21 December 2012

a brief twitter conversation on our testing culture...

On a Thursday night a mathematics teacher from around Vancouver was looking for sympathy on Twitter...
She said: What do you do when a student skips a math test and the parent thinks YOU are unreasonable expecting them to have been there? #bced #mathed

I looked at this, and thought a few things. I thought about the entire idea of the classroom test. I thought about a teacher picking a fight with both students and parents in the week before Christmas. And I thought about the amazing amount of potential educational time "we" in schools waste on fighting battles over compliance which do absolutely nothing to help kids either learn a subject, a skill, or learn to be successful adults.
from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
So, I jumped in... and away we went...
Me: does the student know the maths in question? #bced #mathed
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  the formative assessment says they know some....
Me: then, is the test important? What will it show?
British Columbia Maths Teacher:  it is summative assessment. It will show what they can do.
Me: ok, but can't she do the same thing lots of ways? Is the test format of some special value?
British Columbia Maths Teacher: yes. It is their opportunity to show me what they can do.
Me: ok, I've just never understood either the classroom test or why it would need to happen at any specific moment... I think teachers have a million ways to gather information about where their students are. And should do it continuously
British Columbia Maths Teacher: [to another in the twitter conversation] the policy is a zero [My thought, a “Zero” as a student score is actually at “minus 65,” a cruel and bizarre rating for anyone to receive]. But this entitlement to my time is frustrating. We have two weeks of holiday. I don’t work tomorrow.
British Columbia Maths Teacher: ok you sound like the father. You aren’t helping, sorry.
Me: sorry, its what I tell all the teachers I work with, around the world
British Columbia Maths Teacher: I’m sure they love that message.
Me: we are pushing back against the testing culture at every level, which creates schools which are better for kids … so we say we don't rank either students or teachers by these test scores
British Columbia Maths Teacher: we spend hours creating fair assessment for this purpose. This one took me 4 hours.
Me: tests are never equitable assessments. They create big problems for some kids
British Columbia Maths Teacher: lol now I know you have no idea. Thanks, but you don’t get it.
Me: think of all the time and energy you wasted, making the test, giving it, now fighting about it. You could have been teaching
British Columbia Maths Teacher: have a great evening. You are right, my time is important. 

from, F in Exams by Richard Benson
Then, she blocked me

I did suggest: good night, sorry you're not open to doubting your practice. Maybe some day

Perhaps I was harsh, she went onto Twitter about this not to look for a solution, not for professional development purposes, but simply to whine and find people who would tell her she was right. I didn't do that, and neither did some others, and she got frustrated and angry. That's ok. That, perhaps, is the exact same reaction she is getting from at least one of her students - as this teacher blocked me to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about her skills, so this student might have skipped this "summative assessment" for the same reasons.

But, I do ask teachers all the time, "why?" Why is this form of assessment important? Why is this assignment, project, book, test, chair, schedule, good for this student, or what this student needs? And I also ask, "is this worth the time you are investing in it?" How much of your day do you want to devote to law enforcement, or conflict, or teaching a particular form of etiquette? Are their better ways for you, and your students, to use your time?

And I often think about something an Albemarle County (Virginia) middle school teacher said to me one night, as we left a bar during a conference in Williamsburg: "I don't know how you can do this job," he said, "unless you have angst every day about the job you are doing?"

Anyway, that abusive "testing culture" we complain about in the United States, in Britain, in Canada, in Australia, in Irish secondary schools... does it really start with government bureaucrats like Arne Duncan and Michael Gove or with corporate thieves like Pearson? Or does it start with the practices we too often allow to exist in our classrooms?

- Ira Socol

17 December 2012

when voices are lost...

"It's a problem that can be solved with more caring. I don't think it's a problem that can be solved with more security." - Bill Bond - school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals
What links the events Friday in Newtown, Connecticut to my opposition to the "Common Core"?

It is that question of Democracy of Voice.

Democracy of Voice means giving every kid a chance to be heard, not heard as "you" or "we" or "society" or those who write expectations about fifth grade essays want them to be heard, but heard as themselves, for who they are, for what they need to say.

It is that right to an authentic voice, in whatever form that voice must take shape, which makes children safe. Honestly, that is the keystone of anyone being safe, for if you cannot be heard and understood, you cannot be safe.

Sadly, not every child has a voice in their school.
This is our first task, caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations?
Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?
Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?
Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change. - Barack Obama
Amidst all the talk of a "perfect town" and a "close-knit community" - as if those phrases have much meaning wherever we might live - we certainly know of at least young person who was not comfortable, not happy, not OK, not part of an idyllic family, and who, quite obviously, did not receive the kinds of help he needed.

This is not excuse making. Excuses are worthless, but explanations can help us understand even the un-understandable. There are people who have psychotic breaks from reality, there are people who develop amoral personalities, there are people so paranoid as to be dangerous, there are people without the capacity for human reason - I have met them all - and these are explanations, not excuses, but in every case it is ours to wonder, "what did we not see?" "why could we not have intervened?"

I struggled Sunday night as I listened to the victim count. One minister talked only of "twenty new angels," I'm not sure what happened to the teachers who died. The President, and the votive candles on display, spoke of "twenty-six" lost. Governor Malloy of Connecticut of "twenty-seven." But twenty-eight people died in Newtown on Friday, twenty-one of them deemed, by American law, not old enough to have the mental capacity which would allow them to buy alcohol.

from The Guardian
Whatever the causes, and damn the excuses, that is twenty-eight moments of incredible failure for us as a society.
"They talk of a boy who dressed smartly and worked hard, but who barely said a word during his time at school and made few friends. Intelligent but shy and nervous, most said. A former classmate,  told the New York Times: "I never saw him with anyone. I can't even think of one person that was associated with him."

"He had no Facebook page and his electronic footprint was minimal although yesterday the police chief seemed to suggest he may have left behind emails which could help explain his state of mind."

"a skinny, shaggy-haired boy "who never really talked at all" and who stayed tight to the corridor walls when he walked, often clutching his laptop."
I am not diagnosing here, I have no depth of information which would allow me to do that, and I am not blaming anyone, but I am discussing "us" in the biggest possible sense of that word. I am not describing anything new either, the heart of the book To Kill a Mockingbirdlies in the questions I am asking.
"The Lanzas' neighbors on Yogananda Street say it's puzzling that on such a close-knit block where residents throw barbecues for newcomers, so few of them knew [him] or had ever seen him.
"It's a mystery. Nobody knows them, which is odd for this neighborhood," Len Strocchia said. "Everyone knows each other through the children, the school bus. The community here is kids."'
But what I am saying is that at least one child in Newtown, Connecticut seemed to lack his own opportunity for voice. At least one child was not heard.

Interestingly, it is children who seem to understand this first. After a horrible event around schools in Virginia this fall it was high school students, the friends of two of the victims, who expressed anguish over what had happened with that "shooter." And in USA Today a classmate of the Newtown shooter said, "Maybe if someone had tried to reach out  — maybe he needed a friend. Maybe this wouldn't have happened," [the classmate] said. "He's just one kid who slipped through the cracks."

Kids slip through the cracks when their voices are not heard, that is the truth, and it is the truth even though hearing their authentic voices will never be any guarantee against mental illness or violence. But simply, allowing each child, helping each child achieve authentic voice is all that we, as humans - not deities - can do.

This is true whether the result is the horror we saw on Friday, or the brilliance we also witnessed on Friday when Connecticut's Governor chose to make every death notification himself, knowing the importance of that symbolism to the families involved:
"Malloy spoke candidly to the students [in 2011] about his struggles growing up in Stamford in the 1960s, recalling when teachers would post his failing scores on the classroom board, or how he stayed away from collecting baseball cards like many other boys because deciphering the words and statistics was so torturous.

'"Honestly, it was just terrible. I was embarrassed most of the time," he said"
Voice matters, and voice is not common, and voice cannot be "grade-levelled," and voice must not be guided into specific kinds of questions, answers, reviews, and essays.
"Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts, including using frequently occurring conjunctions to signal simple relationships (e.g., because)." - page 27
Voice cannot flourish when it is battened down with "standards" and forced to march in a progressive sequence.
"Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text." - page 36
Voice cannot flourish when it is forced into over analysis, when stories are not allowed to be stories, or when our stories are forced into the temporal world of another.
"Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
"a. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically." - page 43
And voice cannot flourish when it must be measured against culturally-ignorant linear models. For voice needs to soar, to experiment, to push against every boundary and break through whenever possible.

Video streaming by Ustream
Authentic voice heard globally - Middle School students Ustream autobiographies to the world.

And voice cannot flourish unless children can express themselves as they need to, in the safety of a community which accepts that voice and encourages it and hears it carefully, and all of that exists in a place where children do not crawl down the sides of corridors in fear, or fear punishments because they behave as children, or where they are measured according to nonsensical adult measuring sticks.

The President on Sunday Night

In the end, we don't need "more security" and we don't need "higher standards." Yes, we need to remove killing machines from our nation, but really, we need to care a whole lot more. We need to rearrange our priorities in such a way that our children come first, that our children and our learning spaces and our educators have the resources - all the resources - which they need and all the safety which allows them to be children and adolescents - to learn, to f--- up, to learn more, to grow, to be who they are.

- Ira Socol
"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

15 December 2012

of loss and anger and memory on a rainy winter day

I am watching the rain fall on a chill winter's day, and I am thinking.

Yesterday morning I had the joyous opportunity to play with letters and words with kindergarten kids in three different schools in Albemarle County, Virginia.

They showed me how to make a J.
I challenged them with a special "J-word" - Jelloricious.
This was special. Special because, though I am not in Virginia this week, I could join through the contemporary technologies which make the world of these children something unique, and special because, unless you routinely see "school,' "education," and our planet through the eyes of young children, you are in no position to discuss education and educational poverty. The gift these five-year-olds give to me is a gift which makes my work possible.

But yesterday morning I also became aware of the horrible evil playing out in a Connecticut suburb, a place close to the homes of friends, a place close to the homes of dearly loved cousins - not that that matters, really - but a place any of us might find ourselves... as parents or teachers.

A mentally ill young white suburban male - does this sound familiar - who did not get the help he probably needed in school, whose family was spread out too far, whose father spent three hours a day commuting to a job I know was longer than eight hours in length, whose - well, we'll never know most of it but we know it all too well, walked into an elementary school, an elementary school secured with all the silly security systems politicians and media-trained parents demanded after Columbine, and murdered 20 babies, five and six-year-olds, and six of those "lazy, unionized" adults our leaders say work in our schools.

Why? There's no answer. I could tell you about profiling the paranoia which grows in certain isolated minds, about how that morphs into conspiracy, merges with America's peculiar machismo love of heavy weapons, and turns lethal, but that's the stuff of stupid Today Show interviews now. It doesn't matter.

There may be answers in American gun laws. America's leaders are far more interested in arresting 19-year-olds with beer cans than people with assault weaponry - "killing machines" is the only term we can use. (A police academy instructor once told us, "There may be legitimate reasons to own a single shot rifle, but the only purpose of handguns and multi-shot weapons is the murder of humans.") There is a great deal of the mantra of the American right wing in this, "the "right-to-life" ends at birth." We like to pretend, in America, that we are heroes instead of an increasingly frightened population, terrified of our own shadows, so we cling to our guns as a faux masculinity, unwilling to take any necessary steps which might make our children safer.

There may be answers in our health care system as well. As middle class health insurance has been gutted by greedy corporations and moronic state legislators, mental health supports have dropped. As school budgets have been cut so has counseling support. I remember being amazed, when I first went to work in a high school, that we had one social worker for 1800 adolescents. Many football coaches, one social worker. It is only because of Obamacare that this shooter could have even had health insurance as a 20-year-old not in college, and, you know, Obamacare is a socialist plot.

The Twilight Zone - The Bewitching Pool - not every suburban idyll is idyllic

There may be answers in our desires for status. I do not know if I would have spent a great deal of money to live in a place which left me with three hours of commuting each day, and only minutes with my children. I earned very little during the time I had to devote to parenting, but I was there. And I'm glad my son and I watched TV together and ate dinner together almost every night. I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilt here, but I think we might need to examine our priorities, to stop laughing at the Greeks or Irish because they value time home with their families more than money and 3,000 square foot homes on half acre lots. I think we need to decide whether our time is better spent in our adult pursuits or in parenting. I think we need to wonder about living in neighborhoods instead of subdivisions.

President Obama

And there may need to be a rethink about how we act when our kids are in trouble. Do we protect our reputation or do we get help?

But, as I watch today's rain, I guess the biggest question is our priorities as a society. I understand that I, as someone who hates guns - I carried one every day for my job, I'd never do that again - its no big deal for me to give up guns if it makes kids safer, but if guns are your love, your hobby, your passion, would you make that choice? I know every tax dollar I pay "hurts" - but I pay, as Michigan's late great Governor George Romney said, "because its my responsibility." I'd rather pay ten more bucks and have a psychologist in every school. I'd rather pay another ten bucks more and make sure the teenager on the next block over has the access to great mental health services. I'd rather pay more at a store which offers benefits to my retail-employed neighbors than shop at Walmart. I'd rather drive a car built by an American unionized worker because I know they have the salary and benefits they need to take care of their families and have dignity in their lives. And I'd rather do what I do with schools than make a lot of money.

I'm hardly a saint. That's not the point. The point is that from every direction, the White House, the Republicans in Congress, America's governors, the Koch Brothers, even Andrew Cuomo (who, like Mitt Romney, was raised to know better), and especially corporate America, children in our society have been pushed to the back of our priorities list. We worry about taxes, and rights, and unions and socialism, but maybe the first question should be, "what about our children?"

We are hurting right now. Horribly hurting. It is beyond our imaginations. But it will go on and on like this until we choose to make different decisions.

There is nothing a school policy or any school security can do about this. This is a society which needs to ask itself some very deep questions.

Because when I next interact with five-year-olds, I do not want to look at them with fear in my heart. I do not want to do that.

- Ira Socol

14 December 2012

"you can compare much of my [writing] to the intricate illuminations"

"Since Ulysses was by that time published, Joyce was embarking on Finnegans Wake and plotting out its systems. The Book of Kells would remain an abiding influence on his work; he would refer to one of its pages explicitly in his new novel. When his friend Arthur Power needed advice about how to write, Joyce suggested that he study The Book of Kells. "In all the places I have been to," he wrote, "Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations."' - in the Guardian

The beginning of The Gospel according to Mark from The Book of Kells
via the Guardian and Trinity College.
Where in the American "Common Core," or in Michael Gove's reductionist ebacc, is the space for linking an illuminated initial to a literary chapter? Where is the ability to delve into the page shown above? Where is the frenetic joy of playing with language that might be found in Finnegan's Wake?
Tolv two elf kater ten (it can’t be) sax.
Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.
White fogbow spans. The arch embattled. Mark as capsules. The nose of the man who was nought like the nasoes. It is self tinted, wrinkling, ruddled. His kep is a gorsecone. He am Gascon Titubante of Tegmine — sub — Fagi whose fixtures are mobiling so wobiling befear my remembrandts. She, exhibit next, his Anastashie. She has prayings in lowdelph. Zeehere green egg-brooms. What named blautoothdmand is yon who stares? Gu — gurtha! Gugurtha! He has becco of wild hindigan. Ho, he hath hornhide! And hvis now is for you. Pens‚e! The most beautiful of woman of the veilch veilchen veilde. She would kidds to my voult of my palace, with obscidian luppas, her aal in her dhove’s suckling. Apagemonite! Come not nere! Black! Switch out !
Where is the art of creating the wholly new? Or in understanding that which neither your teacher, nor your state legislature (nor Michael Gove, nor Pearson) is familiar with?

Where is the argument over Chris Marker's choices in his 1962 La jetée?

or deep debate on the art of manipulation in political advertisement?

or outright lies?
Who trains the next generation of Emile Zolas?
Literacy is about a lot more than consumption, review, summarization, comparison. Literacy is about the ability to see the whole world in depth.

Do not sell our kids short.

- Ira Socol