Archive for the ‘education’ category

Consolidating webspace

Sunday, 13 January 2008

bashing education is no longer…well, as far as a separate site, I’ve just deleted the wordpress.com blog and moved all the entries over here to vergilscoffee.com. (And, perhaps, you can imagine why).

My hopes for bashing education will still live and I figure that instead of having special sites for special topics really doesn’t make too much sense (especially because I wasn’t generating a lot of content on bashing education anyway).

So, I’m doing what many other are: consolidating all the stuff we have out there and trying to put it in one place–one Miscellaneous place, if I may–and let you the reader stumble upon and find stuff here.

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Coffee Stains: The Five People you meet in School

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

I’ve just finished emailing a former student and saying that I couldn’t attend her wedding reception in a few weeks. And it’s got me thinking about a previous comment that I’ve made to a student when they asked “Do you like all of your students?” To which I replied simply “No.” And I think that conversation then pushed the limits of typical classroom scripting when the same student asked “Are there teachers here that you don’t like?” And I simply said “Of course.”

And you can probably see where the script goes from there…well actually this is more improv stuff as we’ve strayed from some point about Sentence Patten 2 and making sure that the verbs are in the same tense to create balance. It’s the stuff I like about school: the unscripted things.

“What teacher or teachers don’t you like?” he asks and before I can answer he says, wisely: “You said we can ask anything…you said that you are looking for us to ask honest questions…”

(I hope you can envision that smiling, smart alecky senior boy, trying to use the teacher’s words again him). It’s a double-dog dare moment and I still answer him truthfully in front of the class.

Nope, not going to tell you my response because you didn’t ask the question. But I think it may be safe to say that teachers are as much students in school as the students are.

My mom tells me that she simply couldn’t find me and that the office would call her and say “Mrs. Judson, your son is here at the school. Will you be picking him up?” The son was me and I was 4 years old. I wasn’t in preschool and I wasn’t enrolled. And here’s how I remember it:

When my mom wasn’t looking, I would simply walk down Washoe Court, turn left on Neotomas Ave, cross Tachevah Drive and walk across the amazingly large field to Yulupa Elementary school. You’d run into the original playground first (the one with “all things metal-tubed”: monkey bars, balancing bars, swinging bars and lots of kid-smashed sawdust). The community chipped in a couple years later (I think the National Guard even showed up) and built a huge playground to the southeast out of recycled tires. Anyway, from the playground you crossed the blacktop and headed through a corridor and I decided to turn right and opened the door in the corner.

No one saw me slip in and so I waited a moment, closed the door and saw that several classes were spread out this enormous open space (California was still playing with the open classroom concept). I scouted the groups, found one that seemed interesting, and simply plopped myself indian-style (as we called it then…now it’s “criss-cross apple sauce,” so my sons tell me) and listened to the story being told.

I’m not sure how long it took, but eventually (I think it was about an hour) I was asked a question by an adult (such as “So what is your name?”). And I remember her looking at me with that look. I think the expression was a cross between the look that Julie Vogel gave me after our first kiss and the look that Lois gives me when I say something in which I am trying to cross a social line. And I think it was my response that prompted the look, because, I’m told, I had a speech problem. Apparently, as my mom reminds me, I was inarticulate and what came out of my mouth sounded more Chinese than English.

[Insert way-too-obvious student quip here such as: “Not much has changed, eh?”]

The adult then walked me to the office (sort of that “lost boy in the big mall thing” scene) and I was greeted by soothing and understanding tones (yes, I could understand English…I just couldn’t speak it very well). The secretary (that’s what we called them back then) called my mother while I got to do “real school work”: color. Mom arrives, nervous smiles/apologies/thankyou’s, driving away in the 1968 Ford Galaxie.

I don’t think she yelled at me, but I think I remember some type of “You had me worried” thematic explanation. What I do remember is that I couldn’t wait to go back…and so I did–a year later–sort of legally. My mom’s gift to me was to sort of fudge my birthday date so that I could be in school a bit earlier than originally planned. And that was okay by me, because I couldn’t wait.

And I have to say, most days I still can’t wait to get to school. And I find that what I like and hate about school is about the same as when I was a student. Under the “Things I like” list, and at the top, is one of the reasons why I keep coming back. Sorry, it’s not students. They’re probably second or third. But really, it’s the same reason why students come to school: their friends. I like the people I work with. We drink coffee and occasionally go out to breakfast and, yes, we might even sit by the same people at lunch. We have stuff in common and we know each other and they let me hang around with them. Yes, students are a big part of my day, but frankly, you people don’t stick around for very long. I’m not sure if you realized this, but we get you for maybe an hour or two a trimester and then you’ve graduated. The constant in my work are the people I work with and that’s what brings me back.

Ah, I can see the smart alecky kid ready to ask about the things I hate and to that I will list the usual suspects (and, btw, some of these are fairly universal along many career lines):

  • A seemingly endless amount of non-classroom things-to-do that simply lack cohesion, for the purpose of trying to show something that the organization is not. (Busy work)
  • A loss of vision of what we are really here for and in its place check lists from outside experts who are not even practitioners of education. (Vision)
  • A underlying, smirky and patronizing attitude from the people that make the decisions– that don’t acknowledge the teacher as professional. (Respect)
  • A society that has given into the notion that one can effectively, efficiently, and accurately quantify learning. (People as numbers)
  • A belief that all people learn the same way and the same pace and that a moving target called a “benchmark” is the trump card for whether a student passes or fails. (No achievable goals)
  • A notion that education is the magic bullet for all of societies ills. (“We can always do better”)
  • A belief that students are simply not as smart as they were back when and that schools are simply watering down the basics of a good education.
  • And, my favorite: A “commonsense” notion that education’s purpose is to turn out better workers in society (say nothing about living and thinking).

I simply hate and abhor those things; some are out of ignorance and most are simply not true.

And I take a look at the list of things that I like and the things that I hate and I think “Not much has changed from when I was a student.” I have about five or so people that I really like and, I have control issues. And, I still sometimes show up in the classroom simply speaking something Chinese…oh, that’s for next year.

Coffee Stains: Let the rocks be rocks

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Inuksuit overlooking the bayI’ve just finished a proposal for a grant that would allow me to be in Nunavut, Canada for over a week to see the the bare landscape of “Arctic” Canada and an incredible section of Baffin Island where Inuksuk are plentiful.

I’ve been taken by these stone structures and find that I often build some makeshift Inuksuit (Inuk-Sweet) when we are on vacation or about or when we visit Lori’s brother and his family in Wisconsin. This trio were built this last month.

I suppose I could say that I’ve a history with rocks: I grew up near Bodega Bay, California and near the impressive Northern California coast (where the Pacific Ocean is not so much to swim in and sun bathe near but as to look at and admire and write somewhat bad poetry about). I think of my literal impression of rocks during a 6th grade outdoor education trip to British Columbia, Canada.

We’re into the 4th day of our trip that began at school in Santa Rosa, California and we were now into the northern part of Oregon. We had various responsibilities on this trip (mine was on the “planning the route” committee) and since the tents were all set up, many of us went to the lake. And where’s there a lake, there are rocks.

I need not explain nor describe the amazing skill and art to the skipping of rocks on a smooth lake: this knowledge comes from the very thing that makes us human. Smooth, flat, sidearm and a flick…yes, it is all in the wrist.

And so we’re skipping rocks and being in the moment and something thumps my on the head.

Any guesses on what?

So, I grab my head, and I don’t think I’m crying as much as slightly annoyed that my head now hurts and someone walks me to the nurse.

No one wanted to see the nurse, mind you. On day One, I mentioned to Todd Eberlee that I thought I didn’t feel good and that maybe I should see the nurse.

Todd shook his head and said “I don’t think you should do that.”

He read the “why?” look on my face and responded “I hear that she’ll make you drink prune juice…no matter what the problem is, she’ll make you drink prune juice.”

And so, upon hearing this, my ache went away. Later that night Russ verified that prune juice claim.

So you might see why I didn’t want to see the nurse, but after drinking the prune juice I realized that I really hated the taste and that it really is as bad as its name.

But something irritated me more than that metal tasting prune juice: being used as an object lesson. Adults are good at this: using a real-life example of an obscure concept. The concept was during the devotional time that evening. Remember, I said this was a private school and so religion was mixed with education as being a positive combination. And one of the adults is talking about anger and tempers and then he says “Much like what happened to Chris tonight.”

All eyes turn toward me.

“When he got hit in the head by a rock, he didn’t swear or say anything bad or hurtful to others.” And then the application went to a bit more discussion and then to a time of prayer (“with all eyes closed and no one looking around”).

I was annoyed with being used as an example for someone’s religious talk because I didn’t think it was accurate. My not swearing nor saying bad things had little to do with religion; I didn’t swear because I didn’t have a temper–Less to do with a higher power, more to do with just who I was.

There is a social norm that says that students listen to the adults and do what the adults say because (fill in your favorite answer). There is a wall of separation, a very thick line, between you the student and me the teacher. Perhaps there’s wisdom in respecting those lines. But, isn’t there value in telling anyone, even it they’re a teacher or an adult on an outdoor education trip with a bunch of 6th graders?

No, I didn’t say anything to the guy who used me as an illustration, mostly because I didn’t think it was my place (it only affected me and thus I would just a whiny outdoor education 6th grader).

And it’s because of this idea, I encourage my editors and students to not take what I say as truth: they should challenge my ideas (for they could be misrepresentations). Few take me up on the offer, many simply smile and nod.

The student publications class which I advise didn’t have an editor-in-chief, nor a managing editor nor any of the traditional hierarchy that seemed to organize my staffs in the past. I was faced with choosing between 5 or so highly-qualified applicants for the editor job and I went with a newer more unconventional way of doing publications. When I told the now disappointed applicants that I was doing away with traditional structures in favor of spreading the responsibilities to all applicants, I explained that this was an experiment that could be a fantastic failure (or some phrase like that) or really be a good way of doing publications.

Tonight, as we finished recording a TalkShoe session with some of the editors, I realized that I’m chalking this idea as a fantastic failure and I am incredibly happy that we tried it.

It’s like a thump on the head, isn’t it?

Coffee Stains: A Haiku Moment

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

I’m going to avoid a nifty post about how sometimes students’ papers are much like “flaming bags of poop”; partly because my last “Coffee Stain” was about plumbing, but mostly because it’s the humor that my sons really like.

So, instead, I’d like to tell you about what prompted Spencer to ask (or retort):

“So, you should be practicing what you preach, eh?” Or something like that.

I think I blame much of the bad writing in student essays and papers on the film Dead Poets Society. It’s that notion that if one just takes all of that angst and emotive power and focuses it into a poem or a writing, that the “feeling” will overshadow all of the “plumbing” of writing (mechanics, usage, grammar) and a thing of beauty will be called into existence.

“Carpe Diem!” Mr. Keating shouts and now you have the confidence to ask the girl out and act in the play on the heels of “sucking all the marrow” out of life.

Actually, I think what was born in that edenic moment were occasions for Xanga and MySpace.

You see why I wanted to write “flaming bags of poop”? But, I resist.

Spencer was responding to my “working through the editing process” that we English teachers talk about in our classes. For some reason, the last three weeks has had me writing three formal pieces: a conference proposal, an article for an educational writing journal and a grant proposal. All of the writings are done (yes, I met my deadlines) and have been sent to their various locales. The most difficult one was the grant proposal as it took more time than usual to figure out the form of the writing.

At one point I think I actually said to the screen “I hate you.”

I had the “stuff” or the details of my proposal, but the way (or, yes, the rhetorical strategy) I was presenting the case for my grant just wasn’t happening. So I did what I usually do in these situations and found an audience who could hear me out (this conversation usually begins with “Hey, I wanted your opinion on this…”). Of course I don’t want the listener’s opinion as much as hearing my voice talk through the options.

The reason: I want to avoid the “flaming bag of poop” type of writing that sometimes comes across my desk.

Sure, I want the grant, I want the article to be published, yes, I want to present at a conference. But more than those nice things, I write for the same reason I run marathons: to amuse myself. It has little to do with “success” (what an impossible, shifty word that is) nor “fame” (though I might not “live forever” the words still hang around…maybe). No, there’s usually a little nuance or something newish that “happens” when I run or when I’m writing something for my writing group or even when I “twitter.” I sometimes refer to those little ironic times as “haiku moments” (it’s the most Oprahish I get, people).

My understanding of the haiku is just that: not so heavy on the form that we’ve restricted it to, but more how the form affects it’s function. Remember: the first two lines are some observation (many times a common place setting) and the last line grins some bit of ironic twist.

A lot of times it is something of nature that somehow crosses my path (as in Mile 17 in the Sunburst Marathon last June, when in the literal heat of the moment, a turtle crossed my path and I resisted carrying the thing across the finish line: that would be a human thing to do, wouldn’t it?). You can’t anticipate these moments, they just happen.

It’s mostly a Halloween prank, but when you really want to “get” someone down the street from you, I’ve been told what you should do: grab some of the dog droppings from the neighbor’s house, put it in a paper bag, and then place that “gift” on the recipient’s of your passive-aggressive wrath. Light bag, ring doorbell, run. The gag: the person answers the door, thinks there’s a fire and they then step on the “flaming bag of poop.”

It’s not that I’m trying to scrape stuff on my teacher shoes from the papers that I’ve received recently or that I find that writing is worse today compared to the days when students “really cared.” No, I’m merely amusing myself because the 11-year-old just saw a word on my screen and it made him smile and laugh and say with amazing glee “Poooooooooop.”

Coffee Stains: Gunk in the drain

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Salvete, discipulae et discipuli!

Sometimes I find myself wondering how I got here. This was exactly what was going through my mind last weekend when I was unclogging the upstairs bathroom sink.

I didn’t grow up with any special knowledge of plumbing, but when something is overflowing or making gross noises, I get the nod. Perhaps it’s by proxy or process of elimination, either way it’s the expectation and I was pondering that all-important existential question as I looked down the drain and my suspicions were confirmed: months of hair and body stuff stopping the flow of water.

Most people will go with a liquid drain opener and so I did the same: poured the stuff down and waited the 15 minutes and then “flushed” with hot water. It almost never works. It amazes me that during times such as these, that I really pay attention to the details and sequence of the directions. It is as if I think that the mighty Genie of Unobstructed Drains will grant my wish and do the thing that I don’t want to do.

And it almost never works the way it is promised.

So, like millions of other folks with clogged drains, we eventually surrender to the reality of the situation and get the hands dirty. And by dirty, we’re talking about the greasegrime that stains–even tattoos–the occasion for weeks to follow. Still, the foolish ones, will get yet another brand of liquid drain opener from another store just to make sure (this, my friends, is called desperation and good marketing).

And it will not work and I speak from experience on this.

After removing the J-trap (yes, that is the term) from the sink (take a look at what’s hidden in underneath the sink sometime…it’s actual a simple contraption and is pretty cool) and the excess water will spill out (yes, you have to put a bucket under it: plumbing is all about puddles of water). Using my powers of reasoning, I deduced that the 11-month hair-skin-gunk traffic jam is between the stopper and the now-open pipe. Enter in a wire hanger: very handy for poking and grabbing things at distances and various angles.

The evolving blob got stuck on the natural hook on the end of the hanger which meant that I had to physically touch the toxic matter. (And, yes, I actually said “Ewww”).

I’m pretty good at putting things back together and cleaning up the area for normal traffic flow. And so I did and I couldn’t help but smile at a “job well done!” from the plumbing gods who were really messing with me because of the apparent “ease” of the previous week’s replacing of the seal on the toilet.

The expectation at this point is to make some connection with my little ditty about plumbing (and all of it’s ickiness) and life, but I’m not. Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m trying to point out to you that when you procrastinate, it’ll only make things worse. Maybe, I could say that after you do a task that you really don’t want to do, but know you have to do, that you actually have a good feeling about yourself and perhaps, even get a bit giddy.

Or, and probably more likely, I just want you to take a look at what the plumbing looks like under your sink.

Valete,

Magister Judson

Coffee Stains: Tempus Fugit

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Salvete, discipuli et discipulae!

There were times when I thought that I was put on earth for one purpose: to tell my sister what time it was. That changed, though, when I lost my Darth Vader digital watch in 1979. Then, when Stephany would ask what time it was, I would have to look for a clock in the kitchen or in a bedroom. Without the convenience of time on my wrist, I began to get impatient with her every time she’d ask what time it was. And then it hit me.

“Chris, what time is it?”

“Why don’t you look for yourself?”

“You have a watch.”

(By the way, this is all done with a least one room between us).

“No I don’t,” I said.

“Where is your watch?” she asked.

“It’s lost,” I said.

“Oh.”

My sister’s been in town since Thursday, and time is still an issue in our relationship. She still asks me “What time is it?” or “Why didn’t I wake her up sooner?” and I still get that sinking feeling that I had back in 1979: the irritation that “I’m not my sister’s timekeeper.” Actually, it’s mostly the loss of my Darth Vader watch (it was a really cool).

We’re getting ready to play a game of chess last night (sort of our thing to do when she comes out to visit), and we were doing the usual sibling badgering. I think I made some comment about how losing builds character and she retorts with this zinger:

“Have you ever heard of positive reinforcement for your students as opposed to negative criticism toward them?”

Earlier that evening I had read some quote from a local school official on how there’s there is a huge correlation between self-esteem and GPA. I was annoyed at the simplicity of the claim and the person’s use of the word “huge” in making an educational statement and so I pounced on my sister’s question.

Not many encouraging things were said during the first few moves of the game. And, as is the case of a complicated opening (no captured pieces until move 14), if you let a conversation play out for a while, you end up with the thing that really bothers both sides. For Stephany it was the tone of her workplace and how there’s people there who incessantly complain and bicker but also don’t work very hard; for me, it was trying to convince my sister that some students don’t need positive reinforcement because they’ve been told too many times that “you are doing great” or “you are so special.” As a result of this general “feel-goodness,” not all of my students “do their best work.”

“Why should they?” I asked her. “What’s in it for them? Grades? Approval? Internal joy and happiness?”

And she gave me one of those “you can’t say that, can you?” looks.

It amazes me that my family is concerned about the time when they are rarely punctual. Time, for my family, is a mere suggestion rather than a list to keep up with. This didn’t bode well when Lori’s family was 20 minutes early for the before-the-wedding pictures and the Judsons ambled in, relaxed, 25 minutes late. And I still believe today what went through my mind then: I’m stuck with them and there’s no changing people for my own convenience.

I have little choice in who takes my classes (or, probably more accurately, who is assigned to my classes). I also have little say in whether or not students do their homework, do well on exams and, most of all, care about the work they do for my assignments. One of the greatest harms that our profession can promote is replacing a clear and fair assessment of student work with points of positive praise for egos. Self-worth and self-esteem come not from my words or approval or grades, but from your own self. The problem though, is that most people want to wallow in self-pity and self-reflection instead of accepting that some things in life are just plain difficult to do and you just have to work at it. I can kind of understand the underlying annoyance when Yoda responds to yet another whiny Luke Skywalker question: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

For the last weeks of the trimester, that’s a timely assessment– fair and clear.

Valete,

Magister Judson

Managing “The Wall” through Trump Towers

Thursday, 5 July 2007

FYI: Today’s 5-mile tempo run was muggy: (+68f, 100% humidity, bugs galore).

Okay, I really didn’t like it as an 8th grader, but I think as a teacher, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (part II) makes me smile:

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave the kids alone
Hey teacher leave us kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

As an 8th grader, I took that to mean that the teachers were the bad people and that kids were the victims. I liked school and I liked my teachers (only a lone 1st grade teacher still scares me in my memory). As an adult and a teacher, I like the message of the song and yes, I do find myself singing at school (to myself). And it’s probably because the picture in the song does happen sometimes, but more than that, I think students do feel this way:  antsy and passive and stuck.

So, when I read about how some folk cheer on NCLB and think that it’s a great idea to revolutionize US public education, I start humming the song again, but with a nervousness.

Today’s Chicago Tribune has an opinion piece trying to encourage its readers to give the law more time and most of all: to point out the good things of the “law of the land.” One major problem, I see, is that you can not talk about education through the lens of NCLB without using Business-speak (for somehow, US businesses can fix education if education would only kowtow to the slavery of the “bottom-line” of numbers).

Here’s a taste of how this business of education terminology is used to “support” this stance (and remember: we are talking about a child’s ability to learn):

Thanks to NCLB, many parents are better consumers of education. Nearly half a million parents now shop among private tutoring firms to choose the best extra help for their child.

And this simple solution that is based on a reliance of funding that may or may not be there (and, I Spy privatization) :

One way to enforce the law is to provide more alternative choices for students. The Bush administration wants to fund scholarships that students in failing schools could use at any other public or private school.

Another:

Measure progress, not status.

And here’s the explanation of the above idea:

Under a “growth model” for measuring student gains, a state evaluates how far each child progresses each year. If schools post sufficient student gains, they can meet the NCLB requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress.

And that is what is offensive about the opinion piece: It puts a test (the “bottom line”) as being the only way (well, actually there are other measures, but the test is the easiest one to look at–for both politicians and the media) to find out if the student knows. A problem is the reliability of the test: Doesn’t anyone remember that the school district that this law is based on was a lie? The “Houston Miracle” was a hoax and yet, like other legislation that was pushed through in a show of unity after the horrible days of the end of 2001, the public believed and trusted our lawmakers.

The unions are not so much the problem with the success of NCLB; the problem with NCLB is NCLB.

A suggestion for the next educational reform (oh, and we just love to have at least one or two a decade): Return public schools to a democracy. Allow your classroom teachers to help make decisions rather than make them merely workers, only to fulfill something that goes against the process of learning. (Oh, try this: look at who is on these education reform committees and try to I Spy the active classroom teachers…it’ll take awhile to find ’em) Lastly, stop referring to education in business terms… they’re students, not “just another brick in the wall” or number on a high-stakes exam.

Afterword: Perhaps, maybe, we should use a sports metaphor, like baseball, to measure student success. You don’t measure a player by last night’s game, but after a 100+ games and season–that way you have an accurate picture of their strengths and weakness and can work with the player/student on an individual basis. Just an idea.