Learning Grounds Episode 004: In which Sarah discusses looking at student work and the difficulty of objectivity

Sarah discusses the difficulty of using protocols to look at student work while remaining objective, and the benefits for teachers when they push through to the other side. We also talk about the complications in giving each trying to pay close attention to every student.


There’s a chance for learning in the NYC teacher scores

As a journalist, I would have published the scores.
The argument isn’t whether or not the New York Times should have published NYC teacher evaluation scores.
They are a newspaper. The scores are news. Their job is to publish them. They publish the news.
If they’d sat on the scores, if they’d held them internally, if they’d published pieces of them or only profiled certain teachers, they would have been compromising and editorializing.
The coverage of the scores has certainly had an editorializing effect on how the scores are consumed. As José pointed out the other day, the person telling the story affects the narrative.
Now they’re out there, and a conversation has been stoked around the use, intent, validity of the scores.
As it should be.
As a teacher, I abhor the scores.
These scores (and value-added measures in general) are imperfect, imprecise, skewed, and dangerous tools. Let’s make that argument. Let’s make that argument better and more profoundly than those who stand by the scores.
If ever the teaching profession was faced with a teachable moment, this is it. Isn’t this what we do? We make complex issues accessible to those standing on unfamiliar ground and help them come to deep understanding. If we’re right (and we are) the truth of the argument against the scores will become apparent through education.
Yes, resent that time, money, energy must be spent on this. Detest, the scores the same way you detest poor grammar, ignorance of culture and history, or imperfect proofs. Then, find a way to teach toward understanding.
This is one of those few moments in the teaching profession’s wheel house. Let’s not miss it by admiring another problem so long that we forget to teach through it.
Teachers are better than that.
This is where unions can take the lead.
It is time for the AFT and NEA to hike up their big-kid pants and lead their membership not through dues or rallies, but through teaching.
I mean this in two ways. First, teachers are historically challenged when it comes to telling their stories. There’s every reason to believe this inability is only going to be exacerbated when faced with an issue as emotionally charged and personal as the NY scores. If teachers are going to respond and educate, they’re going to need guidance. Every union head in every school across the country should be leading trainings in how to create talking points and craft effective editorials. If there is a conversation to be had about how we measure teachers, let teachers lead it and educate teachers in how best to have those conversations.
Second, after these PR primers, help teachers organize forums and community meetings to build understanding of the scores and all their imperfections. Use the presence of the NYC conversation to move preemptively against other imperfect and unfair measures of teachers. These should have been the moves the moment the courts allowed the publishing of the scores. There’s still time to make this a thoughtful, productive conversation. All it will take is all it has ever taken – teaching.

Thanks to Paul and José for helping me figure out my thinking on this one.

Faced with problems as opportunities, students can make amazing things

This came through my Facebook feed from a friend who teaches in Mission, SD.

It speaks for itself.

The story via NPR:

Unhappy with portrayals of Native Americans in mainstream media, a group of students from South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation created a video to show that their community is about more than alcoholism, broken homes and crime.

The students are visiting Washington, D.C., on Monday to lobby Congress for increased funding for schools on reservations.

Filmed in black and white, the student-produced video More Than That takes viewers through the hallways, classrooms and gymnasium of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation’s county high school.

Using their bodies as signposts, the students explain that they’re more than stock images of poverty, alcoholism and violence. With words drawn on their hands, arms and faces, they share the traits that describe who they really are: humor, intelligence, creativity — and the list goes on.

The point the students are trying to make, says English teacher Heather Hanson, is that they’re not victims.

The nonprofit National Association of Federally Impacted Schools invited the Lakota students to attend its winter conference Monday in Washington, D.C. While in town, the students will also lobby South Dakota’s congressional representatives.

Here’s the ABC News special the movie references.

They weren’t content to be exoticized and knew how to tell the story of how they see themselves.

More Than That has 49,750 views right now. ABC’s clip can claim only 17,391.

I take hope in those numbers.

What if we built syllabi like this?

The community over at reddit got a little steamed (understandably) in the wake of SOPA and PIPA.

Not being keen on waiting for the next wave of censorship-inspiring legislation, they decided to write the the bill that was more representative of the people. They wrote are writing it together, online, collaboratively. The first version of the bill was an open google doc where any visitor had editing privileges. Now in v2, the doc is restricted to commenting. (I assume this is to get the doc to a submittable place.)

Even if you don’t have time to read the entire bill, the comments on the definitions section, alone, help show how such a shift in the drafting mindset can inspire greater creation.

I’m starting to think about how scholarship and literature could benefit from this process. What if novelists started using this approach and then took the work offline after the commenting period. Would the increased public “ownership” drive sales?

What if a city council decided to put every matter to their constituents for open comment?

What if, on the first day of class, teachers shared a google doc with their students and said, “Let’s write our expectations for this space?” What if every assignment had a student review period before it was launched?


‘College and Career-Ready’ shoots too low

If you graduate from high school in America, you can find a college that will admit you. I’m not limiting my stance to for-profit, online colleges and universities. Some of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country, faced with diminished federal funding (see Anya Kamenetz’s DIYU for more on this), are lowering the barriers to admission in order to increase the supply of tuition dollars.

It’s not all a money grab.

We’re sending record numbers of students to college, and we’re telling them it is the correct path (read the only path to success/happiness/money). Many of these students are the first in their families to attend institutions of higher education, and they’re showing up in numbers colleges and universities have never seen before. While much of the literature speaks to the need to help shift the cultures within k-12 schools and their students/families, very little is written about how higher ed needs to think about what it means to be educating shifting populations (see Mike Rose’s thoughts here or in Why School?). It’s what worries me when I see things like the graph on p. 4 of this Achieve report.

If we said the goal of schools was to have kids “life-ready” by the time they left, how would we shift how we look at the work being done in classrooms and schools?

The conversation about “college and career-ready” is an interesting one in that it cleverly makes it sound as though it doesn’t lead to schools forking their curricula to generate two separate tracks for students. If you are to be college-ready, you will be in academic classes. If you are to be career-ready, you will be in vocational classes with the bare-bones academic programs. Vocational programs and academic programs should not be an either/or proposition. College and or career-ready has that as its possibly unintended result and students internalize the distinction. Moreover, teachers internalize the two-track faculty mindset, which erodes internal cohesiveness for faculties.

The idea of a tiered graduation system such as those at work in many European countries is an interesting proposition. I wonder if it doesn’t work to further institutionalize class separations currently at play in the system. Does it say, “We expect all students to meet high standards (and some students to meet higher standards)?” A slippery slope.

If we said, build classrooms and schools to make students life-ready, it would be a messy proposition. I doubt it any messier than college and career-ready. Are we talking all students should be Yale-ready or Phoenix-ready? Are we saying minimum-wage ready or 1% ready? Maybe we’re hoping the language doesn’t raise any questions of whether or not it’s raising the bar.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t art class more valuable than reading?

A few weeks ago, some friends and I visited Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. I did there what I do each place I’m asked to view contemporary art. I looked at each piece for a few seconds, read the accompanying artist’s or curator’s statement thoroughly, and then looked back to the art thinking, “Oh, that’s what they meant to say. Of course!”

This is my way with contemporary art.

It is not, in any way, how I encounter printed words.

In middle school, reading a textbook, I skipped the graphs, the charts, and the tables. I read the words. I’m not sure why I thought those other pieces were there. Filler, maybe?

It’s worked out pretty well so far. Being able to read and manipulate text is the lingua franca of school and the wider world.

Yesterday, I found myself arguing for the opposite. In my Digital Humanities course, I tried to push and pick at people’s thinking around the necessity or sanctity of text.

My thesis is this: Information is equally imperfectly served through transmission via text as through transmission via graphics.
Images, though, don’t have equal footing when we think about reading and literacy. The two terms ellicit images of words, phrases, sentences – verbage.

But they don’t need to, and I’m starting to wonder if we’re not doing ourselves and our students a disservice by putting the premium on the ability to read text.

We lose not only the ability to create and read images, but the comfort and habits of mind that accompany this way of seeing the world as well.

Though the gallery was utterly silent on my trip to the ICA, each image was screaming with the artists’ ideas and commentary. I just had no tools for how to read and understand their language.

Class blogs should be open spaces


The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Learning Grounds Episode 003: In which Vanessa discusses Universal Design, Open Source and Zeega

Zac and Vanessa talk about their experience at the presentation of Zeega.org and its alpha release. Scott challenges the scalability of Universal Design for Learning, and we talk about the landscape of open source textbooks.


Between the Secretary and the Trumpeter, our priorities were off

When Secretary Duncan spoke at the Askwith Forum here at the Ed School, every seat was filled. Tickets were raffled off and his talk was streamed for those who didn’t make it in the room.

As expected during an election year (not sure which years aren’t), Sec. Duncan’s talk was light on anything that could be taken as disruptive thinking. The title of “Fighting the Wrong Education Battles” was fleshed out not with a clear cry for which battles were worth fighting, but for compromise and ceding of ideology.

It was the stump speech I expected and that Sec. Duncan needed to make in an age when leadership has become conflated with keeping power. Because I understood the politics of the moment, I wasn’t surprised by the speech.

The underwhelming feeling came from the audience’s response. It almost felt as though being in the room negated the potential to disagree. Access trumped democracy. When we arrived at the Q&A portion, questions were largely driven by personal interests and not thoughtful engagement with the positions the Secretary had outlined.

This was expected. As columnist David Brooks noted at his Askwith, I’ve been at Harvard enough to know people were there to hear themselves talk.

All that was not what frustrated me.

The next day, Wynton Marsalis joined with a distinguished panel for another forum titled “Educating for Moral Agency and Engaged Citizenship.”

Marsalis and the rest of the panel explored education from the perspective of jazz, the arts, and non-religious spiritual education. They challenged notions of masculinity and community involvement and considered how educators and officials could shift the way they listen in a move to improve students’ learning.

It was exteporaneous and free-flowing. Tangents were followed. Ideas explored. Standards challenged.

…rows empty.

Whereas a stump speech brought out throngs and was streamed and archived, I can’t post the footage of the Marsalis panel because I can’t find it.

I wish I could.

If we continue to flock to those in power who are encumbered in the service of multiple masters for inspiration and solutions, the future we hope for will continue to exist on a far distant horizon.

If more and more we realized the value and wisdom of engaging with those who are in an of the doing of the work, that horizon would be far closer.

Learning Grounds Episode 002: In which Anesha discusses her learning around school choice and cultural competency

For this week’s episode of Learning Grounds, we sat down with Education Policy and Management candidate, Anesha, to discuss what she’s learning about ideas of school choice and policy’s role in creating equity in the opportunities facing kids today. We also had time to talk about the role of schools in cultural competency.