Lessons Learned

Okay, here’s might be where I flunk out of that Coursera class.

Actually, that’s an overstatement, in my usual hyperbolic fashion. However, I do have a “capstone assignment” due tomorrow evening, in which I’m supposed to craft some creative portfolio that demonstrates everything I’ve learned, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of whatever students follow along after me. It’s the kind of project that would have benefitted from regular effort over a span of time, but my report from last night should indicate why and how that hasn’t been possible.

So, in defiance of all good habits for learning, I’ll be doing this capstone assignment in a hurried rush tonight, and, in the spirit of killing two birds with one stone (and knowing that tomorrow night is for choir and not for Coursera), I’ll be doing my “portfolio reflection” a la blogpost.

Shall we begin?

Continue reading “Lessons Learned”

Teaching, Trust and Testing

The aspirational arithmetic behind that whole “study an hour a day to become an international expert in your field” thing goes something like this:

  1. Studying/reading an hour a day adds up to you reading/absorbing about a book a week;
  2. Which adds up to about 50 books over the year;
  3. Which adds up to a whole lot of learning.

Now, obviously, by setting more moderate goals about how much “ed-reading” I’m trying to do each day, I have ensured that my own personal arithmetic will be adding up a bit more modestly. Still, I’m pleased to say I’ve finished the first book I started when I set this plan for myself. Two-and-a-half weeks ain’t so bad, all things considered.

SchoolsWeTrustCoverEven though it’s a complete non-sequiteur, the first thing I noticed about Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust was that it was published by Beacon Press. I know of Beacon as the UUA‘s publishing house, but I’d not noticed till today what a vast array of non-UU books is in Beacon’s catalog. Upon reflection, this only makes sense, or else I fear Beacon might have what they call an “unsustainable business model.” Still, I hadn’t even remotely thought of Beacon as publishing education books till I picked this one up. Now I might as well export their entire catalog over to my reading wish list as I continue my ed-reading self-study project.

But on to more substantive matters…

Meier’s book is subtitled Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, and although it was published in 2002, it still senses, to my readerly eyes, as speaking to the current state of schools and schooling. After all, who could read the following passage —

[S]ocial distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to “restore accountability” through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust thy are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. (2)

— and not feel its contemporaneousness?

In case you’re interested, here’s a few other reviews:

Meier arranges her book into three sections. Part One discusses different aspects of building a culture of trust within schools: teacher collaboration, parent engagement, being aware of the powerful impacts and implications of race and class differences within the members of a school community (teachers, children, educators). Meier also discusses the importance of creating an environment where children feel safe taking learning risks:

Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb. Learning works best, in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids. . . . No one is sorting or ranking us. . . . We’re in the company of people who are most firmly on our side, no matter what. (18)

Throughout these chapters, Meier offers concrete suggestions drawn from her own experience founding small, innovative public schools in NYC and Boston. Meier outlines 7 key qualities for such schools on pages 20-22. To paraphrase:

  1. Safety, both physical safety from violence and also safety from ridicule and safety to learn and make mistakes.
  2. A supportive “expert-to-learner” ratio, achieved by understanding that school communities can draw on other adults and older peers to create a more vibrant & effective learning community.
  3. Opportunities for students to show their own expertise and passion for a topic/subject.
  4. Flexibility in how learners can experience, explore and assimilate new content knowledge.
  5. Setting aside rigid timetables to allow “time for ideas to grow” (21).
  6. Learning that is engaging and enjoyable.
  7. A commitment to connecting school/curricular content to students’  authentic, lived experiences.

Part Three of the book addresses some customary fallacies and misconceptions about the small-school movement, arguing against the common belief that small, successful urban schools are so rare, the products of such exceptional circumstances (a superstar principal, a deep-pocketed foundation, etc.) that their  models of success could never be replicated to serve all the U.S. children in need of better, safer, more engaging schools. In fact, Meier argues, the “failures” often seen in attempts to scale up successful small schools are most often caused by city and state bureaucracies making choices that impose standardization at the cost of standards — at the cost of actual success in teaching and learning.

There’s no way to guarantee that any particular system will work, or will work forever, or will not need endless revising. But until we get over the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to schools, above all for schools that are trustworthy enough to do the job well, we won’t allow ourselves to do the difficult long-term work of redesigning the system, not just the schools. What we need is a new kind of system whose central task is to protect the public space needed for innovation. We need a lean, mean system, with a limited but critical accountability function, to be the guardian of our common public interest, but one that respects the fact that schools must be first and foremost responsive to their own constituents — the members of their community — not to the system. That’s the rub. (172-3, emphasis added)

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You may have notched I skipped passed Part Two of Meier’s book. I did so because its contents — a devastating critique of standardized testing and its primacy in the U.S. educational system — seemed to me not-entirely connected to the book-ended discussion in Parts One and Three about what successful school models could look like and how to achieve them.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Meier’s critique of big testing is powerfully on point. When I called it a “devastating critique,” up above, that was not empty praise on my part.

Quite frankly, I’m afraid to start a more detailed summary with pull-quotes, for fear I will instead try to type out all 70 pages of this verbatim. And I just don’t have that kind of time.* Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meier has added immensely to the depth of my understanding of standardized testing, as well as to the depth of my contempt for its current use in schools. Even if you’re not interested in Meier’s thoughts about school design, Part Two of her book is eminently worth reading as its own little “capsule volume.”

So, a valuable first book in my new Earl-Nightengale-inspired ed-reading project. With any luck, I’ll finish book #2 at a similar fortnightly pace and circle back here.

Now all I need to do is figure out if there’s any sort of note-taking system I want to use to capture what I’m learning and any connections I start to make. Are these “21st century book reports” enough for that purpose, or is there something else that’s worth the doing?

* Or that level of disregard for copyright and the limits of “fair use” conventions.

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Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Schools_We_Trust

Step by Step, Across the Galaxy

norman-rockwell-facebookOne or two days ago, I did that thing you’re never supposed to do: I shared an infographic on my Facebook wall without actually double-checking the sources and the veracity of the information.

You can read all about it here. About the infographic, I mean, not the Facebook part of things. The Facebook faux pas is a tale as old as time, as the sages say.

At the very bottom of the post is a copy of the original infographic with what turned out to be incorrect (or at least, unverifiable) stats about the cultural decline of reading. Once he found that the original stats — which were really super shocking (80% of households haven’t bought a book in the last year, stuff like that) — were unverified, the infographic creator did a v.2 that brought in some different statistics that could be verified.

The funny-ironic thing, as far as I was concerned, is the way I would have been equally happy to post the v.2 “corrected” info graphic rather than the more dramatic/problematic v.1. Because what had most caught my eye was a quote that stayed intact between v.1 and v.2, in large part because it was so obviously aspirational rather than scientific: “If you read one hour per day in your chosen field, you will be an international expert in 7 years.”

The concept is attributed to motivational speaker Earl Nightingale on personal development/coaching to success sites like here, or most clearly presented by author and success coach Brian Tracy here:

Earl Nightingale said many years ago that one hour per day of study in your chosen field was all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.

I’ve been chewing over that notion ever since I saw the quote.

I talk now and again about the fields of public education and educational reform. It’s the field I’ve been working in for a few years now, but I still only feel as if I know the tiniest bit about it. So the quote on the infographic started me thinking: what could I accomplish if I followed through on my often-stated desire to become more of an expert in my field? If I made a more serious commitment to reading/learning more about education? Could I make the time for regular self-study, and, if so, how might that benefit my work and my life?

Now, the truth is that I already have lots of daily practices going on. The morning journal-writing. Blogging here on JALC. Coursera classes. Regular commitment to ongoing household responsibilities like dishes and laundry and such. So I found myself of two minds as I considered this new daily practice. On the one hand, I found it a little bit intimidating. Can I really take another thing on?

journey-beginsOn the other hand, I find Nightingale’s concept really inspiring in its reminder that small, sustained effort can add up in really significant ways. Yes, in many ways, this is a familiar and often-stated concept. After all, isn’t there a proverb about the thousand-mile journey beginning with one small step? But sometimes it is really impactful for me when a new phrasing or formulation allows me to see a familiar-ish concept in a new way. Like when I read a book, some years ago, spring-boarding off the proverb to point out that the author’s small steps had, without her really noticing, carried her across the universe.* The Nightingale quote now, like de Grandis some years ago, helps shift my attention away from the sense of a slow, endless slog — 1,000 miles times 5,280 feet/mile, divided by 2.5 feet/step** — towards the reminder of what can be accomplished with sustained effort.

And yeah, I have a fair number of daily practices already. But I also spend enough time doing the TV/Facebook zombie thing that the hours could almost add up to being their own part-time job. Besides, the activities in question here (reading and thinking) are things that come to me as naturally as breathing. And even if an hour each day feels a bit like a stretch, I know that smaller pieces of effort can also add up:

As I’ve said before, we overestimate what we can do in a week, and underestimate what we can do in a year. But if you spend 15 minutes a week reading your industry journal and it takes you four weeks to read it, is that a bad thing? Of course not- it probably only comes once a month anyway!

So, in concert with this fellow, I’ve started spending 15 minutes each night reading a bit about education, starting with another book I borrowed from the company “library.”

As with so much else in my life, I imagine this to be a “progress, not perfection” kind of movement. I imagine there will be times when my daily practices need to be triaged and weighed against one another. Last night, for example, after our drive up to the lake, I found myself prioritizing education reading and early bedtime over JALC post. (Heck, we have baseball tickets and I won’t be able to post tonight, either, so a midday Saturday post kinda works better anyhow.)

Some nights I can imagine prioritizing JALC over ed-reading,and some nights I can imagine prioritizing both of those activities over sleep. Day by day, I’ll work it out. Heck, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to stick with JALC when I resurrected it, and yet here we are 5 months later. (Which is, by the way, 4 months longer than JALC’s first-phase lifespan. Go figure.)

Step by enjoyable step, around the world and back again.

* The book in question is currently not available to me, so I can’t confirm the precise quote. (After the Facebook error, I feel as if I should be extra-aware about such things as the accuracy of my citations and the credibility of those sources I quote.)

** Why doesn’t my keyboard have a division sign? Ah, the indignities of aging, when one’s native symbol set slowly gets displaced by the new generation’s symbology…

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Image credits:

Norman Rockwell: http://mote-historie.tumblr.com/post/76317464830/now-son-do-you-know-what-you-did-wrong-yes-sir

The journey begins: http://www.suitcasesandsippycups.com/2012/01/a-journey-of-a-thousand-miles-blah-blah-blah.html

What We Measure Matters

I don’t usually write about the details of my 9-to-5 work (0r 8-to-6, or whatever) here in the Wild West of the blogosphere. Besides my general level of caution about being “inappropriate” or “indiscreet,” I also know someone in my circle of acquaintance who was quite literally Dooced, some years ago. So yeah: I consider discretion to be very much the better part of valor.

Marshallville-One-room-Schoolhouse-300x225What I do feel comfortable saying is that I do advancement work for an educational non-profit — which is the field and non-profit sector I’ve been working in for 11 years now. And, because it’s helpful to my work AND because I have a genuine interest in the topic, I regularly make the time to read books, articles, blogposts, etc. that help me expand my understanding of the challenges, trends, concerns, and opportunities that exist in schools and in the educational field writ large. Sometimes I even borrow books from the office “library” to help me stay plugged in.

And today, in that spirit — between the truly massive amount of sleeping I did last night, the tiny bit of laundry-folding/house-puttering that occurred, and then the lengthy nap that was required ‘cos I hadn’t slept enough last night* — I finished reading Mike Rose’s collection of essays Why School?

Rose’s subtitle, Reclaiming Education for All of Us, is suggestive of his desire to refocus the lens of educational discourse away from the usual obsessive focus on knowledge and workforce preparation as signaled by the results of high-stakes standardized testing. This desire is summarized by Rose in this HuffPo post about the book:

There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society. . . . My hope is that “Why School?” contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.

The book is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and I definitely recommend it for folks interested in education. Be aware going in that the book is about asking big questions and providing answers that rest at the level of ideals, values, and visions. Not so many concrete implementable suggestions, but that’s okay by me.

Rose lays out a cogent analysis of how current educational trends are the inevitable flowering of a flawed set of values. I found some of the middle essays in the collection most persuasive and illuminating on this score.

For example, “Business Goes to School”  highlights the self-serving contradictions of a corporate culture that demands the education system prepare critically reflective problem-solving workers-of-the-future while also selling an easy economy of glitz and glamour and anti-intellectualism:

So many of the commercially driven verbal and imagistic messages that surround our young people work against the development of the very qualities of mind the business community tells the schools it wants. (61)

“Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse” calls out the intellectual laziness of intellectual snobbery around defining “intelligence” as solely located in the institutions of schoolhouse and university:

If we think that whole categories of people–identified by class, by occupation–are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across our current cultural divides. . . . To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously. . . . To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the workshop and in the classroom. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination. (86-87)

And, finally,** “Re-mediating Remediation”  draws on Rose’s own teaching history to argue that the most effective way to increase literacy skills for teen, college and adult learners is to address reading and writing challenges in the context of challenging, engaging, age-appropriate metrical, rather than through the usual menu of “dumbed down” workbook assignments:

[W]riting filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material. (130, emphasis added)

I am inclined to agree with Rose’s analysis that a lot of the flaws and misguided obsessions in the U.S. educational system are rooted in these flawed values and prejudices. Given that reality, I would suggest that an essential first step in effectively rethinking American education would be to plant the seeds of different, more functional values. And I’m grateful to Rose for carrying that task forward so persuasively.

* D’you think last weekend’s work finally caught up with me? I think so, too.

** “Finally” insofar as it’s the final essay I’m going to specifically highlight — not that this is the final insightful thing Rose has to say…

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Image credit: http://www.hcsv.org/visit/tour-the-village/marshallville-school/

My Fair Lady

I’ve been thinking a bit about fairness the past few days, and the ways I value and desire a sense of fairness in things. My thoughts are a little scattered tonight, so I may just rocket through a few different angles on the topic, rather than pretending I have a cohesive essay to share.

standardizedanimalsOne of the most common adages that comes to my mind when I invoke the concept of fairness is that old saying: “Life isn’t fair!” And there are times that I do remind myself of that fact. Because sometimes my wishing for fairness does come from the a child’s magical-thinking place, where I’m wanting a “big daddy in the sky” sort of God to pave the way for me to have an easeful and trouble-free life.

So when I’m invoking the term fairness as code for “privilege,” it is something that deserves to have a question mark placed in there, with the reminder that fairness in one’s external circumstances is never guaranteed. And also, for whatever mishap might have me wishing life were more fair advantageous, the fact remains that I have received many gifts from life for which I ought to be grateful.

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One of the things we talk about at work is the way that “fair” does not necessarily mean “equal.” Since we spend some portion of our time working to serve students with learning differences or other special needs, it is likely unsurprising that we would resonate to the insights of Dr. Richard Curwin in this recent(ish) Edutopia post:

But what is fair? Many define it as treating everyone the same, but I would argue that doing so is the most unfair way to treat students. Students are not the same. They have different motivations for their choices, different needs, different causes for misbehavior and different goals. I think this is good, because wouldn’t the world be very boring if we were all the same?

The cartoon above signals some of this, as does a quote I have up on my cubicle wall:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.*

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The one place where I am most deeply studying fairness is the depth of my desire for people to emulate fairness in our dealings with each other. I know I am driven crazy by those petty sorts of individual inequities that arise during interactions — people changing the rules on each other, situations where I might hold myself to a looser standard of behavior than I ask of those around me (or vice versa). And then, more deeply, there is the heartbreaking injustice of systemic unfairness wrapped up in cultural ills and prejudices.

It is with these areas of human unfairness — whether on a personal or a systemic level — that the adage “life isn’t fair” rings hollow to me. Like it’s just a cop-out to spare ourselves the effort of practicing deeper levels of kindness and compassion with how we see each other and hold each other in regard.

* If you were to google this, most sources would cite this quote to Einstein, but that’s probably an apocryphal attribution.

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Image credit: http://www.joebower.org/2014/03/what-can-we-learn-from-honduruss.html