Saturday, April 26, 2014

W: Why? #AtoZChallenge

Why ask Why? That's the tag-line of an old Barttes and Jaymes commercial. 

Why ask Why? It's also a line I used in a speech my freshman year of college: "Why ask why? A dream, a possibility, a hope for a brighter tomorrow." There was a line about JFK in there somewhere, too. 

I began learning about the world at a young age. My father made me watch the news beginning when I was seven, which was at the height of the Vietnam War. 

I spend my day with teens who ask two questions more often than any other: 

  • "Can I go to the bathroom?"
  • "What do you want?" or the variation: "I don't know what you want." 
My typical response is, "I don't know. Tell me what you want to learn. What ideas do you have? How do you think you should approach this task?" Sometimes I direct a student to look at another student's approach to a project. I try not to create a fill-in-the-blank scenario. In education speak, I'm a constructivist who believes in teaching and reading classics as well as contemporary texts. 

My students struggle to find something about which they are curious. Too often their sense of "Why?" goes no further than the latest Snap Chat post and Twitter battle. 

The never-ending-nightmare of the senior project illustrates their lack of inquisitiveness. We began thinking about topics at the beginning of the year. Yet when faced with deadlines, a common refrain was, "I don't know what to do my project on." Students often turn to me for ideas, and I share many with them, including my own recent reading and ideas, websites with possible ideas, etc. I have colleagues who solve the topic choice problem by limiting the choices. 

My own anecdotal observation is this: The more engrained a culture of test prep and test taking become in our schools, the less naturally inquisitive we become. This is not just true of children, but it's also evident among adults. Too often we don't have a sense of curiosity about our world.

To illustrate: Yesterday I had a conversation with some adults in my building and mentioned the declining middle class. The response from one: "I don't know anything about that." I continued by sharing titles of three books on the bestseller list: Flashboys: A Wall Street Revolt  by Michael Lewis, Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, and A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren. All three books are on my TBR list because I want to know how the system is geared against the middle class. 

"There's no such thing as a stupid question." We tell kids this, but how often do we shut down their natural inquisitiveness with our responses to their questions? What effect has our insistence on standardization and the testing inherent in it had on our students' ability to question? 
Why ask why? Because...

Questioning is fun.
Questions show us the path of exploration.
Questions help us learn.
Questions help us show who we are. 
Questions show us who others are. 
Questions help us organize our world. 
Questions show us what to do next. 

Our ability to solve our world's problems depends on our ability to ask questions. 

For more on questions, check out the TEDx talk below: 

Friday, April 25, 2014

V: VAMs--Value Added Models Offer Little Value #AtoZChallenge

How should a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom be evaluated? 
That question is a real sticking point in education circles. I am evaluated at the building level and by my university supervisor for Idaho State University. How my teaching is evaluated differs greatly between these two entities. 

Value Added Models, a.k.a. Value Added Assessment, are the darling of the pseudo-education reform crowd and arguably the fuel for the many testing scandals of the past two years, including the one in Washington D.C. involving the tenure of Michelle Rhee. In Las Angeles teacher's rankings were published by the Las Angeles Times and resulted in one teacher committing suicide. 

A VAM purports to be an objective measurement of student progress--based on standardized test scores--in a given year. Thus, a VAM, theoretically, measures how well a student performs in a year, and this data is then used to evaluate the teacher. has quite the website rationalizing the use of VAMs. It goes to great pains to justify VAMs as valid based on their accounting for factors other than the teacher. However, they only list a couple of variables. 

Recently, the American Statistical Association issued a statement warning against the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation systems. Diane Ravitch has sounded the whistle on VAMs consistently on her blog. 

Among the ASA's findings: 
  • VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes. 
  • VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.
The report cautions proponents of VAMs about the complexity of the models and the need to use them w/ caution and only by statisticians with advanced expertise. 

Despite these warnings, politicians forge ahead with the VAM bandwagon. On May 4 Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley will be published and will shine a light on the dark side of VAMs in teacher evaluations. I suspect the book will also challenge VAMs as being detrimental to authentic learning. 

It's time the public began questioning the value in VAMs. 

**Update: After writing and posting this entry, I learned that Tennessee's governor signed legislation prohibiting teacher evaluations based on VAMs. Diane Ravitch has the breaking news. 

Then I saw a post indicating Washington state has lost its NCLB wavier because it has not tied teacher evaluations to metrics, such as VAMs. This, of course, is Arne Duncan's doing. He continues to show his utter disdain for teachers. See this for more

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U: Unseen--Revisiting "Cipher in the Snow" #AtoZChallenge

Cipher: noun. 1. Something of no value; 2. A person of no influence, nonentity.

When I attended college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I watched a low-budget movie called Cipher in the Snow in one of my education classes. The plot is simple: A boy named Cliff gets on the school bus, can't find a seat, asks to get off the bus, and drops to the ground dead. 

Cliff is a child unseen. He's a cipher, a kid with no value, no influence, a nonentity. 

The film flashes back to earlier moments of Cliff's life as Frank, Cliff's favorite teacher, investigates the child's record so that he can compose Cliff's obituary. Frank, a math teacher, doesn't remember the boy. At one point Frank says, "From the record, Cliff was a real zero, a cipher."

Every epithet the system can conjure up sticks to Cliff: "slow, dumb." Frank and a secretary have a conversation about teachers labeling children and these labels becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Cliff's third grade teacher says, "You know you're the slowest one in the class." 

Frank later observes: "People seem to live up to what other people think of them."

"I think Cliff was erased little by little...Everyone reduced him to a zero," says Frank after the autopsy report concludes that Cliff had no medical condition that can account for his death. 
Cipher in the Snow made a real impression on me. Like Frank, I vowed early on, before I started teaching, not to treat any child like a cipher. In that effort, I suspect I have failed. 

When I watched Cipher in the Snow the first time, my idealist self didn't understand the real significance of this short film. I took it as a cautionary tale of the importance of seeing each child, of remembering that each child is a son or daughter, of treating each child with humanity and dignity, of setting high expectations for each child. 

Forty years after its making, I now see the sinister subtext of Cipher in the Snow: A kid feels marginalized? Blame a teacher. A child fails in school? Must be a teacher's fault. Teachers label students unjustifiably. We don't help students enough with their personal problems, with their stress, etc., etc. 

Sure the film also mention's Cliff's evil stepfather and compliant mother. Yet the teachers who fail Cliff are the real focus of the film. 

Why does this matter? Simply, Cipher in the Snow and it's blame teachers theme has succeeded magnanimously. Ask a teacher. Listen to the rhetoric of pseudo-ed reformers such as Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates. 

Teachers are the new ciphers. When will someone make a movie about us?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T: Teacher Movies--Their Themes Fail Teachers #AtoZChallenge

During my long career I've viewed many teacher-themed movies. Without fail, I leave the theater and click off the big screen thinking, "Why can't I be that good at my job?" Simply, teaching a class of students for one school year takes longer than two hours. 

During a trimester, a student spends approximately 75 hours in my classroom. Many students spend 150 hours in my classroom (two trimesters), and some students take up to three classes with me in a year, so they spend 225 hours as my student. None of the classes to which I refer are repeats; each is a different course. 

Teacher movies send a simplistic and distorted message to the public about the nature and nuances of teaching: Teachers are superheroes capable of contortions and tricks that a Cirque du Soleil performer would envy. When viewers see feel-good teacher movies, particularly those set in poor, inner-city schools, they begin expecting a simplistic, happy ending in real-time, in real-life. 

Writing for The Atlantic (January 1, 2014) Joshua John Mackin lists five problems with teacher movies:

  • They guarantee a happy ending.
  • They market stereotypes.
  • They shift the focus from the real issues, both political and social, schools face.
  • They construct an either/or fallacy about teachers: Either a teacher is a superhero or a villian.
Typically, young, inexperienced teachers are the superheroes in teacher movies. In Matilda, the young Miss Honey is Matilda's caring teacher who nurtures her love of learning and books. The vile Trunchbull is the scary teacher who locks kids up and shows her disdain for them in many ways. 

In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, sacrifices her marriage, takes a second job, and overcomes the obstacles her veteran colleagues erect to preclude her from saving the children. 

Even websites that support teachers promote the viewing of teacher movies. For example, Edutopia published a list of "20 Movies Every Educator Should See." Among those on the list: Lean on Me with the "be tough enough and kids will snap into shape" theme; Dead Poet's Society with its "rip the pages out of the book so kids will love poetry" theme; Ferris Bueller's Day Off with its "if you bore the kids they'll be justified in skipping and pranking the assistant principal" theme. 

I recently watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off for the umpteenth time, and even though I enjoy the movie, I also recognize the stereotypes and the subtexts in the movie. 

Unlike the writer for The Atlantic, I'll probably continue watching teacher movies, and I'll laugh at the comedies and get frustrated and dismayed by those that send an idealistic and simplistic and reductive message about what it means to be a teacher. 

The chasm between real classrooms and a movie set is as great as the distance between the two hour running time of a film and the 150 hours it takes a student to earn his/her senior English credits. 

What's your favorite teacher movie? 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S: "Schooled: The Price of College Sports"

What does it mean to be schooled? This should not be a rhetorical question. A few years ago I began thinking in earnest about the argument that college athletes should be paid, much the way Olympic athletes are able to earn money via endorsements. 

As a scholarship recipient in a competitive activity--speech and debate--and as a teacher, I've long been troubled by inequities in funding student activities. However, two sports--football and basketball--n Division I NCAA schools generate huge revenue for their schools, and it's at the expense of the athletes. 

The Atlantic Monthly addressed this indentured servitude of college athletes in 2011: "The Shame of College Sports." 

Since I subscribe to The Atlantic, I took my copy to school and began sharing the article with students and suggesting it as a research topic to the athletes in my classes. 

But until I watched "Schooled: The Price of College Sports" recently, I had no clue that many college athletes literally go hungry because of the NCAA's egregious policies. 

Here's the official trailer of the documentary: 

The day after I watched schooled, a student in my Communication 1101 class, which I teach in the Early College Program at Idaho State University, presented his argumentative speech arguing that college athletes be paid. He graciously allowed me to record his speech and post it to YouTube. One of the requirements of the speech is that students present a refutative argument and then respond to it with specific methods I teach in the class. There are eleven techniques students learn for answering a rebuttal. Here's Ryan's speech:

The NCAA has "schooled" the public--and for many years I was among those schooled--into thinking big-time college athletes can't put a price on their "free education." The NCAA has, and it's one in the billions of dollars. I

sn't it time Congress revoke the NCAA's nonprofit status? Isn't it time the NCAA start treating athletes like humans rather than commodities? Isn't it time to school the NCAA and teach that organization a much needed lesson? These should not be rhetorical questions. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

R: Remembering...The Magic of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

By now lovers of books have heard the news that Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marques has died. I'm a huge fan of Marques's magical realism, so in his honor, I'm remembering him and sharing some famous quotes from him. I think this is fitting for the letter "R" because so much of Marquez's writing centered on memory and the act of remembering. This is particularly true in Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Love in the Time of Cholera is my favorite love story. I read it during the summer of 2007 while attending the Instituto de Cultural in Oaxaca, Mexico. At the time I was living in a small apartment with a local family. It was a magical summer and the perfect setting for reading a Marquez novel.
In Marquez's magical words:

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

"He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves." Love in the Time of Cholera

"Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching." 

"He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past." Love in the Time of Cholera

There's a fabulous selection of Marquez quotes on Goodreads, but nothing can replace the experience of reading Marquez's books. They're simply magical.