Education

Education

Back to School Night: Common Core, Ghosts and Seizing the Day

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the ghosts from his past as he taught rhetoric and quality before his nervous breakdown. In Dead Poet’s Society, the character of John Keating played by Robin Williams, invoked the ghosts of former students, urging his students to “seize the day”.

Last night, I walked the halls of Amity Middle School in Bethany, accompanied by these ghosts and others. My wife was a student at this school over three decades ago. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates was one of my wife’s classmate those many years ago. Did they imagine, back then, that their children would be classmates, carry small devices like the communicators from Star Trek and have access to machines that could print out three dimensional objects? What were their dreams, what were the dreams their teachers and parents had for them back when they walked these halls.

Back to School night started similar to the school day. The principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeakers. We all stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, bringing recollections of the ghosts of those who fought for our freedom. There was a moment of silence, thirteen years after 9/11 as we recalled our friends and neighbors who died in that attack.

Then, it was off to meet the different teachers. There were a few themes that emerged, the total point system was repeated over and over again. There were frequent mentions of the Common Core, and at least to me, it seemed, there was too little focus on the actual curriculum and acknowledgement of the ghosts.

The first class I sent to was World Geography and Culture. There was a good syllabus presented and a discussion about the focus on argument and debate. Fiona, like her parents, loves debate and I’m excited for this class. I did wonder about how much the students will be encouraged to question the assumptions they have about culture based on the culture they’ve grown up in.

The second class was Spanish. I believe both Fiona’s mother and uncle had Mrs. Young for world language classes when they were students.

This was followed by English. I am sure that this will be a fine class and that the teacher will inspire the students, but I have concerns. The teacher will be managing the class using a “behavior management plan” based on corporate structure. I’ve already written to the teacher expressing concern. I am not convinced that CEOs are the best role models for proper behavior. Nor do I believe that they are the best exemplars of the use of the English language.

She spoke about finding examples of good writing to emulate, of “mentor texts”, and my mind went to e.e.cummings, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Somehow I suspect that may not be the sort of texts they’ll focus on. She mentioned that because of the Common Core, the readings would be based more on the skills being taught than on the titles of famous books. I have mixed feelings about this. Skills are important, but so is being literate in certain classics. I hope Fiona will end up reading Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, A Separate Peace, and other great books that illustrate something more important about language than just skills.

The essay, 'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. comes to mind:

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

For those who miss the reference, this is a section of the text book that Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society urges his students to rip out.

That said, I remain hopeful for the class and the work they will do. Perhaps the students can form a union to deal with the corporate structure. Perhaps some can even participate in the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. I think everyone should try to write their first novel by the time they complete middle school.

There was a nod to integrated curricula connecting the English class with the social studies class. I was glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of integrated curricula.

The next class was science. The teacher highlighted the classroom and the lab equipment. My daughter wrote that she thought I would like the science teacher, and I do. They will be studying lab safety, metrics, the scientific method, earth movements, meteorology and astronomy. I wondered if AMSB had a weather station connected to Weather Underground. It doesn’t appear as if they do. I figure I’ll have to dig out my ten inch Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope soon. I wonder how much they will get into issues of climate change or the effect of fracking on earth movements. I also wonder to what extent the science curriculum can be connected to the social studies curriculum.

The following class was tech. The teacher recognized me because of my Google Glass and we talked about 3D printing. My daughter is pretty excited about this class as well. As the teacher lauded the school district. We do have a great school district with wonderful facilities, great teachers, all contributing to the success of the students. Yet I remember hearing former New York City school Chancellor Joel Klein talking about equality in education. He spoke about how if the school system is working properly parents should be happy with whatever school their children end up at knowing that they all have the same level of excellence. I thought about students at under performing schools in Connecticut and remembered a great quote attributed to Virginia Woolf, “There is only one thing wrong with privilege, it’s that not everyone has it.”

For the final period, my daughter wrote Phys-Ed/Choir and listed the teachers and rooms for each. I suspect that Fiona, like me, prefers choir over physical education, so I went to the choir room. No one else showed up. Since we were supposed to be following the A schedule, I should have gone to physical education. My daughter had made a similar mistake at one point, missing technology and going to choir instead. Yet it provided one of the best chances to spend time talking with a teacher.

We talked about folk music festivals, expanding musical horizons, and the role of the arts in STEM oriented systems. My middle daughter, with her masters in community arts education always points out that it really should be STEAM, with the A standing for Arts. Without the creativity of the arts, the inventions of STEM projects are too likely to be lifeless and soulless.

There wasn’t any discussion of integrated curricula here, but it would be great if choir expanded the musical horizons of the students to include cultures being studied in social studies.

Like the students, when the classes were over, the parents found time to speak with their friends before heading home. As I drove home, I thought about the Common Core, various ghosts, and seizing the day.

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.

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