Saturday, April 12, 2014

K: Key #AtoZChallenge


Speaking at the LBJ Presidential Library on the 50th anniversary
of the signing of the Civil Rights Act former president George W. Bush said

"I fear the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning, and for the sake of America's children, that is something we cannot allow."

Then Bush said this:

"Whatever difficulties we face, they will not be erased by weakening accountability."

There you have it, folks. The irony of ironies. George W. Bush says the key to student success is----wait for it-------TESTING. That's what accountability in the mind of George W. Bush means. While the current standards movement has its origins in 1983's A Nation at Risk, George W. Bush single-handedly brought us the  current testing mania via No Child Left Behind, which sadly and ironically is better than its replacement, Race to the Top. 

In his speech, Bush lauded "accountability" as the way to guarantee poor and minority children receive an equal education to those of affluent white children. Really? 


  • Not a word about crumbling schools buildings. 
  • Not a word about the low status of teachers, which arguably George W. Bush is most responsible for in recent years.
  • Not a word about inequality in funding education, which in most places is based on property taxes.
  • Not a word about equal access to technology and "smart" schools. 
  • Not a word about the widening poverty gap that increasingly works to create a "pseudo-Victorian" society in 21st Century America.
  • Not a word about the inherent bigotry of standardized testing, which I began researching as a high school student in the mid-1970s.
  • Not a word about the huge expenditures for administering the tests. 
The only equal access Bush cares about is TESTING. 

There are many keys to equal education for poor and minority students, and "accountability" as defined by George W. Bush, is not one of them. 

Keys to understanding the way Bush's lauded accountability movement locks poor and minority students out of equal access and the way it increasingly erodes access for middle-class students abound. Here are some:
There are many others, but these three are a great start. The mainstream media does very little to tell the real truth about the accountability movement and Bush's legacy. George W. Bush is no LBJ. For that he needs to be held accountable.

*Update: After this post went live, Diane Ravitch addressed the problems w/ assessing teachers based on standardized test scores in a post titled "Breaking News: American Statistical Association Issues Caution on Use of VAM."


Thursday, April 10, 2014

J: Just....#AtoZChallenge

Just drawing a _____________.

I've brainstormed ideas for the letter "J" and just can't think of a single idea about which to write. Among the possible post topics I've explored:

  • Justice: I've followed more celebrity trials than I care to admit. They seem to be the story d'jour on the morning news programs. Often I think: If there is any justice in the world....Of course, to attain real justice, the morning talking heads would talk about the discrepancies in our justice system: The number of African American men incarcerated in proportion to their demographic, the irony in Wall Street moguls' unjust trading practices while our prisons brim with the poor and minor drug offenders. The irony in those tasked with dispensing justice abusing that power, as the Department of Justice found is the case with the Albuquerque Police Department.  Nor have I forgotten the Justice clothing brand!
  • Just Write It: I also thought about riffing on the Nike logo: Just do it. Sometimes I put up a bulletin board with a Nike Swish and the line: Just Write It. I first used this twist on Nike's logo long before Facebook, where one can find a Just Write It page. Searching Google, I realized that Just Write It and its Just Write variation really isn't unique. I'll leave the bulletin board blogging to those who actually do bulletin boards. I've had the same ones all year. 
  • J-Word Poems: But I posted a poem yesterday, and all the fabulous Joy Harjo poems, such as "Eagle Poem" are too long.
  • J-Authors: John Green, of course comes to mind. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of his books, his Crash Course, his "Don't Forget to be Awesome" campaign. What high school teacher doesn't love John Green? Then there's Jane Austin. I've only written one post about her and it was a cursory one about imitating a writer's writing style. James Joyce, J. R. R. Tolken, Henry James, Samuel Johnson, Ben Johnson, Shirley Jackson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and many others. Generally, however, I try to use authors in lesson context or to support a topic/theme. 
  • J-Books: Too many to name. Those looking for a list can visit World Cat. 
  • J-Lo: On an education blog? I'll pass for now. 
  • Journey: More of an American Literature theme and a topic I've already written about in recent Frankenstein lessons. Also, a fabulous '80s rock band. 
  • Jaywalking: to cross the road in an illegal manner. Metaphorically speaking I do this often, especially when told how to teach English by those with no ethos. 
Just scratching my head trying to find a Letter J topic. Is it okay if I just go with my list of eight possibilities and punt this one with a genuine promise to do better by K

I: Island--No Man is One #AtoZChallenge


As a teacher, I'm keenly aware of how interconnected we all are on this big blue marble. John Donne says it best in "Meditation XVII," often referred to as "No Man is an Island."

"Meditation XVII" (excerpt)

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I think about Donne's words often, so my post today is about several of the reasons Donne's poem means so much to me and why the argument Donne articulates is one we should all embrace. 

1. It's impossible to live a totally isolated existence.

A recent post on Facebook reminded me of this. A friend posted "Here's Where Americans Think Ukraine Is," an article showing a map illustrating just how geographically challenged Americans are. Several placed Ukraine in Tennessee! The post prompted some interesting responses, including several from a high school classmate who railed against the government in a diatribe reminiscent of Pap in Huck Finn. In part, he claimed that as a self-employed individual 

I don't depend on them, never have, never will, self employed, didn't go to college, didn't finish high school, never drawn unemployment, no state or government assistance and I will not draw social security, don't want or need it, nothing ugly in my future, why would anyone depend on our government to support them or shoot straight with them? Those who do are setting themselves up for disappointment.

Aside from the straw man ignoring the article's point that Americans don't understand geography and that this lack of geographic knowledge affects important national decisions, the respondent ignores all the ways he depends on government for things like transportation, medical research via the CDC, environmental protections, etc. Simply, he is not an island entire of himslef. 

2. Within a school community, we all need one another for students to be successful.

I teach seniors, which means dealing with the senior project. As this is only our second year with this state mandate, many students are challenged to see it as a graduation requirement. I've relied on the support of our Native American tutor, our senior tracker who aides in enforcing accountability with at risk seniors, my principal and assistants, and the counselors to guide some of the seniors I teach through the senior project maze. It has been a challenge. 

Additionally, it's testing time. Ugh! To make testing work (inasmuch a this is possible), we're all pulling together. Last and this week we have SBAC testing. Next week we have the state mandated SAT test that all juniors take. Then we begin AP testing. In a school of 1,450 students, testing is a crucible of how well we work together. Since I have a student teacher, I've been administering the preparatory activity for math and language arts. 

Of course, we have many other end-of-the-year activities, including spring sports, concerts, competitions, etc. that necessitate working as a synergistic team rather than as disparate units hiding in our own caverns. 

3. Community necessitates concern for one another:

Our school and community have suffered some devastating losses this year, including two teen suicides in the community; a devastating house fire that killed four members of a prominent family, including a student at my school; a colleague whose home was destroyed by fire; and attempts to repeal an anti-discrimination code. 

In these instances, Donne's words ring especially true: We are all "involved in mankind." What diminishes one diminishes all. If this weren't true, we'd just as well live on the moon. 

Greenland: via Google images free to use and share filter
*At some time I want to devote time in this space to the island whose survival our own depends on: Greenland. It's melting at an alarming rate. 





Tuesday, April 8, 2014

H: Happiness: I'll Take the Greeks Over Pharrell Williams #AtoZChallenge


The past few weeks have been tough. Simply, I have experienced more than a little momentary unhappiness recently. Perhaps that's one reason I question contemporary views of happiness and prefer to take more of a long view of happiness. In a sense, I'm more like Aristotle than like Pharrell.

The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia. Aristotle and his contemporaries thought of happiness as "living well and doing well." To Aristotle, flourishing and thriving over time led to happiness.

In contrast, modern culture equates happiness with feelings. Happiness is the presence of positive feelings and the absence of negative ones. A list of synonyms for happiness include: joy, pleasure, exhilaration, bliss, delight, enjoyment, contentment--all words couched in emotional connotation.

Even as far back as the 15th Century, English usage associated happiness with luck and prosperity. Maybe that's why our culture accepts the conventional wisdom that the more monetary wealth one has, the happier one is, despite evidence to the contrary.

Writing about eudaimonia in The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Aristotle refers to "some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake." He also describes eudaimonia as "the highest of all goods achieved by action."

Our challenge is to determine what is worth "the pursuit of happiness" longterm and what is not. Too often I see students opting for immediate gratification rather than thinking about what in the long run will bring them happiness, what ultimately creates a life of living and doing well.

Thus, it's fair to say, that true happiness in the Greek sense can't be assessed in the moment. It can only be evaluated in the long run. Aristotle speaks of the importance of finality:

"We call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else." (Nicomachean Ethics via Trinity University).

In thinking about the normal ups and downs of life, I've attempted to focus on the long view, knowing that I can't live in a state of bliss every moment of every day but that I will have good and bad days, tough times amid joyous ones.

I don't feel much like clapping along with Pharrell today, but maybe I will tomorrow. That's the way life goes, so I'm not too worried about my temporary absence of happiness because I have faith in eudaimonia. I'm in it for the long haul.




G: Google Map It and Track It #AtoZChallenge

As a child I learned to read road maps when we took trips from our home in Webb City, Missouri to Lyons, Colorado to visit my great grandmother Estelle Cowen. The Rand McNally road atlas entertained me during the drive across the Kansas plains. I was not allowed to read books, but my father deemed locating our position on the map acceptable in a utilitarian way. So I traced our route and learned the symbols, mile chart, etc.

Now we use a GPS when traveling, and on our trip to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I used the Yelp map to find restaurants and the best parking garages, the ones that kept us off Las Vegas Boulevard (the Strip) because the traffic often delays ones arrival.

Map reading represents a skill students often lack, so when my student teacher suggested we "map" Victor Frankenstein's and Walton's journey as part of our Frankenstein unit, I said, "let's do it!"

Drue created the assignment. Google Map It, which I'm sharing here via Google Drive.

In class, we showed students how to use Google Maps, how to copy the map into a Word doc by taking a screen shot, and gave them instructions for tracking the two journeys. The image below shows a map I modified in Word using features in Word. I like the old, yellowed look of the map, which makes it appear more appropriate to the Romantic period.

Students spent time working on their maps with one of our new mobile laptop labs:



Drue and I are exploring how to incorporate "Google My Maps" into the project, perhaps for a tour of a specific place in Frankenstein. For sure I'll be using "Google My Maps" when I take my next vacation. The video below shows a "My Map" for a San Francisco walking tour:


For me technology will never completely replace the pleasure of reading maps and thinking about them as works of fiction as well as representations of place and perceived reality.

These historic maps, which I viewed in New Orleans over the holidays, won't help me find the way to San Jose, but they do give me a sense of historical place by reminding me where we as a people have been, where we are, and where we're going.


It is, after all, a sense of purposeful direction I want most for my students and for myself. May, you also find your way.


Monday, April 7, 2014

F: Failing to Fail--A Paradox? #AtoZChallenge (Day 6)


Trying to think of a topic fitting for an education blog that meets the A to B Challenge (F) for today stirred feelings of failure in me. Should I write about failure? Should I write about fear? I considered writing about "F-Pattern Reading," which is itself a form of failure. I thought about Billy Collins's poem "Forgetfulness" and the ways my memory fails me so often these days. At times that makes me fearful.

The intersection of fear and failure in education is paradoxical.

Who among us hasn't heard stories about the number of times Michael Jordan missed a shot during his professional career? Who hasn't heard stories about Babe Ruth's many strikeouts?

From Albert Einstein to Oprah to Walt Disney and many others, those who have achieved the heights of success have experienced the depths of failure. "Famous Failures"reminds us of Emily Dickinson's truth:


Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.



Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory



As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear! 
--Emily Dickinson


How can we teach students the power of success or lead them to success if we never allow them to fail? Yet our cookie-cutter educational paradigm too often instills in students the notion that there is only one right answer--the one on the test's answer sheet, the one SAT, ACT, SBAC, PAARCC, et al. names.

As a speech teacher, I know kids live in fear of failure. They worry about standing in front of the class and delivering a speech. They worry that others will reject their ideas, their topic, them.

To ease their fears, I tell students about my many failures in speech. When I was in eighth grade, I realized that I couldn't speak in public (at church) without falling apart. I took speech in ninth grade. For more than half the year, I had to restart every speech because I'd always have a break down. I took the competitive speech class--much to my coach's dismay. She took me to tournaments and let me fail, which I did--repeatedly. I did not win a trophy until my senior year in high school. I earned some speech and debate scholarships. My senior year in college, I was 10th in Oratory at the Phi Kappa Delta national tournament, and my debate partner and I finished 9th in CEDA debate at that tournament.

Had I quit when I failed, I would never have experienced success.

Nothing in life comes easily to me. I'm almost always a failure--before I'm a success.

We are failing to fail. By that I mean we each need to embrace our failures as opportunities to learn, find a way to begin again, and work our way through so we can taste the sweet nectar of success.