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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies

It's January, and I am still confronting the junk left in the wake of the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.

Mind you, I have danced with the Five Paragraph Essay on more than few occasions. Early in my career there were few teachers I my building teaching composition at all, and it seemed like a good place to start. And the Fiver is still an improvement for those students whose preferred format is the Uniblob-- a mass of untethered words and sentences that spreads out across the page with no regard for order or sense.

To my students, I compare the FPE to training wheels-- they may be useful when you're starting out, but leave them on too long and they become a hindrance rather than a help.

The problem with the Fiver is that it leads a student to approach writing exactly backward. Instead of asking "What do I have to say and what's the best way to say it," the student says, "Okay, I have these five paragraph-shaped blanks to fill up-- what can I fill them up with." And that backwardness infects the entire process. As I slogged through my students' last paper (about symbolism and theme in The Awakening), I can see plainly that they did not ask "Have I made my point and buttressed it with solid support and evidence." Instead they have asked, "Does that paragraph look full enough yet? It does. Okay, then on to the next one."

Structure in writing needs to flow from the function. Start talking about an idea, a part of an idea, a step in setting up the discussion of an idea, and then when you're completed that task, start a new paragraph. It's simple.

But for all my decades of teaching, I have had to keep answering versions of the question "How long does this have to be?" (which is itself a version of the question "What's the least I can get away with doing on this assignment?"). The only answer is "Long enough to get the job done."

You don't measure a nutritional value of a meal by measuring how many minutes you spent eating it.You don't turn to your romantic partner and ask, "How many minutes do I have to talk to you in order for this thing to work?" And you don't determine the quality of a piece of writing based on how many pages you filled up with words.

You cannot put structure ahead of function-- unless, of course, the only thing you feel comfortable evaluating is structure. In which case you are not teaching writing at all-- you're teaching Making Marks on Paper. And you are contributing to the students' sense that school is some sort of Kafkaesque exercise in following odd instructions that are unrelated to life on planet Earth. Oh-- and you're also preparing students to do well on the Big Standardized Test, which also does not know how to evaluate good writing. So I guess there's that.

So, die, five paragraph essay. Die painfully or quietly, with a bang or with a whimper, but just die. And let's fill the space left behind with the goal of saying something clearly, effectively, and vigorously, according to the structure that best suits what we have to say.

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Posted by on in General

My first long-term sub job was finishing the year for a teacher who had passed away in her sleep. Her school-age daughter went to wake her, and she was just... gone. This was at my old high school, the school where I now work. I knew the woman, her co-workers, many of the families of the students. It was April, and my job was to coax grieving eighth graders into a classroom that would, for them, be haunted.

I have only encountered the death of a still-working teacher a handful of times in my career. Some hit closer to home than others. My friend Susie and I went back to Fourth Grade together. A gifted performer, she went to college to train professionally and spent a few years criss-crossing the country with professional touring companies of major shows. Eventually she decided that was not the life she wanted; she came back home and took a job as a high school chorale director. She enjoyed it; she was good at it. Then she discovered the cancer.


She worked as long as she was able. One door of her choir room opened directly to the side yard of her school; while she was doing chemo, she would step outside between classes, throw up, and then go back to work.

It's hard on students. Of course, it's enormously hard on students when other students die; when you're a teenager, you don't think about the limits of human mortality very often. But the death of a teacher packs a different punch, perhaps because they mostly don't think of us as humans, exactly. They think of us, expect us to be, immovable pieces of the landscape, as intractable as the ground they stand on. When a student dies, they feel a shudder in their own hearts; when a teacher dies, they feel the earth shift under their feet.

So that's where we are today in my building. A colleague I have taught with for over twenty years is gone. He had battled cancer for a few years now, and in fact had left the job a few weeks ago when his doctors told him he was almost out of time. The students didn't know that; they figured he was just getting healthy again, and would be back in his room, at his desk, again.

He was a former marine who returned from service and got a teaching degree. I can't say that he was the greatest teacher who ever set foot in the building-- we taught in adjoining rooms for years and to this day, most of what I know about National Lampoon''s Christmas Vacation I know from hearing the movie blaring through from the other side of the wall. His teaching methods were very different from mine, and not methods I'd endorse for anyone.

But he cared tremendously about the students. He coached runners for his entire career, investing himself in their efforts. He ran with them until he couldn't any more. He hosted the team at his house for big team meals, even after folks told him, "You know, you really shouldn't do that." You could count on him to show up to chaperone every single school dance. This fall, he defied doctor's orders and with his family keeping watchful eye, traveled to states to support one of his runners. He was a quiet, private person, but the students felt real affection for him. Their teacher-radar told them he was all right.

His obituary is in this morning's paper, and at the beginning of the day we will each read an official announcement from the school. His students will understand that the sub they've been with for a few weeks will now finish the year with them; God bless him for handling that gig. Some students will cry; some will go to the guidance office to take a moment. Many will show up for visitation tomorrow, maybe even the funeral. I will set this to auto-post  later, so that I don't get myself all emotioned up before I work with the students.

Years ago they started telling us that when a student dies, we should just leave their seat empty in the classroom, that students find it disrespectful to "erase" the lost person. I suppose an empty teacher's desk is a similar matter. Hard to say. We haven't been through this many times. Teachers usually retire before they pass, fade from the collective memory of the school they served, move on to some other place in their lives. For those who pass while still in the job, it's different. They will never not be teachers, and their place will always be in the classroom, there, at that empty desk.

This is why education is properly about the big things-- how to be more fully yourself, how to be fully human in the world. Because life is short, and people die, often unfairly and almost always before their work is done. Be kind. Be better. Remember, you only have so many chances before the desk is empty.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Well, here's a piece of research you might not have expected.

The sexy headline reductive title is the Batman Effect (published almost a year ago but recently re-circulating), but the idea being tested here was a little broader than "Always Be Batman." From the abstract:

This study investigated the benefits of self-distancing (i.e., taking an outsider's view of one's own situation) on young children's perseverance. Four- and 6-year-old children (N = 180) were asked to complete a repetitive task for 10 min while having the option to take breaks by playing an extremely attractive video game. Six-year-olds persevered longer than 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, across both ages, children who impersonated an exemplar other—in this case a character, such as Batman—spent the most time working, followed by children who took a third-person perspective on the self, or finally, a first-person perspective.

While I generally support the idea of Being Batman, there are some hugely troubling implications of this study (and I'm not even counting that Queen of Grit Angela Duckworth is one of the co-authors). One problem is captured by this review of the study at Big Think:

With the onset of early childhood and attending preschool, increased demands are placed on the self-regulatory skills of kids.  

This underlines the problem we see with more and more or what passes for early childhood education these days -- we're not worried about whether the school is ready to appropriately handle the students, but instead are busy trying to beat three-, four- and five-year-olds into developmentally inappropriate states to get them "ready" for their early years of education. It is precisely and absolutely backwards. I can't say this hard enough-- if early childhood programs are requiring "increased demands" on the self-regulatory skills of kids, it is the programs that are wrong, not the kids. Full stop. 

What this study offers is a solution that is more damning than the "problem" that it addresses. If a four-year-old child has to disassociate, to pretend that she is someone else, in order to cope with the demands of your program, your program needs to stop, today. 

Because you know where else you hear this kind of behavior described? In accounts of victims of intense, repeated trauma. In victims of torture who talk about dealing by just pretending they aren't even there, that someone else is occupying their body while they float away from the horror. 

That should not be a description of How To Cope With Preschool. 

Nor should the primary lesson of early childhood education be, "You can't really cut it as yourself. You'll need to be somebody else to get ahead in life." I cannot even begin to wrap my head around what a destructive message that is for a small child. 

The researchers minimize this effect as just role play. The kids, they say, simply imitated someone they thought had the qualities needed to deal with the task. And hey-- role play is fun. But it's appropriate that Duckworth is in this pack, because we are just talking about other ways to grow grit:

Perseverance can pave the pathway to success. The current research suggests that perseverance can be taught through role play, a skill that is accessible to even very young children.

No.  I mean, I'm not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I have to believe that the root of grit or perseverance is the certainty that whatever happens, you'll deal with it. When my high school students are anxious or afraid, it's because when they imagine what's coming, they don't imagine themselves being enough to deal with it. I can't imagine ever telling them, "Well, you probably aren't, but maybe you can pretend to be somebody else." Because the "you probably aren't" part drowns out everything else. The most useful message for them is "You can handle this. You will be okay."

With my high schoolers, we're talking about challenging schoolwork, but we're also talking about real-life challenges that the world has put in their way. In Preschool, it's different.

Let's be clear what the study is suggesting as a process for four year old tiny humans:

1) Set standards and goals that the students are not equipped to meet.

2) Tell the students that they arn't able to handle the challenge, so they'd better pretend to be someone else.

I am thinking the solution to all the problems here lies in Step 1. Encourage play? Absolutely. Require it? No. Let's give small children tasks to perform that are developmentally appropriate. Let's set them up for success, and not for failure. Then when they someday discover on their own that you should, in fact, always be Batman, it will be so that they can have some fun with their friends, and not so that they can survive in school.

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Posted by on in General

During the last week, Pat has shown a 6.3 rate of response in class, with a score of 75 on the Hendrix Orientation Scale. Informal assessment yield a 82 (well within the "moderate" range) for response accuracy. In a forty-minute period Pat showed a 45 for Attentiveness Measure, but Pat's interactions with peers score a 21 on Hemmings Interaction Index. However, that places Pat's Optimal Utilization Index Score well under the minimum desired level of 55. 

That's one report I could fill out for Imaginary Student Pat. Or I could say:

Pat has some trouble paying attention, but Pat can still answer questions if I call on Pat. Pat's not really distracting any of the other students, but it's pretty clear that Pat isn't trying and is still managing to do just enough to get by. Pat's a good kid; just kind of bored.

In fact, the first one is composed entirely of fake data measures, but you weren't sure, were you. It sounds more official than the second one. Because it's data, with numbers.

The thing is-- the second explanation is also packed with data. In fact, it's the same data, but expressed in human terms rather than in numbers and technobabble. Reform-resistant teachers are often accused of being anti-data, but the problem with much of the data we're offered by education technicians is that it is flat and meager compared to what we are used to gathering on a daily basis. To reduce and aspect of a student's behavior, performance or existence to a single digit on some manufactured scale means I must actually flatten or simplify the data I have, throwing out plenty that is valuable.

It's like coming up with a digital rating for a kiss. It can be done, but what I end up with will be far less descriptive, rich or thorough than a poem or a song or a description.

Data Overlords don't like verbal packages of data because they are "messy," but the only way to make them less messy is to throw a bunch of "extra" data out. The resulting digit score actually contains less data than the messy version-- and the mess that we've thrown out can be hugely important. We complain a lot about what the Data Overlords decide to focus on, but what they choose to ignore is at least as large a part of the problem.

But Big Data requires digital data so that it can be crunched and spread-sheeted and used for big picture centralized measuring and planning (someday we will have to talk about Seeing Like a State, a somewhat wonky but also brilliant book about this phenomenon). And in the process, Big Data has also usurped the anser to the question, "What data are important, and which can be safely ignored."

In fact, the shift to digital data is about a shift in audience-- schools are no longer expected to be accountable to local taxpayers and parents, but to some larger government or corporate entity. If I give Pat's parents that digital data report, their first question will be some version of "What does that mean in plain English." And then I'll give them the second explanation, which will have far more data in a far more useful context.

Do not buy the idea that teachers do not gather data. We have never done anything except gather data. What we haven't done is gather bad flattened data selected according to the instructions of functionaries who are far away from the intersection of the rubber and the road. And just because it's a digit, that doesn't mean it's good data-- in fact, it may be exactly the opposite.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

money and computer

We have seen the future, and we can't afford to live in it.

Altschool has just let out word that the tech-powered boutique of personalized education will become one more purveyor of off-the-rack computer-centered education-flavored product. There are many lessons underlined here-- I want to focus on the reminder of why, exactly, we can't have nice things.

Altschool's original vision was ambitious. Hire really good teachers. Keep class sizes small. Back up that teacher with a high-powered array of tech resources, allowing the teacher to perfectly track each student's progress in nearly-real time, then give that teacher unparalleled power to select a perfectly personalized set of materials for every single student. Keep a full IT department right on the site.

What do we dream of when we dream of True Personalized Education? Teacher-directed, with support from a powerful array of resources and facilities.

The problem is, this would be really, really expensive. Really expensive. You have to pay top dollar to lure those super-star teachers, then design your perfect educational ecosystem, then get top-of-the-line tech and hire IT people to keep it running, then buy up the resources needed to meet every possible individual student need or interest that might arrive. Ultimately you have several staff people hired for every single child. Expensive. Altschool was dropping something like $40 million a year.

You can't afford it. Hell, even the rich folks in Silicon Valley couldn't afford it.

So what happens? And how does the Personalized Education dream turn into the "personalized" education nightmare?

There are only a couple of ways to deal with the huge expense of a personalized boutique school.

One is to cut corners

To be prepared for any individual interest or need, really prepared, you'd need a library of tens of thousands of units, covering tens of thousands of content areas at dozens of different ability levels cross-filed by particular skill or knowledge sets involved. The library would be huge, and would need to be reviewed and updated every year. That would be expensive, and the software needed to search it for the material with just the right qualities for Pat or Chris would have to be pretty heavy duty as well.

So let's, you know, cut that library down to a couple hundred items. Let's just focus on the most common stuff, and if we find some students who aren't a perfect fit, well, if we've got materials that are Close Enough, that should do. And we can reduce some of this coursework to simple sequencing. Take the pre-test, and if you miss numbers 1 and 2, you get Drill Sheet A, and if you miss numbers 3 and 4, you get Drill Sheet B. Simple, easy to manage, fewer materials to store. Cheaper.

And getting the very best teachers to run the classroom-- well, that would be pricey, too. Let's just round up some teachers who are Good Enough. In fact, since really good teachers might start to question all the corners we've cut, let's just grab some warm bodies, train them in how to operate our system, and let it go at that. If we let the classroom be driven by the software system and not the teacher, then it's easier and cheaper to just fill in the meat widget job with a handy warm body.

But if I started this "personalized" program because I thought I could really make school awesome, why would I cut so many corners that I hurt the quality of the school.

Because I need investors

The other way to take care of the enormous amount of money I need is to get somebody to give me that money. And investors look at my classroom a little differently.

First of all, the corner cutting appeals to them hugely. To them, every dollar I spend on that classroom is one of their dollars. Do we really need three tech guys? Couldn't one handle everything by himself? Couldn't we scale back on the library of units that we're buying every quarter?

And having a highly-qualified and experienced super-teacher in each classroom-- that's great and all, but we can't really monetize that, can we? We can't sell it as a special secret. That proprietary software, on the other hand-- we could sell that to other schools and sell them the computers to run it on. And if we could streamline that whole software program and lesson library a little more, it would be easy to package as one-size-fits-all "personalization" for any classroom in the country. Because the more All our One Size fits, the bigger the potential market for this.

By all means, keep the Original Boutique School going-- when we bring people to see this or we show them videos or we send the master teachers out to talk about it, people will pee themselves with joy and fight to buy our off-the-rack version. We will make a mint.

But investors are not showing up to pump money into a Personalized School just so every schlubb's kid can actually attend there.

And asking those investors to work around a mountain of delicious, valuable student data and leave it alone is like asking someone to come to work every day and work at a desk that sits on a mountain of $100 bills without ever touching one. Theoretically possible, but sooner or later some investor is going to say, "You know, as long as the software is already working with all this student data anyway..." In fact, that's why some of the investors are going to show up in the first place.

This is how it works

This is how "personalized learning" ends up meaning two things-- actual personalized learning in which teachers lead a classroom armed with mighty tools and resources, and faux personalized learning where the classroom is software-directed, education is algorithmically-centered, and data is mined daily and promiscuously.

We cannot afford real Personalized Learning. Okay, if we can afford trillion dollar wars without end, we could afford real Personalized Learning. But as a country, we want education cheap (particular education for children who are not our own). So real Personalized Learning remains one of those things we know how to do, but we won't do it because we don't want to. So we'll cut corners and hustle for some ROI and just generally try to look like we're doing Personalized Learning when we're really doing something else entirely.

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