Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm Thankful

Today is a day we pause to consider those things for which we are thankful. I'm thankful I'm not a burden on my family or friends. I'm thankful for my good health. I'm thankful for my family and loved ones. Heather is a good woman, tolerant and supportive. I'm thankful to have a good job I like and a home that is safe and comfortable. I am so proud of my children and thankful for them.

I am not thankful for politicians, bankers, and greedy selfish people who are ruining the planet and a way of life that makes living in it difficult. I am not thankful for the condition of the world and for the plight of millions of people who are not helped or provided the basics to live a quality life.

I would be thankful if the people of the world were more thoughtful about others and about the way in which we treat each other and live.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Grades

What is the purpose of grades? For whom do we use grades? What do grades mean?

Grades are supposed to provide the teacher and the scholar with an accounting of what the scholar has achieved in the class. How this has been achieved is totally arbitrary and usually solely in the hands of the teacher. Sometimes the scholars has input, but usually. How a teacher arrives at a grade is voodoo as far as I'm concerned. Sure some rubrics may be involved or some other standard devised by the teacher. But generally speaking it is one way: teacher to scholar. So when a scholar asks, "What grade did you give me?" to the teacher, the scholar is correct, but the teacher invariably responds, "What grade did you earn?" The scholar is correct, it is the grade given by the teacher, whether earned or not. Grades can be rewards or punitive. Again I have seen them used in a punitive way and lower than deserved so the scholar has room to grow. Too often I have seen those incentive grades turn into discouraging grades.

Grades are used to help the teacher show the administration and colleagues something about their class. Do low grades show a tough teacher? Do high grades show a soft teacher? Some determine the quality of a teacher based on the grades that teacher gives. Listening to teachers speak about their grades is horrifying sometimes as they find ways to justify failing a scholar or even giving a lower grade than deserved to serve as incentive.

What grades mean is elusive to me. I do know that one thing they do is make the scholars react in a corresponding way to the grade. I don't really believe lower grades or failing grades inspire the scholar i a positive way. The affect of grades has a direct reaction on the scholars behavior and performance.

A number of years ago I read The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander, and Benjamin Zander. A chapter written by Benjamin spoke about a class of inspired and accomplished musicians was not really going well because the scholars would not experiment or take a chance because they were afraid of jeopardizing their GPA. So he decided to give all of his scholars an "A." Immediately he saw them experiment, take chances, and otherwise soar beyond their wildest dreams. This inspired me to try this with my "grade grubbing" scholars. I told them they would all be getting a 90 at the end of the semester. Only one scholar in in three classes of 30 students each did nothing. He paid for that mistake as hs academic career continued. For those scholars use to 90 did better as we negotiated for a higher grade. The key was in the other scholars and how those used to failing or "just" 70's did far better than they had expected. In all cases, but that one, the scholars rose above their level of expectation.

Recently a colleague spoke about how the scholars responded favorably to a computer generated grader of essays. She commented on how the grades may have been liberal. The positive aspect was how scholars who were not doing well responded and worked to raise their scores. She attributed it to the liberal minded scores to the scholars too used to low or failing grades. She was elated for them and finally made a connection. She converted. Another colleague was concerned about his "grade inflation." In a department of six members his grades were higher than theirs and there seemed to be some concern. What concern, I wondered. His scholars were working well, were improving, had good attendance, and were graduating at the end of the school year.

So the question is aren't we trying to show the scholars the path to success and to make success part of their culture, their life, their modus operandi? Of course it. So why fail them. Isn't their failure our failure in some way? yes, it is. I want my scholars to succeed and I have to help them understand that. One of my scholars remarked in her essay that the idea of being the 90 should transfer to the other parts of our life. Exactly!
Mr. Nellen believes that we all are capable of earning this "true 90". Let's prove that we can do it. Then we can use this attitude in all of our other classes to earn a 90 in those subjects. Eventually, ALL of us will have a "90" average. Hope we never give up on this "90"!!
So maybe you want to consider revising grade strategies to provide the scholars a more positive attitude.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How far have we come with Technology?

I've been engaged in a conversation with some colleagues about the use of technology in our schools. I argue we have not come very far since the 90's. I would even argue that we have lost ground. Some will argue the reason is that schools don't have the tech support they need to keep the machines operating. They add that schools don't have the funds to keep up with all the updates. Finally, that schools don't provide enough professional development.

I will accept that these may be valid reasons but they don't head the list of why we are not using technology in our schools effectively to prepare our scholars for the 21st Century. I would argue that technology lags behind all the other industries in America because of NCLB, the filters, and new teachers are not bringing it to their new classrooms with them as tools they have learned from college.

NCLB has rewritten education to be more quantitative. We now rely more on tests that provide us numbers and some schema provided by the test maker that gives us some gobbledygook about the student based on numbers. The test is not provided to the teacher nor is it created in collaboration with the teacher. Teachers don't see the answer key nor the scholar's test. All the teachers get is some confusing form that needs translation and tells us very little. We have heard about how schools have canceled recess for more test prep time. We have heard about how some schools have canceled the arts like music and art for more test prep time. We have heard how more and more students are being kept back because schools fear those scholars will bring down the school average. We are sacrificing our scholars for a school's reputation. Are they aware of the damage holding a student back at such a young age is? Of course not or they don't care. Administrators in schools are knowingly doing the wrong thing to keep their jobs and that is quite frankly immoral and unethical. These tests have taken precedence over the more wholesome ways of teaching based on research from the likes of Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, and many others. There is no research informing us that the tests are beneficial to learning. Politicians have ignored the research to line the pockets of their friends the test makers. We all have stories that could be told about the negative effects of NCLB on education. Few of us can speak to the positive effects. So why do we still have it? Why do politicians like Teddy Kennedy and George W Bush praise NCLB. Because it lines their pockets.

Another reason technology has not progressed too far is that the filters imposed on public schools filters out more good than bad. Teachers are unable to get to many worthy websites because someone, not associated with the school has deemed them unworthy. Who are these keepers of the filters? What irks me is that the scholars have access to proxies that let them bypass the school's filter and get to the normally blocked sites. I have heard it said by those maintaining the filters that if teachers let them know which sites to unblock, they could have access. Some of those hoops are harder to jump through than imagined. Now if a teacher were to use one of the proxies to access a blocked site, that teacher would probably be taken out of the classroom. The result is that teachers don't have access to many of the neat social networking tools the scholars may be using and to introduce them to other very worthy sites. It isn't surprising we are so far behind the rest of the world in educational terms and in other ways. Employers also suffer because our scholars are not learning the skills of the 21st Century to function in the 21st Century as productive citizens. They are learning about these technology tools outside of school and the result is self evident. Could our current financial problems be blamed on our lack of technology use in schools? It sure can be, especially since so many jobs have been taken overseas to more qualified workers. Business is clamoring for better workers and we give them great test takers and unqualified workers. We are shooting ourselves in the foot because of the filter.

Finally, a third major factor that speaks to our lack of effective technology use in schools is that our schools of education are not training our future teachers how to use these tools as teachers. They may use them as students, but that does not teach them how to use them as teachers. I have heard that these new teachers are spending lots of time learning about theory. Fine, but how about their practice. Are they creating webpages for their scholars? Are they creating Blogs for the classes they teach? Are they creating a Moodle for their class? No is the resounding sad response. Theory and practice must work together.

We have fallen into the trap that all technology finds itself, a glorified toy, an expensive useless toy taking up space in our schools. In fact the technology has become a pariah. Teachers have told me they won't use the technology because the students spend more time on the wrong sites than do their work. It is about knowing how to teach in a computer lab that we don't learn in a college or on the job. As I have said before we teach the way we were taught.

Take a look around. How much technology do you have in your school? How is it being used? Does it work? How many teachers use technology in your school in their classes? Is their use innovative and more than a gloried blackboard? How has technology grown or not grown in your school since 1990? 2000? Take your own survey and I believe much of what I say will be borne out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Choice

I have been discussing the concept of "choice" with my scholars. They are making choices everyday. Making good choices has not always been one of their strengths. They all understood that some choices they made in the recent past got them to our school. We are not a school choice option in the scheme of choosing high schools in NYC. We are a transfer school, a last chance school. Some choices have landed them in jail or pregnant or homeless. They know about bad choices at an early age. Unfortunately, some choices end in death, as my daughter experienced yesterday at her school. We have already lost two students this year. So when I do this lesson on choice, they bring too much prior knowledge to the table. Now we are concerned with developing good choices.


I use a short story and a poem to wrestle with the concept of choice in class. The short story is "Dead End" by Rudolfo Anaya. The poem is Robert Frost's 1916 classic, "The Road Not Taken." The short story lesson involves a student in high school who has to make a number of choices involving sex, drugs, and school work. In addition, the student makes a promise to a mother who recently died. These are common choices for all of us, not just my scholars. They like the story, they write well about Maria, the student who has to make choices in "Dead End." As many of my scholars point out, knowing what the right choice is and acting on it are two different things. We know smoking is bad and yet we see lots of people smoking. We know what the right choice is, yet we make the wrong one too often.

As we prepared to study the poem, I started with a graphic organizer project to have the scholars create a visual representation of "choice." We got stuff like "going to school," going to work," "having a baby," "selling drugs." The concept was solid, so we were ready for the poem lesson. I started with a Wordle representation of the poem. Wordle accepts text and converts it into a visual representation highlighting the key words and providing a picture of the text. We use that to understand some of the key words before we even hear the poem.


Once we discussed the key words,"diverged" was major and key to our understanding as we then listened to a rendition of Frost reading his poem, followed by two volunteers from LibriVox. The scholars had some questions they needed to address as they listened to the poem read four times. Finally, I showed them the poem and I read it one more time before they began their writing assignment about choice as understood from the short story, the poem, and their own life.

They all chose to do the assignment. I'm glad I chose to do this assignment and to speak about choice with the scholars as we are at a crucial juncture of their academic career. They have chosen to be here and to complete high school. We all know how hard that choice has been to keep. They expressed that making the right choice in the beginning is easier than not making the right choice and having to suffer the consequences of the bad choices or wasting time from time lost when a bad choice is made. lesson learned the hard way in some cases. These scholars are the survivors.

Hoping your choices are all good ones.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Proud Papa

I spoke about the history of teachers in my family awhile ago. Parents are their children's greatest advocates and supporters. So when someone else speaks well of our children, we parents beam brightly.


My second child, Caitlin, who teaches history at the NYC public school, Validus Prep Academy in the Bronx, conducted a mock election at her school. The mock election was covered by MSNBC and in the UFT's newspaper New York Teacher. Caitlin is in her second year of teaching and has worked very hard. She wakes up very early and commutes almost two hours by public transportation to get to work. She spent the summer preparing with her colleagues by going on a school sponsored professional development retreat. She doesn't seem to be exhibiting a sophomore slump. What amazes me the most is how well she put this whole project together in her school with her colleagues and only in her second year.

Parents often brag about their children, but when someone else does it, we are affirmed. Thank you Caitlin.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Living Documents

The scholars are creating living documents when they create webpages, revisit them, and edit them. Unlike the days of paper or notebooks on which authors/scholars wrote, the webpages they create rarely leave a paper trail, unless the user does something to make this happen. The user could archive hir work on a regular basis, like at the end of every month. By doing this each scholar would be recording a record of hir work over a period of time. This becomes an excellent way a school could document the progress of each scholar. The problem with webpages is that the current page has overwritten the old one and a record of the old one might not exist, except through the WayBack machine. That is not always reliable, archived on a regular basis, or guarenteed to be archived. In order for the scholar's webpages to be used for usable documentation of the scholar's work, a procedure for archiving the work on a monthly basis should be instituted.

One way I have done it was when I maintained my own server. At the end of each month, the scholars would create a new directory like 103108 to represent Oct 31, 2008. They would then copy the contents of their working directory into the new directory. Then at the end of November we would do it again and continue this process to the end of the year. We would have a monthly record or benchmark of each scholar's work throughout the year. This became a good tool to use in assessment and in evaluating what the scholar did and plan next steps.

Schools could institute this quite easily if the school has a central server and each scholar has an account. The contents of their folders could be archived on a monthly basis and then used at those crucial times when assessment was done, at conferences , and in end of year portfolio sessions. Having documents that represent the academic progress of each scholar would provide great fodder for those of us arguing for some, maybe 50% of scholar's assessment be done via a portfolio, while the other 50% be done by those tests we now give that represent 100% of a scholar's achievement.

I know I learn nothing from those tests the scholars take. They don't inform my instruction since all I get as a result is some number that needs translation and explanation. I still don't learn any specific needs of the scholar that informs her education. On the other hand, by looking at a scholar's webpage, I learn a great deal about that student and learn what hir specific needs are and what hir strengths are.

Our scholars are in need of better assessment tools then those currently being used as prescribed by NCLB. Yes, we need to assess our scholars, but why do we have to use these tests that do not provide the necessary information teachers need in the classroom for their scholars. When we have documents to observe, we have better tools for assessment. The reason I love the webpage so much is that the work is public, available to the scholar, the teacher, the parents, the administration anytime, anywhere for assessment of the scholar and of the class. These living documents become useful for the next teachers, for employers, for college admissions, and for the scholar hirself.

This is how we should be assessing our scholars, not with tests made by for profit companies, graded by them and then destroyed. I am not happy with the current state of affairs as created by NCLB. The idea may be worthy, but its execution is horrendous and useless. It has dumbed down education in America. I hope we see some serious revision in the educational practices in America in the next four years and that it involves technology in a huge way. That is the most important change we have to see.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Friday, November 7, 2008

Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves

Congratulations, Senator Obama. Your victory sends a very clear message to the children of America, about the future of each and every American child. Every child knows s/he can grow up and be whatever s/he wants to be. Thank you. You have many problems to solve and much to do. Education is of course an important issue as so many of your other plans depend on the education and capabilities of the American people, You have our support and have been given a clear mandate to change what is broken and education is broken.

During the campaign, the Senator said:
"Business leaders are intensifying their call for schools to retool their curriculum. A new report makes a strong economic case for why students must learn key 21st-century skills. And Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has highlighted an education plan that addresses the need to meet rising global challenges."

"While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives--from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health--one of the places where we've failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom," he said in a speech earlier this year. He has proposed creating a $500 million matching Technology Investment Fund that would build on existing federal ed-tech programs to help ensure that technology is fully integrated throughout U.S. schools. "
These are just two of the many quotes made by President elect Obama about education and technology education in particular during his campaign. Great ideas. Business is always clamoring for better workers. In the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, we heard lots of noise about preparing our students to be 21st Century savvy. We haven't done it. In fact technology use in schools has waned from those early halcyon days of computing. The government got involved and we all know what happens, then. Things come to a screeching halt and even regress as technology use in schools has. We are in the 21st Century and no one in government has a clue about education let alone using technology in education for the 21st Century.

The main problem and stumbling block to realizing these ideas is that we do not have leaders who understand how technology works in education. If we did, we would be using technology beautifully right now. We don't and obviously they don't have a clue, because technology is not being used well in our schools. Just the other day a teacher brought a high school class into the lab to create a document using a popular software. He was amazed at how little they knew about this program and couldn't complete the project because they couldn't use one of the most basic and simplest of software. Yet these very students are brilliant with MySpace, facebook, and finding those sneaker sites on the Internet. Schools have not learned how to teach students to use the tools of the technology that will advance them in the world because they have been weighed down with silly and useless programs that are bereft of technology. Children today are preparing for tests not in using technology correctly for better learning.

Technology is just one more toy added to the many technologies in schools that have been used badly and have become toys. We have not had proper or correct leadership from the government or from schools of education on the correct use of technology in our schools. At issue is that we are looking at the use of technology from our own perspective. That means we are relying on looking at education through a lens of how we were taught and that won't work. The teachers in this country who use technology well, were not students in a technology class when they were young. They thought outside the box, shed the trappings of technophobia, and discovered a way to make technology useful and helpful in the education of our 21st Century scholars. We need people with the vision to use the technology in the first place to be present when officials begin to figure out how to use technology effectively. Otherwise these new officials will simply be spinning their wheels and trying to reinvent something that already exists without success because they will be using the wrong caliper. The problem is they wouldn't recognize a successful technology program if it bit them on the thumb.

I would suggest that this Internet savvy president do some searching on his own and see who exactly is doing anything productively in their classrooms with technology. I am amazed still when I read articles like Richardson's and even those in educational journals about how ignorant everyone is about successful use of technology in schools. The reason for this ignorance is that they are still using assessment tools of the past and non technology ways to teach to assess teaching with technology. We have a wrong criteria and maybe we should think of apples and oranges. Pre technology teaching would be the apples, while the new way of using technology is the oranges. We can't compare apples and oranges. If change is going to happen we must change the way we assess education, we must change the way we use technology, and maybe we should change schools and let technology be free to let teachers who understand technology show us. If we want change, people should accept that technology is here and we should learn how to use it correctly.

Free my technology now. Many of the other Bloggers linked from here, know how to use technology and they have links on their blogs and webpages to other teachers who know how to use technology. Social networking, something that is blocked in schools. Yet these are not the people being asked or looked at to help change education. I still see and hear the old guard, who never got technology then and certainly don't get it now, giving advice. Education still ain't of the people, for the people, by the people. Sorry Professors Dewey and Freire.

Education is the last place change occurs. Consider that a teacher from the 1890's could walk into most schools today and teach. No other profession can say that about someone from the 1890's walking into their profession and functioning. We are stuck in this quicksand because politicians, not pedagogues, are making educational decisions. It is similar to accountants making medical decisions. So I HOPE we have CHANGE that I can believe in. Get the pedagogues involved in the conversations, Mr President.

Now President Obama is the time to show us, to roll up the ole sleeves and to get busy, and please stop telling me. We are well aware of what you say you will do, the future of which you have so eloquently spoken about is here, it is called the present. The time for talk is over cause now is the time for that action about which you have spoken. Please show me, show us. We are hungry for a change, we voted. Are you up to it? Can you deliver? I hope so. We all hope so. Good luck and keep education in the forefront of all change and it will happen. Change always starts with education.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Social Networking Deferred

I am enjoying a piece by Will Richardson in the November Educational Leadership called "Footprints in the Digital Age." I am enjoying it because he is writing about a situation that should most certainly be occurring. I am enjoying it because I agree, then I wake up and smell the coffee. He is speaking correctly about how the children are using the web 2.0 tools to connect with their friends and the world. They are using blogs, wikis, youtube, my space, facebook, flickr, and so many more web 2.0 tools. Then I suddenly came out of my haze and asked, "Where is this happening, Will"? At home where children either have geeky parents or have access and are figuring it out themselves. Once again children are learning about something on their own, from friends, or from a small handful of knowledgeable parents who are even allowed in to help children on computers. Let me ask how many of us learned about sex from our parents? I think the same can be said for computing. The children,, as Richardson and others point out are learning about computing out of school and not under the supervision of adults. Thus the concern Richardson raises early in the article about controlling how we are "Googled." I like his metaphor of the bus. The children are in the front on this technology bus, while the adults are in the back holding on for dear life. I agree that we need to have some kind of supervision in an educational environment for their safety and learning how to use these tools correctly. Problem is that

So much about what Richardson says is inspiring and yet as a teacher in a public school in NYC, I find what he suggests we do with web 2.0 tools impossible because of the filters. When I try to access a fantastic YouTube video, I can't because of the filter. So I have to take the URL submit it to Zamzar and have it convert to a file I can read in class. Time delay. One of the benefits of the Internet in my early days of usage was that filters didn't exist, so anytime, anywhere education worked then, but not today, because of the filter. Laura is very lucky to be learning with her mother's guidance. I think that is rare, very very rare. Children are not being guided by their parents, let alone from their teachers in their schools.

As I reread Richardson's article, I realized he was unaware of the filter or not familiar with public schools or lives in a very privileged community. Whenever a teacher in a NYC school tries to access, let alone use a web 2.0 tool, the teacher is greeted with a page declaring this page is not allowed in a NYC school. Other pages, like Facebook, are considered "social networking" and are constantly blocked. Now one might suggest the teacher get these pages unblocked. The procedure in NYC is cumbersome and difficult which means teachers rarely do it. Also once a page has been unblocked, it could get blocked soon as the blocked pages is reloaded.

In school, I find the children use proxies obtained from nefarious sites to get to their my space and facebook pages. Teachers can't use these proxies otherwise the teacher would be looking for a new job. I have always agreed with what Richardson writes about. My problem is the folks who oversee our filters and control our Internet access do not understand what Richardson writes let alone agree with it.

There are many teachers I know who have been well aware of the power of technology, have tried to employ the technology, only to find their efforts thwarted by filters and poor administration. Technology needs to be unharnessed to be effective in schools. It must be allowed to run with the guidance of experienced teachers, trusted pedagogues. Again when the authorities assess schools they continue to use tools that we used when they were students. We can't continue to teach and assess the way we were taught. I have been teaching in a computer room since 1983. I was never taught with this kind of technology in my classes when I was a student in the 50's and 60's. Empowering the scholars is what CyberEnglish is all about. Those of us who utilize the tenets of CyberEnglish agree wholeheartedly with Richardson. Our only caveat would be the reality of the state of technology in our schools today is not near what Richardson speaks about. Of course, I concur with what he has said. I don't know anyone who would disagree. Where is this happening? Since the article was published in a magazine for school administrators, I would love to know how we get this kind of access in our schools? Richardson's examples seemed to be out of school, not in a school, so how is this going to help us? Are we still trying to inspire administrators to the use of technology in classrooms, when they themselves are bereft of real pedagogical knowledge of the use of technology in the classrooms, let alone web 2.0 tools. I'd like them to name a couple of web 2.0 tools. As I said, I have been enjoying this article, thanks.

PS: I have been spending the last month negotiating with Rosetta Stone and our own technology department to get the online program, Rosetta Stone to work in my classroom. We can't get the update to download because of the filters and the tech folks at the NYCDOE and at Rosetta Stone haven't been able to solve the problem. I'm talking about a very powerful educational tool unable to get into the classrooms because of a filter and yet my students can get to their myspace and facebook pages.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Whew

Finally. The day
before the last wakeup of
08 Elections.