Education

Education

Ovals

It had been a nearly picture perfect June day. The weather had been warm, but not unbearably so, and as the sun approached the distant horizon, the temperature began to drop. Young children rolled in the grass in front of the outdoor stage as their older siblings sang or played their instruments. It was the school’s end of year concert.

As the orchestra played Handel’s water music, I remembered summer days on the lawn at Tanglewood. They were rare, but special events when the family would gather to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We would have a picnic lunch on the grass, and I would roll in the grass like the young kids sitting in front of me. I still carry fond memories of those days and the love of music they helped engender.

I looked around at many friends sitting on the hill. We had seen our children grow here, and learn so much. This would be my last elementary school concert as a parent of one of the young performers. I sought to soak it all in. My mother would devotedly show up at all my performance as a child and perhaps was looking down here from heaven. My father, always seemed to be occupied with other things and would rarely show up. Now, he’s occupied in a senior living complex.

My wife’s mother died before I met her, and may well have been sitting next to my mother. My wife’s father remarried, and Papa and Nana would have been at the concert if it wasn’t for something of graver concern.

At the end of the concert, it was announced that various groups had won high acclaim in their adjudication. I commented to my daughter that this acclaim, at least in my reckoning, was of much greater value to me than CMT or SBAC scores. The ability to read small ovals with stems rising from them is far more important the ability to select the right ovals to fill in on standardized tests. People come to believe that filling in the right oval is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

In the next town, adults were filling in little ovals indicating that they supported or opposed the proposed town budget. Such votes are important, but they aren’t a real accomplishment. No one wants taxes to go up or services to go down. The real accomplishment is getting into the thick of it and hammering out specific instances where a town should increase or decrease its spending.

When the concert ended, parents struggled to round up their children and get them home to dinner, baths and bedtime. Meanwhile, in a nearby hospital, a Vietnam Veteran, who had struggled and suffered so much both during the war, and perhaps more significantly afterwards rested in his bed. Family was gathered around him as they talked quietly about his prospects and waited.

Reimagining

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. Another month rolls down the hill like a Sisyphean bolder and a new month begins. What will this month bring? Last month, my 2014 campaign for State Representative began. What kind of impact can I have this time? I went to an event to reimagine the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I’ve shared my reactions and wonder what sort of impact that will have. Meanwhile, I try to balance work and home.

As I try to pull together thoughts on reimaging both politics and religion in the twenty-first century, I keep in mind what a luxury that is. For too many, it is too much to just get by from day to day. How do we encourage those who are too exhausted from the daily grind to be more engaged in politics or religion?

For me, my relaxation often comes from trying to gain new perspectives, particularly through the arts. I’m trying to determine what my literary diet for the coming months will be. Should I dive back into poetry? From Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni to Billy Collins and Denise Levertov? Should I reread some Thomas Merton or perhaps the writings of some Great Awakening preacher?

How do I relate all of this to what I read on Facebook? I’ve been thinking of trying to post something upbeat each day, whether it be a picture of a flower, a great quote, or an inspiring article. I’ve been trying to highlight things going on around me where regular people make a difference. I’ve been avoiding jumping into many of the discussions where seem to be venting with no real solutions.

Saturday, someone posted a link to Download a Free Copy of Danah Boyd’s Book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. This led me to explore the Open Culture website for a while, and ultimately end up checking out their list of films by Andrei Tarkovsky that are online.

I ended up watching Ivan’s Childhood. One person describe the film this way:

First Film by the prophet of modern cinema Andrei Tarkovsky
While Sergei Eisenstein literally wrote the grammar of cinema by inventing Montage, Tarkovsky found the true calling of cinema with his exposition of long shot where the roving camera wanders examining stuff and through its eyes reach into the heart and soul of the protagonist. Through him film became what it was meant to be, the purveyor of dreams. All other developments in cinema are borrowed from other visual and literary developments.

The film is set on the front lines of World War II and traces the experiences of a child, Ivan. It is the sort of film to make you think, especially about the lives of people very different those of us living comfortably in the twenty-first century.

So, let’s see where the boulder rolls this month.

Life is Messy – Rethinking Educational Reform – Part 2, Triggers

This was written a few days ago, but I never got a chance to really go over it. I've been pretty busy, so I'll put this up now, as is. More soon...

This weekend, I came across three distinct and interesting articles that, perhaps, should be considered in light of one another. The Hartford Courant ran the article, Top Nominees Announced For Ct High School Musical Theater Awards. I was very interested in the production of two of these shows. Amity Regional High School, in my hometown, produced “In The Heights” (See Lamentations and The Heights). It was a great production, as productions at Amity usually are. It received several nominations, as did “Rent”, produced by Trumbull High School. The Trumbull production of Rent, almost didn’t happen and I wrote about it a couple times: Trumbull for Rent and World AIDS Day and Learning About Bullying - Trumbull RENT. I was glad to see both production receive nominations.

Also this weekend, the New York Times ran an article, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm. Should students be forewarned about content in works they are assigned to read that might make them uncomfortable, or might trigger PTSD? To me, these two stories are related. How should have Trumbull High School dealt with the difficult issues that Rent brings up? Cancelling the show? Using some sort of Trigger Warnings? Some other approach?

I recognize the need for trigger warnings in certain cases, just as I recognize the need for warnings about peanuts for those with peanut allergies. For some people, these warning can be a matter of life and death. For others, they can be just an annoyance. I had the good fortunate to go to a small liberal arts college where the professors knew each of the students in their classes. In such a situation, I would expect the professor to be able to deal individually with students as necessary and to make wise decisions about warning students that needed to be warned. However, in large universities where there might be hundreds of students in a class, I can see where some sort of trigger warning might be needed.

Yet even in situations like this, it would seem that the trigger warning could be an educational tool. Prior to reading a text, a discussion about the difficult topics would seem beneficial. “This week, we will be reading The Great Gatsby, a masterpiece of American literature. The story depicts misogynistic violence, a problem that society still faces today…” and from their get into a discussion about misogyny in the twentieth and twenty first century.

Life is Messy – Rethinking Educational Reform - Part 1, SBAC

This weekend, I’ve been thinking a bit about educational reform and have stumbled across several different interesting discussion. It started off when a discussion about the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, tests which have recently been administered at our schools.

A board of education member was fiercely defending the SBAC tests. She believed that the concerns with the tests were overblown and that the tests were properly administered. I opted my daughter out of the SBAC tests for many reasons and the feedback I’ve received about the tests do not square with the board members assessment.

The board member did admit that there were some difficulties, but there are always difficulties with any changes, and we eventually need to test changes in the real world. Setting aside the issue of whether or not there is real benefit to the changes that SBAC brings, I question whether there was sufficient testing prior to using the SBAC tests, and, perhaps more importantly, whether using the tests on students was wise, or perhaps even, ethical.

Having worked with computers for years, I recognize the importance of different aspects of testing, moving from unit testing to systems testing and integration testing. To put it into more contemporary terms, when do you move a system out of beta? Were the SBAC tests really ready to be moved out of beta? Where they properly tested? It does not seem so, from my perspective.

Yet there is a bigger question, about the efficacy and ethics of the testing. Thinking in terms of the scientific method, what was the hypothesis being tested? How will this test of the SBACs help prove or disprove the hypothesis? I have not heard this properly addressed. Working in health care, I constantly hear people talking about the importance of double blind tests. The SBAC tests were very far from this standard of testing. In fact, students were told that the tests wouldn’t make a difference, it was just a test to see how well the test works. As a result, I’ve heard many stories of students making up silly answers on the tests, something that wouldn’t happen if it were a real test that mattered.

I don’t know how much this really happened, and how much these are the sort of stories middle school students like to tell, but it does raise serious questions about the validity of SBAC experiment.

Yet this takes me to a bigger issue. In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram ran a series of experiments measuring people’s willingness to follow orders, even if it could cause harm or death to others. In the experiments, the subjects were told to give shocks to students who failed to properly answer certain questions.

Many have questioned the ethics of these experiments and the Milgram experiments are regularly brought up in discussions about institutional review boards, or IRBs.

As I thought about the discussion with the board of education member, I had to wonder, are SBAC tests being administered in a way that would be approved by an IRB? Are risks to the subjects, or children in schools, minimized? Do the benefits of moving towards SBAC tests outweigh the risks to students? Are students, and their parents, adequately informed and asked to consent in ways that are free from coercion or undue influences? What measures are being taken to protect vulnerable populations?

There is a role for testing students in our educational system. Yet these tests need to be well thought out and administered in a fair way that benefits our students. In my mind, the SBAC tests fails this.

The Social Constructed Digital Native

One of the sessions at Podcamp Western Mass a few weeks ago was about social media and education. It was an open discussion hitting a lot of different points, and I found myself approaching it from a contrarian viewpoint that ultimately led me to start considering the idea of the socially constructed digital native.

One of the first people to speak was a college student, who was studying social media, and was frustrated that the courses focused on technical basics of using one social media platform or another, without getting into more important topics like search engine optimization. There was a discussion about how much social media is changing and how some of the social media tools that were discussed may not last more than a couple more years.

Personally, while I recognize some value of search engine optimization, I tend to view much of it as snake oil. I suggested that what is really needed is focusing on skills like understanding the audience and storytelling, because these skills matter, no matter what media is being used.

Others talked about cyber safety issues for kids or social skills like making eye contact, or giving someone your undivided attention. I trotted out Marc Prensky’s idea of the digital native and the digital immigrant and pushed the concept a little further. How much of the ideas that people were talking about were ideas from digital immigrants and how digital natives should live in a digital world?

Are kids without access to social media today viewed the way kids without television were viewed and treated forty years ago? Do we, or should we, value continuous partial attention? How much are these expectations socially constructed? And to the extent that they are socially constructed, how much are digital immigrants trying to maintain old world, analog ways of interacting in a digital world? How much are digital immigrants trying to get their digital native kids to behave as if they still live in the old analog world?

This is not to say that there isn’t value in certain old ways of interacting. The value of understanding your audience remains, whether it is a digital native audience, a digital immigrant audience, or some mixture.

Yet, perhaps, as we talk with people about how to behave digitally, we should take the opportunity to question which actions are really beneficial, as opposed to which actions are done, because that is the way things were always done in the old analog world. Perhaps, instead of prescribing behavior, we should be teaching students how to understand social constructs, and generate new, more pertinent social constructs that can evolve with our evolving technology.

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