T Sale's Blog

Friday, April 11, 2008

Phoning It In

Just came from my first period English 10 class, and in the spirit of the instantaneous pouring forth of thoughts favored by the modern world, I thought I’d share something. On many Fridays, for our warm up, I give the class what I call a poetry song. Today the song was Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want,” which I like to use because its ambiguity usually sparks some discussion. Today the class stared at the lyrics mystified for a long time. Nothing. I finally asked, what sort of song is this – is it about politics? Relationships? Sports? A couple of brave souls ventured guesses: yes, it’s about a relationship. Maybe it’s about God. A brief discussion, then more silence. I asked, How could we figure this out? Their answer: Google. Meanwhile, I had a Macbeth assignment for them to work on, so I said, Maybe we can google this later in the class.

And then, from the back of the room came the voice of Steve saying, “I already have.”

Steve had fired up his iPhone or equivalent and searched for the song. He said he only found a couple of comments, and they just seemed to be someone’s opinion, not a definitive answer (such as, say, the band itself revealing what they really meant).

On the way back to the English office, several thoughts populated my mind:
Good thing I didn’t see Steve fiddling with his phone and take it away before he could contribute to class.
I read in one of Howard Gardner’s books about multiple intelligences that he thought the computers and other electronic devices we have access to should be included in our measure of intelligence.
Years ago, a former AHS English teacher found out one of her students had computer software that would actually check his spelling and grammar, and she threw a fit because it was unfair that he had such an advantage over the other students; when he wrote in class his writing was poor to mediocre, but when he wrote at home it was good.
Good for Steve for recognizing right away that the source he found wasn’t necessarily authoritative.
By the time we figure out how to afford laptops in every classroom, all our students may very well have acquired phones with Internet access.
Outside the classroom, students are used to finding answers to what they want to know right now (the operative phrase being “what they want to know”). It must really frustrate them when, in the classroom, we constantly delay satisfaction.
The only Google-proof questions seem to be those that require some sort of personal response.
Karl would be proud: Steve is a staunch Apple guy.

I leave the conclusions to you.

My fastest blog post ever.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

What's it all about, Alfie?

I just read Alfie Kohn’s article “The Trouble with Rubrics,” and while I haven’t decided to what extent I agree or disagree with him, the article has sparked a series of thoughts that began with anger and ended with a rather liberating realization. The anger I felt was similar to that engendered by nutritionists who seem to contradict themselves every few years. (Eat lots of pasta – it’s good for you! Oh, wait, we meant whole grain pasta; that white linguini you’ve been scarfing down for ten years is playing havoc with your blood sugar!) Where was Kohn fifteen years ago, when we all embraced rubrics as a powerful tool for evaluating writing and giving our students feedback? Where was he when the Six Trait Writing boom swept through language arts departments from Bangor to Bakersfield and insinuated itself into the CSAP test evaluation process? Surely it didn’t take Kohn this long to decide that rubrics are bad. Did he decide to sit on this knowledge for a while just to mess with us? The maddening thing is, he makes some good points about how rubrics can limit expression, but why wait until now to point this out? Every time an article like this comes along, I despair of ever seeing educational reform succeed. No wonder parents and politicians don’t trust us; every few years we change our minds, and everything we believed in is debunked. Fifteen years ago LPS embarked upon criterion-based graduation requirements, manifested as Direction 2000 at a certain purple-and-gold sister school. Then, the “back-to-basics” school board assumed power, and Direction 2000 was no more. Now, Governor Ritter is ramming through his own version of criterion-based learning. Plus ca change…

At times I find all this back-and-forth especially frustrating, because I thought that by this point in my career, I would know something, have some things figured out. More and more, 21C sessions and articles like Kohn’s make me think of an old Firesign Theater record I have (yes, record, vinyl record), titled Everything You Know is Wrong. How right they were. (I mean, Pluto used to be a planet.) I have to admit, my first inclination was to say, “A pox on you, Alfie Kohn! Why are you telling me this when I will probably teach only a few more years? Why should I abandon a tool that seems to have served me (and my students) well for so long? I declare myself impervious to change! I’m too close to the end! I can just keep on going with what I have and the momentum will carry me through…”


But some of what Kohn said made sense. The more I think about it, the more I wonder about rubrics. Maybe they have been limiting students’ thinking with their left-brained orderliness. (I can’t help thinking Daniel Pink would love Kohn’s article. Just outsource the rubrics and the essays to India, he’d say, and concentrate on creating more creative writing prompts, or, better yet, get the students to create their own.) Meanwhile, in our PLCs, we’re all about rubrics. We’re all about “common assessments” and fitting students into a slot so we can quantify their learning, so we can collect “data,” so we can modify the rubrics, so we can collect more data, and so it goes. Who would dare to side with Kohn at this point and question the slowly growing beast that fascinates us so on occasional Wednesday mornings? Who would be bold enough not only to stop using rubrics (and argue against their use on common assessments), but also, say, grade assignments on a 9 point scale and, rather than posting overall grades, have students derive and justify their own grades? Who would be willing to acknowledge that the evaluation of an essay is based on his own individual judgment and experience with writing, rather than on a list of “murky” adjectives on a rubric?

And here’s where the liberating thought occurs. If I decide that Kohn is right, what have I got to lose by trying to evaluate writing in a different way? If the goal is truly to re-form education, maybe we need to try some outlandish measures, even at a bastion of excellence such as The University on Dry Creek. And it’s not the young, probationary firebrand who needs to shake the tree of knowledge; it’s the seasoned, soon-to-be-superannuated codger. The best time to try new things is in the evening. What’s the worst that could happen – that they’d ask you to retire and not have to get up at 5:30 every morning?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Everybody's Patron

The other day Lary K and I were talking about James Joyce (who we’re currently studying in AP Lit) and we agreed that much of his later writing was so weird that he probably never would have gotten published if he hadn’t had some influential patrons interested in his work. Even though many people looked askance at Ulysses and Finnegans Wake when they appeared (even some of Joyce’s friends told him he had gone too far with Finnegans Wake), those novels are today regarded as groundbreaking, profound works of fiction. (Not universally, of course; many still think Joyce was nuts).

Our conversation made me wonder how many innovative, brilliant artists of the past never had their work acknowledged because they didn’t find the right patron, or didn’t luck upon the right slush-pile reader. Do the Mozarts, Picassos, and Joyces always rise to prominence because their talent can’t be ignored, or have we missed some?

And of course, the next question, in a 21st century context, is can the Internet be everybody’s patron? We have had some blog conversations in the past about whether or not the next Shakespeare will arise from cyberspace, and we have been suggesting in our 21C meetings that we should provide our students the opportunity to participate in “global” learning opportunities. Novice writers can post a poem or story on line. Aspiring filmmakers have access to YouTube. Fledgling bands make their songs available on MySpace. The Internet makes it possible for anyone with a creative urge to go public without having to pass the traditional gatekeepers. On the surface that seems like a good thing; the multiplicity of artistic endeavors coupled with unfettered access will guide the “invisible hand” of public opinion to celebrate all the greatest creative works humans have to offer.

But I wonder…

Will we encounter the opposite of stringent gatekeeping? Will the sheer volume of creative expression overwhelm us? Will we miss someone brilliant because we just couldn’t scroll any further that day, or because we didn’t click to follow that one extra link? Will “getting read” depend on how well you position yourself in the search engine maze? (Will Google be the ultimate arbiter of taste?) Will everybody be a star in the brilliant pixel parade?

As usual, more questions than answers.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Batter Up

I listened with interest the other day to Mr. Booth’s comparison of our educational pursuits to the Rockies baseball team. He compared the statistics compiled about the players to the data we will be collecting about our students, and spring training to the interventions that might be necessary if students don’t demonstrate their mastery of essential learnings. I like sports analogies, so I thought it might be interesting to extend this one a bit. Let’s see, the players who surpass expectations are rewarded monetarily and often have the chance to choose the next venue where they will take their skills. That’s true of outstanding students, too. When the team as a whole fails to make adequate yearly progress, it’s the manager and coaches who get blamed and replaced; yeah, that fits. The Rockies demonstrate their skills for a nationwide TV audience; well, some of our students are having their blogs read by people all over the world. And any guy who walks into Coors Field is welcomed to the team, no matter how good or bad he was at minor league or high school ball, and even if a player hits below the Mendoza Line year after year, or misplays routine ground balls even after extra help from a coach, the team isn’t allowed to send him to another club or simply tell him that he can’t play for the Rockies any more, and the coaches typically work with up to 35 players at a time when they are doing drills; some of the players have special contracts that say they don’t have to be able to hit curve balls or sliders, and others can “opt out” of conditioning drills if they feel that the drills might be offensive….

It’s hard to apply analogies to what we do, because it’s a unique professional situation. We’re not running a corporation, or a factory, or a baseball team. But it would be nice if we were able to draw more parallels between schools and baseball, if all our players came to us with the skills necessary to succeed, and our job was to take them to greater heights, not reteach the fundamentals; if there were a minor league where we could send students to polish their game until they were ready for The Show; if we were responsible for fewer players so that each one could get more reps on every practice day; if the community built us a new stadium with state-of-the-art amenities as a reward for consistent excellence; if people at Sports Authority were buying official MLB jerseys bearing the names of students who were rated advanced on the CSAP test….

Even then, I imagine that the players would be driving fancier cars than the coaches.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I Sing The Body Electric, Part 2

I’m here to sing the praises of some of the technical innovations that I first learned about in 21C but which have since become more important to me for personal reasons. My daughter left January 1 for a year of study in France. Since she has been there, I have talked to and seen her on Skype, used Google Earth to look at the neighborhood where she’s living and the school she’ll be attending (Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris), and viewed some of the pictures she’s taken on Photo Bucket. It made me think about “just in case” versus “just in time” learning. I learned about the existence of Skype and Google Earth and played with them during 21C sessions, and though they were fascinating, they were never that important to me until I had a reason to use them. It made me realize all over again why students often seem disinterested by the “just in case” learning we traditionally foist on them. Whether it’s technology or literature or any other skill or knowledge, the real challenge is to give the students a reason to use it – a real reason, not just an exercise to see if they can. I find this realization daunting because, to me, it makes planning a lesson so much more uncertain and complicated. I’m used to trying to convince students that they should read literature, for example, but I’m not so practiced at showing them why they need to read literature.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Grading Redux

Earlier this year (in my posts of August 31 and October 3) I mentioned that I was trying out a grading style which involved a 4-point scale. At the twelve week mark I solicited feedback from the students in my sophomore classes, and you can read the comments for both first and fifth hours. While some students embraced the new system, the majority were uncomfortable with it. Their three main concerns were (1) it was too hard to determine their overall grades from a series of 4s, 3s, 2s and 1s, (2) it was frustrating that Infinite Campus reported the grades based on pure percentages rather than what they were supposed to be (for instance, a grade of Proficient or 3 appeared as a 75% rather than the equivalent of a B), and (3) with only 4 grades, there was too much of a gap between grades; they only knew that they were “Proficient,” not how close to being “Advanced” they were (apparently the extensive comments I write on each essay do not explain this clearly…).

I’m not so concerned over item #1; part of my hope was that students would dwell more on the quality of each assignment rather than on the overall grade, so it’s OK with me if they really have to think about what their grades should be, based on the quality of their work. But I actually have shared their concerns over items #2 and #3. I think a grading system should give useful feedback, and I had already started “cheating” on the 4-point scale by using plusses and minuses. To solve the Infinite Campus problem, I have changed the grades to simple percentages so that IC can do its calculations. I still plan just to write “Advanced” and “Proficient” and so forth on the assignments, along with explanatory comments. My hope is that students will ponder this feedback a bit before they rush to their computers.

So far, I feel that I have been largely unsuccessful in conveying the idea that learning is more important than grades. My students seem less interested in improving the quality of their work than in accumulating points. Maybe next semester…

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ready, Set, Write

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing trend in my English classes: students asking for more than the allotted class time for essay tests. In the past, my answer has always been no; an essay test is a controlled measure of your knowledge and it would be unfair to give you more time than other students. But I’m changing my mind about this.

For one thing, more accommodations allowing extra time on tests are mandated by IEPs and 504s, and it seems there’s always at least one student who has been granted extra time. The AP Literature test requires three essays to be written in two hours, so for years we have prepared students by having them write a weekly in-class essay with a 40 minute time limit. Recently I have had a few AP students who have asked for extra time, one of whom has a 504 that will grant extra time on the actual test.

But perhaps more compelling is the idea that truly assessing a student’s knowledge should not be time-dependent. I point out to my students that timed writings are a particularly academic pursuit. Where else in the real world, except perhaps as a journalist, would you have to pound out an essay in a certain amount of time with no chance to revise and polish it? (I’m probably wrong about this too, as I seem to be about so many things lately. In the fast-paced world of blogs and wikis, maybe rapid, on-the spot-writing is becoming more the norm. It would be interesting to ask some engineers and lawyers and corporate wonks if this is true.) Given that most of my essay “tests” (really in-class writings) are open book and don’t depend on memorization, is it unfair to let a student who has a lot to say finish the writing in an off hour the next day? Will the extra time to think about the question give her an advantage over the students who said all they had to say in 58 minutes?

I’d be interested to hear what people think about this.