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.