Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Beware of the gifts borne by Greek grammar

Every day, numerous students (which means anywhere from 4 to 15, depending on how many times I pursue it) will reflexively and self-righteously assert the integrity of and commitment to their work by thrusting a piece of paper—with some small amount of written material thereupon—toward me when I ask if they’re getting their work done.

Typically, I’m asking because, having given some class time to get work done, I see the student(s) in question doing something—chatting, daydreaming, fidgeting, playing, etc.—besides work, or the self-same student(s) rather consistently neglect(s) work.  Usually, it’s the combination of both those factors. 

This little game—a mime so frequent it could be a meme—occurs so regularly and so predictably that it’s beyond humorless.  It’s enervating.  Yes, I know, I ought to respond differently, find another way to get students to respond differently, by engaging them differently.  To that I’d say, you probably haven’t spent a hundred and eighty days with 8th graders.  For those who want not to do work, the powers of avoidance and creative reframing a situation are vastly superior to any teacher’s capacities to redirect, reconstruct or otherwise redesign material, pedagogy or curriculum.

Believe me, you can execute a delightfully creative and engaging 15-minute activity, then send the class off to do 10 minutes of work following the activity, and some number of students will simply decline to do that work.  Unless you make the work the playing of some sort of silly game on their smart phone, certain students will avoid anything that looks academic.  (I have had, for example, students declare that they’re not doing anything, because “8th grade don’t matter…I’ll start working in high school.”)

It seems to me that this process, these claims by students, are a repudiation of our very way of thinking, and--more importantly, of course!--the renunciation of the standardized testing process!

I say this because the test, and the standards behind it, are clearly Greek, by which I mean they engage in hypotaxis*.  That is to say, both grammar and thinking are constructed to make one point, with subordinate ideas and evidence supporting or elaborating that point.  If you've had--what?--five minutes of writing in an American public school, you know what I'm saying.  The five paragraph theme, the "kite" graphic organizer, Step Up To Writing (no doubt, with that little TM symbol appended), "tell me what you're going to tell me, tell me, tell me what you told me," or whatever other structure or mnemonic you know or use, are all creatures of hypotaxis.

So, a student who is clearly not working, can--when called out for the same--confidently show a piece of (bad) evidence to "prove" that they are working.  Or, they had, at one point worked, as in, they wrote--in the last 7 minutes-- one thing on a piece of paper.  And on the standardized test, following the expectations driven by our commitment to the forms of hypotaxis, if not serious content within that form, a detail supporting a key idea in service to a main point is, in fact, the point.  The quality of the details don't much matter on the test--the graders can't spend a ton of time on them, so if you have a quote and a statistic and an expert opinion, you're gold.  Get the right type of stuff, and we'll say that correlates reasonably well with actually having good stuff, so we'll call it good.

Or, if you want to talk with your neighbor during class, make sure you have a piece of paper with a few words scratched on it, so you can show evidence that you're working.  Then everything else--talking with your, spinning this year's ridiculous fidget toy, whatever--isn't relevant, because it is not confounding evidence refuting the "I'm working" thesis.

Has the slovenly evaluation of the standardized test wrought this intellectual laziness?  It's a circuitous claim...but it may not be a leap.

*  Yes, there are Greek texts that use parataxis (the use of coordinating rather subordinating grammatical relationships, and characterized by sharp juxtaposition of different--but equal--ideas or images), but as a rule, Greek has bequeathed us the very hierarchical logic embodied in hypotaxis.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


I haven't said much about it this year.  Mostly, I'm just tired...from the year and of testing.  But there was one little story....

We--8th Grade--were first.  Work out the kinks with the most experienced group.  Some particulars aligned just right for a perfect storm this year.  For instance, new testing coordinator and new principal--who had been out until about 2 weeks before the tests started.

And, then, on the first day of SBAC (we still do Science in one day, under the old testing format--which isn't as "intense" as SBAC) chaos...here's the story.

In late March, staff met to discuss the SBAC schedule.  At that time, testing was to start on May 2 (with 8th Grade ELA), and run until June 1, with testing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays for make-ups.  At that meeting, a staff member proposed a compressed schedule—testing over 3 weeks, five days a week. 

On April 13, we got an email with the new compressed schedule, with this line: Unless there are other concerns that haven’t been addressed, this will be our schedule moving forward.  That came as something of a surprise, and some staff raised concerns.  For instance, ELA testing had been shrunk down from 3 days to 2.  My 8th Grade ELA colleague and I expressed a desire to have 3 days for ELA.

On April 18, we got an email saying that the Classroom Activity portion (a half hour class room discussion before starting the test) of the Performance Task was dropped.  

The schedule published on the web site and handed out to staff retained 3 days for 8thGrade ELA, and my colleague and I both told our students that we would have 3 days. 

The ELA CAT (day one of the three--readings with questions) was fine (May 8).  On the morning of May 9 (day 1 of the 2-day PT, in which students create longer responses to readings, drawing on the multiple sources the test itself offers), I sent the following email to 8th grade Test Administrators:

The Performance Task portion of the ELA test involves some reading (and listening) with short answer questions, then the lengthier essay (which could be any type—narrative, explanatory or persuasive).  2 sections, in other words.   There is, I believe, a firewall between the two.  Once you go to the essay section, you can’t go back to the previous section.  But you can start in on the second section today, and that work will be there the next day.

So far (2 years), it has seemed that students get through the initial reading and short answer section today, easily.  Some students then charge right into the essay work and are done with both today—and they really shouldn’t be.    Other students come back tomorrow and do a most cursory review of the previous day’s work and then submit.  And some students use both days fully.

(My colleague) and I have always encouraged students to do the following:

·         Do the initial section work—today.
·         Do some sort of preparatory work before actually starting to write the essay.  (We’ve never mandated what, how much or how long, but we have always strongly encouraged students to take their time and to do some sort of prewriting.)  Personally, I’d think that some decently full draft of the essay today would be reasonable.  At least an outline.
·         Come back the next day and reread (with a critical eye) their work, so they can do real revision.  It’s not unreasonable to encourage them to not even start immediately on the third day.  Take plenty of time getting themselves back into it, if they prefer.
·         Take breaks—mentally—between rounds of revision, in order to get some “distance” from the writing and thereby enable revising to be as productive as possible.

About 10 minutes later, the new test coordinator told me that all work done on day 1 would be frozen for day 2.  That had not been the case before (but he later read the testing manual and found that he was wrong...day 1 work would be accessible on day 2). 

About 7:55 AM, I asked the principal to confirm the expectations.  She said she would ask the district assessment coordinator about Segment 1 and Segment 2 guidelines and expectations, and send out an email.

We began logging into the test about 8:10.  Most students were taking their test by about 8:20.

At 8:45, we got this email (from Asst. to Testing Coordinator, for the Principal):

Students are NOT to move on when they finish PT Part 1, students are to pause the test and then shut down the computer.  I will check in with everyone at around 9:30ish to get counts of how many students are still testing.

At 8:56, we got this email (from Principal):

PT Part 1 is taking a lot less time than anticipated.

We are GOING ON to PT Part 2 today. That means all kids will need to keep testing and finish today.

9:03, (from Asst. to Testing Coordinator, for the Principal):

You cannot go back to and work on anything from Part 1
[T]hose that move on will need to finish everything.  Rewrites and all

9:04, (8th Grade Proctor):

I think the 7th grade has students go on to part 2 and then has students WRITE their graphic organizer and do their pre-write ON PAPER first.  Then, tomorrow they type part 2. 

9:05, (Another 8th Grade Proctor):

So no testing tomorrow?

9:06, (from Asst. to Testing Coordinator, for the Principal):

Not if we are all done.  They have to finish Part 2 today

And 9:07, (from Asst. to Testing Coordinator, for the Principal):

Those students that do not finish Part 2 today will move to the extended testing site and finish their test there.

10:32, (from Asst. to Testing Coordinator, for the Principal):

Here’s the plan… Send all students who do not finish to the Library Computer Lab @ 11 am, Counselors will begin a new test session there and the downstairs computer lab if needed.
Please don’t forget to walk the students’ cards to Counselors.

11:02 (Principal)

ALL kids on part 1 go to library now to cont and finish part 1
ALL on part 2 pause and will continue tomorrow.

Of course, by this point, some proctors had already sent their continuing testers on to the library. 

The key issue is that we told them they’d have 2 days…that was familiar (from the last 2 years), and they have some internal understanding of how that works.

And we changed it to one day—after the test has started. 
Even if they’ve only unconsciously “planned” (and they have at least unconsciously planned), that’s a tough readjustment to make, once the test is in motion. 

So, I don’t mind one day, but switching from two to one, after we’ve started was disruptive.

 Everything worked out...we're all fine.  I do wonder if there might be some marginal impact on a few students' scores.  Certainly was not the way a standardized test is supposed to be standardly (if you will) given.

I can only imagine how many times something unusual like this played out across the whole testing universe.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Technology will make ALL parts of life better!

A colleague, who chidingly tries to convince me that technology tools make most teaching and learning better, sent me an article, All Writing Can Be Better Through Technology.

I couldn't even finish the article.  Couldn't get past this:

...technology can provide feedback throughout the learning process. In both Google Docs and Office 365, teachers can leave real-time comments on students’ work while they’re writing.

I'll state the obvious first.  The feedback doesn't make all writing better.  It might (MIGHT) make the feedback process easier for the teacher, but by sleight of hand, the author has played upon the unspoken assumption of technophiles that when something is done through technological means it gets done more smoothly, more efficiently (in the procedure) and therefore more effectively (in the outcome).

That, of course, is a debatable assumption, but please recognize it as the assumption it is.

Second, just how is leaving comments something done in real time?  What does real time mean here?   That the student and teacher are on the technology at the same time, so the student can get instant feedback at the very time that they're working?    If it's something less than that, what the teacher has done is a leave a comment at one point in time, that the student will see at another point in time, and then you don't have anything that could seriously be called real time.  And if real time does mean simultaneous, then the teacher can really only serve each student one at a time, sequentially.  Just like a teacher would do in live (real time!) interactions. 

And, of course, a teacher can give real time feedback throughout the learning process without any technology--well, two chairs and a desk, perhaps.

So in the end, it might be logistically easier (a bit) to give feedback by way of a computer, but writing gets better through technology?  Shouldn't the title be Teacher Feedback Can Be Slightly Easier Through Technology?   But that's just not as stylish an idea, is it?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Writing Camp, 2017

Writing Camp
August 7-11 2017

At Writing Camp, young writers will
  • practice a variety of writing skills
  • build self-confidence as writers
  • sharpen analytical skills
  • develop writing skills for self-expression
  • create essays, stories, poems and plays

At camp, we will work on a variety of writing forms and structures, among several purposes for different audiences.

My goal is to work some each day on non-fiction essays (expository and persuasive), narrative stories, and a little bit of poetry and drama.  We'll read (and work on summarizing, conclusion-drawing, inference-making, etc.) some, too, since reading is an essential input into writing.  In the process of our writing, we'll work on the component pieces of a written work (thesis statements, key ideas, evidence for non-fiction work; narrative arc for stories, poetic elements for poetry), and exercise our skills at developing and following structures for organizing.

Most of all, I want each camper to get both a little better and a little more comfortable with writing, so that s/he will want to do more of it, and thereby continue to get better and more comfortable through the on-going practice of the craft.

August 7-11, 2017
9 AM-1 PM
Faith Presbyterian Church

The camp is intended for students entering 7th, 8th or 9th grades, but I can discuss the possibilities of slightly younger and older students participating.

My background--I've taught middle school
English for 11 years and college political
science for 19 years.  I've authored
numerous books and essays (links for some of which you can find to the right).

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cool Fail

When I was a young'un, we used to watch Schoolhouse Rock cartoons that taught some mini-lesson about government (the Preamble) or English grammar (Conjunction Junction) and so on.  They were the occasional interstitial material between Bugs and Road Runner episodes...and I remember waiting and hoping for them to come on.  They are so memorable, in fact, that if you ask almost anybody, they'll hum the tune from their favorite SR installment.  Even young'uns today. Somehow (YouTube, etc.), kids 40 years later know these ditties, and--maybe--a bit of the lessons they taught.  (My colleague uses the Preamble song to help his students memorize the Preamble.)

So today when we watched CNN Student News and they "rapped it up" with a bad--musically speaking--rapped summary of the content, I found that I wanted to turn it off, not listen again.  And I realized how silly it is that adults try to appropriate some sort of supposedly cool cultural form by which to smuggle some informational material into the minds of youngsters.  

That seems a dead end, to me.  If rap (or any other cultural product enjoyed by youngsters) is badly contorted to another end--especially one seen as less "cool"--it will fall flat, because it will fall much flatter than anything "organically" of the genre.

Schoolhouse Rock, by contrast, carved out its own niche, with a cultural product that wasn't derivative of an already existing form that kids connected to and thought desirable/cool already.   I liked both Led Zeppelin and Schoolhouse Rock.  But I would have hated a lesson on conjunctions set to a bad ripoff of Led Zeppelin.  It would have seemed "fake."

Schoolhouse Rock created its own kind of dorky cool, which works much more memorably and enduringly than bad cultural appropriation.  20 minutes later, I can't even remember anything about the schoolhouse rap.

Update--March 2
It's Dr. Seuss Read Across America Day today.  For a similar reason as described above--though from a different angle--I don't like this day, either.  We're trying to encourage youngsters upward in their reading, and I wonder if this encourages downward instead.  I loved Dr. Seuss when my own children were 5.  But I don't want to go to a college graduation and hear a young adult admonishing his/her class mates with Oh, the places you'll go.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

What have we done?

This snapshot--indicating the participation thus far in class surveys I am running--is part of a story about what strange things we've developed in youngsters.

I created a survey--one for each class period--to ask students about their sense of readiness and capability for the SBAC, the annual standardized test.  I emailed to both students and parents to ask that the students do the survey, and I included a link right to the survey appropriate to their class period.

Over night, I got 9 responses from the first group--which now has 15, 2 from the second, which now has 7, 1 from the third, and none from the fourth and fifth.  

12 total responses, out of 115 students.

When I told the class that had 9 (out of 25) that they had done the best, one student exclaimed, "Can we have a pizza party?"

I was despairing already--about how badly they'd done with their Parts of Speech work, so I slipped.  And my response was, "You know how many pizza parties we had when I was a student..?  NONE!"

A pizza party!?  Because barely 1/3 of the students had taken a 2-minute quiz...and they just happened to outperform the other 4 classes!?

Years ago, I asked what consequence the Wow! Effect of things like letter learning with singing birds on iPads would have.  I wonder if pizza parties for answering a 7-question survey is the answer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll was the rock star pastor of the megachurch Mars Hill, in Seattle, until he--and then the church--unraveled in accusation and recrimination.  He's power hungry, some said.  He has anger problems, others claimed.  Plenty came to see him as something of a megalomaniac with control issues.  The leadership tried to rein him in, but he seemed to prefer to reign (or so it appeared).  So he left, and the church imploded, cutting all the remote campuses loose to do whatever they could/would.  
So last fall one of my Pierce students saw that Francis Fukuyama's arguments about how the awkward realities of personality-based organizations (states or churches, apparently) can lead to organizational (and "political") decay as helpful in understanding the spectacular collapse of Driscoll and Mars Hill.

When presenting, he said it simply enough.  

Something like this, You had to get on the bus...the bus he created and was driving.  But he lost his way and the bus broke down.  And now he's left alone, with a broken down bus.

I like that it appears to be out back, behind the building.  It's a kind of concrete metaphoric rendering of the situation...and I like the way it works.