Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's at the Top?


'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,-nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,-all helped the emphasis.

'In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!'

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

--Chapter 1, Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Image: "Secretary Duncan as Mr. Gradgrind."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Education Put to the Test, Students Be Damned

Here's a story problem for you:  "If the federal government establishes a 500-point system and awards 138 points to states that increase a measure of teacher effectiveness by using student performance as the criteria and pay-incentive, how long will it take teachers to teach the test and not the student?"

My guess is not long. Speaking about the $4 billion "Race to Top" deal U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan puts it crassly."All of this money is voluntary," he says. "If states don't want to apply or compete they have every right not to do that. But I will tell you that when we put billions of dollars on the table, you'll see people more than step up" (National Public Radio, 1/19/10, bold mine).

It would be laughable if it weren't so damnable to quality in our schools, damnable to the educators in their halls, and damnable to the students most of all.  Oh, don't get me wrong. Scores will increase; that much is all but certain. Learning--except how to whiz the test--will not. It will be reduced to skills and facts delivered by clerks and online programs, not educators. In fact, I predict a lot will be lost. If not school systems altogether, then we will lose the following:  Creativity,  productivity, industry, innovation, performance in the arts, entertainment, and sports arenas, and curiosity in the maths and sciences.

Teachers can inspire those talents in students . . . but not with standardized tests.  These are the attributes of America's success and prosperity.  And they are not standardizable--they are as revolutionary as the spirit of 1776. Standardized tests by their very essence are antithetical to the creativity, productivity, industry, artistic performance, entertainment, and sports, and curiousity in the mathematics and sciences. Our citizens have led the world in these pursuits for the past century--despite the fact that our standardized scores have lagged.

As more an more standarized tests are added to the school year, students learn less and less that will be meaningful to their lives, liberty, or happiness, much less to our country's success.  Before a student is graduated from high school, he will have spent more than 180 days devoted to standardized testing; that is, more than a whole year--gone. A year of teachable moments that might have expanded his world with hope and curiosity.  How can we forfeit so much for these tests, now promised in multifolds, and bearing such damage?

According to the bibliographic information giant Bowker, who tracks reading trends, a quarter of our population did not read a book in 2008. And less than half did not read more than one. Do we imagine that standardized tests with their overworked passages and hackneyed, insipid prompts will inspire a love rather a fear and dread of reading and writng? Last year's statistics will seem halcyon when viewed from 2022.

Why do our legislators yearn to standardize and hold our students and teachers accountable to international systems that are arguably inferior to ours?  Ease. Scores are easy. Not terribly meaningful, but easy.  You can publish the results and say "there."  The politician says, "See, now relect me." Though low on meaning, they are high on stakes. If you don't believe it, we'll bribe you. That's another easy answer. Confuse the issue with funding.

Pay teachers more for so-called effectiveness of so-called student achievement and you provide the meanest incentive to the basest gain. Funding for scores that are so limited in their meaningfulnes--that is, save the injury of demeaning communities which don't make the grade and then the insult of not funding them so they go defunct--insults the very professionalism of the discipline. 

As for me personally, I see that, as I head toward retirement pensions based on my salary, I could fatten my wallet by teaching less.  Rather than teaching students, I could teach the test. Rather than working on concepts and skills that will prepare students for their futures yet unimagined, I can work to the bubble test defined for the here and now.  Rather than a career professional who has strived for decades to appeal to the hearts and minds of the next generation, I'll become a clerk and time-keeper. The whole deal is one to be made with the devil.

States are signing on to "Race to the Top" with Faustian panic and expectation. It's a race afterall, not a thoughtful, meaningful process of learning. Governors seek funding in exchange for doing the devil's work. Signing on the dotted line of a moral blank check with the testing companies (and their lobbyists) playing banker. Districts be shamed. Teachers be pressed. Students be damned.

Image:  "Test: Arne Duncan." Created with Obamaconme.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Note Pinned to Your Underpants Suffice?

In the past month I've had the experience of students not turning in project work and having the excuse that they weren't here the day it was assigned. "I wasn't here the day you gave the assignment."  I think this is akin to a toddler who closes his eyes and thinks you can't see him. Invisibility by experience."I see nothing, ergo nothing sees me."

"How could you miss it?" I state in the course syllabus that "students are responsible for missed classes," parroting the school's policy on the matter.  And a project assignment is given at least one week advance notice. These students were in class since "that day." It's an honors class for the college bound senior.

Furthermore to defend my amazement let me say that I distribute all project assignments in writing, mark the deadline on a dry erase board in the classroom, post the same on our class wiki, provide handouts on the class website, and add reminders on Twitter. So I'm a bit snarky in responding to "I wasn't there the day you assigned this."

What about some individual responsibility?  How do you cope? How do we serve students without enabling poor behaviors?

Image: "I See Nothing, Nothing Sees Me." By Lindasslund. 17 Nov. 2008. Flickr. Used by permission of Creative Commons License.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Vegas Principle

In the ever-changing world of the Web, there is one constant.  I call it the Vegas Principle:  What happens here, stays here.  Despite the public service announcements warning teens to "Think before you post" and my senior students not recalling a world without the Internet, I found this week that I needed to remind them of this simple principle. They may be digital natives, but yet do not know the lay of the land.

The lesson became very clear when I introduced students to Etherpad, a web-based word processor that allows people to work together in real-time simultaneously.  In hindsight my introduction was a poor one. I might have demonstrated all of the features of the site first, including the timeline feature that replays all of the versions and revisions--every keystroke participants make. Rather I went with the let's dive in method.

My plan was to have students type in their answers to their homework all at once and we could see them all projected on the interactive white board in the Etherpad.

Before I knew it a couple of students profaned the pad.  One girl, apparently not realizing that her text was going to be visible to the entire class typed "f*** this class."  And her friend across the room started with "m***** f*****." The next line was a lewd reference to male anatomy and appeared just as the projector bulb warmed up the screen.  A quick reprimand and the type disappeared--and not.

What students did not realize was that Etherpad was recording all of the keystrokes and who made what contributions every second.  Not wanting to encourage a replaying frenzy I left out instruction on this feature till I could see it for myself and divine who said what.

Disappointed to find my two honors girls used such language recklessly, but even more so to find these were the very first words they used with a technology of which they had no familiarity. I do not believe they meant any of what they said but was disturbed at the disregard for context. The next class got the pre-demonstration and I got no mishaps; rather I captured a new timeline to demonstrate the feature the next day, complete with lecture on my two-fold concerns: profanity and the archival nature of electronic data.

Sounding the alarm and warning that electronic media does not ever completely delete information, that it is likely to be found by others whom we might want to impress (referencing cautionary tales of grad school denials and job recruiters), and that as much as we must embrace technology, we must do so with our best selves.  "So if you can't imagine doing this with your mom, grandma, priest, employer, and future children (or the 'creepers' out there) looking over your shoulder and being proud, it's probably an indication that you ought not." I had the impression that such was some new information for these students. (Refer to the Ad Council for educational materials on "Think Before You Post": Bulletin Board, Everyone Knows Your Name.)

I continued in the mantles of both school master and literacy coach to question my students' use of profanity, to spend such low and practical words haphazardly as first utterances and with no good use.  I chastised them for the "mal-or" of their tongues and implored them to save such "gold" inherited from the Old English for a time and place that called up a worthy purpose.  This view took off some edge of my prudishness, as they considered my idea of saving such words for something apropos.

The lesson came home for the errant class, and especially for the recreant girls, who saw the other class' timeline play out every keystroke the next day. Whoops!

In retrospect, I'm glad we dove in and picked up an important lesson, more salient than the answers to the homework.

As for Etherpad?  It is a helpful tool in the classroom as designed.  Students can work simultaneously in a workspace and then convert their work into a printable, publishable document.  The timeline feature offers a record of process and notes who contributes what. The only downside is only sixteen users can contribute at a time.  And there is no delete button, per se; you can revert to a previous time, deleting all subsequent revisions. But this is all likely to improve as Google has purchased Etherpad with the intention of incorporating it into Google Wave

You just might want to have a talk about the Vegas principle pre-use.

Image credit: "Vegas Principle of the Web" created with ImageChef. "Etherpad Screenshot." By Charles Youngs. Creative Commons License: Non-commercial reuse allowed with attribution.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mini Video Documentaries and Music Videos to Inspire Student Research

Motivating 9th Grade students of the millennial generation to read nonfiction to research Shakespeare takes more than a trip to the library. A year ago I developed a 9th grade project on Shakespeare that combines a traditional research paper assignment on a with PhotoStory video groups, thus classic meets 21st century.

The assignment:
  1. students read texts and research on individual topics related to Shakespeare’s life, times, and work in service to
  2. subsequent small group work to produce mini-video documentaries that are in turn
  3. posted to the Internet
Introducing the research unit and positioning the mini-video documentary as the end-game, excites students about gathering source information and insists on their being sticklers about getting it right and documented correctly. They ask questions to check their own understanding of their reading. Students immerse themselves in source documents via “the mantle of expert” strategy (Heathcote qtd. in Wagner, 1999), and thus, approach the task with interest, ownership, and attention to detail.

Students read between the lines to find key information to include in their paper and video. Efferent reading as a way of knowing (Rosenblatt, 1978) becomes critical as students previously unfamiliar with Shakespearean topics learn of his plays, poems, songs, and aspects of his biography (e.g. students initially can’t tell that “Antony and Cleopatra” is a play whereas “Venus and Adonis” is a narrative poem, and “Stratford-upon-Avon” is a place). Lessons in critical reading, research technique, media literacy, visual representation, and audio speaking skills come to the fore of this multimodal project.

Products include a mix of old and new: individual evidence of reading and research (note-taking) and writing of a documented source research paper, and collaborative media work of storyboard, script, PhotoStory video. A closing activity consists of a class screening of all of the videos, in which students take notes on key points, and use a rubric to vote for the best “Willy”-winning mini-documentary.

For 12th Grade, I've used Animoto for music videos, each based on a soliloquy of Macbeth.

The assignment:
  1. cull key lines from the soliloquy at hand
  2. consider theme and imagery
  3. collect copyright friendly images
  4. upload images and text  to Animoto, select music and mix
In addition you can see the12th Grade's music videos for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales pilgrims.
It's all part of link  (below) to my presentation at NCTE's 2009 Annual Convention in Philadelphia. It featured ways and materials teachers can inspire research and analysis of Shakespeare's life and works through digital media, particularly PhotoStory and Animoto.

Some updates since the presentation are worth mentioning. Windows PhotoStory, that I used, is not to be had on newer computer operating systems, as its feature have been worked into Windows Movie Maker. This is a bit of shame because PhotoStory was so intuitive and idiot-proofed.  At any rate, depending on your school's computer operating system, I'd suggest using PhotoStory (XP), Movie Maker (Vista, Windows 7), or iMovie (Apple Mac OS X).  Regarding Animoto, it now not only takes still images, but short clips of recorded video.

You are welcome to revisit this session as it is slidecast with video clips and 40 pages of PDF files. Click Here .  If you try these ideas, I've love to hear about how it works for you.

References:  Wagner, Betty Jane. Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium. 1999. Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. 1978.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Re-Captcha-ring Old Texts One Word at a Time

Frustrated by typing captchas--those distorted, blotched, wiggly, struck-through words to prove you are a human user of a website?  They do help keep sites from spammers and their automated emails.

And I've noticed I'm recognizing real words more than I used to.  Perhaps this has something to do with a hidden task at our fingertips that we are performing without knowing it.  The new captchas--called re-captchas--are actually words from archival texts that computers have difficulty transcribing digitally.

At a rate of 20 million-a-day, according to ScienCentral News, Internet users are solving the mysteries by picking out the letters from noisy speckles, blotches, and lines.  Captcha inventor, Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, here in Pittsburgh, notes in this video how much time per day is used by humanity while sorting out these digital keys, part of the motivation for turning this task into something doubly useful.

So where the ink is bleeding through, where the bookworm has had its lunch, where mold had left its mark, or air had darkened the page, re-captcha is sorting the wheat from the chaff with my help. It's nice to know that next time I work out a captcha riddle I may be doing my part to save an ancient text.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ning in the New Year

Posting at the New Year's about my Personal/Pro Learning Network, I noted two Nings.

The NCTE Ning
and the Jim Burke's English Companion Ning.

I joined NCTE's in 2008 and EC's in 2009.  Two years, two Nings. Still, when I mention Nings to colleagues I have to explain.

1. Ning is a site offering social networks that are more customized than ones on sites like Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace and geared for group discussion and sharing content as well as the random idea.

2. Nings are to social networks what wikis are to websites.

3. Cousins to blogs with reverse-chronological listings and posts, descendants of discussion threads.

4. Perhaps best of  they can share multimedia podcasts, including slides, video, audio, and documents. (Great for catching presentations and lesson ideas and plans!)  It's as if I have scores of talented colleagues across the hall, even though they are across the nation, and beyond.

If you are new to Ning, I'd suggest giving it a try and giving it some time. (As I uploaded these Ning screenshots and revisited the sites, I noticed that I had actually belonged to three other Ning Networks. I guess they were just not holding my interest.)

So I have actually belonged to Ning for four years!  I just didn't "get it."  They became part of my PLN when they started to attract meaningful, useful content.  After the NCTE Convention in November 2009, the Ning called for presentation materials from event. Now it's rich with media.  And Jim Burke's, which recently won honors from the Edublog Awards, is brimming with meaningful conversations and effective ideas.