahead with having people work in groups.  The takeaway of the article is the line, "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority," quoting organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. 

I'm not sure how much I agree with the article, which is basically an ad for Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.  But it's the first time in a long time I've seriously questioned my judgment of group work as inherently superior for educational purposes than individual work.  I will definitely read the book at some point.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.  We celebrate a man who gave his life to make America look a little more like we wanted everyone to believe we were.  At school, the students have the day off.  The staff has professional development.

We'll spend most of the day working on positive behavior intervention and supports.  I've been through this tango before, only this time I know the tune.  I'm looking forward to it; it had a big positive effect in my last school district, and it made a huge change in the way I approach my job.  There are a lot of posts with tags about PBiS on this blog.  I wonder about my colleagues' receptivity to it this time, and I'm a little afraid that we're going to begin work without 80% staff buy-in.  But we'll see.  I've had a lot of 1-on-1 conversations with my colleagues, many of whom are just better at positive student management than I am, and nobody disagrees with the basic principles: identifying desired behaviors, teaching desired behaviors, supporting desired behaviors.  Their hesitation comes, as is always the case for people who already have too much to do, from a fear that this will be one more damn thing they have to do that everyone is going to forget about by August anyway, so why invest the energy?  I think this "reform"* has staying power, though; I know it does for me.

I can't help but reflect on the irony of planning a system on changing bad behavior on a holiday in which we celebrate someone's bad behavior.  If King had followed the rules, he would have faded into history.  Instead, he defied behavior expectations, responded neither to positive nor negative behavior responses, and helped lead a movement of making people a little more equal.

*"Reform" is in quotes because PBiS is something that good teachers have always done.  The change is doing it systematically--everybody does it about the same way for about the same things--and deliberately--you know ahead of time what you're looking for, and you do it fairly consistently.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I've already missed the time of year when people compile "Year's best" lists, which is a habit I think I'll try to get into next year.  "Year's best teaching strategy (new)," "Year's best teaching strategy (improved)," "Year's best student progress," "Year's best tech integration," "Year's best collaboration," etc.  What categories would be on your "year's best" education lists?

As I think about New Years' teaching resolutions...
...would it be better to resolve to try new things...
...or to get better at the things I'm already doing (or, at least, that I know need to be done)?
Possibly a riddle for the ages.

I resolve all the usual things: to teach to the test only when the test will tell me what the students have learned.  To more actively engage parents in their students' learning.  To provide students with more useful feedback on their learning.  To use technology more effectively: not as the newest shiny thing, but as an aid to high-quality thinking.  (Although you know I'm a fan of the newest shiny thing.)

I also resolve to be less product-based in my teaching, and more process-based.  In Spanish class, that means less vocabulary, and more vocabulary strategies.  Less grammar, and more opportunities for communication.  More time spent on meaning-bearing input, less time on meaning-bearing formation, and no time on meaningless utterances.  Less reliance on textbooks.  More reliance on real things.  In English class, it means doing the Common Core standards, and doing them well.  The standards are pretty process-based, already.