Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Growing Up Latino edited by Harold Augenbraum and Ilan Stavans

Growing Up Latino is one of the original efforts within the literary realm to combine the works of various Spanish-decent cultures into a single volume.  The introduction clearly states a desire to highlight the commonalities between Chicano, Caribbean, Central, and South American peoples and literary styles under one term: Latino.  It contains works by all of the recent heavy-hitters selected to highlight magical realism, immigrant narratives, and descriptions of latino home life.  Much of this is an enjoyable read, and while the introduction is dated, it does show the progression of literary criticism around these authors when compared with more recent writings.  Enough of the short stories are entertaining outside of the scholarly intent of the collection that I'd suggest this to anyone into short fiction as pleasure reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Eye of the Heron by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is another one of those writers who can do no wrong in my book. She is imaginative, culturally aware, and philosophically consistant. Her stories include characters from a variety of backgrounds and she celebrates differences between people without stereotyping. Also her stories are badass. She pulls no punches and seems to delight in pulling out the nastiest tendencies of humanity and making her readers accept them as part of our species flaws while encouraging us to rise above them. This book is a small part of the Hanish Cycle which I have long ago given up on reading in order or even fully understanding the overall plot arc of. It is awesome as it is, even if I can't quite see the full picture.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Podcasts: The Second Coming

So last year I tried to get my Contemporary Literature students to record short memoir podcasts and it was largely a failure.  Only one recording (out of students) turned out reasonably well, and that student was very self-conscious about her own voice and did not want to share it with anyone.  *sigh*

I'm still plugging away, though, and this year might be different.  Like last year, the kids get horrified looks on their faces when I suggest that we may be putting some of their voices up on the Internet, but their initial written versions have turned out better.  We spent more time working on them during class, with the bulk of that time spent brainstorming and drafting.  We read and listened to more examples of memoirs before and while writing, so they had more quality models.  I'm also going to try to prep them a bit better before the recording, and have them all do two takes.

If the recordings turn out better and the kids are into it, I'll see about the legalities of posting some of them here.

Spook Country by William Gibson

I do love a book with multiple story lines that seem totally unconnected until the last two or so chapters.  I love books like that a lot.  Gibson pulls his complicated plot off well.  I'm not convinced that future generations will connect as strongly to the explicitly 'oughties' technology references as I did, but Spook Country will make a heck of a period piece in a few decades.  Good stuff!

Also, dude is a friggin' tweeting machine.  I had to stop following him because he fully dominated my feed every single evening.  Check him out if you dare!  @GreatDismal

Thursday, September 29, 2011

D&D on That Google+ Thingy

Check this guy out!

While I generally prefer the face-to-face-ness of D&D to online RPGs, I'm definitely rooting for this to work out.  Partially because it sounds zany and partially because he's calling the campaign "The Mines of the Blood Diamond Clan."  How can that not be awesome?

Dude's got a schmancy blog, too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Don't Like Back to Basics

As always, Philly's The Notebook is the greatest newspaper to report on public schools ever. Really ever.

Here is an article covering the recent transformation of West Philly High from a regular public to a Promise Academy. For those of you who don't know and did not follow the link, West Philly High has had a really rough decade. Over the past few years, however, teachers, students, administrators, and community members at the school began implementing a progressive, long-term-thinking pedagogy/school-culture that focussed on the real world needs of the students. They worked hard to build connections between the school and the surrounding city and mutual investment. This is tough to do and takes generations to realize. After their test scores stayed low for a year, they were taken over as a Promise Academy.

The school now runs on a rigid, back-to-basics curriculum that stresses nationally tested skills only and specifically does not work with higher order critical thinking skills. Proponents of the plan say that in future years, once the students start performing better, the school will begin to reintroduce critical thinking in the curriculum. I know this is bull pucky. You know this is bull pucky. They know this is bull pucky.

I used to work in a middle school that used a Back to Basics model (similar to the one used at the Promise Academies). After I moved to a different school (this time a high school), I had a student who had graduated from my old middle school with all kinds of academic honors. In the few years between the 8th and 11th grades, she had retained very few of these "basics" skills and had had to overcome huge gaps in her critical thinking ability. But, boy could she pick multiple-choice answers!

The amount of time it takes to teach a child to pick multiple-choice answers makes it nearly impossible to address critical thinking (please read "meaningful to the real world") skills in her education. Had the school backed off even a little, her scores would not have been as high. Within that logic set, teaching critical thinking equals failure.

Students who leave school with very few useful academic schools, and memories of their education being horribly boring and unrelated to their real lives outside of school will not pass on anything academic to their children. That means future generations to pass through West Philly High will come with the same lack of reading and math. To do well on tests, they will have to receive intensive training in picking multiple-choice answers. This will keep them from being able to get any time working on critical thinking questions. Anyone else see the pattern?

Education reform takes generations worth of work. It is hard to help people value education. Those involved don't see much progress within one cycle of students. The progress is realized when the children and grandchildren of the students who began the effort show up to school already loving books, already using basic logic, already playing a sport, and already producing independent art. The first step is building a trust and a love of education.

You can't do that by "taking over" schools and stuffing students into disconnected test-taking programs that do very little to help their chances of seeing any benefit from their schooling.

I want to believe that the goal of all people involved in education is to improve the state of all of our communities, but education reform efforts will clearly fail at this, and those implementing them must see this. What the hell is their goal, and why are they doing this to us?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SWBAT Forget Stuff

This year in my classes we will learn how to forget things.

As a teacher, I get to fight the loss of certain useful skills.  My students live in a world where every single text message they ever send, every picture they ever take, and every tap of the *enter* key is saved forever and generally in public.  Nothing is forgotten anymore!

Without the ability to forget we cannot move on in our lives.  We cannot forgive if we cannot forget.  Minor details continue to nag for months after they should have faded into the background noise of living.

So this year, we are forgetting things.  That graphic novel excerpt that we gave an honest shot, but couldn't quite work out as a class?  It's gone.  I'll never mention it again.  The introduction writing activity that yielded forced blather?  I've never even heard of it.  I can't even imagine what it must have been like.

From this point forward, the good stays in our memory as long as we can hold it, and the rest hits the recycling bin, never to bother us again.  We need the space for something better.  Useful thoughts will stay with us.  Fascinating texts will come back monthly.  Fun new words will pepper our speech.  Excellent writing will get more honed as we constantly return to it.  Nothing else can have our time, energy, or precious attention.

Take that, Internet!

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Going Pass/Fail

The new school year approacheth! This time around my Junior Seminar class goes from a letter-graded course to pass/fail. In past years we found that some of our students who tend to get Cs and Ds were failing their seminar class (at my school, this is the one that is meant to give extra support and move students up to grade level in reading). Not good. Students (especially English language learners of which we have many) found this frustrating. Something needed to change. 

The idea behind the switch to pass/fail is to allow for more fluid grading.

 Using grading as a barrier to entry is an exclusionary act. It keeps out students who perform differently than (notice that I did not type "below") an arbitrarily determined standard. This does not fit my goals for the class.

 Alternatively we can think of grading as a communicative act, a way of telling a student whether or not they used an activity to demonstrate some predetermined form of progress. This way, students get to use a grade to determine where they are improving and where they can focus future efforts. They set their own standard as a byproduct of past performance and can then use this self-determined standard to gage improvement.

 Letter grades have been swiped by the barrier to entry crowd. Student grades become GPAs which are used to keep them out of prestigious institutions. They denote some form of standard that can be assumed to be constant across schools. Again, this does not work for me. Progress looks different from student to student. A seventeen-year-old who comes to me from a family that has surrounded her with books and a private school education may not have to work very hard to earn an A. No effort means no improvement. By giving her an A I am not encouraging her education. A student who recently came to the US from a farm in the Dominican Republic with limited English and an inconsistant education may struggle heroically and still get an F. Heroic struggle means improvement. By giving her an F I am not encouraging her education. However, if I have a fluid pass/fail system I can mark the first student's paper with a "fail" and ask her to try again, this time challenging herself in ways that she and I can determine ahead of time, and mark the second student's paper with a "pass" and highlight what progress she has made since her last attempt and what efforts she can make the next time around. This encourages education.

 If I really want inquisitive students who will work from intrinsic motivation to learn new, exciting things about the world, then the pass/fail system works better for my class.

 The added bonus here is the situation in which students may want to contest their grade. Letter grades are generally based on a rubric. If a student comes to me with a concern about a letter grade all I do is point at the rubric and say, "You didn't do these things, so I didn't give you these points, so you got this grade." That's not exactly communication. All I did was point to something that the student could have read on his own. If the same student comes to me with a concern about a pass/fail grade then I have to actually defend my grading decision. The only evidence that I can reasonably use is past performance vs. current performance. The student can counter my evidence, and we can have an actual conversation about the assignment. He might prove me wrong. I might be able to use the situation to further highlight areas where the student can improve and doubly encourage that improvement. All kinds of messy situations could occur. It's gonna be a good year.

Friday, August 26, 2011

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

It would appear that my quest to read a less than awesome Kurt Vonnegut book must continue. Damn it, man, can't you write something that isn't enjoyable and poignant? What the hell? Why not just write a book that is only great? Do they have to all be awesome? Doesn't this get old to you?

This here is a satire of the American class system and Western capitalism. As usual it is hilarious, and honest, and well-conceived, and blah blah blah isn't Vonnegut just one of the best American writers ever. I mean, he really is. This book also rules. I liked it a whole lot.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dr. Ackerman leaves Philly district and takes a lot of useful money with her.

Here's the article.

I don't like to think about how long it will take me to earn $905K teaching in the Philly district. If Ackerman cared so much about the students she'd agree to sever her contract w/out legal action so we don't have to pay her for work she didn't do. Also I'm not into the "at least she'd gone" argument. We don't know who will be chosen to replace her. Philly's track record isn't great in that department.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Feed by M. T. Anderson

Amazon link

I can't wait to teach Feed this coming school year. This book is one of those examples of fiction that leaves the reader off-kilter and a little unhinged at the end. Very powerful, very visceral, and very well attuned to popular concerns about American culture. I look forward to seeing whether actual young adults respond to this young adult novel. This old fogey thought it was pretty excellent!

Yeah, YA dystopias!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Teaching as if Life Matters by Christopher Uhl with Dana L. Stuchul

Amazon link

I am a sucker for hubris, especially when it concerns thing about which I care a lot. Christopher Uhl would like to suggest some foundational changes in the way that we educate each other as a species. He does this so that we can have a new paradigm in the very way that we conceive of ourselves and the cosmos around us. Also, he has some practical suggestions about how this work can be started in our classrooms today.

Uhl does a wonderful job engaging teachers where they are at philosophically and then taking commonly held principals (like encouraging students to ask questions) and taking them to the utmost logical extreme (like restructuring the way that information is gathered and spread in a classroom that has questioned the teacher's authority and found it insufficient) where many of us are no longer comfortable. Pretty heavy stuff, but an honest look at why many teachers believe in democratic processes, but do not enact them in classrooms. Uhl presents ways thinking and practicing that will make these democratic processes more attainable for the teacher, and less confusing for the student.

At no point does Uhl shy away from his political agenda. While I do not agree with the dude 100%, I respect the hell out of an education theorist who has the courage to admit that he or she has opinions and that those opinions do effect the way they think. Most of them pretend to be aloof, lying to themselves and their audience, and generally causing me to toss their book aside. Uhl admits it from the outset and reminds the reader of it at regular intervals. Nice work!

This is a refreshing bit of work with a bibliography that I plan on mining for further reading. I don't know whether or not it will change the human race and the universe in a fundamental way, but it has already changed the way that I do some things in my classroom. That's good enough for me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Further Reporting on Standardized Tests and Cheating Rates

The New York Times published an article in reference to the article to which I made reference a few posts ago.

I am interested in seeing where this is headed. The pressure for schools to demonstrate continually higher scores on standardized tests from year to year from their students his done nothing but increase since NCLB became the law of the land. Yes, I agree that schools in general and teachers in particular should neither fix statistics, nor help their students cheat. Yes, I agree that accountability to the public helps to ensure a higher quality of service from a school. I just think that we are going about this the wrong way. In Pennsylvania the state standardized tests are created by a private company that is in no way held accountable to the public (yeah, yeah, I know the state government could not renew their contract but that does not happen in practice and they have a de facto monopoly anyway).

The tests do not necessarily reflect anything that is actually taught in any classroom in the state. They do not report on the amount of information learned by individual students as they progress (scores for each grade are compared to scores from the same grade from previos years, not the same students as they advance). The PA state standardized tests do not assess what their creators say they assess and public policy creates situations where cheating is easy, easy to get away with, and very beneficial. Going after "these teachers" who cheat will not fix this problem as they will simply be replaced by more teachers who will be similarly encouraged to become more of "these teachers." If the policy does not change, the problem will persist.

What if we trusted continually trained and licensed professionals to create assessments tailored to determine whether the students learned the presented material? What if we did this on a local level? What if we reported the outcome of these assessments on a bimonthly basis directly to the parents of the students? What if we set time aside for parents to come in and speak directly to these trained professionals? What if parents could contact these trained professionals via phone or email whenever they wanted? The system exists. We've had public schools, quizzes, report cards, parent/teacher conferences, and open sharing of teacher contact information for many decades. It would only require trusting us teachers to do the thing that the public already trusts us to do.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You should read this article. Seriously.

"Confession of a cheating teacher" from Philly's own The Notebook

Great journalism that I hope will shed some light on where we are failing in education in this country. The culture of standardized testing does not work and is not sustainable. It will not reach any of its goals no matter how low those goals are gradually moved. I say that as a dedicated and informed high school classroom teacher.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reader Response Pairing

This summer I am working on expanding the collection of memoirs and personal essays that I teach in my two classes. High school students respond particularly well to personal essays, and I find that they tend to generally enjoy writing about themselves and their lives. Personal essays are a good way for teachers to encourage self-reflection and journaling practices among their students.

I picked up a copy of Growing Up Latino and have been reading through it to find useful texts. Jesús Colón's "Kipling and I" (The link is a PDF copy that I found on the Montclair University website. The copy also includes Kipling's poem "If . . ." and some critical thinking questions. Nerdy teacher stuff.) is particularly intriguing as it provides a nice bridge between personal essays and reader response essays. Colón writes about the effects of a work of literature on his young life, directly referencing lines from the poem and explaining how his perceptions of its message change as he gains life experiences.

Colón provides a nice model that students can use in their own writing. I hope to try this out with some of my classes in the coming semester. We'll take a look at this example and then find poems (or song lyrics) of our own and connect them to our life experiences. I can see this working to bridge personal writing to writing about what we have read. My hopes are that the students will begin to understand reading as a personal connection between an author and a group of readers where ideas are exchanged, manipulated, re-interpreted, and put back into the public sphere for the process to continue.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I Totally Got to Play Chain World!

I've been reading a bit about Chain World, a video game revealed at the 2011 Game Design Challenge in SF, CA (if you followed that link, you can skip to the next paragraph). In brief, Jason Rohrer is an independent game designer who created a Minecraft mod, put it on a USB stick, and wrote some rules for playing the game. You only get to play it off the stick. You only play it once. When you are done playing it and saving your alterations to the world, you have to pass it on to someone else. He submitted the game as an entry in a "Video Games as Religion" challenge and passed it off to wander around the world and become the stuff of legends. Each player gets to contribute to the development of the world and the alterations that they make take on stories of their own, get interpreted, misinterpreted, added to, destroyed, or ignored by each subsequent player (like the real world, except one person at a time). Rohrer was player one, while player two was this guy named Jia Ji, a programmer who mostly works to get money donated to charities and disaster relief. Ji, independent of an against the wishes of Rohrer, set up an online auction that would have gotten the game passed on to various celebrities and regular people. One would bid for a slot in the game's passage from person to person. Procedes would go to various charities. Angry blogging ensued. People either enjoyed that the game was already being altered and reinterpreted, or hated that it was being monetized and regulated even for supposedly good causes.

Those who think that this Ji dude is somehow corrupting the game seem to be angry at least in part by the fact that a player is limiting the way that the game is played, and somehow corrupting its original intent. I think that they are wrong, not , however, for the reasons that Ji gives (something about how things should be used to get money to people in need). Ji strikes me as a ridiculous, hippy, goody-two-shoes,spotlight-hogger who needs a hobby other than the thing that he already does for a living (and this Rohrer dude seems pretty zany, too). What has actually happened here is that now everyone is getting to play the most interesting and actually available part of this unimaginably rare game. Li didn't take anything from anyone or corrupt anything. He just took part in the only way that any of us can hope to play the game.

Rohrer created a video game so limited that essentially nobody (or at least a vastly insignificant number of people) will ever get to directly play it. Even if the auction play order is broken (as it may have already been), you will never be in possession of the USB stick even more so than you will never win the lottery. That means that, for most of us, the interesting part of Chain World cannot be the actual playing of the USB stick. It has to be the in-real-life effect of the game. We play it by thinking about it, and sharing some of that thinking with others so that they can also think about it. We discuss and philosophize about the game. People also do this about religion. People get very angry about religion and yell about how other people's interpretation of religion is wrong. We get all hot and bothered about how other people ruin and misuse religion, even for supposedly good causes. Chain World is supposed to be a video game as a religion. I think that Rohrer succeeded, and we can all play at least the IRL part of the game. I'll never see the USB stick, but I did get to read a few cool articles, think some cool thoughts, and write a blog post that maybe a few people will read. Nobody has ruined my shot at playing this particular Minecraft mod. I totally got to play Chain World and it was a fun way to spend about an hour-and-a-half.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Punk Not Profit

Punk Not Profit is one of many music download blogs that cater to the completionist in us all. I bet you thought you had every single inch of tape ever blessed (cursed?) with Glenn Danzig's voice. Is it important to have the instrumental outtakes from Samhain's November Coming Fire? I'm not sure, but there are worse compulsions out there.

Blogs like this help to bolster the argument that free music downloading drives the careers of musicians. Most of what Punk Not Profit shares is not available for sale anyplace anymore. I go on, download some rare bit of nonsense and keep scrolling. "Oh, look. An early Exploited demo. I've heard these guys are fun." Download. Listen. Buy some more music next time I'm in a record store. It's free advertising.

And if you prefer classic and psychedelic rock over punk, take a gander at The Day After the Sabbath. The dude loves you so much, he makes you a mix tape every few weeks. Then you start hunting down complete albums.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Vegan Black Metal Chef!

The Vegan Black Metal Chef makes me laugh and laugh. I would caution agains using as much salt and butter substitute as he does. I would also say that headbanging, posing w/ an awesome guitar, and using a mace to mash potatoes are all awesome and common practice in my kitchen from here on out.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

The last book in the Dune series may very well be the best. Chapterhouse: Dune continues the story of human settlement in the cosmos over three thousand years beyond the original Dune. Herbert demonstrates humanity's capacity to learn and grow, as well as our capacity to lie to ourselves and regress. He continues themes of nothing ever actually ending, the struggle for survival, and the constantly shifting definitions of tribe. Herbert takes the ideas and motivations that drove characters from earlier novels and holds them up as flawed. I really enjoy that the history has not at all treated the heroes of the first four novels well. This is a wonderful book that serves as a fine disengaging point for a truly epic story arc.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Damnit. Now I need to be temporarily interested in comic books again.

Quick summary of DC's announcement that in September they will be restarting all of their 52 titles at issue #1 and that many of their heroes will be at least partially reimagined. Also that they will digitally distribute these issues on the same day as the physical releases.

Of course, by the "temporarily" in the title, I mean, "probably for just the month of September." It won’t take me long to realize that I don’t need new superhero stories every month. I have decades worth of them stored in boxes on my bookshelf. I think this is the main problem that DC (and Marvel for that matter) are facing. I love the hell out of some Batman, but I’m not sure that I need that many more Batman stories. These companies need to find new ways to milk their old properties without the cost of monthly publication in any format.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 1 of a D&D 3-Shot

In the last few years, my wife and I find ourselves with less free time in general and less free time in common with our friends than we had in college and soon after. Gone (or at least, hard to obtain) are the days when we could bust out the Dungeons and Dragons books, roll up some characters, plan to meet twice a week, and play giant, open-ended campaigns that took years to complete. The all-night play sessions are out as well. We just can't pull any of that off anymore, but we still like the game and the time spent with friends.

The cool thing about those play sessions was the characters. Bringing a wizard from first to twelfth level gives you a deep understanding of who they are, and what makes them tick. You get this organically from repeated experiences. Whole sessions can go by without important plot advancement, just characters practicing being themselves. This is much of what makes roleplaying games cool. You have time to get really invested in the progress of a character.

I am still part of a friend group that get together for roleplaying games, but the play sessions tend to be false starts and one-shots (game sessions where you play disposable characters through a short string of fights agains monsters and then never play with them again after that one time). These are fun, but only in that we are hanging out and drinking beer. You can't get into the characters all that much, and the action has no real purpose. It's something to do, but it doesn't get to the core fun of what keeps me buying Dungeons and Dragons books well into my adult life. I can't swing full campaigns, and one-shot just don't satisfy.

Two days ago my wife and I sent out text messages to a bunch of friends. "Show up @ our place @ noon. D&D 3-shot". About half of the people who we invited showed up and got down to making characters. We agreed to play three times only with this group, and that this campaign would have a closed ending. This was going to be a campaign about plot. The characters would stick around for a little while, so there was some investment in them, but we couldn't spend hours just developing them. They had something to do and they had to get it done quickly. And therein we have the advantage of finite campaigns, they don't have the time for sidetracking or developing characters more than needed. They're satisfying the way that video roleplaying games are. The players get to complete the quest. They don't have to get it done in one night, but they need to get it done.

Afte one session, I'm really excited about where this is going. We have four characters who, while not fully developed, are at least united by a common goal. They have already found some pretty exciting success in moving towards that goal, and, since they are already one third of the way through the plot, they can already see a little bit of what reaching that goal will entail. When the evening ended we knew we'd be coming back for more in a few weeks, so there'll be some anticipation for next time, with the added bonus that next time has to be important. We get to care a little about these characters without having to block out every Thursday evening from not until a billion years from now. I like this 3-shot thing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gahhhh! Summer! Ugh!

I have been on summer vacation for three days now and have already heard four different people tell me that the three months that take place during the hottest part of the year are the part of the teaching profession that they envy most. Whenever anyone realizes that I am somewhere close to the beginning of this long, forced vacation (at some jobs the call it a furlough) they start demanding that I provide a list of exciting things that I have planned to fill the empty hours. When I say, "No plans," they fix me with accusing gazes and wax poetic about how nice it must be. I'm sorry, people, they don't make summer camp for adults. When I was a kid my friends had summer break with me. Now my friends work and fix me with withering gazes. One day I'll have children and then I'll be back to having plans that other people think are exciting.

So here, this is what I mean when I say, "No plans."

This summer, like every summer, I'm going to read as many books as I can. I'm going to play my way through a couple of video games that I never got to beat. I'm going to finish recording the demos for the two bands in which I play (then I'll use those demos to get to play more local shows in bars and warehouses and people's basements). I'm going to watch as many horror movies as I can stomach. I'm going to putter around my house, painting here, fixing there, tidying as much as I can. I'm going to cook my wife dinner as often as she wants. I'm going to get together with some friends and play Dungeons and Dragons at last once. I might do some yoga. I might do some pushups. I might drink some beers. My step-brother died a few days ago, so I'm going to continue being sad and angry about that for a while. Then I'll move on and just have nice memories. I'm going to go over the curriculum plans for the classes I teach and make them more effective at meeting important educational goals and more engaging for my students. Lastly I'm going to do my damnedest to keep as much loud, angry music blaring from as many speakers in my house at a time as I can.

It's not a bad way to spend three months with no plans.