Saturday, April 5, 2014

E: Education--Acquiring an Education vs. Getting a Degree #BloggingAtoZ

"If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the alter of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams." --Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
On April 2, 2014 my brilliant friend Stephanie Lauritzen, who teaches English and Debate at Coeur d'Alene High School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, posted a brilliant "rant" on Facebook. With her permission, I am reposting it in this space.

This will be an educational rant (pun intended) that has been brewing for sometime. I have been reading many an article about how a college education is not worth it, how particular degrees won't pay for themselves. I read one recently about a cost benefit analysis of certain colleges and universities where the average student will never recoup their money (or some similar conclusion). I need to say first that I do not think that college is for everyone and that everyone needs to find a way to make a living. That being said, when did education become "how much many can I make" or "what job can I get?" Education is about . . . (wait for it) . . . being educated. . . about life, the world, humanity, past and present. If all one is looking for is a job, there are few that need a college degree. There are faster and cheaper ways than any 4 year degree (I will save my rant on online classes and dual enrollment for another time). I am so tired of a culture that denigrates the concept of getting an education for its own intrinsic worth. There is nothing quantifiable about what I learned during my undergraduate years. I learned as much about myself, my beliefs and values as I did about economics, philosophy, history, music, science, etc. But all of that is part of my education. And it has never stopped. Granted I am in the field of education, but being trained for a job is only part of an education; it is a secondary result. Otherwise, we are going to end up with a very well trained work force (who saved a lot of money) but hasn't learned anything of value.

It's really no surprise that a country devoted to resurrecting the Gilded Age devalues the arts as not pragmatic enough for young people to value. In our world of reductionist thinking, the cha-ching factor matters more than the intrinsic, unmeasurable value of education. 

An April 5, 2014 article Forbes ("Higher Education: Is College Worth It?) addresses the question by presenting an analysis of earning power among 900 colleges and universities via a PayScale analysis. 

We are at grave risk of selling our collective soul to the highest bidder. I can't help but wander how our world might be more of a utopia than a dystopia had more people taken a Renaissance view of education, one similar to that of Leonardo Da Vinci. 

  • Would we have as much political corruption if we had more artists?
  • Would we have a stock market corrupted so extensively (see Michael Lewis's Flash Boys) if we had more artists?
  • Would we have as much abuse if we had more artists?
  • How would our world look if we encouraged students to make a life by acquiring the kind of education Stephanie writes about rather than prodding them to make a living by getting a degree? 
In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues for education that focuses on the critical thinking and problem solving skills developed through creativity. 

As Paul Taylor of Pew Research says, "In today's knowledge-based economy, the only thing more expensive than getting a college education is not getting one."

A Sixteenth Century depiction of children being educated in runelore. via wikimages

Friday, April 4, 2014

D: "Data" (a.k.a. Arne) Duncan: The Educational Numbers Game #AtoZChallenge

D-A-T-A: Count the letters; metaphorically speaking, data is a dirty word among many teachers. One certainly needn't worry about eye strain when looking for reasons teachers loathe the analytics now common-place in schools. Even math teachers detest the testing--the data-driven world of schooling. My principal, a former math teacher, and I shared our common distaste for standardized tests this morning just as I prepared to endure my third day of dispensing inaccurate information about poetry to students taking the SBAC. I had a script and have told students I'm acting a part wholly separate from my role as an English teacher and lover of poetry.

Maja Wilson (Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction) best articulates my attitude about the dirty word data in an Answer Sheet article, "Data: My New Dirty Word":

Teaching itself has become redefined as generating, collecting, and using data, and learning has become redefined as the curve connecting data points. This is a fundamental shift in how educators think, talk, and go about educating our children. Unfortunately, it is not a shift that serves anyone but the data-collectors very well.

Maja wrote her post in 2010, and things are much worse now, as a recent blog from Diane Ravitch attests. Ravitch published testimony from New Jersey teacher Douglas McGuirk decrying the data-driven dystopia teachers endure. In his testimony McGuirk writes: 

I am no longer certain about what my job description is these days; am I a teacher, one who attempts to engage students and help them understand subject matter and their world, or am I a data collector, one who keeps statistics on all manner of measurables in a theoretical attempt to improve the process of teaching in which I am often not engaged because I am busy collecting the data? 

McGuirk describes the impossible task teachers face in the virtual reality of data collection. We can no longer teach students, respond to their writing, conference with them, etc. because so much of the job is relegated to playing the numbers. 

I blame Arne Duncan. Under his tenure, not only have we seen a ballooning of required tests students must take, an increase in the use of flawed data to evaluate teachers, more money flowing to for-profit testing companies, and the continued shrinking and standardization of curriculum, but we have also seen new threats to student privacy. 

Duncan talks out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he calls for protecting student privacy by having "vigorous self-policing by commercial players." On the other hand, he advocates for the "extraordinary learning opportunities" data collection provides (via Education Week).

via Google images: free to use and share license
Duncan's data advocacy shrouds a sinister subtext: Data collection should be used to modify and adjust and differentiate student instruction with available "products." Stated as a syllogism, Duncan argues: Either we use data collection to improve student learning or we're left to the flawed human assessment of teachers. 

The Education Week article offers many platitudes about industry self-policing and Duncan's claimed concern for students' privacy. We've heard this rhetoric before. The bottom line is the bottom line. Businesses, even educational ones, are, after all in the business of doing business. That means making a profit. They're the kings in the counting house. The rest of us--students and teachers--are simply pawns. 

*Updated to correct typos at 3:46 MST.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

C: Creepy--What Creeps You Out? For Some, It's Frankenstein #Blogging A to Z

Yesterday, I posted the lesson that follows this one: B: Blackout Poetry as Close Reading of Classic Literature.
"They're creepy!" That's the response from many students as they observed their creations, what they call their Frankensteins, during a classroom gallery walk the first day of the Mary Shelley's Frankenstein unit.

For the project, I have students find beautiful people in magazines. Then we cut out the various parts of the picture--the person--that makes each beautiful. These go into piles: hair, eyes, noses, lips, arms, legs, and torsos.

Students select parts from each pile, just as Frankenstein in speaking about his creature says, "I selected his features as beautiful."

Next, the students put their parts together. We display them around the room. Students then participate in a gallery walk. I created an Animoto video showing some of the projects from one class and students "admiring" their peers' work:

The next day, we begin the romance by reading the opening of chapter 5, which is where I start teaching Frankenstein, and follow this with a discussion of what it means to be beautiful in our culture, how arbitrary selection distorts the human form. Essentially, the students have created "grotesques," although this is not a term we use in our discussion.

Here's the opening from chapter 5 that I share with students to jump start the conversation:

IT WAS on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, continued a long time traversing my bed chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams.

*This lesson in its entirety will be live on eventually as part of the NEA BL Master Teacher Project.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B: Blackout Poetry as Close Reading of Classic Literature #BloggingAtoZ

*Since I began the #Blogging A to Z challenge a day late and am determined to post every day, I'm doubling down today. Earlier in the evening I blogged the letter A: April is National Poetry Month and shared a student project.

Blackout Poetry: The Lights are on for Close Reading

Today I asked students to create blackout poetry for one of Walton's letters to his sister in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I find the letters the most challenging part of Shelley's romance. Blackout poetry offers a fun way for students to read the text closely in a creative way.

For an introduction to blackout poetry, check out this story on Austin Kleon, author of Newspaper Blackout Poetry:

The images below show blackout poetry from students, myself, and my student teacher as we black out Walton's Letters to his sister:

Mrs. N. Introducing Students to Blackout Poetry

Student Teacher Blackout Letter 3

Student Blackout Letter 3

Student Blackout Letter 3
My blackout of Letter 3

A: April is National Poetry Month #BloggingfromAtoZ (#1)

April is National Poetry Month! Most years I'm a little late to the poetry party but not this year. I've renewed my focus on poetry this year. It's my way of pushing back against a seemingly "one size fits all" paradigm of learning. 

To celebrate the beginning of National Poetry Month, I'd like to feature some student projects from the poetry unit I taught at the beginning of the trimester. Our focus was British Poetry from the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern Periods. 

As a culminating activity, students illuminated a poem. Many chose to use Prezi as a platform for their illuminations. Here is one  of my favorites:

To record the video above, I used Screencast O'Matic (the free version).

The complete lesson for this and my most recent poetry unit will be available soon on the Better Lesson website: as it is part of my work with the NEA BL Master Teacher Project. 

Here's a link to the curriculum I currently have live on the BL site. 

*I'm a day late to the Blogging from A to Z challenge. I just learned about it last night as I lay awake in my normal insomniac state. This is my first blogging challenge. I missed Slice of Life--maybe next year!