Monday, September 14, 2015

Random thoughts

I have neglected this Blog since coming to UW. In part, because I no longer teach methods courses and a big purpose for this blog was to make my thinking public for my methods' students who I hoped would see how reflecting on one's own teaching looks.

I've been in education in one way or another since 1968, and in that time I've seen things come and go, have myself weathered the "newest programs" as they went rolling by, and have been changed by one: the idea that content determines process - that in order to truly learn a subject, you have to learn the content, but also how that content (that is the knowledge) was produced, and what counts as knowledge in the field. You have to learn about the history of the discipline in order to understand the nature of the discipline. I taught science for 20 years - and I can tell you, students need to learn the history of science in order to understand the nature of science every bit as much as they need to learn about arthropods, or photosynthesis, or friction. Maybe more.

It makes me wonder, as teachers feel ever more pressure to "produce higher test scores" on tests that assess knowledge and skills that would be most appropriate in the middle of the last century, but the aren't doing students much good in the 21st century, how we can continue on the current path. How will we keep the brightest and best in the classroom? How will we attract the next generation of teachers? I keep reading headlines that scream about the teacher shortage in so many states -- and it will only get worse. It makes me wonder whether we will ever be able to get politicians and businesses out of the decision making about public schools. Depressing. But here is the awful truth: today, America's children are simply an income stream for corporations that have taken over testing and publishing in this country.

Lions for Lambs

I watched a movie the other day – Lions for Lambs – a film by Robert Redford with three story lines that were connected, but in the beginning you couldn’t tell how. Essentially, the movie was about engagement. It was one of those movies that after it was over, you wanted to discuss it with someone – it left some many ideas swimming around in your head – the movie itself was engaging.
And I started thinking about what passes for education in so many of our classrooms today and the most common complaint I hear from teachers: apathetic students – students who are not engaged, who are physically present but mentally absent without leave. Students who complain about mindless “busy work” assignments that are unrelated to anything they know about [or so they think]. Students who are bored and restless. Teachers who are tired and frustrated. And who can blame either students or teachers? Teachers who feel they are at the mercy of the almighty End of Course tests, High School Assessment Program, and whatever state assessment is currently being used and the upcoming PARCC or Smarter Balance. Students served a steady diet of worksheets, “answer the questions as the end of the section,” or “look up the words and write a definition” – and the miracle is that anyone ever does any of that mind-scalding stuff.  Sometimes I wonder – if the tables were turned, and teachers had to complete the homework they assigned, would they?
How is it that we have so many interesting things going on in the world – and all those interesting things are at our fingertips via the Internet – and yet so little of it makes its way into a classroom?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

MAP scores, RIT bands, Lexiles, and other nonsense

I have finally evaluated all the planning reports from my endorsement students. This report is the first submission for the semester, focuses on their implementation of library research they conducted last semester, and will be followed by two rounds of preliminary reports prior to the final submission. The topics students have chosen are interesting and grounded in their own teaching contexts. All in all, I am happy with their submissions . . . but surprised about the number of students who want to rely on MAP and RIT and Lexile scores as their only source of data - as the only way to gauge whether their implementation plan is effective. I shouldn’t be, though. One of the things that depresses me is the loss of autonomy and respect that classroom teachers are experiencing. They don’t seem to trust their own professional judgment anymore – and they should. What does a particular MAP score mean, really? Teachers can tell you so much more about what students can do and what they need more help with based on their own formative assessments. And don’t get me started on Lexile scores – particularly as they are used to bludgeon young readers (as in: students can’t read outside their Lexile range).

Readability (measured in Lexiles) takes two major things into account: word length (reasoning that long words are harder to read) and sentence length (reasoning that longer sentences are harder to read). But in reality, if you take a long, complex sentence and shorten it into two sentences, what frequently happens is you take a sentence with an explicit connection and end up with two sentences with an implicit connection that requires inferences in order to comprehend the sentence. I am not aware of any readability formula that takes the considerateness of text and the reader’s prior knowledge into account. These two elements are crucial in determining how difficult a text might be for a particular student. I remember years ago, when I was teaching the clinic course at Clemson, we had a young 5th grader who was failing reading. We administered an Informal Reading Inventory to her and she did fine – read on level. We were puzzled and asked her to bring some of the school texts she was reading. They were awful – very inconsiderate – no wonder she was having difficulty with the school texts! In addition, the assignment was simply to read and then answer the questions at the end of the story. No introduction, no discussion, nothing. Her reading ability was being measured at school using inconsiderate text on unfamiliar topics. Reading ability is a measure of how well a person reads. Does anyone know what “fourth grade reading” looks or sounds like? Reading ability is rarely measured on the same metric as readability of text. So readability formulas may have a role to play in teachers’ instructional planning, but to use the results of reading tests to determine a particular Lexile a student is allowed to read makes me crazy.

OK – I’ve gotten off on a tangent again. Seriously, though, if this country is to improve student learning (and sometimes I wonder if that is the goal we have – seem like politicians and the general public equate test scores with learning – a big mistake), we have to change what we are doing. Currently, we are preparing students perfectly for the world of 1950 - but we live in the 21st century. Raising test scores on multiple choice standardized tests with one and only one right answer for each question will not prepare students to the world of the 21st century.

Friday, January 03, 2014

New Year - New Course - New Beginnings

Here it is, 2014 - and I am amazed that I have not taken advantage of this blog very often since I no longer teach methods courses. My new position at Wyoming has meant that I have primarily taught research courses to doctoral students, but I'm beginning to teach endorsement courses for inservice teachers, not quite methods, but close. I can say that my long absence from this blog has cost me as a professional educator - although I've made notes/ reflections electronically over the past couple of years, I have not done so on any kind of regular basis and they are not in one place (i.e., this Blog), but are scattered, filed away in electronic folders in Dropbox. I think that if I had kept up this blog, it would have made me a better professor - but I didn't, so that's that. I can, however, remedy that!

I remember my second semester, when I was teaching through compressed video (a format I hate) and ran into technical difficulties on a regular basis. What a nightmare! During the course, I made adjustments to avoid small group breakouts (which seemed particularly problematic) and opted instead for giving students time to complete think writes and then share them with the class. That helped a bit, but did not entirely solve the problem of lack of student engagement I felt as a professor. My ultimate response was to switch to completely online courses, and add some small group Google Hangout sessions, which seems to be better suited to how I teach. In any case, I am teaching an implementation course this semester, almost a methods course - it's the kind of course I most like to teach. Perhaps because I am first and foremost a teacher at heart. I've made some changes in assignments, and I am hoping they will make a difference for students as they develop their reflective stance. I am requiring them to keep a professional journal in the Learning Management System (LMS) we are using - I hope that they might find it so useful that they'll begin to keep a Professional Journal on their own. For now, and for those students in my class that might take the time to actually read my Blog postings, I want to think about the course before we actually get started.

I have a couple of students registered that did not take the first course, so I need to figure out what they might do for their culminating project. This might actually be an opportunity to make the two courses (EDCI 5770 and 5775) less "joined at the hip." Perhaps I can have them try the ideas we discuss - choose 3-4 of them and document through their journals how it goes. Then they might do a mini-review of the research on one of them that they find most helpful in their instruction. That would be a tall order, but perhaps it would enable folks who did not take the first course be able to complete a similar project to students who did take the courses in the specified order. In any case, I need to do something this semester as we are transitioning to this sequence of courses. I need to send these folks an email to this effect - and then get on with the course.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Let's Get Excited about Learning

I went to a presentation today by Christopher Emdin that was entitled "Let's Get Kids Excited about Science" -- in fact, Linda Hutchison and I took our freshman class of education majors to the presentation (in other words, we forced them to go). It had been a long day, but I felt more energized after his presentation than when I sat down at the beginning of the speech.

Although Christopher focused on science, and getting kids interested in science, what he said applies across the curriculum. He had a call and response: A stem without a root -- bears no fruit. Roots, to him, are under the ground, dirty, but full of nutrients. The dirt he likened to the lies we hear about kids in school: they are lazy, they don't care, they can't learn. He began his talk by pointing out that all the things that get kids interested in learning [choosing what to investigate, asking their own questions] are not what goes on in schools. It reminded me of a passage in The Courage to Teach when the author pointed out that kids are passive and nearly catatonic in class, but the minute the bell rings, they are suddenly alive, chatting, moving to the hall. It reinforced what I've been thinking -- we systematically seek out and destroy curiosity in kids so that when they get to middle school, they no longer remember what it was like to love learning. His point is that we need to change what we are doing in science [and by extension] in schools across the curriculum.

Another point was that our culture is anti-intellectual, but that behaviors we (teachers) perceive as anti-intellectual can be used to attract kids back to science [and for me, back to learning]. This lead Christopher to a discussion of imagination. In his view, and I agree with him, we focus on things about science (and other content areas) without taking into account what interests kids -- without helping them connect what they are learning in school with their surroundings and their lives. He had used to create a "word cloud" illustrating the kinds of things involved in science mindedness: observation, skepticism, anti-authoritarianism, evidence-based, curiosity, creativity, reasoning, analogy, metaphor. It occurred to me that these are not characteristics limited to science mindedness. There is also history mindedness, art mindedness, language mindedness, math mindedness - and these share many of the characteristics he listed for science mindedness. If we can notice student behaviors, for example drawing or doodling during class, and instead of punishing students for not paying attention, point out the kinds of cognitive activities in evidence, for example how the doodling and daydreaming/ imagination are characteristics of science mindedness. There is a big difference between yelling at a kid for drawing in science class and pointing out that the doodle has patterns, and it took imagination to create the doodle - a characteristic of science mindedness.You've got to notice student behavior and connect it to your discipline. 

Another suggestion he made was on I've maintained for years: make believe you don't know an answer to a student question, even when you do. Instead, let the student know what a great question s/he's asked, and take the opportunity to model how to find the answer - coaching the student along in the process.

 He ended his talk with his Reality Pedagogy: the 5 Cs:
 1. Cogens (short for cogenerative dialogues among the teacher and students chosen because they represent different types of students). You begin by discussing how to make the next class better -- seek student input about how to make your teaching more effective. In this way, you and your students can co-create a classroom atmosphere that values everyone.

2. Co-teaching crews: Students become the teachers. He suggested providing students with the materials you have available for your planning and have them plan and then teach a class. Although the teacher may be the content expert, students are experts at delivering the information.

 3. Cosmopolitanism: Creating a collegial atmosphere in the classroom so that everyone is valued. The cogens helps in this regard. Connect students emotionally to your classroom and content.

4. Context: bring in familiar things to class and connect them to what you are teaching. Help students connect your content to their own lives. One great suggestion was to revive show & tell. Instead of 20 problem for homework, why not have students go out and find something in their world, bring it in and connect it to what was learned the day before.

5. Content: content is LAST. If you don't connect students emotionally to your class and to each other, if you don't create a respectful atmosphere in your class, if you don't allow students some control over their learning, then you'll never get to the content.

First you have to address classroom issues to create space for the content. He gave examples from Hip Hop and having students create Hip Hop raps (actually I'm pretty ignorant about Hip Hop and Raps, I'm guessing this is what you call them). Once you figure out what your students are interested in, learn about it -- and remember that learning is a two way street: in a classroom, you have students but they are also teachers. Sometimes, they are better than we are at teaching each other.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher's talk - his book is Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation: Essential Tools for the Urban Science Educator and Researcher, but as I thumbed through it, it is a book for all teachers. Rural students and urban students alike feel alienated from school. We can help them find their way back to the curiosity and excitement they felt as kindergarteners and first graders - and become invested in their own futures - if we leave our egos at the door and focus on students as human beings that all have a gift for us. This gift is a way of looking at the world  that is unique to each student and from which we can learn -- and we can't get this anywhere else.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Its the same all over everywhere

I am so angry right now, and so frustrated. Students have turned in work late - after I've downloaded and graded all the reading logs turned in on time - and when I go to upload the ones I've evaluated, there are ungraded logs turned in days late. I'm not really mad at the students - I'm mad at myself. I'm angry because once again my leniency at the beginning of the semester has landed me here, in a world where I could be grading 24/7 and still not get finished because I can't really set a schedule - work keeps coming in willy nilly, so I can't get other work done - work that the university values far too much for me to ignore. But my problem is that I am too much a teacher to summarily ignore the teaching part of my job. Thus, at the beginning of the semester, I was really lenient with late work, foolishly thinking that everyone would get into a "groove" or rhythm for their work and it would all smooth out by mid-term. I wonder what the teachers in my class do when their students turn in work late? Well, this isn't going to get solved this semester - but I need to remember this, or just quit getting so frustrated by something that I created. Maybe instead of getting so frustrated, I'll just ignore the work turned in late and grade it the next week when I'm scheduled to grade work. Hmmmm - that would enable me to stay on schedule but would also give students a break. Teachers have it hard enough without me being inflexible.

I'm also missing my "Diligence and Responsibility" points. In previous semesters, I haven't taken off the grade of the assignment for late work, but have had a D & R set of points that were used for late work, excessive absences, things like that -- things that indicate diligence and responsibility of students. Well, I'll not make that mistake again. Why must I learn these lessons over and over again???

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Wild Wild West - YES!

I can't believe it has been so long since I last signed on and blogged. I've been busy! I moved to Laramie, WY in August last year and began teaching a doctoral course and conducting a research study back in Atlanta. It's been a big change for me in many ways but I truly love it here. I even enjoy the snow!

Right now, I'm teaching an Endorsement course, a graduate course here in Wyoming that focuses on the research in literacy in grades 6-12. It is taught online through compressed video and I've had some technical problems. Maybe it's me . . . the last time I taught an online course there were problems, too. First, I discovered that I had 52 teachers watching me on a 32 inch TV screen in a huge auditorium. Once I had that remedied, the satellite fell out of the sky. No kidding. It actually fell back to earth! After that, I spent weeks teaching over the phone - you read that right: over the phone. I'd e-mail the power point slides down to the site, then talk on the phone which was on speaker. What a nightmare!! This situation is not that bad, but I always use groups when I teach - I just am not one of those "talking heads" - but the Outreach folks here have had difficulty putting my singleton sites [places where there is only one student tuned into class online] into groups, so I've had to scramble and figure out different ways to get students actively involved during class.

One thing I've tried that has seemed to work is having students do think writes frequently, then share their thoughts with the class. This has worked pretty well, but I still feel that students are missing something by not having the chance to talk to each other. We are almost finished with the semester now, and are online totally for most of this month, so I have some time to figure this out. When we do a totally online week, I always have students log in and participate on an asynchronous Discussion Board. The comments and responses are so thoughtful and thought provoking - I have come to the conclusion that I like the class totally online better than over compressed video. Of course, it's harder and more work for me, but the thing I am most interested in is whether the students feel the online weeks are better for them.

I read about a new Web 2.0 tool the other day, though, that might be the answer to this problem. It's called piazza and is a virtual space where students can ask the professor questions and talk to each other - even anonymously, which is a feature I like. So - another Web 2.0 tool to try out!

Monday, August 15, 2011


After nearly 20 years teaching science in middle and high school, then 20 years teaching content area reading at Clemson, I find myself beginning a new position at the University of Wyoming. I guess you could call this Act III - I'll be working with graduate students [doctoral students this semester] as well as teachers seeking endorsements in reading. Its a new system, new location, new almost everything - but I'm excited!

I am teaching a theories and practices course this fall, and have been working on a syllabus for a while now. I had a chance to collaborate with Linda Gambrell, who is teaching a similar course at Clemson this fall. It was fun to discuss possible assignments, activities, and goals for the course with someone of Linda's experience and brilliance. So now, I need to decide which of the ideas I'll use for this semester. Can't do it all, that's for sure. Working with other teachers as you develop lessons and ideas is something I've always done; sure makes the work easier - and more productive. No one person has a corner on all the good ideas - and collaboration helps everyone to learn and grow professionally.

So, in this my first post of the 2011-2012 academic year, I guess I'm saying that collaboration has been an important part of my professional life - and that as I begin another professional phase I continue to rely on collaboration. Here's to a great 2011!