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.