Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Assessment Winter Solstice

It somehow seemed fitting that on the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, I found myself in a meeting with a few principals and department facilitators answering inane questions from the PA Dept. of Ed. about how our school handles local assessments for students who do not meet proficiency on the state tests in math and reading. In lieu of a state graduation exam that has been approved but not funded, PDE is asking critical questions about local proficiency assessments, particularly in math and reading.

I say inane, not out of indifference to the students, but to the tests. These tests measure so little and yet the stakes are made higher with each passing year, amounting to narrowing of curricula, demoralizing learning communities, and stigmatizing administrators, teachers, and students alike. What's worse is that the students who are not demonstrating well on these tests have the most to lose from added efforts to teach to the test. The majority of these students are already maxed out in the schedule to get the minimum graduation requirements. To add required remediation classes to their schedules, squeezing out technology, art, business, or consumer economics or any core discipline elective, seems like insult to injury. For several such students, there are not enough periods in the day to teach to the test. Everyone in our meeting shrugs "what can we do?"
Students have no voice in this, let alone professional educators. Parents and the general community are led by the media to believe these test results matter more than teaching students authentic skills, practical knowledge, real application, creativity, problem-solving, innovation, fine arts and true science. Those of us who know the damage these tests do seem least equipped to appeal to those who promote them. Test lobbyists are much more organized and funded than test recipients. It seems there is no hope but for the hope that state and federal leaders drop standardized testing as a model.

Brrrrrr! It's cold out here in Western Pennsylvania.

Image Credit: Jon Young UK. "100_00626" (Sun and Silhouetted Trees) . 27 Dec. 2006 24 Dec. 2008.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Are You Driving the New Model?

The National Council of Teachers of English has an updated Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment that is a clarion call to English educators to embrace and develop skills in digital technology and media. Adroitly the NCTE points out that language changes as the way we communicate changes, and indeed to be a literate person in the coming century requires a new and plastic skill set.

Blurring? Yes. Whereas in medieval times one was literate who could read and write, tomorrow (if not today) one is literate who can read, evaluate, communicate, create messages, develop meaning, and build relationships in myriad, complex, and ever-changing technologically based means.

The NCTE's framework point to such literacy skills as that will allow a 21st Century readers and writers to :

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

The charge for English teachers comes in dozens of questions under each of the above elements. Such questions as:
  • Do students use technology as a tool for communication, research, and creation of new works
  • Do students work in groups to create new sources that can’t be created or solved by individuals?

  • Do students solve real problems and share results with real audiences?

  • Do students create new ideas using knowledge gained?

  • Do students evaluate multimedia sources for the effects of visuals, sounds, hyperlinks, and other features on the text’s meaning or emotional impact?

  • Do students practice the safe and legal use of technology?

I say these amount to a charge for English teachers, because the lessons that these questions point are still emerging and yet becoming germane to language arts study. What percentage of our curriculum and assessment is answering these questions in the affirmative? Surely, we always have held such lofty goals at times and perhaps those "creative" or "dramatic" or "soulful" among us have from time to time veered off the straight and narrow essay assignment track("why don't you submit that poem to a magazine" and "cite your sources" and "how about creating a collage on theme").

Today is a new day, and tomorrow newer still. Technology as a way to read, create, publish, and communicate is tuning-up the English classroom into an all-terrain vehicle--sans brakes! As teachers we must learn much that's new if are students are to learn from us. The NCTE's framework serves as a good table of contents for this new-fangled buggy's user's manual.


Image credit: ahisgett. "All Terrain Buggies." 22 Aug. 2007 Flickr. 2 Dec. 2008 <>. Courtesy of the photographer under Creative Commons License: BY.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mapping English Skills in the New Millennium

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has forged alliances with key national organizations that represent the core academic subjects, including Social Studies, English, Math, Science and Geography. As a result of these collaborations, the Partnership has developed this map to illustrate the intersection between 21st Century Skills and English. The maps will enable educators, administrators and policymakers to gain concrete examples of how 21st Century Skills can be integrated into core subjects.

As this map was announced earlier last week, Kylene Beers, president of the National Council of Teachers of English pointed out that the English map includes interdisciplinary themes, outcomes, and examples from best classroom practices when it comes to integrating 21st Century Skills.

Cross-cultural themes of this curriculum are:

Creativity & Innovation
Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
Information Literacy
Media Literacy
Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Literacy
Flexibility & Adaptability
Initiative & Self-Direction
Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
Productivity & Accountability
Leadership & Responsibility

Very exciting stuff as we see curricular revolution brought on by the contemporary technological advance that determines our disciplines work in tandem and in service to such life skills

At any rate this map will help we educators wrap our minds around what and how 21st Century skills might be best addressed, reassuring to progressive teachers and motivating to ones ready to get up to speed as we head to the first decade milestone of the millennium.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fair Use Guide for a Digital Age

The Center for Social Media recently released "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education" which will help teachers and students in the United States navigate copyright in the digital age. At the focus is the U.S. Copyright Office's limit on copyright known as "fair use."

This code comes timely. As the "Code" reports, educators have often erred to liberal and conservative definitions, some believing anything used in the classroom was fair game while others believed they'd find police officers ready with handcuffs at their classroom doors if they so much as showed transparency of a magazine ad to their students and thus they "hyper-comply" to imagined rules.

What is are the limits on copyright, so called "fair use"? Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law states "the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered 'fair', such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. It also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

"The distinction between 'fair use' and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

Still, in the digital age which includes internet publishing of information and the natural inclination to encourage students to produce works for global audiences, the copyright office' definition of "fair use" falls short of clearly delineating what is acceptable and legal.

The "Code" document has been reviewed by five attorneys and endorsed by National Association for Media Literacy Education, Action Coalition for Media Education, National Council of Teachers of English, Visual Communication Studies Division of the International Communication Association, and Media Education Foundation.

The process was coordinated by Profs. Renee Hobbs (Media Education Lab, Temple University), Peter Jaszi (ProMedia, American Universitgram on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, Washington College of Law, American University) and Patricia Aufderheide (Center for Social Media).

As teachers use the motivation of world-wide audiences for their students' voices by having them use and remix copyrighted material and produce their own copyrighted works (in America copyright is extent at moment of creation) via internet media, it become incumbent that we inform and guide them. The "Code" notes:

"In particular, educators should explore with students the distinction between material that should be licensed, materialthat is in the public domain or otherwise openly available, and copyrighted material that is subject to fair use. The ethical obligation to provide proper attribution alsoshould be examined. And students should be encouraged to understand how their distribution of a work raises other ethical
and social issues, including the privacy of the subjects involved in the media

The "Code" is a sure step for teachers to prepare for such lessons and conversations with their students as consumers and producers of digital media. Get your copy now and school thyself.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Creative Stuff

Something Ken Robinson writes about in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative has been in my head since I read it about a year ago. He describes the curious aspect of research in English studies as compared to research in say, as he does, physics. At least at the university level, physics profs are expected to do science, whereas English teachers are expected to research about English.

"Professors of English are not employed to produce literature; they are employed
to write about it. They spend much of their time analyzing the lives and
drives of writers and the work they produce. They may write poetry in
their own time: but they're not normally thanked for doing it in university
time. They're expected to produce analytical papers about poetry.
Producing works of art doesn't count as appropriate intellectual work in an arts
department: yet the equivalent in a science department, doing physics or
chemistry does" (65-66).

Point taken. At the high school level it's much worse, isn't it. As a teacher do more talking about English, than do English. That is, I research, and mostly secondary source research at that, on texts, authors, composition, grammar, etc.

Most of the time the curriculum I teach in asks my students to do the same--except for a semester or two when I might have section of Creative Writing or for the occassional assignment in my literature classes when I ask for a script or narrative piece.

A colleague of mine, Mary Culbertson-Stark, art teacher, and working artist, once asked me about my stuff. By this she meant original writing, presumably fiction or poetry, particularly what I going to be working on writing over the summer. I was flattered by the idea that she thought I had stuff. But I shrugged it off. Truth is, I've had a few poems and some short stories, and a couple of essays. Not much stuff.

Of course what concerns me is not only how little writing, acting, storytelling, and videoing my colleagues do ourselves but also how little we ask of our students. Much of literature study is done as a study without any attempt at writing, outside of a personal response of a paragraph or two, or a once a year ritual called the reseach paper. A dearth of writing of any sort by most of us English teachers exists. Some don't even read for pleasure.

I can hear the cry "where the time!" (I'm not sure I have the answer. It's been nearly three weeks since I've even posted to this blog.) We're are already teaching too much, and "covering a subject in instruction" is frequently just that covering, as in hiding and opaquing. Yet, I feel a bit of a hypocrite if I am not reading and writing while asking my students to do so. I challenge you, dear teacher-reader (as Dickens would say), to consider your own practice, in regard to yourself and your students. Begin to fit in the creative work in your life and your teaching and you students' lives and learning.

For every authentic project of writing, acting, or other creative work, about three other units must hit the dustbin. Isn't trade worth it? Our students are going to be called to be creative as much as they are going to be called to be analytical, so teachers might best get on with it and celebrate both. After all, can we teach creativity without critical thinking?

Surely, we've thought we could teach the analytical domain without the creative. And succeeded. On the other hand, creativity skills may, in fact, supercede anything on Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Adding doing your discipline to your own practice as well as to your curriculum can only lead our creativity and that of our students to deeper, more meaningful places of inquiry.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Time is of the Essence: "Our Students are Showing Up Tomorrow"

Sir Ken Robinson, author of the must-read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative and advocate for arts and sciences education that is inclusive, expansive, and collaborative, presents compelling arguments against standardized testing and for programs that encourage creative, imaginative, and innovative thinking.

I met him last week at the Regional Arts Collaborative, held near Pittsburgh. It was delight to meet a man knighted for his leadership of a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK government bringing together leading business people, scientists, artists and educators.
Now living in America, Robinson points out that No Child Left Behind, with its regimen of assessments and funding "amounts to leaving millions of children behind" and kills their creativity, while demoralizing and stigmatizing students, educators, and whole learning communities.
He calls this crisis, "a scandalous misuse of human resources," at a time when we need to encourage performative skills in our children more than ever. When, as Sir Ken notes, "a college degree is not a passport, but a visa" to success in a future that we can't predict,it is absurd that educators and students must contend with standardized testing that narrows curriculum to traditional reading, writing, math and science. These subjects are certainly important, yet with high-stakes testing placing incredible emphasis on children being able to demonstrate knowledge that fits into bubble sheets, we see critical thinking, collaborative skills, technology applications, and aesthetic capabilities being pushed out of curriculum.
Sir Ken notes a waste of the most important resource our unsteady economy needs most--human potential, which can be realized in creative, performative pursuits in the arts and sciences. Furthermore, dichotomy arts and sciences is not only artificial but also--and more dangerous--obsolete in this new century. I agree that such tests do more to limit students abilities and potential for learning, while at the same time have the effect of making school irrelevant to our students.
The emphasis for the sort of education Sir Ken calls for, schooling that involves high level applications authentic work in arts and sciences, and that involves collaboration, creativity, problem solving, performance, would produce a relevance and rigor to develop active intelligence and cognitive development that are missing in our schools and needed for our future.
In good measure time and energy of teachers and students are being misfocused on a very limited skill and knowledge set that won't serve our futures. So call your representative? Wait out the upcoming election? No way, says Sir Ken. Legislation of recall or reform will take years. And he flatly points out that this can't wait: "Our students are showing up tomorrow."
We educators are the ones that must work to ensure our curricula are preparing our students for economic, cultural, and personal success. Sir Ken presents a rallying cry in his book and his presentations around the world. He reminds us that sustainable "human organizations are organic not systemic." The time has come--as always has been the case--for the centrality of teachers in educational reform. Curriculum design and assessement design cannot match the wit of teachers to make our schools relevant and rigorous for our students.
Sir Ken's knightly call for educational transformation reminds me of Postman and Weingartner's a generation ago. Effective teachers know of Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Some educational ideas are always right for the practice.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Essences of Teaching: No. 4: Summoning Our Courage

Fourth in a Series of Three . . . or More

(Review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If I may add a fourth "S' along with storytelling, scholarship, and sharing, I would add the essential of summoning our courage to face and meet the challenges of our profession. Unlike random heroes of a dramatic moment, a time of peril or personal tragedy, people whom we hail as "hero" when faced by a non-negotiable situation of extreme circumstance, teachers must summon courage each and every day, with each and every classroom, and with each and every child. Our heroism comes from a steadfast vision of what should be the case, of what future we imagine, and what we know children can do, think and learn.Many Challenges

We must summon our courage inside and outside the classroom. To address the struggles of students can be daunting. Whether our students have learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional problems, drug addictions, English as a second language, or are bullied for sexual orientation, religion, or minority ethnicity--the sheer number of variables of what calls a teacher to intervene can make it tempting to "let that one slide." Yet we teachers know if they "let that one slide," then we've let a child slip through the cracks, and so rather great teachers take stands against mediocrity, make eddies in the river of complacency, place roadblocks to bullying and defamation, and shake off the hindrances to learning. As we do so we become exemplars of resiliency and accomplishment – the true sources of self-esteem for ourselves and our students.

A Tsunami of Technology

A great challenge is presented by incredible increase of technology that is reshaping the way students think and learn and therefore demanding we change the way teach. We must summon our courage, for this is not a pedagogical trend or a wave to ride out, it is a tsunami of technology and it is cresting above our heads. To survive, our communities must embrace the use of technology and support its funding. Teachers must be given training support and make every opportunity to learn and work with new and emerging technologies on an on-going basis. "Our schools are going to change more in the next ten years than they have in the last hundred. Everyone reading these words will be part of that change. Get ready." So says James Daly, editor of Edutopia magazine. Summon your courage.

Standardized Tests

With George Orwellian flair of a name and Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision of education, the No Child Left Behind Act has ushered in Big Brother's Brave New World version of teaching and learning—every student to turn out like the next by 2014. Its euphemistic name makes it difficult to argue against its substance, for no teacher, no legislator, no community member would not be in favor of the phrase. But as professionals of in the field, experts in pedagogy, we know a name is a name is a name and that the current plan in practice does not smell like a rose. Standardized tests encourage cookie-cutter curricula that are limited in scope, purpose, and utility, while our students are unlimited in needs, potential, and talent.

Standardized tests, as they are now, with high-stakes emphasis and heavy penalties and few educational rewards are stifling our learning communities while offering little in the way of inquiry, relevance, or the future.

Since standardized tests have been introduced in the 1990s in Pennsylvania, one by one,--writing, then reading and math, now science, and with more proposed on the way--we know the Class of 2009 has sat in a class from Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade preparing for and taking and retaking government mandated standardized tests for at least 180 days. One whole year of their public schooling spent on a standardized testing. A whole year!

Standardized testing by definition negates variables of divergent thinking and innovation. Standardized testing by definition negates the uniqueness of our students, their differentiated abilities, and their varietal talents. Standardized testing by definition negates the ingenuity of our teachers, their ability to develop relevant curriculum, and their professional talents to deliver instruction in meaningful, learning activities and provide real-world assessments. The more we use standardized tests to measure student ability, the less our schools are empowered to offer students opportunities to show their true achievement. Each year that a school meets Annual Yearly Progress of testing, is a milestone of that school's curriculum's regress toward becoming irrelevant.

Such milestones become tombstones to the kind of student performance our state and our nation country needs in order to compete in a global marketplace, a marketplace in which the successes will be built upon creativity as much as productivity, upon designing as much as performing, and upon collaboration as much as invention. When have you seen a standardized test that calls students to be creative, to design, and to collaborate? They don't exist. We must, as Robinson says, be "out of our minds" if we think standardized tests are the measure of whether we have left a child behind. The tests themselves leave children behind.

Thus, we must summon our courage. We teachers must resolve to replace testing with authentic assessments that mean learning for students and accountability for educators.We must summon our stories and our scholarship--what we as professionals know to be true from research and in the life of a classroom and in the life of each child.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When It Comes to Blogging with Students Process is King

This week, working on blogging and podcasting with students for whom these are new experiences, has taught me just about as much about the process of online writing and producing as they are learning about having an authentic audience, considering self-representation, and getting the I's capitalized and the periods inside the quotes.

The assignments are part of our response to a school visit to Life on Mars, the 55th Carnegie International, hosted by Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. And to-date, we've only just begun with some initial impressions, with plans for more expository, narrative and poetic compositions to follow in the days ahead.

Online writing and podcasting on the fly is not only teaching our students to ply their compositional talents with care for their audiences, but also presenting lessons in process.

You know, I came of age in this profession when "process writing" was being defined, so I guess I should not be surprised to find that emerging venues for writing bring this point home, albeit in new ways. As students conceptualize where their words are fitting into audio files, posted in to blog spaces, they are simultaneously reflecting on and contextualizing their compositions with meta-writing. Figuring out clicks, copy-and-pastes, URLS, hyperlinks, and insert-image buttons all the while creating instantly published works in 42 minutes or less leaves little time for reflection for the moment, but I try to have my students pause and consider the importance of their voices and their choices for what they will post.

The process takes care of itself. But I wonder if it isn't even more important.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Into the Woods

This past summer I read Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. So I have been thinking about his ideas of "intimate immensity" as they pertain to how students (and well, anyone for that matter) sometimes perceive the World Wide Web. The screen about eighteen inches of my face has the lure of such intimate immensity.

Bachelard provides a metaphor of a forest to explain intimate immensity. It is the experience of being surrounded by the trees closest to you, and therefore, unaware of the vastness of the woods beyond this immediate, intimate circle. Perhaps the woods is as Robert Frost tells us "lovely, dark and deep." Or maybe not. Either way we can't see the forest for the trees. We are lured into a coziness, a security of a verdant canopy and steady bark pillars in our intimate vicinity.

Is that not how comfortable I feel as I type this in my own study, with my own familiar computer screen? Is that not how my students feel when they post pictures of their latest OMG moments with their friends? Sure. It's the intimacy of thinking we are talking only among one's "friends" or writing only to oneself that blogging can be.

Still, it's important before clicking "publish" or "upload" to remember ourselves and remind our students that as intimate as the Web may be when it's eighteen inches away or in one's lap, it and our audience may also be vast and unknown. Indeed, there may be a few "lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!"

Fairy tales warn us about dropping breadcrumbs, straying from the path, and talking to wolves. As we tread into the woods of the World Wide Web and invite our students, these cautionary stories and a mindfulness to Bachelard's sense "intimate immensity" can help us find our way safely.

Image: Nicholas T. “Mossy.” Detail. Flickr. 19 March 2007. CC Licensed: BY-SA-NC

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Tech Works, It Works Wonders

My previous post was as close to a rant as I plan to get in this blog. Rants usually have an audience of one. Let me make amends, dear reader, by noting some of my wonder when it comes to technology working that pulls me through. I've had several parallel experiences of dealing with online technology-in-education; here I share three.

After six-to-eight hours of reloading my students usernames and passwords to our Edublogs-based blog and then getting my students in successfully, I'm reaping the rewards of the power of scholarly dialogue in our literary discussions. You can take a look for yourself at our English 12 Honors Blog (if you are reading this post within 6 months of its posting). These are great first attempts of students finding their ideas and their audience online. I'm most impressed by the quality not only of the posts but also the comments that go beyond "way to go!" and "I agree." Next I hope to see bloggers bring research and links into support and extend their findings and support their claims.

In addition, for the past few months to I've also been beta-testing an online writing, grammar and research program from Pearson Education. The product is called MyCompLab. It's a poweful, comprehensive web-based resource in grammar, writing, and research and features a dynamic, interactive, collaborative place for composition, peer-review, tutorial, and assessment. We've had some hurdles to surmount with such a rich and complex project. This summer the new MCL was launched and my colleagues and I have been trying to get started with the program, not without several hiccups. Nothing more frustrating than being ready to work in a writing center (after pulling favors and making deals with other teachers for the scheduled time) to not have the students be able to log in. "Okay, class back to the regular classroom!" But in the past week, obstacles flattened, it's been exciting to see students engaging with the media, each other, and me in this online environment.

A particular labor of love has been working with the education department of Carnegie Museum of Art, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, especially during the current exhibition of the 55th Carnegie International "Life on Mars" (now until January 2009). My pet project has been to help teachers with online resources for school visits to the museum, or virtual visits. Again, collaborating with web developers, IT departments, artists, curators, funders, and fellow educators can resemble a instructional technology tower of babel; we all have a common goal but speaking a variety of languages. Sometimes it seemed like that we had aliens-among-us, some sort of educational end users encountering technicians from a different world who we depend upon us launch us into the blogosphere. (I'm sure this resonates with many teachers and IT departments throughout the universe.) After more than a year in the making. the International's online complement is offering unprecedent resources to reach out to students, teachers, and the general public via the Web.
Not only is Carnegie Museum of Art inaugurating it's first blog for this exhibition, which celebrates the finest contemporary art from around the world, but also it has no fewer than five! Museum staff sends its Signals blog to an general public audience who can send back blog posts in Soundings. A group of teen interns offers Zero Gravity blog. Teachers share ideas for the classroom and the exhibition on Ideas & Updates blog. And finally, teachers and students can augment their school visits with private or public blogs devoted to their own school group.

With this many opportunities for writing and reading online in response to one of the world's most significant and historical art traditions--the Carnegie International--it's been worth sweating the details of how to tweak the tech to make it work. My students are gearing up for their visit later this month. We use school-museum visits to inspire narrative writing and other compositions. Stay tuned for their posts.
I invite teachers from around the world to virtually visit the Carnegie International and the works of forty of today's top artists, the "old Masters of Tomorrow," with their students. And if you are in the Western Pennsylvania region, plan a school visit. Leave your teaching suggestions in Ideas & Updates and create a classroom blog with your students via the Classroom Resources. They'll be sharing their ideas on the art of their age for audiences now and in the future.

You know the cliche about "teachers touch the future." Well, when it comes to instructional technology, it's great when the future taps you back.

Image: View from inside Richard Serra's cor-ten steel scupture Carnegie, located in front of the entrance to Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. (cc) 2007 Charles Youngs. Some rights reserved: BY-NC-SA.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hack or Crack?

I'm far from a hack with computers. But I do enjoy figuring out how to do things with technology for the classroom. Today, I'm not sure if I'm more a crackbrained fool than any kind of hack. I guess it comes with the territory of perpetual beta that comes with trying to keep up.

Let me explain. This year I am trying my class blogs with Edublogs. Having used another basic provider since 2003, I'm lured by the bells and widgets of Edublogs and what I thought would be the stability of using a popular site designed for educators and powered by the respected WordPress. Tonight I'm not sure.

A fellow teacher down the hall has switched to EB with me. A few weeks ago he noted that the site when down and we all had to reset our passwords. This afternoon, he stopped by again to see whether I had noticed that Edublogs had suffered another attack and was requiring its users to reset their passwords, again. Ugh, I had just set up sixty student accounts! Not that big of a deal, unless you have your student users all wired to one Gmail account.

It's actually a hack technique suggested by Edublogs, and it's a clever way of getting by not having your students sign up with third-party services. You can set up the blog user accounts without requiring students to have their own email accounts. Students at our district cannot access email at school. So trying to recover passwords can be an impass during the day.

But a teacher can create an email account on Gmail and simply add the student user names to the formula of Gmailaccountname + studentusername @ gmail . com. Gmail ignores anything between the plus sign and the at sign, and all the mail comes to you, the holder of the Gmail account. Thus websites requiring accounts get a real email address and your students get the accounts without disclosing emails, and you get control over retrieving passwords, spam, and errant messages. Nifty, yes.

That is until something like what happened at Edublogs today. All of the passwords need to be reset. This involves a login, an email, a hyperlink, another email, and resetting the password to something the students will understand and remember. This painstaking process made worse by the slowness of the site (perhaps because of everyone resetting their accounts). It's slow-going. Each account adds up about 10 minutes to reset and then redo the profile, maybe more. A process that's taken me five hours and counting. I'm a git more than half way, and I've had to . stop working on the redo because Edublogs seems to have gone off line again. Yikes!

I'm not sure I can endure another crash and run at this process. Better to start fresh, no? As I've said before (here and here) teaching with technology is not for the feint at heart. Times like these I gotta wonder whether I can hack it.
Image remix: Red envelope is a trademark of Google's Gmail and the blue "eb" is a trademark of Edublogs.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dive Right In!

Whew! Made if through the first week of school with students. Usually there's a half-week beginning, but for the first time in nearly two decades of teaching I was jumping in the deep end of the pool for five full days!

What did I learn form this Monday-to-Friday dive? Well, it was great to actually get past the rules of the road and orientation lessons and start discussing some content in the first week. In English 12 Honors, Arjuna is debating with Krishna in Bhagavad Gita, in British Literature, Beowulf is battling Grendel, and in Writing Skills "I Am From" poems are listing our lives. So school life is good.

The grace period hasn't worn off. I'm still on summer-lag from switching my body clock to getting up at 4:45 a.m. (Isn't it amazing that in the 21st century American schools still start so early as to 7:30! Where's the science?) And the U.S. celebrates Labor Day weekend with a Monday off. An extra day of planning for the four-day week ahead. We are underway and the water's fine.

Image credit: Shlevich, Benny. "Go!" Flickr. Creative Commons Pool. 18 Aug. 2007. 31 Aug. 2008 < >. By permission via Creative Commons Licensing (BY-SA).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lexiophiles' Top 100 Language Blogs

If Bees Are Few has just been listed #81 of the Top 100 Language Blogs on Lexiophiles. I'm excited and honestly surprised to that the Hamburg-based site, which places a strong emphasis on sites for English language learning selected this blog. The folks at Lexiophiles are dedicated to language and learning generally, and so is If Bees Are Few, of course. Our love for words is definitely shared.

Lexiophiles' list presents some other great places for language lovers to surf. It's an unexpected honor to be in such good company.

The Lexiophiles staff cites selection criteria of content, consistency and interactivity on the topic of language and learning. I enjoyed sampling some of the other sites in this special blogroll.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Look to This Day! And the Convention of the Class of 2009

Today, on my first day of school I started class by asking my senior English students if they were excited to get up today. It was afterall the first day of their senior year. Before they could answer, I told them I was.

If they had started with Kindergarten, by my figuring this was the occasion of the thirteenth year that the Class of 2009 convenes--and the last. I could tell by their reactions they had not thought of it that way before, but in that instant I had underscored the importance of our meeting. I told them they were born the year I started teaching. This also got their attention. So they and I had been on an eighteen-year trajectory. I had thought of them in 1991 when they had only been a thought.

To me teaching is a special calling. To teach literature and its power, nothing less than sacred. I explain this to my students with the example of the Sankrit "The Salutation of the Dawn," reciting it to them from memory as one of my great teachers had done to me:

Listen to the salutation to the dawn,
Look to this day for it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of our existence.
The bliss of growth, the splendour of beauty,
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well spent makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
Such is the salutation to the dawn.

The same sun that dawned on the Class of 2009 today, rose on the same eastern horizon some 3200 years ago and one of our great-great-great ancestors realized the miracle of the ever-returning sun, ever-beginning day, and took out a slab of wet clay and reed, and carved this poem for our inheritance. That's what excites me about teaching ever-returning students, ever-beginning years. The human conversation over time and space is both our inheritance and our duty.

In this class, in this convention of the Class of 2009, we shall celebrate such conversations across cultures as take a literary travel around the world in 180 days.

We are the only species that saves its stories, I remind my students. We are stories told together. By the time my students are my age, it will be 2037 and they may have seniors of their own graduating. (This frightens them a bit--they can't imagine being my age let alone the year 2037 or having teenagers of their own.)

I tell them this is important and a key mission of this convention. They must pass on our stories. In 2060, I tell them, they'll be headed for retirement, and I'll be dead. I count on them to save the stories and share them.

"Look to this day!" It was written 3200 years ago. It's up to teachers and their students to see it through for the next 3200. "Look to this day"

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Be-Attitudes for the Start of the Year

This past week I spent a few hours in my classroom, moving desks, rearranging bookshelves, setting up bulletin boards. I pulled out my "Be-Attitudes Poster," a one-foot by four-foot poster I made years ago and have used as my reminders of how to Be-have in class. I call them Be-attitudes because attitude really shapes behavior. Get the attitude right and you've got behavior taken care of. So up go the "Be-Attitudes" on the front wall of my classroom.

Mr. Youngs' 12 Be-Attitudes, or Ways of BE-ing in Class
1. BE on time.
2. BE ready.
3. BE safe.
4. BE courteous.
5. BE heard.
6. BE hungry for ideas!
7. BE-autiful already.
9. BE personal.
8. BE done already with the restroom.
10. BE silent during tests.
11. BE original.
12. BE civil.

The poster is shorthand for what is on my syllabus and class policies orientation sheet.
1. BE on time. Have book bags stowed, English notebooks, textbooks, and any homework ready.
2. BE ready. Study before class. Don't simply read assignments, study them, know them. Bring materials--notebook, pencil, completed homework, books as assigned. Sit in assigned seats or as directed. The instructor plans to start at the bell; you should, also.
3. BE safe. No horseplay; stay alert--no slouching.
4. BE courteous. No side-talking, back-talk, blurting out, pointless noise nor distraction. No profanity, harassment, hate-speech, vulgarity! Use good manners, etiquette, and courtesy. No hats--show others respect. If you have something to say, raise your hand.
5. BE heard. Speak up! Practice public speaking skills and care enough to be heard.
6. BE hungry for ideas! No candy, food or drink. Any snack items will be discarded.
7. BE-autiful already. No vanity items such as mirrors, lipstick, makeup or brushes. Why embarrass yourself and others by seeming vain? Let only your hair stylist know your secrets.
8. BE done already with the restroom. Plan to use the restroom virtually NEVER during class time. Do so between classes and during lunch--that's eighty minutes of rest! Furthermore, asking to leave class is a bothersome interruption to the teacher and the whole class to issue a pass. If one were to use the restroom once a week, he would miss nearly a full week of class time in the year; once-a-day and he would miss more than the equivalent of twenty-two classes! Don't flush your education away.
9. BE personal. Never submit homework or other assignments on the teacher's desk. Submit work to a person, such as the instructor or the Building #4 secretary.
10. BE silent during tests. No communicating or cheating anytime during test days until all tests are collected. First offense is a penalty of 7% on your score; second offense is a penalty of receiving zero for a grade. Cheating is reported to the principal.
11. BE original. Plagiarism is "copying someone's words, work, or ideas" and is not tolerated. It is cheating; it is theft. To repeat: rewording someone's words or ideas is plagiarism. Nothing is duller than using someone else's work. Be brilliant! Be original!
12. BE civil. The instructor dismisses the class, not the bell. Let whomever is talking at the end of class finish--chance are information that'll be important to you is being offered. In any case, offer other people human dignity by showing your civility. In short, BE NICE. You will find the teacher responds well to courtesy, friendliness, scholarship, and hard work. Good attitudes and good class participation count along with good results toward good grades, especially when you really need it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Wordle of Web Tools

Here's a Wordle image of the Web tools we are exploring at PBwiki Summer Camp. Click image to expand.

How Cool is That!

Pardon my youthful burst of enthusiasm but I'm at PBwiki Summer Camp for Educators. Blame it on the fact that as a kid I never when to real summer camp. Maybe it was a fear of mountain lions. Maybe a fear of three-legged races.

This is Week Two of PBwiki's six-week event and I haven't had the need for mosquito netting. You see, it's all virtual. About 1,000 teachers interested in wikis and learning how they can be jazzed for the classroom are logging on and collaborating in what is turning out to be an awesome learning experience. There is weekly homework though that comes with this camp. Think of it as "arts and crafts" or more like "survival training." Hey, there's extra credit, too.

Always up for trying out the next Web 2.0 gizmo to engage my students ever-demanding attention spans, I'm wowed at the list of mostly free resources available to teachers. Well, today I'm jazzed about a new application at Animoto makes mini-movies with rockin' appeal. All I had to do is create an account, upload some images (in the public domain or my own), select from some great music available on the site, and Animoto takes it from there. About 10 minutes later they send me a link and embed code for this >>

Now, how cool is that!

Almost as cool as the educational possibilities . . .(stay tuned).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Loading Content . . . Reflection Optional

What Nicholas Carr is afraid that what happened to time will happen to knowledge. In his July/August Atlantic Monthly essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" he points to how before the clock, time had a human element. We told time by means of sun and moon, seasons and harvest, births and deaths, and in general natural and human events. He points out that Socrates, decried the writing down of ideas, said without the contemplation of discourse, wisdom would be lost. Partially true, but look at what we gain by storing the accumulated wealth of words.

Carr notes that the Internet is mostly designed to browse, not to read, and that our very ability or desire to read long texts, to become immersed in say the world of a novel is fading with each click of the mouse. More troubling, while at the same time somewhat amusing, is Carr's mention of Google's stated mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It seeks to create a search engine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."

Futurists have predicted that nanochips encyclopedic volumes of information will someday connected to our brains. The assumption is that we'll all be better off with every bit of information. What I find worthy of concern is Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page's belief that "certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." Carr notes:

In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place
for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for
insight but a bug to be fixed.
Information is a resource, but it's not knowledge and it's not intelligent, artificial or otherwise. So much meaning can come, from ambiguity, fuzziness, subtlety, and nuance, recollected with clarity. As a reader and teacher of literary texts, whether fiction or non, I believe the most rewarding parts come from the spaces where all the dots don't line up, where there is room for multiple interpretation and that kind of knowing that can only survive in a human consciousness.
I do find it troubling that we are encouraged to browse rather than digest information. I see it in my students approach to literary texts—they scan and skim for the headlines, and when a novel doesn't work that way, and most of them don't, my students give up, and go to Sparknotes—online no less—to get the gist of the text. Like Prospero, "this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning, make the prize light." I know my students will spend much more time with computers than books, despite the equally revolutionariness of both inventions. Still, I'd like them to relish the reward of thought and enlightenment that comes from deep reading.
Carr points out that:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable
not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the
intellectual vibrations those words set off within our minds. In the quiet
spaces opened up the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other
act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our
own inferences and analogies, forster our own ideas.
Yes, reading and thinking are changing with technology. I share Carr's concern for the loss of reflection and in fact the ability of reflection in my students. The Internet itself doesn't foster thought the way books do. And books don't foster reflection the way a teacher can. With Plato's writing we got to know Socrates and settled with less rhetoric, with Gutenberg we quit illuminated manuscripts in lieu of plain type. As Google perfects its search engines, knowledge is more accessible, wisdom remains rare.

I'm no Socrates, the Internet is not a book—but as teachers we must endeavor to foster reflection's power. Reflection is perhaps the best kind of intelligence and furthest from artificial. It's what develops and changes our thinking whether we are speaking in groups, reading books, or surfing the Web.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Essences of Teaching: No. 3 -- Share, Spread, Show

Third in a Series of Three

(Review Part 1, Part 2)

And thirdly, great teachers, share what their doing—the pitfalls and panaceas—with others. The best teachers serve as resource not only for the students in their classrooms to other teachers down the hall, and beyond. They build bridges of collaboration and reflection, of experience and experimentation, and strategies and support. Teachers who share ideas, concerns, plans and materials redouble their own ability to create meaningful lessons for their classes.

Great teachers spread the word of their students' work (and their own expertise) by showcasing it with their administrators, parents, and community as their audience. It's important personally and professionally to let the world know what we accomplish with our students—how we strive and thrive in the classroom. Having stakeholders see us at our best can take the edge off when we risk a plan that doesn't turn out was well as we had hoped. Somewhere along the line, teachers as a profession became shy about telling others about the excellent work they do. Today we can't afford to be reclusive.

In this age, it's key to success of our profession to invite others into our classrooms and to show them what school is like nowadays. (My, how different from a decade ago!) Explain how we meet the challenges in creative, effective ways, and how we foster meaning and achievement for our students. Some teachers would argue that this is showing off. Well, yes it is, but as the old saying goes, "quality doesn't sell itself." Teachers must share their stories as well as their scholarship with other stakeholders besides their students.

Showing others our good work despite myriad challenges of low funding, lacking prestige, rising numbers of learning disabilities, and infrequent moral support from media, is good for everybody's sake. Students gain security and motivation knowing they're in the care of pros. Parents can rest assured their students will be equipped for tomorrow. And teachers can enjoy receiving some credit for their labors. Everyone benefits when teachers show the many, many ways we are effectively meeting students differentiated needs.

Now as the back-to-school season starts, is time to reflect, and shape ways to tell our stories, lay claim to our scholarship for the love of learning, and share the good news about teaching and learning in today's schools with everyone who will listen and then some.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Essences of Teaching: No. 2 Scholarship, or "Teacher, School Thyself"

Part Two in a Series of Three

(Review Part 1)

To be a great storyteller, a bard must learn his tale, and make some of it up as he goes along. Storytellers are always on the alert for another great story to add to their repertoires. Likewise, great teachers are always ready to learn something new. Indeed, they seek it. To truly succeed at their profession, teachers must be life-long scholars.

Pre-service teachers know this, or learn quickly that this is the case. I can recall an occasion when planning an upcoming unit with a student-teacher, she blanched "I don't know anything about the medieval period."
"Wonderful, but you will. Now! is the time to learn, " I replied.
"Teacher, school thyself" is a motto that means you'll never be limited, never get rusty.

Great teachers are avid readers, adventurers, and students themselves. This is true for their whole career, if they are lucky, because it means life is full of discovery. Scholars look for and are drawn to experts. If one doesn't know the taxonomy of art criticism, she seeks a curator; if another needs the decade's influenza statistics, he calls the health department. Master teachers collaborate with teams of colleagues who, like them, are hot for discoveries. Working together across the disciplines can mean new insights for teachers and students alike.

Teachers-as-scholars are travelers, pilgrims, inventors, dabblers, and doers. For instance, an American literature or social studies teacher might visit Lexington and Concord, the stomping grounds of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Stowe, as well as the beginnings of the American Revolutionary War, all a stone's throw from Salem and Boston and more stories and lessons from history. Or a science teacher might embark on a trek through the rain forest of Peru. Such exploratory teachers find professional development closer to home as well in conferences, classes, tours, events, concerts, dramas, and mini-expeditions to keep their spark for learning (and teaching) alive. Volunteer work not only serves the community, but also informs teachers of local issues, additional skills, and networks of experts to invite into their classrooms.

As scholars, teachers delight in educational challenges, whether its an additional degree or certification, or just for their kind of fun—the joy of knowledge for knowledge's sake. Yet, of course, we all know that this knowledge is for their students' sakes as well. Students love teachers who know how to learn. Such teacher-learners model the adventure of learning, and share knowledge in depth and breath from first-hand study. Next, sharing, spreading, and showing . . .

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Essence of Teaching, er, the S's of Teaching: No. 1 - Story

Part One in a Series of Three

First is storytelling. Teachers are natural-born storytellers. Whether its anticipatory bellringer to catch the attention of sometimes reluctant learners or a personal anecdote to illuminate a point, teachers are telling stories. Of course some of us are reading or English teachers and "story" is in the job description. Our collegial cousins, the social studies instructors have "his-story-ical" accounts to retell. Yet, teachers in science, technology, and art, too, are storytellers of matter, microchips, and media.
Stories shape understanding.
As a first grade teacher plants seeds in half-pint milk cartons and the class watches the marigolds bloom by Mother's Day, a story of nature and nurture is demonstrated. As a geometry teacher gives a makeup exam, a story of second-chances it taught. As a coach rallies her team for the championship, a narrative of hard work, results, and love of the game is told.
Stories help teachers and students make meaning of the curriculum, ideas, and life. If you've never thought of it this way, then consider the stories you tell and how they tell you and your subject to your students. Next, scholarship . . .

Monday, July 7, 2008

Teaching Tips Blog is a blog in the traditional sense. That is it is a resource that lists other resources. With archives dating back to last month, this is tight contemporary resource that's quick to scan.

While it seems supported by advertising from institutions of higher learning and offers a search tool to find programs for education and professional development, the love-at-first-sight part is the blog that contains posts like "100 Best Resources and Guides for ESL Teachers," "100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of," and "50 Must-Read Up and Coming Blogs by Teachers." The last of which included "If Bees Are Few" and so, I figured I'd post for some cross-pollenization.

The "Must-Read" list links to blogs from teachers across the spectrum of rants, to rationalizations, to reality-checks. Good stuff.

And I thought the pile of books in my home office was enough summer reading, already!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Read'em Good

A lively discussion is underway at Teacher Magazine's online discussion forum. The topic du jour is about whether or not reading aloud to high schoolers is good for them. Apparently a high school teacher's administrator doesn't think so. When I sat stopped in on the forum today, it looked like the "good"s were in the lead. And I'm among them.

I often read to my high schoolers--especially key passages, poetry, parts of dialogue. Although I'm no great orator from the late 1800s, but with a degree or two in communication arts, I do all right. I figure, it's not often my students get to hear a professional reader of literature. That's my first volley.

Here are my top 10 reasons for reading aloud to teens, or at least all I can think of on this beautiful summer's eve.

  1. They love it.

  2. They'll hear the words spoken in an effective (not definitive) way.

  3. I know they are reading the text and not just the Sparknotes. Who knows they might even notice the incredible difference and stick to reading the texts in toto.

  4. I can model how reading inspires one to pause and muse and question, or reflect and elaborate on a moment in a text.

  5. We can discuss an important point, or debrief on difficult part.

  6. Some students are auditory learners; it helps all students to digest a text not to be decoding the letters on the page.

  7. It works in the mind's eye and on the imagination just as well, if not better.

  8. Students can take notes or make art related to the reading while I read aloud.

  9. Spoken vocabulary meets written text.

  10. Research says students (even at the college level) who are read to read more.

As I noted above, I do not lay claim to reading texts "the right way." A pitfall of reading aloud is interpreting the text in a particular way. So, I also encourage (read: give extra credit) for students who agree to read the night before (and complete a chart of verbs of how each page is to be read and dictionary checks on vocabulary) and read in class. This way there is not the stumbling, staccato, flat and mispronounced, tortured reading, yet a student voice interprets the work.

On last point, I remember reading Great Expectations aloud as a 9th Grade. My 14-year-old voice cracked and the class laughed. I also remember my teacher Mr. Allison's mellifluous tones when he read Romeo and Juliet with us. Ah, youth.
Image credit: "Reading Along with Mr. Youngs" by Victoria Lecci

Friday, June 20, 2008

Grading Blog Posts

A bit of a blogevangelist for education, whether speaking to colleagues down the hall or at conferences, I'm often asked "how do you grade a blog, do you have a rubric?" The short answer is "Yes."

Academic blogging is different from MySpace or Facebook. There are rules. Insert groan. I keep it simple for my sake as well as for that of my students. Students earn points under the categories of courtesy, communication, focus, scholarship, and thinking. You can take a look at the rubric I use for my students--click here.

In a recent articlein Campus Technology, Learning in the Webiverse: How Do You Grade a Conversation?, MIT's Trent Batson offers these tips that fit with most things we look for in good writing, conversational and academic:

  • coehesion of elements

  • awareness of audience

  • purpose

  • diction
It's clear from Baston's explanations of these components, there is a powerful difference from writing in a blog and writing a traditional essay. The stakes are higher when students are writing for authentic audience of peers in a public space. Purpose is torqued, too. To write for a class blog, students are called to not merely demonstrate knowledge but to share it meaningfully. Diction and coherency come into play as essential skills to accomplish the message.

I'd say this all adds up to much more engagement, thinking, and motivation to write well.

Image credit: "Conversations Silhouette" by b d solis, Creative Commons Copyright -- Attribution

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Think or Swim

In his introduction to How to See Yourself as You Really Are by the Dalai Lama, His Holiness notes "the most serious problems emanate from industrially advanced societies, where unprecedented literacy only seems to have fostered restlessness and discontent."

I see this in my students (and teachers, and just about everyone) as they obsessively check their mobile phones for texts, missed calls. I hear it in sound bytes from the latest news cycle that are taken without anything but superficial consideration and repeated as deep truths of what's happening today. Common sense, refection, and reverence are replaced by these sound bytes repeated as if mantras for a news cycle, and then replaced by the next gossip in the next moment.
Literacy, and here I am thinking of media literacy, must be stressed with our students to mean more than merely how to read a text or how to blog or make a video. Literacy is more than mere expression and understanding of a message.

Being teachers of English and across the disciplines, we teach our students how to read and write in a variety of media. It seems such a struggle to teach students to wade through myriad messages and identify propaganda and selected framing of ideas, let alone to dive into rhetoric and logic, then swim among questions and rise above to see things in larger contexts.

Of course, the total glut of media works against all of this. One might sit next to a lake and consider it for a long time without knowing its contents, yet today we seem awash in a tsunami. Ironically, survival in the latter is proportionally more crucial than in the former. One must not only be taught what water is, but also how to swim in it.

As we develop our students' abilities to digest media, some great emphasis must be given not only to forms but also to content. Knowledge isn't enough, thinking about the knowledge or lack thereof must be the focus. Perhaps if we ask our students to consider the messenger first, the message second, and then media third, we will be better equipping our students to find peace and contentment.

Image credit: "Grace Bay Beach Pier" 2007 by WisDoc used with permission of Creative Commons Copyright

Sunday, April 27, 2008

O What I Don't Know (But Will)

Entry #3 in a periodic series on National Board Certification

It's always a slap in the face to find out what you don't know you don't know.

Well, in typical "get outa your comfort zone" fashion, I took an assessement center practice session using retired questions and got a wake up call, if not a full smack down.

The first question involved a scenario about an type of student I have had few of and a novel I had not read. Actually, I think after the OMG moment of reading the question, I recovered rather nicely. Still the greater lesson is that if one is going to be a master teacher, he or she must excel at areas of which one has little experience as well as those areas that one has much.

So I can see my reading list growing for the summer so that I can learn more about issues, students, and subjects that I now know I don't know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Power of Art to Get Inside a Play

Today I included a favorite lesson, one I learned from Anthony Cappa, last year's student teacher in my class. The lesson involves Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll House and the work of his contemporary and acquaintance Edvard Munch. By examining a half dozen of Munch's works through the lens of Ibsen's play, students unfold both--sets of images and scenes from the play.

We start with "The Scream." Familiar territory and a moment of recognition. They find connections that bridge the playwright's realism and the painter's expressionism. Themes, moods, characters, episodes, and bits of dialogue resonate outward from Munch's pictures.

By the time we get to Munch's portrait of Ibsen himself, we need the momentary chuckle over his mutton chops to shake the despair, longing, and alienation that stem from our better understanding the meaning of what Nora, Torvald and all go through.

Art has that power. Couple drama with painting--wow!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Teaching and Self-Loathing

Entry #2 from a periodic series on National Board Certification

For all the buzz of past decades on self-esteem for students, teachers could use a boost. When I got to my second installment of NBPTS pre-candidate classes, I was nearly stymied to find that cancelling the program was a real possibility. Why? Lack of funding? No. Lack of teacher interest in taking the challenge of becoming National Board Certified.

I was crushed. I had tried to get into last year's class to find I was too late. Now that I was in, was I going to be denied the chance because no one else wanted to?

Fortunately, the happy few of us that showed up were able to commit, cross our hearts and hope to die, and convince the leaders to hang in there with us.

But this got me to thinking why? Why aren't teachers clamoring to become Board Certified? With the promise of state funding, money can't be the excuse? Time? Sure, time is always precious for good teachers. Yet, I think it has to do with fear of not measuring up and low self-esteem.

Teachers have so many nay-sayers to their talents. Media, administrators, parents, even students' criticism can get a teacher down. (Why this week alone, I was obliquely called a "goat," " a fool," and "cruel" by students.) So, of course, why would they want a National Board to give 'em one more hit? It's easy to see their view.

Ironically, that's exactly the opposite of the NBPTS's intent. It's to take account and certify all of "what teachers should know and be able to do." It's portfolio assignments and assessments are aimed at acknowledging the great things teachers who become candidates already are doing well.

Our National Board advisor tells me we are thirty years away from when National Board Certification will have established itself as the hallmark of educators' professionalism. Maybe by then teachers will be less fearful and more proud.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Midway in My Career

Entry #1 from a periodic series on National Board Certification

I've decided to record some of my reflections on a process toward National Board Certification for Teaching. I considered starting a separate blog for this, but have decided to have it be part of If Bees Are Few, color code it blue and tag it "National Board." In this way, perhaps it will show how the process integrates with other aspects of my reveries.

This is my seventeenth year in the classroom as a career. Sixteen down and sixteen to go, God-willing. I'm not sure I'll stop teaching then, but I'll probably retire from the public school system as I reach 60. Thus, if all goes well, this is my hump year.
This week I "celebrated" by beginning pre-candidate classes for becoming a National Board Certified Teacher from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The first step was printing nearly 400 pages of standards and portfolio requirements and the panic of "what am I getting myself into? I'm an award-winning teacher, lead of my department, consultant . . . why do I want to be board certification?"
Well, I love teaching and I express my love through the quality of my teaching. I also like reflective practice. So this seems like an arena in which I can heighten my reflection, challenge myself, and improve the quality of what I love and do well. So binder in hand I head off, a bit daunted by the work ahead I know it represents.
Locally, Duquesne University is a host center for NBCT/NBPTS. At our first meeting which previewed the foundation and five core propositions, I was reassured to find out that "Standards" for our profession are much more authentic than "standards and standardized testing" that is been limiting education's scope, creativity, relevancy, rigor, and ways we assess students. Here they are:

Policy Statement: What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do
1. Teachers are Committed to Students and Learning.
2. Teachers Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to
3. Teachers are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student
4. Teachers Think Systematically about Their Practice and Learn from
5. Teachers are Members of Learning Communities.

Moreover, I was reassured by the level of inquiry I sense in a half a dozen fellow teachers in our class. What we lack in numbers, we will make up for in quality. After three hours of working with them and our experienced and enthusiastic leaders, I may not have yet have a clear idea of "what I'm getting into," but I'm more confident I want to "get into it." What an incredible boost to one's motivation to have the time and space and structure and interest with colleagues to talk about "what teachers should know and be able to do." I left heartened that the NBCT process will be an exhausting but energizing experience. Sort of like teaching itself.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Grading, Online Reporting, and Good Enough

I've been experiencing the same sort of thing Traci Gardner mentions in her blog post for NCTE "What's My Grade?" My school started using an online grade reporting program. It's stable if terribly clunky--6 clicks and two sign-ins to post each class. Just as Traci notes, students rarely ask how they are doing in class. Instead they want to know why they have a zero for a homework. "Well, let's take a look." Most often it is because the assignment was turned in after the "all call" and though it's in my gradebook, it hasn't been entered into GradeQuick, or it's made it that far but not uploaded to EdLine. Teachers are to upload to EdLine every two weeks. That's a good thing.

I think Traci would agree. Her school's system is more instantaneous. By now, students (and parents) at my disctrict are getting used to the two-week schedule. And I have some time to grade the assignment, record it in my book, and enter it into GradeQuick, before I upload it to EdLine. All this takes time.

We have a seven-and-a-half-hour grading day every quarter. Every time contract talks come along, it is a bone of contention. "Do teachers really need this time?" school directors ask. I don't know about my colleagues but as an English teacher I can do the math: If it takes 10 minutes to grade an essay and I have 120 essays, I need 20 hours. And if I have 5 hours of prep time per week, then if I did nothing else (like parent contact, wrestle with the copier, check-in with a guideance counselor, give makeup exam, ad infinitum) I could have the essays graded (not recorded, just graded) in 4 weeks. So the seven hours of grading days is used for catching up with the makeups, figuring in participation, recording, and double-checking.

Time is time, and teachers never have enough. What is more troubling to me is, for all its efficiency of reporting grades, online reporting systems are nudging the emphasis from learning to earning. The customer service feel of online reporting seems to suggest that students (and parents) have more to demand from their scores. Scores become something to micro-manage from home and interrupt the learning process. And in some ways the very reporting of every point takes the effect of professional judgment out of the teacher's power. How can I give an C to a struggling, but deserving student who knows he has an 69 (one point away) because he's been watching his record?

There's a trickle down effect to this. As the students realize every hundredths of a point matter, every homework assignment and its score matters. Again, the focus is not on the learning, it's on a number. Grades become a fixed timeline of scores instead of a representative process of progress.

I was fortunate to grow up in the days of hand-written report cards. A time when students trusted their teachers to assess them. And parents who backed the teachers. Though I might have wondered a little a couple of times, I never had to question a teacher about a grade. If the teacher said I got deserved a "C" and I had given it my all, then I got a "C." And my parents only question was "Did you do your best?" regardless of whether of the grade. That was good enough.

And what I learned in the process: what was my best. To this day I know whether I've done my best or not. My best on some things is an A+. Sometimes I can eek out a B-. Other things I fail. But I never have to ask why I got a zero.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Give It Up For, Not On Technology

Teachers are control freaks. It's true. It comes with the territory. Everytime we walk into a classroom we know someone is going to set the agenda. And it better be me. It's all we know.

Enter technology. Ever have a projector that wouldn't sync with a DVD player? How about an online video presentation scheduled for a day the school server goes down? Or your blog site is 404?

Just the idea that we are outsourcing our content to a third-party makes us squeamish. And there are concerns about copyright, propriety of documents uploaded to Google, sites that link, remixed media, ad nauseum. Control?

If we are going to be moving (with our students) to the 21st Century we've got to give it up. I have found that my students understand completely. Whereas in years past, if something didn't go quite right, they'd panic and look at me like it was some kind of crime, nowadays they are cool with it. They know what it's like to be out of control with technology. It's a temporary setback. In a few minutes or the next day, the power will come up, the site will be online, the bug will be patched, and all will be good. Learning will go on.