Saturday, December 18, 2010

You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies

The title, by the way, comes from a Simon and Garfunkel B-side but that's beside the point or on the other side of it as the case may be.
There's a lot of discussion now about creating educational settings that are focused on student's interest.  One popular video making the rounds of teacher meetings highlighting the need for teaching 21st century skills stresses that students have to be engaged by curriculum that fits their interests.  Thinking back to my days in elementary school I think I would have liked to have more going on in class that fit my interests, trouble is I can't honestly say what my interests were then.  Was I primarily interested in what would happen in the next issue of Batman? yeah, that's likely.  Was I interested in what the new Beatles record would sound like? of course.  So what would a curriculum founded on Batman and The Beatles have looked like, well we know it would have sounded cool, but what would it teach?
As a teacher today I listen to kids talking about what they're interested in all day.  They write about the things they care about, they share about the latest game they're into or the movie they saw over the weekend.  We look for connections between the various dots of young people's diverse interests and pull those into the rest of our curriculum.  For example Spongebob, I've discovered, provides an excellent opportunity to practice classifying and organizing creatures when talking about exoskeletons.
But here's what I'm wondering today.  Is organizing curriculum around student's interests a backwards way of doing things?  Should schools be primarily oriented around teaching a wide variety of skills and a broad knowledge base so that kids can develop "interesting" interests?  Any school that I've ever worked in has provided plenty of opportunity for students to express their interests and make connections between prior knowledge and whatever the subject that is being studied.  What do you think?  Should we orient curriculum more around what kids are interested in when they walk through the door, or should we create curriculum that aims to give them plenty of interests when they walk out the door?
Most likely it's a mix, but what is the recipe?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can I Help You?

Discussions about education seem to be off the radar for the moment in the news cycle although a recent issue of Newsweek featured several articles on "school reform"  Which makes me think "what schools?" and " what kind of reform?"  There are several films floating around communities currently presenting differing views on education, specifically public education.  The merits of charter schools and or standardized testing are the focus on the most popular ones but from what I've seen so far there is a lot missing from the discussion.  Here are a few ideas I have that I think would do well to be added to the overall discussion.
I believe that schools have been assigned the task, and in many cases have made claims that they can serve every student in his or her own learning style.  It's been years since the concept of multiple intelligences has entered the mainstream and schools like to talk about how well they meet the varied needs of students.  Text books often include suggestions for visual learners, kinetic learners etc. but how well are these implemented?  And even if they were, what would the results be?  As I stated in an earlier post schools today don't look all that different from 50 years ago, and yet the world has changed around them in radical fashion.  I believe my grandmother, a teacher in the 1950s could walk into my classroom and recognize the basic set up and even take over teaching for the day if need be.  I've yet to see a school that really seems able to truly meet the needs of every student in his or her own learning style and adapt to their interests.  What we are left with, I think, is a disconnect between a stated (or at least implied) claim and the "facts on the ground"  Most schools still operate with one teacher and twenty to thirty students in a room covering material perscribed by the district curriculum.  So what would a school look like if it was truly adaptable to every student's interest and learning style?
We're still operating on a school schedule that was devised to allow children time off to work on the family farm and why is that still the expectation?  Especially when you look at the "summer brain drain" that occurs (albeit in larger amounts with low income children) across the country.
What about students who come to school with huge disadvantages due to social economic status or lifestyle?  When you have a child who has been watching TV or playing computer games since they were a toddler (and we know from various medical studies that children should not be exposed to TV under the age of two for any length of time) and they're struggling to learn to read and deal with school curriculum it can feel like being a doctor with a patient who comes complaining of chest pains who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, won't quit and wants to be cured. 
As a teacher I can help a student learn to read better, to think about what they're reading and share it in a more connected, logical way but I can't teach someone to have an interest in learning.  I can't teach a student to have a literate background. 
Too many of the discussions I've heard in the past around school reform (and fear I'll hear in the future) seem to miss many of these vital points.  They speak of teaching and schools as if they were factories that with only the right machines could turn out a quality product.
What do you think?

Monday, December 13, 2010

What we have here is a failure to communicate

I just saw a post from a friend on Facebook asking what we all think of Glenn Beck, so I thought I'd post my thoughts here.  He seems to be a very popular entertainer.  He makes outrageous statements with very flimsy connections to reality and people love it, or at least some do.  What do I think?
I'd rather have a good solid debate grounded in reality any day.  I 'll be honest I don't care for Beck, Limbaugh, Palin or their fellow travelers.  My major issue is two fold - one, they deal primarily in fabrication, in rumors or outright lies.   Obama's birth certificate, the cost of a trip to India, etc. all get headline status in their world.  Imagine if every time you picked up the newspaper you had to wade through ten pages of Elvis's alien love child stories, it's the same thing in that crazy mixed up world they seem to inhabit.  It's not a matter of conservative versus liberal.  There are plenty of conservative writers who will go to bat to defend "Trickle down economics" and that's fine, you can debate that, but you can't debate an alternate universe.  Secondly, I can't connect with their disdain for education or thinking in general.  Sarah Palin seems to be the master of this bit - that common sense trumps knowledge at every turn and of course common sense is based on her definition.  I don't believe that when someone calls her on her lack of knowledge that they're being "uppity" or "elite".  By the way, when did "elite" become a bad word? doesn't it mean the best? the cream of the crop? the toppermost of the poppermost?
I'll throw in a third reason - from my view point as someone following the teaching of Jesus, they seem to be mostly about hate - that's all I hear, hate for the President, hate for most of America, hate for the rest of the world.  That crew is about as far away from the spiritual teachings I believe in as can be.    So this week I see that Sarah Palin is against caring about children's health ( she spoke out against the recent work to improve the quality of school lunches) and Glenn Beck has come out against food safety (Of course he's against the current legislation to improve food quality standards- it's government intrusion!)
What do I think? The style of entertainment that Palin, Beck and Limbaugh are selling is not for me.   If someone wants to talk, to debate, to deal in real issues and think together, I'm all for that.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

For What it's Worth

I'm pretty sure my opinion on the current political landscape will not make any headlines beyond this website but for what it's worth I think what I'm hearing from President Obama via interviews and statements in the press is among the wisest thoughts I've heard from a politician in sometime.  I would call the current Republicans from the far right "hostage takers".  When a minority holds up legislation that benefits the many in order to obtain rewards for the few, what else would you call it?  By the same token, the swaggering, defiant stand that you don't make deals with hostage takers sounds a lot like the unilateral language of the previous administration that created much of the current problems.  Sometimes hostages get hurt or killed.  Of course that doesn't happen on the hyped up crime dramas on TV which seems to be where many people are getting their version of reality these days.  Sometimes you make a deal and you compromise.  When did the compromise become a dirty word?  I remember when I worked in radio and would get all kinds of advice about programing.  People would earnestly tell me that "all their friends" love this song or show or whatever.  I would try to share that "all their friends" put together made up about a tiny fraction of the listening audience.  In fact, I'd say that my days in broadcasting were a great learning experience.  Not everyone likes or wants exactly the same thing and yet you can provide a product that satisfies a large portion of the population.  The editorial page of your favorite news outlet isn't sacred text, it's an opinion.  Your opinion or mine is one part of the greater whole.  And I don't say "It's JUST a part of the greater whole", that would minimize the value.  Our opinions and beliefs are vital to the big picture, we ARE the big picture but that picture isn't going to look like only one persons vision.  Could the President get a better deal from the hostage takers? perhaps but time and history don't stop when a deal is made.   Compromise, in my opinion, moves you forward to the next opportunity.  The swaggering tough guy from crime fiction who makes no deals is sometimes left standing all alone at the end of the day with nothing to show for the bravado.  I'd rather be walking forward.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Tell the Truth

As the recent political season (the only thing that would make pro football seem mild) fades away I find I'm left with the nasty after taste of mud from the stinking pile of advertising and so called experts expounding at length on what the election and everything else means.  From what I've seen in the past I'm not surprised at the tone of commentators on the far right like Beck and Limbaugh, but I have been surprised by the lengths they stray from anything resembling a fact.  Okay, I'll admit that truth is a slippery subject.  Sarah Palin is a breath of fresh air, a leader with a direct line to the pulse of America who would govern with common sense or she's a photogenic reality show character whose not only has a complete lack of knowledge about our constitution and history but seems darn proud of that lack of awareness.  Everyone has their own version of the truth, so what is the truth?
It's not just the far right entertainers like Beck whose popularity depends on making outrageous statements like the President was using one third of the US Navy for his recent trip to India.  I would assume that most people hear that sort of thing and just laugh it off as more nonsense from the folks who brought you death panels and birth certificates.
Recently there have been several Op Ed pieces that suggest that both the far right as heard on Fox news and the progressive voices on MSNBC are guilty of fudging the facts or using language that appeals primarily to anger and leaves reason in the dust.  I can see how calling George W. Bush a war criminal would be something that would offend his supporters and as such probably isn't a good way to lead off a discussion.  But, in his recent book President Bush admits to approving waterboarding, a technique that has been considered torture for hundreds of years.  Our country has in the past prosecuting leaders for approving of it's use.  It is a form of torture banned by international treaties that the USA has signed and thus is also US law.  It has been considered a war crime for decades.
So where is the truth?  Here's a person who admits to having committed what is considered a war crime in international and US law and if a person commits a crime they are often called a criminal.
I'll admit that using the phrase "war criminal" would put many people off, but how best to state the facts?
Okay, President Bush admits to having committed several acts that are considered war crimes by US law and international agreements.  It's a little long-winded but maybe would promote some conversation.  And if I had a wish, it would be for more conversation.  Debate needs two partners, not just two people who state different versions of reality and then stop talking.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Names in the Mud

It's the political season and the mud is flying.  What bothers me more this year is that it feels like it never stops anymore.  Once upon a time I believe the name calling and mud slinging let up by Thanksgiving.  Alas, no more.  Where does this come from?  One place is the increase in entertainment as news/news as entertainment.  Entertainers like Bill O'Reilly who delight their faithful by making absurd comments that anyone with more than a second grade education would dismiss as ridiculous slanders an entire religion and two women from The View storm off the set.  That would be bad enough, but then to have people shouting about it, he's insensitive, they're too sensitive, I think we're missing the point.  To put it in perspective, you don't generally hear too much debate about whatever the current champion in professional wrestling has to say when he shouts at his opponent.  O'Reilly vs. Goldberg on The View is just another version of the WWF.
I'm disturbed by the talk of enemies, of us and them.  A friend recently made this comment when the discussion turned to why it was that we still celebrated Columbus Day when even Spain no longer has any holiday for the explorer.  He said "Well, as a white Christian male with no liberal guilt, I guess I'm the enemy"  Where does that come from?  Why would someone feel like an enemy? If you have opinion, share it, talk, debate, leave the name calling back on the playground.  What bothers me most about this attitude is that it shuts off debate and sharing ideas.  Enemies don't talk, they just stand on opposite sides of the trenches and shoot, at worst, or glare, at best.
And what guilt? What does it mean to have "no guilt"?  Does it mean that you've exempted yourself from thinking or feeling?  Does it mean that you can do whatever you want? I don't have any guilt either.  Insight, thinking, and learning I think are better prusuits.  Guilt, I think it something you have to claim for yourself.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What's New?

Thinking about whatever changes we may see as schools move forward into the new century I'm interested in how many practices are still in place from the past century.  I do think it's vital to be aware of what works and what doesn't.  Throwing the baby out with the bath water can be a common mistake just as accepting ideas or practices at face value is just as much of a problem.
Lately I've been thinking about discipline and classroom behavior.  There are plenty of ideas out there that span the spectrum from James Dobson to Alfie Kohn and while one end promotes physical violence and other understanding, they do have some common ground.  From what I read most of the theories don't support rewarding students for doing what they are expected to do at the basic level.  Meaning there's no research that says the if some students win some small prizes for saying "Please and thank you" those less polite will make any long term changes.  I watched a demonstration of the reward method once where the instructor walked around the room with a bag of M&Ms which she dispensed to students who were paying attention.  Sure enough kids started turning heads and watching whatever she was doing and soon were crowding towards her with hands outstretched.  The demonstration lasted about five minutes and so I wondered "What would the class look like the next day?"  The person later on to explain that "It's just like training your dog"
A lot of current thinking in education places and emphasis on placing out work in the contexts of the real world, writing for authentic purpose, crafting book talks to lean towards how people share ideas rather than simply writing another book report etc.  This makes me wonder how real is it to get a trinket for showing up?  It's true that adults are rewarded for their work with salaries and there are plenty of intangible rewards for being polite and friendly.  I'm having a humorous vision now - suppose if you said "Hello" to the cop on the corner he flipped you a new sillybandz, or if you didn't curse at the person who cut you off in traffic, a new day-glo bouncy ball popped out of your car's dashboard.  Would we all be a kinder and gentler nation?
I think that in the education field we often feel like we need something steady to hang onto.  So much is shifting and hard to grip on.  Learning is a mysterious and messy adventure and that doesn't always flow well in a world of numbers and clearly labeled and explained results.  I know that feeling of wanting something that I can be sure will work but I wonder if looking for that "sure thing" keeps us from asking questions.  I think the worst thing we can do as educators is to stop asking questions.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Will Change?

There's a lot of talk these days about preparing students for life in the 21st century.  These 21st century skills are like an elusive shadow.  Talk of them is everywhere, just what they will be or what they will look like is unknown.  For me, that mystery is one of the things that makes this a powerful and challenging time to be an educator.  One of the questions that I have is "What will school look like?" or put another way "How will school be different to help students master the skills for the future"  I would say that if you could snatch a teacher via time machine from the 1800s you could probably plop them into a school of today and apart from the scandalous dress, strange language ("What is the world is a "google" and why would I want to do it to someone?") and the shiny objects people gaze into at great length, they would recognize most everything about the place.  We are trying to teach our students into the 21st century using a 19th century device; the public school system.  Think about it, students come to school in the fall even though we've long since stopped needing extra child labor to bring in the crops.  Teachers primarily use standardized text books and follow scripted lessons.  Students when they misbehave are sent to the principals office and if they don't complete assignments they generally miss recess.  I believe that my grandmother who taught in the middle of the last century could probably sub for me if I had that trusty time machine.  In fact looking at a picture from one of her classes in the late 1940s I was struck by how similar it looked to my own classroom of today.  And so I wonder, what will need to change, what will it look like?
I don't have the answers, I'm still working on the best questions to ask.
What do you think?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why Heroes?

I once heard someone say that great people are like the first stars of the evening that appear just above the horizon, they train your eye to look just a little higher.  Many of my heroes have mighty failings.  I don't expect perfection, don't even look for it, what is it anyhow?  I read the biography of Charles Schulz that came out a few years back after reading many negative reviews of the book.  Seems some people were offended that the author wrote a detailed account of the artist's life including romantic affairs and some difficult personality issues.  My own view was that I had read the book to learn more about the greatest cartoonist of all time, a man who created the most recognizable characters of the past century.  I wasn't reading the book to learn how to marry the ideal partner and have a happy life, free from any upset.  The heroes I've listed are people who inspire me by reaching, by expanding the possibilities of humanity.  One of my songs features this chorus "Exercise your dignity, celebrate humanity, stimulate creativity and stretch your capabilities" That's a pretty good summing up of what kind of behavior catches my attention and creates a new hero.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

All I need is a Hero

In the book "High Fidelity" the main character suggests that the best way to know a person is to look at their music collection.   The proper percentage of hip albums would reveal the persons true nature, too many albums that would be easily recognized by the casual fan was a sure sign of a problem.   A more interesting way to get to know someone I think is to ask about their heroes.   I say this partly because I think everyone needs heroes.  I'll open up this blog by listing a few of my heroes.  If you don't recognize some, look them up!
(In no particular order)
Paul Robeson
Pete Seeger
Edward R. Murrow
Eleanor Roosevelt
Marian Anderson
George Fox
Patti Smith
Studs Terkel
Jackie Robinson
Frederick Douglass
Franz Kline
Abraham Lincoln
George Carlin
Joseph Campbell
Johnny Cash
Bill Moyers