Friday, July 24, 2009

We take a break from this program to show why many politicians haven't got a clue

"The Tragedy of the Commons" is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.  The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen.

I would like to thank Wikipedia for the simple definition of why giving high school students Kindle's is an incredibly stupid idea. 

I don't know about you, but I lose between 3-5 textbooks a year.  The textbooks are checked out to students in the class and then it is up to them to get them turned in by the end of the year or they will be fined, usually about $65 for a standard history textbook.  Student fines are usually ignored until the end of the year, wherein if a student fails to pay a fine, then can't pick up their yearbook.  If the student has outstanding fines at the end of their Senior year, no diploma until dues are taken care of.  That still doesn't take deal with students who drop out, move, transfer, or simply ignore the fines altogether and fight it. 

Recently, Governor Schwartzenegger told the Legislature that he would like to see a future where students dumped textbooks altogether and went completely digital.  The reasoning is that the move is cost saving and prepares students for the next generation of learning.  This was met by an interesting reaction of much of the educational community, kind of like petting the real naive idiot on the head and saying, "There, there, isn't that a nice idea".  The New Democratic Learning Council also put out a pretty little memo looking to put a "Kindle in Every Backpack", as if the way to increase success in schools was to give students a $300 toy to play wit, and lose on occasion. 

This is one of those things that you just can't comprehend because there are so many damn things wrong with it.  Kindles are expensive.  Downloading licenses are expensive.  If you ask college students, many will tell you that there is limited savings in downloading textbooks as opposed to buying them.  Technology comes with tech issues, which comes with generations of instructors that have no knowledge of e-mail, much less eReaders or Feeds.  This doesn't include the students that have no access to technology, or in some cases where I live, no access to power, or a home. 

And finally, students don't care about things that aren't theirs, like textbooks or Kindles.  They are a shared resource, therefore they mistreat it and burden of the cost is simply going right back to the taxpayer.  If the students want to buy it, fine.  They have ownership and will treat that thing like the $300 piece of technology that they just bought with their own money.  If you give a kid a Kindle for nothing, it will last a couple of years and then be replaced.  Nil Savings.

100 Things New Teachers Need to Know, 21-30.

  • A quick turn-around time on returning graded work is a must.  If this means grading some assignments on completion (which is OK sometimes, if the nature of the assignment is such that simply doing it necessitates doing it right), so be it.  Some assignments can be graded on every other question, etc.  As I said before, keep writing assignments short.  If students get work back in a timely manner, they’re more likely to care about it.  If an assignment comes back after about two weeks and they don’t even remember it anymore, it’s worthless.  Only return assignments that a) they’ll need to study, or b) they put a lot of effort into (or should have).  Not all work is worth keeping track of.

    My weakest part of the classroom is getting work back in a timely manner.  It must get better.  Gently is right about students caring more about students caring about their work if it gets back quick.  I also agree with handing back only assignments that are necessary.  Lots of quizzes in my class, and those go in an outbox for students to collect at their leisure, which most won't.

  • Keep some blank greeting cards in your desk to scribble notes on for students who need cheering up or special congratulations, etc.  Get Thomas Kinkade covers if you can.

    Cool idea.  I try and cheer them up verbally or lend some vocal support, but a card might be a little better.  Just be careful about the message.  Caring is ok, but be professional. 

  • When studying a play as a class, do not assign parts and have them read out loud.  They’re terrible at it, and it will kill the play.  If your department doesn’t have audio performances of the play for them to listen to while they read along, your public library will.

    Interesting.  Audio book are becoming more and more of a fixture in our library.  I can totally see where English classes can take advantage of them.

  • Please, please, please don’t show a lot of videos.  Whenever you do, make sure there’s a graded assignment tied into it, even if it’s just listing ten facts from a documentary, or filling in a Venn diagram comparing a film to a novel.  No work = no accountability = no learning.  I can’t think of any good reason to devote more than three hours per quarter to videos. 
  •  I'm guessing that this is full videos, because I show multimedia like crazy, and I'd tell new teachers to start collecting video clips right now.  Obviously, full length features have limited value for a variety of reasons, and I rarely show them (usually only during AP week for AP students, since the class is usually half-full, and I show Inside 9/11).  However video clips and short documentaries are incredibly valuable.  First of all, I show the news summary from the Newshour with Jim Leher every day.  It is vital.  Then I incorporate all kinds of clips, usually no longer than 20 minutes, into class time.  Talking about the Great Depression and the FDIC?  60 Minutes had a great short on the FDIC taking over banks in the present.  Or what about showing a 2 minute West Wing clip to start a class?  Or School House Rock?  Yes, multimedia is good.  Make it relevant, make it interesting, make it work.

  • Avoid group work.  They’ll usually just copy or play around.  Or both.  People who insist that students need practice “cooperating” and “working with others” are wrong.  They already know how to manipulate such systems and blend in.  They need practice being focused and responsible.  If you do give group work, please make sure that each individual has a specific product or element of the whole for which to be responsible and graded on.
  • I hate making group work for the sake of making group work.  If I do group work, I give everyone peer evaluations and very specific instructions.  Don't pull your weight?  Get nailed on the grade.  My final Economics project (basically making their own business plan) is group oriented, and I do occasionally have problems.  But the end result of group work can be amazing, with different modalities coming together to create superb output.

  • If you’re teaching punctuality, or if you simply want to lessen your load of papers to grade, don’t accept late work.  However, if your priority is educating students about the content of your field, then you must learn to deal with it.  Of course you’ll only accept it one day late, and for half credit, but even then you should be willing to make exceptions.  It’s not fair to you, I know, but if you cared about fair, you wouldn’t be a teacher.
  • And I would argue that if you are simply teaching content to students, you are doing them a serious disservice.  A past assistant principal once told me that accepting late work is one of the worst things a teacher can do.  It enables them, makes more work for you, and usually the effort put into the second draft is half ass.  The way I look at it, I'm teaching life skills through the vehicle of social studies.  Do I really give a damn if the students come out of Government class knowing all the Federalist Papers?  Of course not.  Do I give a damn that students go out into the world and are successful because they are on time and produce quality work.  Absolutely.  Follow the school rules for accepted late work, then say "no" to the rest.   Oh, and I mean "no".  That means that work turned in five minutes after I ask for it (say for instance that you are tardy), is late, and therefore unacceptable.  Remember, don't just teach content, teach to succeed.

  • PC Myth #3: “All students can learn.”  Well, maybe they can, but many won’t.  Everybody loves an underdog, and you’ve probably been inspired by some movie where a misfit teacher doesn’t give up on some slacker with a heart of gold until said slacker unleashes their amazing hidden talent and excels.  In the real world, we can’t afford to dwell on those who choose to fail.  In any given class, about 5%-15% of the students will be unreachable.  Don’t waste your time trying to “save” them.  Meanwhile, the majority of your students are getting C’s and D’s when they really should be getting A’s and B’s.  Those students, the fat middle part of the bell curve, should be your priority.  Teach them.
  • Yes and no.  I find that the number of the "won't" is closer to the 5%, and they will slowly stop coming to your class is they don't want to learn.  Mostly, if they are coming, they want to know.  The problem is that it is quite exhausting to get them up to standard.  Seriously, teaching Advanced Placement students might take more time, but getting under-achieving students (that want to understand!) to "get it" consistently is the real energy drain.  One slip of attention and it takes time to get them back.  A lot of time, and patience.  Work at it, and the kids will reward you with attention.  Alas, there are the 5% that will be adamant to leave the fold.  Like Gently said, let them.    

  • Administrators might insist that you have your lesson plans ready far in advance, which is pointless.  It’s too easy to look a month ahead and plan something so ambitious that it will never work.  Then, when that day comes, you’re stuck with a pipe dream that you can’t actually implement.  The best lesson plans are written two days in advance.  I suggest preparing some pages of generic lesson plans ready to show off at a moment’s notice so they’ll think you’re jumping through their hoops.  Life is just too fluid and unpredictable to plan further ahead than that and set details down in stone.  Be ready to adapt and improvise!
  • I figure that the day that admin starts asking for daily lesson plans is the day I quit teaching.  I have a calendar, I have a plan, and like Gently stated, it is constantly evolving.  Plus, we have assemblies, Homecoming week, Club's Day, and multitude of other distractions that are impossible to plan for weeks ahead of time.  Be flexible, and I guess a bunch of generic lessons for show would come in handy.  But I hope that it would never come to that.

  • However, you should plan your year like this: before school starts, chart out which novels, units, projects, major objectives, etc. you want to hit each quarter.  As that quarter approaches, add detail to your chart by breaking it down into each of the nine weeks, and add more specific goals and assignments at this time to build toward the major ones you outlined before: this is where you pencil in the smaller assignments that eventually become daily lesson plans.  This will make your “two days ahead” planning much easier.
  • However, like it is stated here, prepare, prepare, prepare.  It will only make your year easier if you know what you are doing and then add on.

  • Have routines: every Friday morning is for independent reading, every other Tuesday is for literary response journals, Monday is for grading last week’s work in class and returning it, every Friday at the end of class is for notebook checks, the last two days of the first half of each quarter are for reviewing for unit tests, etc.  This will help big time with lesson planning.
  • I have the news at the beginning of each day, except quiz day when we start with that.  I also have a Jeopardy review before the test, then the test, and then a day of review of the test.  Otherwise, I don't have a lot of routine.   

    Thursday, July 23, 2009

    100 Things New Teachers Need to Know, 11-20

  • The last five minutes of every class should look like this: a quick review of that day’s content (either by calling on a few kids to answer simple questions about what was done that day, or quick written answers done on scratch paper and handed directly to you as they leave), a reminder about that day’s homework (you should also check at the door that they have this written down somewhere, preferably with a time set aside to work on it), and have them help you pick up the room by checking around their own areas for any garbage or materials that need to be put away.  When the bell rings, make a show of inspecting the room, then stand at the door and check their review work (if applicable) and homework reminders as they leave.  If it’s not satisfactory, send them back in to do it correctly.  They’ll learn quickly enough.

    Maybe for lower levels, but I'm not into babysitting Juniors and Seniors into reminding them of everything they need to do.  You should have some agenda on the board anyway that contains the homework.  Remind them of it briefly, but I don't think that leaving class should be this big of issue.  I'm teaching until the bell, and as always, the bell doesn't excuse students, the teacher does.  If they line up by the door, dock points, give them the eye, flog them, whatever.

  • “Inspirational” posters are worthless.  Decorate your room with some artwork and some things that reflect your professional personality, but mostly with excellent student work. 

    They are worthless, and totally cheesy.  Students like the real thing on the walls, like Gently says "reflect your professional personality".  I have old, famous newspapers on the walls, maps, replicas of famous documents, and student work.  It matches my personality and I can use in discussions. 

  • Make lots of referrals to counselors.  Best case scenario: students get useful advice.  Worst case: you can document an intervention that covers your liability if they get in real trouble.

    Be careful with this.  You might alienate the counselors by sending them every little problem, and you might lose rapport with your students if you constantly slide every issue to someone else.  Like anything else, use good judgement.  If it is something that is of any liability to your job, send it on and document. 

  • If a student submits work that is illegible, incomplete, or that didn’t follow directions, don’t grade it.  Return it to the student and tell them that they have three days to correct/finish it and resubmit it to you, but emphasize that it’s “on them.”  You won’t remind them again, and if they fail to turn it in, they will get a zero.

    I'll do this one time early on in the year, but I tell them that they have one day, not three.  After that, illegible, incomplete, or incorrect work gets graded down, maybe even not graded at all.  Within the first few weeks, I'll give a student the benefit of the doubt when doing something like completing incorrect chapter questions in the textbook.  After a month, I tell them that they need to focus better and that this is a learning experience.  Take the zero this time and get it correct next time.  Don't take late work.  It wastes your time and only sends the message that your original instructions are worthless.

  • Keep a file of IEP and 504 plans you’re given on students.  Highlight the things that you’re obligated to do.  Be sure that you implement them enough to justify compliance if the student still fails or if a parent complains.  This isn’t meant to be derogatory to those students or parents, but most of these accommodations, in my experience, are unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive.  Most of the useful ones are things that, as a good teacher, you do anyway.  However, some parents demand IEP’s and 504’s as ways of “insuring” that their children pass classes, and if they don’t, the parents will come for your head.  Since you can expect no sympathy from the staff at your school (these are, after all, legally binding documents) be ready to defend yourself.  If you can’t explain how you’ve complied with the requirements of a student’s accommodations, you’ll be hot water, and you don’t need that kind of grief.

    The worst experiences of my teaching career have been around 504's and IEP's, and in the end the teacher is held responsible for these documents.  Unfortunately, many students are enabled by parents who feel like every little thing a kid does must be a by-product of a mental disability.  Can't get up in the morning?  Must be an IEP issue that allows tardiness.  This makes a teachers job much harder in many cases, but only if you aren't prepared to justify.  For instance, our "Intro" level classes are for students that need a slower approach to content, and many IEP modifications are already imbedded in the course (extra time on work/tests, extra help, etc).  This eliminates a lot of issues with parents when they want a status report.  And yes, document every conversation, every issue with 504's and IEP's.  Remember, you are held responsible.

  • PC Myth #2: “Students must be comfortable with their environment to learn.”  Horsefeathers!  Learning entails growth and change, which demands sweat.  You don’t need to purposely embarrass students, but you do need to hold them accountable to high standards.  This might take the form of pop quizzes, oral quizzes, or making them re-do poor assignments.  If students fail to turn in an assignment and the class is ready to move on to the next one, make the “slackers” do the first assignment before they’re allowed to progress. 

    I think "comfortable" is not a good term here.  Students need a safe and open place to learn.  It is vital for student growth.  However, students should definitely be pushed out of their comfort zone, even if they protest (and they will).  Your students will respect you if you have high standards.  So will the administration.  But once again, I don't like re-do's.   

  • As soon as possible before school starts, ask the counselors for a student aide.  Every day, have him or her grade at least one set of papers, but make sure it’s something simple: questions from the textbook with concrete answers, or worksheets or quizzes.  Don’t give them writing assignments or anything especially creative to grade, or projects.  Don’t worry about “having one more kid to babysit;” a good student aide is priceless.  Be sure to get him or her something for Christmas and their birthday.

    Good student aides are excellent.  They will save you hours by grading and imputing information.  Treat them very respectfully and don't worry about giving them challenges to meet.  It builds their character.  At the same time, don't choose just anyone.  I end up saying "no" every year to people I can't trust.  You don't need to worry about your class information from a slacker, and you don't need to babysit a distraction. 

  • When possible, segregate boys and girls.  Separating students by grade level, race, income, etc. is pointless, but separating them by gender always gets academic results.  If the teacher next door teaches the same subject, consider collaborating on some lessons, and each of you takes all the students of one gender.  Sorry if this offends anyone, but it works.

    Maybe this is a younger ages thing because I've never seen any benefit to separating students by gender.  They won't work separate in college or the workplace, so why do it in class?  Oh, and I don't know about other teachers, but my females are historically better students and it isn't even close.  They are more focused and more driven, and are more likely to grind out problems than give up. 

  • If some 17-year-old boy enters your class of freshmen, do not sit him next to some 14-year-old girl.  Her father thanks you.

    Bah, if it isn't a problem, don't make it one.  Be consistent and fair.  The 17 year old can sit anywhere he wants as long as it isn't a problem in my classroom.  If it becomes a problem, then we deal with it.  In my classroom, they will probably have to interact at one time or another anyway. 

  • Every subject should require a lot of memorizing.  Not just names and dates, but entire poems and speeches, etc.  You’ll know it’s valuable because they’ll complain bitterly.  It’s when students are complacent that you should worry.

    Yeah, when did memorizing become taboo?  I hear all the talk about how important it is not to get kids to memorize and focus on critical thinking, only I don't understand how critical thinking works without relevant information.  You can discuss Constitutional issues all night long, but if your opponent has the Articles, Amendments, and court precedents down cold, you are going to look like a fool and the opponent will look professional.  Know the information.  It's not good enough just to skirt the issue and "analyze".

  • Wednesday, July 22, 2009

    100 Things New Teachers Need to Know, 1-10.

    Gently Hew Stone has posted 100 important facts that new teachers over the last few years.  I'd figure that I'd comment on them, since the list is very comprehensive, and being in my ninth year of teaching I can give a perspective that isn't burnt out and still fresh.  The bulleted comments are from Gently Hew Stone, and my comments are in bold and italics.  

  • Sit your desk in the front of the room, not the back: the thinking that students will act more maturely if they don’t know if you’re looking at them is wrong–they couldn’t care less.  Also, make sure there is enough room by the back wall for you to walk around behind them if you need to.  Letting students sit up against the back wall, with no other access than from coming down an aisle, is asking for trouble.  “Creative” seating arrangements, except in rare circumstances like class discussions and debates, don’t work: just arrange them in ranks and files. 
  • Sit your desk where you can best monitor the students.  My desk is on the right side of the classroom, but I'm almost never sitting in it.  That's what helps in good classroom management.  And yes, "creative" seating in regular circumstances doesn't really work. 

  • As the year starts, you’ll be overwhelmed by the paperwork and routines your administrators demand.  Ask a couple of people who have been at your campus for a while what’s really important to them: most of that rigmarole is just your administrators doing what their bosses told them to do; they don’t care about it any more than you do.  Veterans at your school can tell you what you can safely ignore.  You have enough to worry about without jumping through hoops for the office.
  • This is incredibly vital.  I had a teacher that nearly every morning guided me through all the land mines of public schools, including the huge amount of paperwork that is "necessary" at the beginning of the year.  Remember, the most important thing to do at the beginning of the year is prepare your classroom. 

  • Kids will complain all the time, about everything, and there’s not much you can do about it.  Learn to screen out the groans, the whining, the muttered complaints of “boring” and “sucks.”  Don’t take it personally, because they don’t mean it personally.  They’ve been trained by the media and their hormones to automatically hate everything at school.  Just go ahead with your lesson anyway.  They’ll be fine.
  • It goes in cycles.  Note that by the end of the year, everyone will want out.  This teacher has it right, don't take it personally, because it will only serve to make things work.  The best thing you can do is make your lesson relevant and engaging.  Your students will still complain, but they will find your class worth going to.  I've had comments from complainers like, "Feel honored Mr. Silva-Brown, your class is the one that brought me here to school today to complain".  It's a compliment. 

  • Every time you get a note or an email from a parent thanking you–or saying anything positive at all–print it out and save it in a file where you keep things like your teaching license, contract, and resume.  When somebody complains to your supervisor about how you do your job–which, if you’re doing it right, they will–providing copies of such recommendations might come in handy.
  • Not only that, but hang on to them for those times when you doubt yourself or when the times are tough.  I have teaching and coaching "Thank you's" that I still read from time to time.

  • All “staff development” and “teacher in service” days exist to promote fads.  If you get to attend a really useful one every two years or so, count yourself lucky.  You might have to go through the motions of adopting some gimmick presented at one of these meetings, but don’t worry–everybody will forget about it soon enough and go back to normal.  Don’t feel bad about skipping some of these if you can get away with it so you can do something actually productive: planning rigorous lessons and editing papers.
  • Not all, but most staff development days are pretty pointless.  Unfortunately, the longer you teach, the more you will realize that staff development gets in the way of actually prepping for the year.  And yes, "fad teaching" does exist, and a whole lot of it is pretty poor teaching methodology.  Incorporate things that make your classroom better and throw out the rest.  If you are taking heat from the admin, document (creatively) how you use it in your classroom, even if you really don't use it. 

  • I say “editing papers” because it’s more constructive than “grading papers.”  Written assignments should be graded like this: Read through them and mark the first five grammatical/mechanical errors.  Grade the paper based on that much: the style, voice, organization, and, of course, how far you got in the paper before you found five errors.  If five errors appeared within the first half page, make them do it over before you give it a grade. 
  • Great papers are a joy to grade.  Poorly written papers ruin the weekend.  I don't make students rewrite papers over again because then the students think the first draft can suck, expecting to be able to rewrite later.  However, the first paper does tell you a lot about what to expect.

  • Resist the urge to try to edit every error in every paper: there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  For this reason, short assignments are better than long ones, most of the time.  They need drilling, not marathons. 
  • Quiz, quiz, quiz.  I don't at least 3, usually 4 a week and the students grade them.  It creates higher attendance and reinforces the idea that something is being learned and assessed in the classroom.  Then the quiz questions are on the test, which gives students the understanding that you are not screwing with them.  Consistence is key. 

  • As much as possible, provide written directions for your assignments to students.  Oral directions alone are worthless, and just putting them on the board isn’t much better.  Students today seem to work best when they have individual copies of instructions, especially if they can keep them.  Also, you’ll be surprised by how many students will understand directions better if you simply explain them directly to them, one on one.  Even if you only repeat exactly what you just said to the whole class, some kids will “get it” better. 
  • In this era of budget cuts, handing out directions to every student might not be an option.  I have no problem writing it on the board, or writing it on a Word Document and putting up on the projector for people to copy.  Students need to be able to follow directions, including copying things down from the board.  Then, ask for questions and wait.  If someone asks, ask for questions again and wait.  Scan your eyes across the length of the room at least twice before you move on. 

  • No matter what you teach, read out loud to your class.  A lot.  Most students these days have so little positive experience with reading, and so little ability to realistically “hear” a story in their heads as they read, that this training is truly essential, at any age.  Even for teenagers, move around and use dramatic or silly voices as you read; again, such exaggeration models the kind of active screening of written words that they probably lack.  Your poorest readers will want to watch you instead of reading along.  I used to be a stickler about making them look at the pages of their book, but I’ve since come to think that this is counterproductive for them.
  • This is a beautiful comment and so correct.  Even Seniors love my impressions of Jefferson or Nixon, enjoy a good story of Jackie Robinson, or will sit up straight when reading the majority opinion of Texas vs. Johnson (flag burning).  Teacher voice, tone, and energy make all the difference in the world.  Contrary to popular opinion, lecturing and discussions are very effective.......if you have the energy to do it right.  Reading out loud is the same.

  • PC Myth #1: “Don’t worry about the smart kids.  They’ll take care of themselves.”  If I had a nickel for every time I heard this lie in college, I’d be able to supplement my income enough now to live like my friends in real estate did a few years ago.  The problem with this line, and a lot of other popular thinking like it, is that so many teachers subscribe to it now that the smart kids have almost nobody left rooting for them.  Their intelligence often gets wasted in our schools, with so few of us willing to challenge and expand it.  Please, do not ignore the smartest kids (even though they may be among your most annoying students).
  • In credential programs we learn so much about bringing the bottom kids up, and teaching the English Language Learners how to understand content, that we forget that there are kids that want to be pushed, need to be pushed.  About three years ago I realized upon reading my "teacher report cards" from students that I was really dumbing down content to the point that the more academic kids were becoming problems in class.  I changed to that the bar was set higher and I spoke up to kids, not down to them, expecting that lower level kids needed to step up a notch.  What I found is that plenty of kids want to reach that bar, you'll just have to help them out a little more.  And if that bar is set high, and the really academic kids know that you are trying to get others to reach it, they'll be more patient with you as well. 

    More later.

    Sunday, July 19, 2009

    AP scores are here

    Last year, 8 students took the Advanced Placement Comparative Government test. 7 passed.
    This year, 20 students took the test. 17 passed.

    This year I'm going to have 70 students in my AP Comparative Government class, and probably three times as many people taking the test than this year.

    I was told to expect a substantial drop-off next year in passing rates.

    I'd like every year to be 85% or higher. No reason not to.

    Saturday, July 18, 2009

    The Underworked American Child


    Last night I refuted claims that class size reduction don't matter to education, that the real problem is societies view of education.  Low and behold that I find an Economist article that discusses the problem in much more eloquent terms.

     "(One problem is that) the archetypical American child is Huckleberry Finn, who had little taste for formal education. Another (problem) is complacency. American parents have led grass-root protests against attempts to extend the school year into August or July, or to increase the amount of homework their little darlings have to do. They still find it hard to believe that all those Chinese students, beavering away at their books, will steal their children’s jobs."

    I have found that the temptation against being formally educated, and being much more socially active, is alive and well in society while being reinforced by the media culture.  There is a weird code at our schools that it is uncool to be too smart, but that individuality and social acceptance is of paramount importance.  When you watch this generation's teen shows, the NYC Preps or Gossip Girls, you find this stigma magnified a zillion times, and parents don't seem to be standing over the shoulder of a lot of teens saying "Honey, it's a television show and in the end, pointless".  Worse, some parents are watching Gossip Girl with their children and wishing that could be their life too.   

    This leads to that overall complacency in the realm of education among parents and society.  Families value vacation and social activities over education, and that attitude drops right down into the classroom.  Hawaii is more important than STAR test scores (a major reason for low test scores), Homecoming is more important than writing good essays, and football practice is more important than the ability to speak in front of people.  In the end, all of this becomes the frame-of-reference for the future of kids.  Employers complain that not enough American children are prepared for the workplace because they are not being taught the values of hard work.  Colleges are teaching remedial courses by the bundle because students don't have a focus on what real learning actually entails.  According to popular image "college learning" entails going to Cal Poly and starting the weekend on Thursday, with serious emphasis on Beer Pong Olympics.  Sure, playing hard is a part of college, but It's pointless if students aren't working hard as well. 

    So congrats to the Economist for creating a pretty true image of the American teenager, and societies acceptance of that picture.        

    East Coast Trip

    First of all, this trip was funded by saving money, going into debt, and the Teaching American History grant from the federal government to the Mendocino Office of Education.  It was the culmination of a three year event that had me in a classroom for weeks in the summertime with dozens of other teachers, an experience I will be for a later blog post. 

    Since I'm teaching AP U.S. History this year (a long story that I won't be getting into), this trip has proved to be a dream.  First of all, my wife and I both teach history, which makes for some real easy choices when exploring new places.  Only one day did we split and do our own thing.  Otherwise, it was fantastic.  Yes, going "there" makes a difference.  By "there" I mean the actual places where history took place.  Going to the battlefields of Gettysburg gives you a great perspective on that historic event.  Walking in Monticello gives a person a fuller account of the life of Thomas Jefferson.  Singing the Star Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry while tracing the battle gives you the chills.  And the term "Gilded Age" will never be understood until you stand in the middle of the library of J.P. Morgan.  One can just feel the history!  It will make me a better teacher by far as I learned far more that I possibly imagined. 

    So, what happened to your tax dollars and my savings?  Well, here's a little run down, minus the photo's that go up later.


    Day One:   Ford's Theater, National Archives, Dupont Circle Farmer's Market, Phillips Art Collection

    Avoid:  Ford's Theater.  It really wasn't that big of a deal, and if you are a history teacher, the John Wilkes Booth story will be total rehash.

    See:  The National Archives, but don't stress on the major documents hall.  You can hardly read the originals, and there are others around the country.  Check out the other exhibits though, they are great. 

    Gem:  The Phillips Art Collection.  The Rothko Room is very interesting, and for history teachers, the first half of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series is on display. 

    Day Two:  National Zoo, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, tour of Adams Morgan neighborhood

    Avoid:  The National Zoo in the afternoon.  It is hot and the zoo is on a hill.  You'll have a blast walking down it, but coming up in the heat is a bitch.  Visit early and you'll even see the pandas being fed!

    See:  The Supreme Court and do the 30 minute lecture that's in the courtroom.  It's fantastic!

    Gem:  The Circulator buses that go all around Washington D.C. for only a buck.  It's $1 public transit at its finest!

    Day Three:  Train to Philadelphia, City Hall and Broad Street, Redding Terminal Market, National Constitution Center, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, Phillies Game at Citizen's Bank.

    Avoid:  A Phillies game at Citizen's Bank ballpark.  I just didn't feel a whole lot of soul from the park, and the walk there is just....blah.

    See:  The National Constitution Center.  I really enjoyed the history of the Constitution and how the exhibits enhanced the story of the molding of the document.

    Gem: Taking the train.  It is better than flying on the East Coast. 

    Day Four:  Philadelphia Mint, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Liberty Bell, Barnes Foundation.

    Avoid:  The Philadelphia Mint.  Not much to see, and if you have a cell phone or a camera, they won't let you in the door.

    See:  Independence Hall and Congress Hall.  The tour is short, but very good.  Congress Hall gives you a fuller experience of the development of the legislative branch.  Oh, and look around for some documents that are in much better shape than those at the National Archives.

    Gem:  Barnes Foundation.  An art gallery in a house about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia.  It is the single largest collection of Renoirs in the world, and that's not even half the museum.  

    Day Five: Train to Baltimore, Inner Harbor, Camden Yards for Orioles game.

    Avoid:  Walking in Baltimore at night.  Lots of aggressive homeless, and it just didn't feel safe.

    See:  Camden Yards.  It was a nice time for a decent price, since the Orioles suck.

    Gem:  Yeah, the train, again.  Why can't the West Coast do that?

    Day Six:  Fort McHenry, Walter Art Museum, Maryland Historical Society

    Avoid:  The Maryland Historical Society.  We went there for Star Spangled Banner research and were shut down.

    See:  Fort McHenry.  It might have been the highlight of my trip.  It was all about the War of 1812, but it was done by enthusiastic rangers and great props. 

    Gem:  Taking the light rail out of town north about 20 miles to Hunt Valley.  Yummy pizza and leaving downtown Baltimore behind for an afternoon.

    Saturday:  Home for a couple of days rest.


    Day Seven: Arrival from San Francisco, Walked around the outside of the White House, Corcoran Gallery of Art

    Avoid:  The Washington Plaza hotel.  Our room was like something out of the 1970's with a bathroom that looked like a public toilet. 

    See:  The White House.  No really, walk around the whole dang thing and look at how much goes into protecting the leader of the free world, but also how easy it is for people to protest in front of his house.

    Gem:  The Metro Express 5A bus from Dulles to L'Enfant Plaza.  Yes, it takes an hour, but it only costs $3.50 a person.  The next cheapest thing will cost you at least $20. 

    Day Eight:  Monticello, Nationals baseball game, The Shaw Neighborhood, Ben's Chili Bowl

    Avoid:  Walking around the Shaw Neighborhood, other than U Street, at midnight.

    See:  Monticello.  It was a fabulous look at Thomas Jefferson, who is arguably a near mad genius. 

    Gem:  Ben's Chili Bowl.  Who cares that Obama visited, the chili is really, really good.  Oh, and order a chili half-smoke too. 

    Day Nine:   Union Station for architecture, Capitol Hill, The Newseum, Sculpture Garden, walk along the Mall, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, Fireworks in front of the Jefferson Memorial.

    Avoid:  The Sculpture Garden in the Mall.  Eh, whatever.

    See:  The Newseum.  And if you are a teacher, you might as well budget half a day for it.  Ok, maybe a full day. 

    Gem:  The FDR Memorial is fantastic.  It is respectful, historic, and a contemplative spot to reminisce on one of the great presidents. 

    Day Ten:   Native American Museum, National Air and Space Museum, 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, Historic Georgetown

    Avoid:  Beating the hell out of families who allow kids to run around disrespecting memorials.  At both Arlington and the Pentagon parents let children play on the memorials and graves while calmly chatting about the weather.  It was disgusting. 

    See:  The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Then wait 30 minutes and watch it again.

    Gem:  The 9/11 Memorial is beautiful and a model for simple, respectful architecture. 

    Day Eleven:  Gettysburg, Nighttime tour of Washington D.C.

    Avoid:  Lousy tour guides at Gettysburg.  Read Killer Angels, watch the Ken Burns documentary, go the visitor's center museum (excellent), then take the automobile tour and go at your own pace.

    See:  Gettysburg.  You really have to see it to believe the monumental scope of the battle.

    Gem:  The Washington Monuments at night. 

    Day Twelve:   National Cathedral, Udar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Chantilly Virginia. 

    Avoid:  Trying to find the Metro to the National Cathedral, because there isn't one.  Take the Metro to the nearest station, and take a taxi.

    See:  The Udar-Hazy Air and Space Museum.  The trip out there is a bitch (it's out past Dulles), but the collection is incredible.

    Gem:  Um, the Enola Gay, a Concorde SST, an SR-71, and the shuttle Enterprise at the Air and Space.  Yeah, that's pretty damn cool!

    Day Thirteen:  Breakfast with Senator Feinstein, Tour of the Capital, Viewing of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Museum of American History, World War 2 Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, George Washington University.

    Avoid:  The basic capital tour.  It's crowded, loud, and you go into three rooms.  Get your Representative or Senator to have a staffer or intern take you on a better tour.

    See:  The Korean War Memorial.  Another classic display of respect for the fallen.

    Gem:  Breakfast with Senator Feinstein.  I liked what she had to say, and when she started grilling me on filibusters I answered every question smoothly. 

    Day Fourteen:  Where I went today:  Left for Boston at 7 a.m.,   Went to Plymouth Rock, Plimoth Plantation, and toured Cape Cod.

    Avoid:  Plimoth Plantation.  Fine, but not worth the $30 admission to see a recreated village and the spot for Thanksgiving. 

    See:  Cape Cod.  We found a nice beach at laid in the quiet sun for a few hours rest.

    Gem:  Plymouth Rock is not that big of a deal, but the monuments around it are pretty neat.  Plus, a ranger told the story and had us enthralled.

    Day Fifteen:  Boston Museum of Fine Art, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Copley Square, Trinity Church, Quincy Market

    Avoid:  Quincy Market.  Bunch of tourist food that you don't need to eat.

    See:  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  It is an art museum, but it has much more going for it.  Doubly so if you like Renaissance Art.

    Gem:  Seeing Songs.  30 people on 30 different television screens sing Madonna's entire Immaculate Collection album.  At the Museum of Fine Art, and a real piece of work.  

    Day Sixteen:  Massachusetts State Archives, John F. Kennedy Museum, Harvard Square and Harvard Yard, Fenway Park for Boston Red Sox

    Avoid:  Harvard Square.  Call me a killjoy, but it reminded me of a yuppier Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

    See:  A game at Fenway.  The place is a cathedral for baseball.

    Gem:  The Massachusetts State Archives has an exhibit on the Massachusetts Bay Colony that was fantastic.  Plus, they have some original documentation that is great for government teachers.

    Day Seventeen:  Freedom Trail, Ferry in Boston Harbor

    Avoid:  Guided Tours of the Freedom Trail.  They don't even go the entire length of the trail.  Buy a guidebook and do it yourself.

    See:  The whole damn Freedom Trail.  It winds through Boston and is perfect for a one day look at the city and it's history.

    Gem:  A good ranger at any of the stops.  The stories of our country's foundation are fantastic.

    Day Eighteen:  Left for New York.  United Nations, Museum of Modern Art, Times Square

    Avoid:  Wanting to tell your U.N. tour guide that the organization is ineffective.  They try to sell, seriously, their programs pretty hard.

    See:  The Museum of Modern Art.  The amount of bizarre art (you know, White Panel type stuff) is limited, while the Van Gogh, Klimt, Picasso, and Rivera are everywhere.

    Gem:  The second half of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series is on display at the Museum of Modern Art

    Day Nineteen:  Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Avoid:  Wanting to punch every person that works at the MET.  Everyone I met, from the clerks to the guides, was rude.

    See:  The Impressionist Wing of the MET.  It is breath-taking.

    Gem:  The Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, or for that matter, the cloisters themselves.

    Day Twenty:  J.P. Morgan Library, The Frick Collection, Central Park, Grand Central Station

    Avoid:  Grand Central Station at evening rush hour.  Holy God.

    See:  The Frick Collection.  Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, this Gilded Age collection is beyond words.

    Gem:  The J.P. Morgan Library.  Taking history more in-depth and standing in that beautiful library.

    Day Twenty-One:   Home.

    Avoid:  Dulles International and United Airlines.

    See:  The smile on my face, as while I love exploring, Northern California is still the best place to live.

    Gem:  The memories I made with my wife.

    Ok, give me a few weeks and I'll be ready to teach.  This experience has made my passion fuller and richer, and I'm better for it.

    Friday, July 17, 2009

    Second issue upon return: The fallacy of cutting class size

    There is something that constantly bothers me about proponents of cutting class sizes.  The lack of logic behind it. 

    Think about this.  I have a class of 25 and a class of 35.  Simple question; will the quality of education drop with increase in class size? 

    According to a member of my district school board, the answer is "no".  Dave Johnson is a member of Ukiah Unified's School Board, and frequent reader of this blog.  We've had a variety of respectable political disagreements, but haven't really blogged about opposing viewpoints in terms of education.  His recent post regarding class size reduction pushed me to finally comment.  Like many conservative ideologues, Mr. Johnson sees the cost of class size outweighing the benefits, something that is argued a lot in the realm of educational politics.  Compare the United States to other countries, so goes the argument, and you will see that test scores are higher with larger class sizes, thus negating the necessity of class size reduction.  The argument is so damn flawed that it is pretty laughable. 

    The video on Mr. Johnson's post is from the Fordham Institute, and establishes class sizes in the United States (13.8 to 1), Japan (18.5 to 1), and South Korea (25.6 to 1) and compares the relationship to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Math Test.  In the test, administered to 15 year olds around the world, the United States was hammered, and the results are often used to make a classic conservative reformer argument; education spending does not equal educational output.  In a sense, the argument is correct because eventually everything loses its benefit if the costs are too high.  The problem with the Fordham video is that the culprit isn't society, it's class size reduction.  I find this interesting because the Fordham Institute has a pretty rich history of calling out society for educational problems.  In this case, they go after teachers.

    First off, when I actually average 14 students per class, I'll let you know.  In fact, when anyone in my department reaches the 14 student class size I'll make an announcement to the world on this blog.  However, you'll be waiting a pretty damn long time because I haven't seen a core class in 9 years that hasn't had well over 20 per class.  My three U.S. History classes last year all had over 30, my AP class had 24, and my elective had over 25.  Call me crazy, but I highly doubt the 14 student average in the United States.

    Speaking of the United States and its comparison to South Korea and Japan, let's look at the core of the issue.  It sure isn't class size.  I'll tell you why test scores are up in South Korea, Japan, and Finland too for that matter (the country that seems to shock everyone).  Two reasons. 

    One is homogenous populations.  All three countries have the benefit of a similar ethnic population.  That's not meant as a slight, that's the truth.  The nations don't have to deal with a fraction of the educational, political, and social issues that are common place with multi-ethnic societies.  Think I'm full of it?  Take out all the second language learners from the United States and recheck test scores, then tell me that I'm full of it.  Then take away the social issues that create cultural divides.  Eliminate those, then recheck test scores and see what happens.  Oh, and while your at it, take away all that money that goes to support immigrants, from welfare to education to printing foreign language DMV forms, and give it to education.  See what happens to test scores then.  I'm not anti-immigrant, and I'm not saying that homogenous societies are necessarily healthy, but they sure are a whole lot more efficient.  They don't have to take too many classes is multi-cultural sensitivity in Finland, they focus on education. 

    But guess what, multi-culturalism isn't going away in the United States, so let's get to the real reason that South Korea and Japan have higher Math scores.  It's because they actually value education!  Yes folks, only in America can you hear so many blowhards talk about the need for a good education, only to piss it away because getting elected is more important in a democracy.  Only in America is it more important to win the Homecoming Spirit Bell than to get good Advanced Placement scores.  Only in America can you actually excuse mediocrity because of a cruise to Hawaii.  It's interesting that the other thing that Finland, South Korea, and Japan have in common is that they genuinely value teachers in society and treat the institution of education with respect.  Teacher decisions are met with support from parents and communities, while governments demand not only education from the instructor, but from the family as well.  In the United States, we bullshit about education.  We set well-intentioned but idiotic goals (NCLB), we shy away from fixing the problem (rise of charters), we protect bad teachers (unions), and worse, we actually believe that most teachers are 'bad teachers', an image that society seems to accept to cover its own hypocrisy.  That image is promoted by Mr. Johnson's video.  

    So back to the original question.  I have a class of 25 and a class of 35.  Will the quality of education drop with increase in class size?  The answer is, of course it will.  It won't be intentional and it won't be for a lack a trying, but struggling students are not going to get the time for help, signs of distress will be overlooked, and teachers are going to have to create lesson plans that put more focus on managing a classroom and less focus on essentials.  Now you might say, "Well a good teacher should be able to manage a class of 35 and focus on essentials".  Yes and no.  I can manage a class of 35 with no problem.  But do you think that I'm going to assign more essays during the year with more kids per class?  I'll tell you what, those extra 10 students per class equal 50 more essays to grade during my weekend, and that takes a toll on my ability to teach with maximum output and efficiency.  Lesson plans will suffer, classroom instruction will suffer (when a teacher actually has a restful weekend, they teach better the next week), and burn out will be right around the corner.  And that's for the experienced teacher.  Good teachers take years to develop.  Think about the new teacher with 35 students per class and the management and work that goes with that situation, compared to 25.  The difference is HUGE!  I'm telling the new teacher "No, don't make an essay test.  Keep it multiple choice" or "Instead of the essay, do a reading and Socratic Seminar" in a class of 35.  We are talking about survival here!

    In the end, there will always be pundits that don't see the value of class size because they see it as a crutch for bad teachers.  Note to pundits, it won't change the bad teachers and it will make life more difficult for good ones.  Unless you are about massively overhaul the education's place in society, better stay with class size reduction.          

    First issue upon return: Airlines and airports


    First of all, United sucks. I mean this in the most disparaging terms possible since the airline treats customers like they should be happy to be flying at all. Like the plane they own is somehow blessed in a way that is different than the competition. In reality, the experience was terrible.

    The ticketing agents at both San Francisco and Dulles acted like they didn't have a clue what to do. That's after the 15 minutes we spent standing at the group tickets counter at San Francisco with nobody to help us. Calls for help were met with smirks. At Dulles, some older gentleman that was helping us screwed up our checked bags, screwed up our boarding passes, and then made the statement that "getting angry will only make him slow down". As if we were going anywhere to start with.

    One wonders why a person needs to pay $60 extra to get the same legroom that JetBlue and Southwest give you for free. My wife and I paid for the upgrade because our original seats were in the very last row, seats on the Airbus 320 which are narrower and more cramped than any other on the plan. My wife and I are both over 6' and 'cramped' is not something we can do for five plus hours. The thing is, we spent nearly eight hours on a Southwest 737 and still had better seats than the "Economy Plus" seats on United's flight. Quite the joke. Oh, and expect to pay for everything on United. No food is free, not even peanuts. Checked bags are going to run $20, more per checked bag. Both JetBlue and Southwest give you one bag free. Snacks on both are also free. Because of all these annoyances, you hear the United flight attendants say "No." a whole lot. And that makes them more edgy, which makes me more edgy.

    The only thing that United has going for it is "Channel 9", the aircraft/air traffic frequency that is available to the public on channel nine on the aircraft. But on the way back to San Francisco, the captain turned it off mid-flight. When I asked about it resuming, the flight attendant simply said, "Captain's discretion".

    No more United for me. Jetblue and Southwest only from now on.

    Speaking of miserable experiences, can anyone in the federal government fix the circus that's Dulles International airport? We were in the security line for nearly 45 minutes while only four of the dozen possible security gates were open. Then we watched TSA officials laugh and goof off while angry passengers scowled and sniped about needing to get to their planes. I've been through quite a few airports post-9/11, and Dulles was by far the worst I've dealt with.

    There, negativity is gone. That was pretty much the only problem with a trip to the East Coast that was spectacular.

    Sunday, July 12, 2009

    Live! From Boston, Massachusetts!

    Notice that I haven't writing on this blog lately. That's simply because I haven't had enough energy to sit at a computer and blog.

    Yes, I'm East Coasting right now and I'm having one hell of a time. Actually, this has to be the best way to prep for A.P. U.S. History for next year, to actually hit all of these sites and soak in our nation's history. At the end of my trip I'll list all my destinations and do a little reminiscing about my experiences.