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Archive for the ‘21st Century Skills’ Category

I just had one of those transcendent teaching experiences when the walk out of the classroom fired up and ready to slay the dragon of ignorance.

Invited to sit in on a US History class’s debate on the effectiveness of Brown v. Board, I listened to a student read off statistics from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. His monotone went from number to number, from percentage to totals, graduation rates to dropout rates. After about three minutes of this, the teacher stepped in and asked him to summarize his argument. It took continued questioning and cajoling, but he was finally maneuvered into saying that he was supporting his team’s argument that Brown v. Board was a failure because the dropout rate of African-Americans was greater than whites. Before letting the other team respond, the teacher asked the source of these statistics and when they were gathered. Another student pumped his fist in the air declaring “US Census” as if the unimpeachability of their evidence sealed the entire debate. The fact that the statistics came from 2000 was barely noticed by students on either side.

The debate reeled around for the next ten minutes and covered every possible permutation of causes for this disparity that could possibly be imagined. Both sides argued about child care, teen pregnancy, the different regard in which different communities held education. They argued over the legal requirements for high school and how long a student was required by law to go to school. It bounced around at least a dozen different topics by the time the teacher stepped in and brought an end to the madness. The last student allowed to speak was arguing that in some communities you don’t have to become a businessman, while in others, you do. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Apparently a student had simply offered some statistics, and his opponents and then his team took a field trip through a teeming mass of other arguments, none of which was directly related to the question at hand.

To bring them back on the reservation, the teacher asked the student to summarize his argument in one sentence. With some fumbling, he said that his statistics showed that African-Americans are dropping out of school and therefore Brown isn’t working. Once again, the teacher asked, “in what year?” The answer, 2000, meant nothing.

At that very moment an angel of thought came down from heaven and gave me this analogy. I asked the class to consider this statement, “I weigh 200 pounds, my diet doesn’t work.” Immediately they did the same thing to my statement. “Maybe you can’t lose weight.” “Maybe you are cheating on the diet”. “Maybe you are genetically predetermined to be obese.” “My uncle had tried every diet there is and he still hasn’t lost weight.”

We had to stop them again.

Realizing this needed spoon feeding, I asked them to reconsider my conclusion. “I’ve just said that my diet doesn’t work because I weigh 200 pounds, but how do you really know if my diet is working?”. I was tempted to put my head through the window when one student said, “Because we don’t know what diet it is you’re talking about.”

Through the grace of a kind Providence, another student finally noted that they needed to know how much I weighed before the diet.

Bingo!

A moment of silence hung in the air as the gears turned in their heads. Finally, they got it. They could not conclude about the effectiveness of the Brown decision if they only considered what happened after the decision. They had to compare the statistics of before and after.

Yes there are still many problems with this. What counts as “dropping out”? How can you compare statistics from different states? How reliable is the evidence gathered from the south before Brown?

The point is this: instead of having a lesson on the Trail of Tears, why don’t we have a lesson that illustrates this feature of the use of statistics in argument? Ok, I know, sacrilege. How about this…Why don’t we teach this rather than have the student separate FDR’s New Deal agencies into a Relief, Recovery and Reform chart? Yes, blasphemy.

But if you were hiring someone, would you rather they have that skill or that content? If you were concerned about a literate democratic public, would you rather have a voter who knows that statistics have to be viewed this way or someone who forgot that New Deal worksheet they did in high school?

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I’ve discovered the hydroponics of continuous learning; audible.com.  Whether trudging my way through the traffic of a daily two-hour round trip commute, or cutting the grass of my significant other’s half-acre backyard of Pennsylvania farmland, I’m learning.  Good readers and good books combine to infect the otherwise barren moments of my life with information. Though I know all about “quiet time” and the regenerative benefits of meditative contemplation, I’m hooked on this lifeline of constant education.  Audio books are academic crack for nerds. 

Since August, I’ve “read” the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War, Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and all 57 hours of WIlliam Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  There is no way the to carve out that sort of time in a 21st century lifestyle without audio books.  But as a result of this immersion in history and nonfiction, my views on education haven’t been changed, but rather reinforced in ways I never expected.

For example, William Shirer’s description of the Anchluss and the Sudenten Crisis of 1938 takes about four hours to read even though those events may amount to nothing more than two slides in a teacher’s PowerPoint and a five minute synopsis in an average social studies class. Perhaps there may be homework assignment, an essay on appeasement or even a more elaborate two day role-play project and debate.  Yet how can we claim that we’ve even scratched the surface of this era in history?

Those who defend the primacy of content in history education are shielding an hypocrisy.  The average survey course may be nothing more than a drive-by snapshot of history.  Sort of like a music lesson that teaches students to play the flute by telling them to blow in it on one end and move their fingers along the top. 

Isn’t it amazing that the more we immerse ourselves in history, the less certain we become of any one explanation of it?  The more we learn, the more suspicious we get of simple declarative statements that distill the vast expanse of the human experience into a blue vocabulary word surrounded by a simple sentence.

One way to prove the above is to spell out the way in which William Shirer takes a tire iron to Nevlille Chamberlain in Rise and Fall by describing the way in which a nascent mutiny against Hitler led by General Beck and Franz Halder needed only the slightest gesture of resistance on the part of Britain and France with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  Add to that an analysis of the build-up of the British military between Anchluss and the invasion of Poland to defend Chamberlain’s appeasement.  Or one of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” podcast episodes from the BBC in which one of his guests describes the first public opinion surveys that showed Chamberlain couldn’t possibly have led the recalcitrant British into another world war in 1938.  Better yet, listen to Margaret Anderson’s spring semester 2007 installment of Berkeley’s History 5 class in which she categorically organizes the many factors at work in Sudeten crisis.

History teachers who are themselves students of history know the foundational belief of their discipline is that there is never one answer to any history question.  Yet they are trapped in state-mandated curricula, enforced by standardized testing based in perfect opposition to this belief.  “Appeasement before World War II was caused by ….”

If you’re the type of person that believes that significant events and eras in history can be crushed into a multiple choice answer shorter than the average 140 character Tweet, you might want to stay away from the academic crack of continuous learning, it will change your mind forever.

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For over a year, social studies teachers at my school have been struggling with a new US History curriculum.  Having wrestling the Content/Skills octopod of unsolvable  arguments to the ground, we cobbled together an authentic assessment that would drive the main focus of the course, “doing history” rather than “learning history”.  We defined the skills of an historian, wrote rubrics for each and built into the curriculum a portfolio in which students would reflect upon their performance throughout the year.  It’s hoped that course work will assume a different character when students have to reflect on their own performance, identify what needs improvement and establish a process through which they can improve.

The problem (isn’t there always at least one?), was how to explain this task to them.  Asking them to reflect on their work after it’s graded rather than stuffing it into a backback or saving it for June’s ritual burning is hard enough. How are they going to understand what is expected of them if it involves several waves of reflections, rubrics and evidence?

The attempted solution is this video.  All it takes is PowerPoint, Snagit, Audacity, Camstasia and a script that you write.  Will it work?  We’ll see….

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I’ve been buried under wave of teacher observations, annual summative evaluations, writing an online AP Euro course and the annual Spring race through cub scouts, boy scouts and baseball.  But I was shocked out of my grindstone lethargy by a message send to the College Board’s AP European History teacher list serve:

I’ve never heard of CORNPEG either, but based on the fact that it is associated with AP Euro it’s probably something like SOAPS (Subject Occasion Audience Purpose Subject).  Just another acronym tool we use with students to help sharpen their essay writing skills.  Then again it could have been an obscure agricultural tool.

I was just as ignorant and just as curious as the teacher who posted this message.  The difference between us is that I knew that I could find the answer in less than a minute, she thought her only option was posting to the listserve.  I threw “CORNPEG History” into Google and found a syllabus from a teacher in Oklahoma that gave me the answer.  Thanks to Earl Dalke at Mustang High School, I now know what CORNPEG is.

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What’s the moral of the story?  Thousands of dollars of professional development and drive-by “look what I can do!” presentations don’t have half the effect of a simple habit of mind. Giving a teacher a SMART Board and a Skype Account doesn’t necessarily change anything.  You can have all the Twitters, Twibes, and Twines you want, but if you don’t have the simple understanding that time between asking any basic question and finding the answer is virtually zero, you missed the boat.

Funny thing is, we now know what CORNPEG is but the teacher who sent that message is still waiting for someone to answer it and then will have to wait for that answer to make it to the listserve and for the listrserve to send it back to her.

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Is it a copyright violation to copy your own work?

I’m currently slogging through an online course that prepares me to teach online. Although I’ve done this stuff before, it is fascinating how many issues and considerations cross between the face-to-face and online classroom. Below is a response I posted to one of our class discussions about online group work.

Is online group work worth it?

That’s a loaded question because it goes beyond online teaching, and F2F for that matter as well.

Half of the Social Studies teachers at my school are in their first two years of teaching. Each has told me the biggest surprise they’ve experienced at the start of their career in education is the workload. They say this despite having been specifically training for teaching. This either speaks to the tremendous incompetence of schools like Boston College, Eastern University, Rutgers and Gettysburg College, or it demonstrates the extensiveness of a teacher’s responsibilities. What they all must learn is what we all know, experienced teachers constantly engage in a work triage, regulating how much time they devote to planning, grading, teaching and reflecting. We all know our students would be better writers if we doubled the amount of time we spent grading their essays, but there is no way we could manage that. We all know that if we planned unit fully implementing Grant Wiggins’s UbD, our curriculum would be improved, but we couldn’t grade anything if we did that. So we borrow time from Peter to pay off Paul’s obligations, and in the end hope the sum totals up to be worthwhile for our students.

We’re so good at triage, we even use it to manage the amount of emotional investment will make in any one student. How many of us have gauged the possibility of success before really going after those disaffected students that blow off any attempt to connect with them?

So on one level the question is right up our alley, we always measure this stuff. On the other hand, we have no way to measure an accurate response because we have a failed metric. How can we measure the amount of work we have to invest in online group work? We are just learning technical details of choosing and creating the environments for that work and we have to write out the step by step directions used by the students to navigate what we have created. Our work load, which includes learning about the various options open to us to make the best choice as well as actually using it, will be necessarily extensive. But I’m inclined to think that work is front-loaded. I can’t see how a teacher in their third year of a course they have written would say that the work they put into creating collaborative assignments was not worth it.

In a much more vital sense, the work has to be worth it because the students’ need for this experience is so great. How often have you heard your F2F colleagues express their fears that online teaching will sap students’ ability to work with others? After all, they admonish us, these kids spend too much time online anyway, they’ll never learn how to deal with others face to face. Do these teachers realize that these kids will work in this environment as adults? Yes they spend a lot of time online, but no one is teaching them how to successfully collaborate in that environment. My guess is that none of these nay-sayers would feel comfortable locking these kids in a room by themselves and then letting them out into the world confident that they can work together because they have been locked in a room together. Students coming out of that room would have been without adult supervision or guidance and my guess is their behavior would reflect it. That is exactly what is happening online today. Unless some adults get the kids into a nurturing online environment that guides them through the habits of practice and basics of polite, interpersonal communication and cooperation, we’re doomed.

If we don’t do this, no one will. If we let the kids teach themselves how to interact online, we’ll spend our retirement more angry and bitter that our current critics, complaining about the degradation of civil behavior in our society.

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My district’s end of the school year/beginning of the summer two day administrative retreat is widely acknowledged by its participants as the “best two days of the year”.  Not only has the completed school year blown away the “to-do list” cloud of worries, but the phones have stopped ringing.  There is no better way to spend this all-too-brief respite than to gather with a group committed and talented professionals to chart a new direction for our schools.  The retreat starts with a presentation from people like Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Gary Marx and Ian Jukes and ends with a workshop applying their ideas to our district.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Alan November’s presentation Tuesday created more momentum than the last couple years combined.  Stressing new literacy, Alan’s review of web tools and the conceptual framework of specific student roles in a “connected classroom” sparked enthusiasm like nothing has in the past.  The next day people were setting up iGoogle home pages and Skype accounts.

Usually I’m re-energized by these presentations, the outside affirmation from such a respected speaker anoints what I have been saying for years with legitimacy.  It was easy to get caught up in the excitement of this new age with the blood pumping and the mind crackling.  Getting together with like-minded people and exchanging this tool and that tool, this site and that site, the conversations would just flow with ideas and applications.  We could do this, we could do that.  The possibilities were always endless. 

I’m sad to say that I don’t feel that way anymore.  In fact, I didn’t even get juiced by introducing Alan to wetpaint.

The excitement has grown as stale as the excuses that none of these tools have really gotten any traction beyond a few classes and couple teachers.  It is for just that reason that I’m skipping the tweets and posts from NECC, hearing people gush about “convergence” and “global collaboration” is old already.  Most of them are riding the circuit, making snake-oil presentations and leaving districts faster than road-runner from Wile E. Coyote.  And all of the hope for real change floats to the ground like those last couple feathers.  The presenter’s check clears, teachers post their PD hours and everyone gets back to business as usual.  Systemic change is the grail, and we still haven’t found it.

Underneath all the possibilities and all of the tools is a big, nasty pile of rubble that can only be moved one stone at a time.  Half of the rocks are “my password doesn’t work” or just “it’s not working”.  Others are the format mess that infects almost every media making it impossible to move text, audio and video between editing tools and viewing platforms.  The most intractable layer of that rubble pile is the conceptual understanding of the differences between a web page, a blog, a forum and a wiki.  And the silly names don’t make it any easier.   

Yet those of us who have moved through our pile over the last ten years should recognize that we cannot dismiss the frustrations of our colleagues as simple ignorance or intransigence.  It may boil down to nothing more than time, screen awareness and clicking.  No one who uses these tools was trained to do so.  They found them, got excited and started clicking.  How do we balance the excitement of possibility and the drudgery of necessity?

Systemic change needs the clarion call of Kennedy challenging a nation to put a man on the moon.  A effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan to pay for rubble removal.  Schools need squads of people who can answer the “it’s not working” questions so swat teams can be available in any classroom at any time.  This would work much better than just one or two people in the whole school.  Governing councils with the infrastructural expertise of tech departments, the pedagogic vision of teachers and the authority of administration need to chart and fund a specific direction for the district and insist upon its success, by any means necessary.  And all of us need the courage to dump much of what we have been taught about schools. 

But while the days are long and the grass is tall, perhaps we can build our confidence that we will eventually find our way between the rocks and the hard place.

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