Saturday, December 29, 2012

Project Manistee Quest

I'm not teaching any more in a school setting, but I do continue to work with a Boy Scout troop with the kids from my old public school. Scouting is a kind of schooling, with the curriculum being the material and skills that the boys need to master to advance in rank. I was in Boy Scouts, and in later years I have appreciated the skills I learned there -- skills I do not know if I would have learned anywhere else. These gamut of skills range from physical fitness to woodcraft to nature study to campcraft to citizenship.

While at my old school, situated in an all-too-common high-need low-wealth urban neighborhood, I came to feel that the students lacked, for the most part, the opportunity to experience nature, to interact with the world in tangible, tactile ways. I felt it was a classic case of the problem that Richard Louv captured with his framing of "nature deficit disorder". This absence of opportunity to interact with nature has a psychological cost, as Louv and others have described. There's a field of ecopsychology that addresses it. It also (or maybe just another dimension of the psychological cost) hampers kids in school -- science is a great abstraction without any physical, tactile, visual, aural, etc. experience of the world. This is much of what is lost in the replacement of outdoor play with video games and television. Trying to address that absence of connection with the woods was a big part of why I started working with the troop.

My big project for the coming year (that being 2013) is to work with a crew of scouts to go on the Manistee Quest, a five-day backpacking trip through the Manistee National Forest in western Michigan. The biggest challenge right now is getting together the lightweight gear for backpacking. (There are lots of reasons for this approach -- I defer to Wikipedia for details and rationale.) Most of what the area troops have right now is heavy, car-camping suitable equipment. And no backpacks.

To raise the money for the equipment we will need, I am experimenting with crowdfunding. I have set up a project on GoFundMe. There's also a button on the sidebar to the right. I am still fleshing out the project page -- I need to add some pictures and then connect it to my Facebook account, but you can see a more complete description of the project there. The equipment we get will stay with the Western Trails District (basically all of the Boy Scout troops on the westside of Chicago), so it is an investment in not just the scouts that will go on the quest this year, but in future years as well.

I will post updates here.


Monday, August 13, 2012

The ideology of word problems

I'm reading Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945, an assemblage of Grossman's wartime journalism. The writing is fascinating and amazing, but translator/editor Antony Beevor is generally peevish and wont to toss in generous heaps of bullshit in his commentary.

But never mind peevish Beevor -- in the middle of the book, in early 1943, Grossman is assigned to the Kalmyk steppes, recently vacated by the retreating German army. He reports on what life was like in the city of Elista under the Nazis. Grossman includes an interview with a school teacher who continued to teach through the occupation. The teacher describes the changes the Nazis made to the curriculum, and includes this great tidbit:
Maths: they removed from the textbook all the questions to do with Soviet affairs [and replaced them with]: this number of Soviet aircraft has been shot down, etc. (p. 207)
and a few pages later:
At the school, teacher Klara Fransevna set first-year pupils the problem: 'Two Messerschmitts have shot down eight Red fighters and twelve bombers, and an anti-aircraft gun shot down eleven Bolshevik attack aircraft. What is the total of Red aircraft shot down?' (p. 210)
An extreme example, to be sure, but I believe Eric Gutstein made the point that teaching math is also ideological, in his Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics?


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Losing the propaganda war

It is depressing how clumsy the Chicago Teachers Union has been in its propaganda war with Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Mayor and CPS are running circles around the union -- as Chicago News Coop columnist James Warren describes it, "Emanuel was playing 3-D chess while his union opponent was playing checkers." Much as I dislike Warren's shallow analysis of Chicago education, I to agree with his assessment of how the union is faring in the battle of the length of the school day. The union is coming off like it has its feet nailed to the floor, and, at least from what it looks like in the media, unable to meet the tremendous challenges that the current mayor and CPS administration is throwing at it, not to mention the general crisis in education.

First there was the disaster of SB 7, which I don't think the union leadership ever came clean on. The CTU leadership was outmaneuvered, and whoever they pay in Springfield as lobbyists must have been asleep at the wheel. The union's ability to strike was weakened, if not effectively eliminated, and the mechanism was put in place to push through the a longer work day without any real teacher input. The leadership should have come clean that they screwed up, due probably to inexperience. They should have apologized, done the mea culpa, and rallied the rank and file around the challenges ahead.

Then there was the CPS Board's incredibly devious initiative to raise property taxes to help cover the hazy deficit they have. I think the public will read this as "the teacher tax" -- overpaid, lazy teachers are why my property taxes are going up. Emanuel and the board slipped in another wedge between the general public and teachers, further isolating them. The union should have vocally opposed the tax increase, but I don't recall seeing anything from the union on it. The union has been good about pointing to waste at CPS, the lack of budget transparency, the scam of TIFs sucking money from education, and giving the top executives there big big raises, but none of that resonates with the public like a tax increase. (Well maybe the fat raises at the top -- why can't that get any traction?)

Now, the union is being completely out-maneuvered around the longer school day. The union is incapable of getting its position out. As far as I know, the union was never against a longer school day, but you don't see that on the union website. Partly this is a result of the fact that the home page of the site is basically a blog, so it cycles through responses and positions and news. There is a link to a "better, smarter school day", but from the overall page composition, this appears as an after-thought, not the main front of the propaganda war that the longer school day battle is.

Even in the worst kind of business unionism (to which the new CORE leadership was a welcome break) , a union would of course be in favor of more work for its members. The question never was the length of the day, but how it would be implemented -- the better, smarter thing, and how teachers were going to be paid for the extra work. But the union has been consistently portrayed as opposing the longer day. The union's message is not just muddy, but stuck in the mud. The CNC columnist Warren goes so far as to portray the teachers at the renegade, union-sabotaging schools like the brand-new STEM magnet that went with the longer day in exchange for, well, a paltry bribe, as the equivalent of the Solidarity movement standing up to the Soviet monolith of the CTU (and there is a bitter irony there, if you ever followed left politics).

If the union could get in front of the debate -- the point should always be, "Yes we agree, we want a longer day. We never opposed it. We care more about the children of Chicago that Emanuel ever will be capable of." Then it could put into perspective the awful longer day strategy pushed by Emanuel -- more work for (virtually) no pay and no thanks, all towards smashing once and for all the teacher's union. I don't really see how most people can accept that asking someone to work 29% more hours for only 2% more in pay is reasonable. But somehow, Brizard and Emanuel can propose such with a straight face, and somehow, this crazy insulting idea is accepted by the general public. Maybe this points to the challenges that the CTU faces trying to fight this propaganda war. Or that the perception of teachers is so awful now, after two years of regular anti-teacher propaganda, that expecting so much more from teachers seems reasonable?

If the union could get in front of the debate, then maybe the union could begin to recast teachers from greedy and lazy to the dedicated care-givers and guarantors of the future that they are. Every teacher I know puts in many, many hours of unpaid labor to keep up with all of the tasks expected of them. That basic fact of dedication to teaching children is completely lost in the media presentation. Also, many teachers at my former school -- I would estimate more than half -- worked after school tutoring programs already, providing the extra classroom time that Emanuel et al go on about, for the contracted extended day rate. Teachers already work a longer school day.

I really want the CTU to succeed here, but the news has been mighty painful of late.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Art and technology

My school is losing half of its art position next year. As a "technology school", one may wonder why this might be big deal, but I beg to differ. A technology school without a strong arts program is a perversion of education. It reveals an absolute lack of understanding of cognitive development; and a lack of vision of human beings, education, even the spirit. The decision-makers bow before the dumbest, unhuman aspects of the machine. It is the devil's work.

At my school, CPS pays for 1/2 of an art position, and the principal has made up the other half of the position out of discretionary budget money. School budgets have been cut, and my principal is saying that the discretionary money isn't there any more for the school's half of the art position. So next year we will have a part-time art position. By a rough calculation of 2.5 days a week times 6 class periods, she could serve 15 periods a week; we have 20 classes. The math is ugly.

This, of course, is especially disruptive for the art teacher. I mean it really sucks. It also tears at the social cloth of the school, more so because the art teacher is woven deeply into that fabric. We are all diminished. How much this was weighed in the decision of where to cut and what to cut, I don't know. Very little I suspect. I don't mean to minimize the personal or social aspects of the cut. There is, though, I think, a less obvious part of this -- the revealed lack of understanding, the lack of vision of how art provides the foundation, the skills, the experiences for work with technology.

Say, for example, that we take the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS-S) as a starting point. The first two standards say nothing about technology operations -- they deal with creativity and innovation, collaboration and communication. The best education theory pushes students to be directors of their learning, and up Bloom's hierarchy of thinking. We want students to express themselves in many media, with posters and sound and video and photographs. Students cannot do this well without a solid art background. Art is where they learn the phonetics and grammar of media literacy. Art is where they learn how colors combine and clash, about foreground and background, about dimensions and perspective, about highlighting and shading, about seeing critically, about enlivening the imagination and creating. Implementing NETS-S without art instruction is impossible.

There are other starting points than NETS-S. Hand work is critical for brain development. Learning how to draw, how to color, how to use one's hands to create things and so on -- the kinds of things students do in art class -- is not "just art" but fundamental to developing thinkers. Art also exposes students to the joy of creating. It exposes the possibilities of discovering and expressing feelings. It exposes students to different possibilities for being in the world. And based on the success of art-intensive programs in working with at-risk youth, I can argue that art also helps with students' social and emotional development. Basically, we develop better human beings when we teach them art. When we don't teach them art, we handicap them. Devil's work.

The more we inject computers into instruction, the more we need to balance it with traditional art instruction -- working with hands, working with different materials, looking at and really seeing the real world. Computers suck the user into virtual space, imagined by someone else, shallow and incomplete. Students are taken out of the world, which can only be okay if their virtual experiences are tempered by real reality. The more students go into virtual worlds, the more armor of critical thinking and visual literacy they need to protect themselves. The most interesting and exciting computer use I think involves constructionist tools where the students create and express. But again, the basic units of understanding what to do effectively with these tools are cultivated, in large part, in art class.

The slide into the confusion of computerized spaces with real spaces, and computerized instruction with human instruction is the slide into idolatry. In the confusion, the role of the human being, the teacher, is lost. The teacher is reduced to a machine, albeit a resistant machine. And one machine can always be replaced with another. My school will have more computer-based instruction next year (e.g., Achieve3000 is mandated by our area for next year, but not paid for, approx. $6000), and fewer people to work with students.

Given the CPS budget issues, was there a choice? There are always choices. Recognizing choices though requires transparency, understanding, vision. (And, I might add, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration).


Sunday, June 12, 2011

An analysis of Scantron testing

Below is a link to a paper (PDF file) I did on Scantron testing at my school. It was done for a course requirement:

It's written in an academic mode, as opposed to a critical or agit-prop mode, with lots of tables and basic statistics. Of some interest: mode effects overall appear small; a large number of students spoil tests; there is a large discrepancy between Scantron national percentile rankings and ISAT NPRs; there is a relatively high general correlation between school-level Scantron results and ISAT results, which breaks down when you look at individual classrooms. The final "recommendation" in the paper is that the tests should not be used for either teacher evaluation or student promotion.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Drunk driving

We had a staff meeting at my school on Friday. Classroom teachers received forms for sorting their students into Tier 1, 2 and 3 groups for implementing Response to Intervention, or RTI. K-2 grades will use DIBELS data to sort students, and grades 3 - 8 will use Scantron data. Since I work on organizing the Scantron testing at my school, and end up sifting through the data, I was especially interested in the choice of Scantron data to slot students into RTI tiers.

The form passed out came from our Area office, and uses Scantron National Percentile Rankings (NPR) for sorting. Students in the 24th percentile and up fall into Tier 1 (the lowest priority for special interventions). Students between the 11th and 24th percentiles fall into Tier 2, and students under the 11th percentile fall into Tier 3. (I may be off by a percentile or two -- I'm doing this from memory.)

I have written about the problems of standardized testing and "data-based decision making" before, likening it to the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlight, not because that is where he dropped them, but because that is where the light is. The light in this case is the pale beam of standardized test data -- it doesn't tell us nearly enough about the student, and for many of the neediest students, it is hopelessly distorting. We won't find the keys to student success with the data, but it's easy for administrators to collect, and to pretend that it means much more than it does. Drunk on data, and wandering off course from the outset.

For example: After we completed the math testing this Spring, about 8 percent of students at my school dropped more that 100 points from their Fall scores. The numbers were worse for reading -- almost 11 percent of students had dropped more that 100 points. These are big numbers, well outside of the statistical error range. Excepting epidemic of brain injury, such a drop can only be attributed to subjective student factors: boredom, disinterest, a desire to be done with test, difficulty with the computer medium, etc.

The belief that these initial numbers were faulty was confirmed when we made students retake the test. Most of the re-takers did much better, erasing most of the drop, and in many cases swinging into solid gains for the year.

The point, again, is that testing students is not the same as taking their temperature, and so much depends on the subjective factor. But the RTI strategy doesn't appreciate the subjective factor -- it's all about the data, as goofy as it may be. One student at my school went from dropping over 200 points, landing in the 7th percentile, to increasing over 50 points for the year (not a great gain, but keeping him at grade level) after he retook the test -- moving from Tier 3 (deserving special interventions), to Tier 1 (no special interventions). [Value-added alert!] It should be said that the possibility of testing into a higher percentile is not very likely, so the general danger is that students will be assigned to tiers they should not be in, consuming time and resources that perhaps should go to needier students.

One of the ironies in all of this is that all of teachers I have talked to already have a sense of their students abilities, and could quickly categorize their students without the Scantron numbers in front of them. After all, they assess their students every day. And the teachers can tell which numbers are off. And all would probably say that the time and the resources to provide interventions to all the students that really them is just not nearly enough; and the process to get the help needed is too long and places too much burden on the already over-stretched teacher.


Saturday, May 28, 2011


I want to clarify my previous post. As a reminder of one of the many pitfalls awaiting the tech-heavy lesson.

I am teaching a course at Dominican U., Integrating Technology Into the Curriculum. On the first night of class, I have the "candidates" (how DU refers to folks in the teacher education program, to distinguish from "students", whom the future teachers will be teaching) get set up with the basic Web 2.0 tools. They create a blog if they don't have one already, set up a wikispaces account to work on a course wiki we create, and they set up a Diigo account to begin a professional library of web resources and also to experience social bookmarking.

For blogging, I suggest Google's blogger, mainly because it is what I am familiar with. I haven't created a new blogger account in a while, but "it worked fine when I tried it".

In class, however, things went differently. After the candidates created their blogs, Google prompted them to enter a phone number as a final confirmation step. I assume this is to prevent mass creation of bogus blogs for whatever spammish purpose. The confirmation process was a surprise to me, beyond the inscrutable, illegible "type these letters" images Google usually uses. The privacy warning flags went up immediately in most everyone's mind I think, compounded by having watched, a few minutes earlier, the Onion's Google Opt-Out Village hilarity, which only compounded the distrust). "Okay, I'll sacrifice myself for the class. You can use my cell number if you don't want to provide your number." Except we were in the "Lower Level" of Parmer Hall (trans. "basement"), with no cell signal. So big embarrassment. As soon as I did get a cell signal, I received a dozen or so texts from Google for the new blogs, but the texts did not identify which blogs they went to, so they were useless.

Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy By Moving To Remote Village

I understand why Google has the additional confirmation steps. But the cell phone number request seems too much, especially if you are trying to create the accounts someplace where there is no cellphone coverage. Perhaps an email address confirmation is too easy to automate and circumvent Google's defenses. I don't know what a better mechanism might be, but it certainly interfered with what I hoped to do.

And hence the previous post, done during class to illustrate how to make a blog posting, and how to comment on a blog posting.

Now, I think a fundamental rule of using tech in the classroom is to go through all of the steps first, before class -- a dress rehearsal. Which of course I didn't do. On the other hand, perhaps it was the multiple attempts to create new blogs from the same IP address or pool of IP addresses perhaps triggered some additional confirmation process. A classic quality assurance engineering problem -- not testing under the actual conditions of use -- and how do you easily simulate, ahead of time, a class of students doing the same thing at the same time? Yes I know there are special apps to simulate multiple users doing something at the same time, but I don't see using such for the case described above. Experience is perhaps the better guide -- I have seen similar problems when creating GMail accounts in a class, so I should have known there might be issues.

Memo to self: In the future, ask adult students to create their accounts before class. For younger students, stick with sites where I can create their accounts.