On the Road Learning

07/16/2013
Leaving the Delta

Leaving the Delta (Photo credit: joseph a)

I am writing this post from Birmingham, Alabama. I usually write from my home in the NYC suburbs. I’ve been on the road since July 1st, visiting the deep south, a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I’ve got five more days before I reintroduce myself to my wife, our son and our dog and sleep in my bed again.

The impetus for this trip was my acceptance into the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop with the intriguing title “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta. The workshop is held at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi (Mississippi has to be the most fun-to-type word in the English language!).

I have visited Charlottesville, VA, Asheville, NC, Memphis, TN, and now Birmingham. Next stop in Knoxville, TN, then Richmond, VA before heading home.

I am learning an incredible amount, so much so that I’m having a hard time processing it all. I’ve toured Monticello, Graceland and William Faulkner’s house. I saw thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and rice growing in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king for decades. I’ve been to art museums in Asheville and Birmingham, the Cotton Museum and the Stax Records museums in Memphis, and Vulcan Park in Birmingham. I stood on the balcony in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and looked out at that balcony from the window next to the one the shooter used. I visited Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite, a Chinese cemetery, a Black cemetery, what may or may not be where Robert Johnson is buried and the likely crossroads at which he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great blues guitarist.

I visited Po Monkey’s, the last rural juke joint in America and met Monkey, the farm hand who owns it. I listened to two musical lectures about the blues, then went to Red’s Lounge, a neighborhood blues club in Clarksdale, MS to hear the real thing.

I’ve tasted  baked catfish, fried catfish, fried sauerkraut, fried okra, fried pickles, koolikles – pickles marinated in cherry Koolaid, and more styles of BBQ ribs than I knew existed.

I visited one of the last Jewish synagogues in the Delta and met the man struggling to keep it alive. I saw the 16th St. Baptist Church where a bombing in 1963 took the lives of four young girls and spent a couple of hours touring the Civil Rights Institute across the street.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Fried pickles are better than Koolaid pickles, but Koolaid pickles are better than you might imagine they are.

The Mississippi Delta is not only the most southern place on earth, it is also the flattest.

People in the south are, at least on the surface, much more friendly than those in NY. They are warm, gracious and generous.

Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state, but there are still those who would like the segregation laws reinstated.

Many cities in the south put a lot of effort into making their downtowns beautiful with parks, plantings, sculpture and the like. Memphis is not one of them.

When it rains in the south, it REALLY rains. I’ve driven through downpours where I would have pulled off the road if there had been somewhere to pull off, and I’ve walked through downpours where I could not see where my next step would take me.

My PLN (PRofessional Learning Network) was, once again, a great resource. I’ve had people show me around, recommend activities, suggest dining options and otherwise guide my travels.

The blues did not originate in Chicago, Memphis or anywhere between those two points.

I learned what a diddley bow is and how to make one. I am going to make one for my school library. I have no talent to play it, though.

Farming is hard work. So is steelmaking.

Independent bookstores are hanging in there in Asheville and in Oxford, Mississippi.

Asheville is very dog-friendly. It is also very gay-friendly. If there is a connection, it is called love.

Downtown ballparks are more fun than those not downtown. Memphis’s AutoZone Park is beautiful. I’m also going to games in Knoxville and Richmond, but those stadiums are not downtown.

During an ill-advised five-mile drive down a gravel road cutting through private farmland we saw a lot of corn plots labeled “experimental.” I’m not sure what those experiments are, but they may have produced large aggressive bugs that flew at 15-mph next to my car for almost three miles.

If Mississippi is in need of a state bird, I nominate the dragonfly. Dragonflies are cool and the Delta is the dragonfly capitol of the world.

Apparent;y the Delta State University bookstore never thought of placing their school’s mascot on a cook’s apron even though that would seem to be the perfect place to show off the “fighting okra.”

The south apparently does not believe in vegetables. The most common side dish with BBQ seems to be white bread, with french fries running a close second.

Grits get tiring after a while, but biscuits are a great excuse for having peppery sausage gravy.

I am sure that over time these superficial learnings and impressions will be augmented or replaced by deeper understandings. This will happen because I will have the time to process and reflect upon my experiences. But as I sit here in my hotel, with my stomach growling for dinner, I feel like what I am sure many of my students feel. Overwhelmed, tired, hungry and thirsty.

It is good to be reminded that our students need to be fed, to have their thirsts slaked, to have their own PLN to show them love and support, and to have time to process all that their sponge-like brains soak up.

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The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


Through the Education Standards Looking Glass

05/20/2012

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This i...

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This is the bottom central pane of the memorial window – see [284591] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I know I should be used to it by now.
But it still gets to me when I see how duplicitous, disingenuous, distrustful and distant our government and education leaders are.

So much so that they are dangerous.

Education in the state of New York is under the control of a Board of Regents. They run the Department of Education and oversee every school district in the state. They set the rules for graduation and all the other rules governing how schooling is done in the state.

They also license barbers. They should stick to that and give up all the rest. Here’s why.

As early as 1995, the New York Board of Regents called for higher standards of education and stricter requirements for graduation from high school. Then they raised the standards.

This is from a report of the Public Policy Institute, a business group:

“In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York’s effort to upgrade educational outcomes.”

Regents Exams are content specific tests unique to New York. They were not new when I was alternately attending and dropping out of high schools in the late 1960s.

Then in 2011, the Regents announced they were raising standards again, making the tests more rigorous to show how important education is in NY and to show how well prepared NY students are for college and unstable career paths

All well and good, you say. High expectations and high standards are important. I agree.

The NY Regents are about to take another vote on setting high standards for NY students, only this time they’re likely to vote to get rid of the Global History Regents Exam because, get ready for this, because too few students pass it.

They want to make the test optional, perhaps replace it with an extra math or science test.

Here is the August, 2010 Global History Regents. Do you think students should know the answers to most of these questions?

Do the Regents try to figure out why students don’t pass the test? Do the Regents try  improving social studies education so that students are better prepared for the test? Do they try developing resources to help students understand the importance of having a grasp of history?

No, the Regents go about the process of raising standards by lowering them.

`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

– Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter IX  (that’s nine, NY Regents).


My One Great Lesson This Year

12/26/2010
The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.

Granted.

Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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Revising History

10/06/2010
Studio portrait of the surviving Six Nations w...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep waiting for someone to tell me why an 11-year-old should be interested in the economic system of ancient Rome.

Or why a 13-year-old should care about the War of 1812.

How much do you know about the War of 1812?

Has that held you back at all?

Me neither, and I’m a history teacher.

We teach history in the wrong direction. We start with the past and work forward.

We need to turn around.

We start off teaching social studies well.

In kindergarten we teach about the thing immediately around the child, the family and the classroom.

This is one of the kindergarten rooms on the f...

Image via Wikipedia

In first grade kids learn about the neighborhood and in second the larger community.

In third grade kids learn about the various countries in the modern world.

Then it stops making sense.

In 4th grade NY students learn all about NY, from the earliest Iroquois days forward. Fifth grade that expands to the early explorers of Canada, Mexico and the rest of the North American land mass.

Sixth grade starts with studies of three countries in the eastern hemisphere, usually only Asian countries are included because the next unit is on ancient Egypt and the rest of the year is spent in ancient Rome, Mesopotamia and more, ending up somewhere around the Renaissance.

The seventh and 8th grade curriculum, my current assignment, is American history.

In 7th we start with the native civilizations before Europeans arrive and are supposed to get through the Civil War.

American Civil War

Image via Wikipedia

Eighth grade is supposed to start with Reconstruction and end somewhere around 1976.

Here’s one idea. 7thgrade American history should start in 2010 and work backwards to try to unravel how we got into our current miasma. By the end of 8th grade we should have worked our way back to Columbus’ “discovery.”

But even that isn’t optimal. I object to teaching history as a linear series of events whichever way we run through time.

History is not about time or events; it is about ideas and how people deal with conflicting ones.

Ideas excite people, even 8th grade inner-city students. Ideas have meaning to them that dates, names and events do not.

Opening (inverted) and closing question marks ...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to follow a curriculum map.

I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is and try to figure out how those patterns can be changed so their lives improve.

I want to help them make their world make sense.

Maybe then I’ll understand mine.

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Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

09/18/2010
Mitchell Map - A map of the British and French...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve decided to do something different.

No, not that.

I’m still going to be teaching where and what I am doing presently. I’m just going to do one thing different.

It is a big thing, though.

Last spring I took training in designing project-based learning units. They’re really cool for studying things like marine biology, algebra and techno-stuff (an all-encompassing category of “things despised by Luddites.).

I spent a lot of the summer trying to think of how to apply the project-based approach to social studies. I had a lot of ideas, none of which really captivated or excited me.

If they don’t excite me they’re not going to excite 7th grade boys and girls.

My new plan excites me.

I’m going to ask my students to invent a country.

In New York, 7th grade American history starts in what will eventually become the Americas a couple of hundred years before Europeans arrive bearing trinkets and syphilis.

Eventually colonists arrived and, as time passed, they invented a country.

Inventing a country is a much bigger process than telling a nutty king that he’s been abusive and you’re not going to take it anymore, then proving it even though he has the world’s most powerful navy and a large and well-trained army on his side.

Betsy Ross Flag Painted on a Barn

Image by myoldpostcards via Flickr

Okay, that’s a big process, but they had to beat that same Army again 35 years later and in-between they developed a government and a rule book to run it by, unified – more or less – 13 independent colonies, had elections, and started exploring the rest of the continent.

They had to create maps, flags, and a national story.

time to proselytize

Image by 7-how-7 via Flickr

My students will have to do all that in the year-long process of creating their country. And to make it more interesting, they will not each invent their own country. No, that is too easy.

Instead, they will have to work in groups of five or six to invent a country. That will involve negotiation, compromise, deal making and, without doubt, conflict.

And every time one of those things happens will be a teachable moment about the forming of this country.

They’ll have to write a Constitution, provide for succession of leadership, and all the rest as I keep asking questions and contributing situations that will arise more-or-less on the same schedule as they did in this country.

I think this could be a lot of fun, something most 7th graders think social studies can’t possibly be.

So now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve got to come up with the groups of students I want to work together.

And I’ve got to figure out how to start a civil war.

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Doing the Right Thing Because It Is Right, Not Expedient

07/30/2010
Remembering 9/11/01
Image by Raúl! via Flickr

I usually write about education but this post will not be about that.

It will be about courage, morality, fear and self-interest.

I was born in New York City.

For most of my life I have lived in New York City and I work there now.

No matter where I go or where I live, New York City is home.

I don’t know about people in the rest of the country or the rest of the world, but every single New Yorker knows precisely what he or she was doing when airplanes flew into the towers of the World Trade Center.

And every single New Yorker knows what he or she was doing when the towers fell.

And every single New Yorker is grateful beyond measure that there are people in this city who daily put their lives at risk protecting us.

Thousands were killed on September 11, 2001, but they were not the only victims.

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...
Image via Wikipedia

Among the thousands of dead were fearless men and women of the fire department and police departments who we had relied on to protect us.

Despite the courage they showed, they could not protect us from those planes and the results of their criminal impact though they gave their lives trying to.

It was a horrible crime and watching the towers fall was a horrible and sickening sight.

WORLD TRADE CENTER ATTACK
Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr

Fear is a debilitating thing. More on that in a moment.

After the towers fell hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women: police officers, fire fighters, ambulance workers, sanitation workers, and construction workers from the city and many elsewheres near and far worked long hours searching for possible survivors.

When it was clear that there were no survivors left they searched for remains so that they could later be identified and buried.

Raising A Truck: Early Stages of Clean Up at G...
Image by Viewmaker via Flickr

They moved tons of rubble, breathed tons of what turned out to be highly toxic dust that hung in the air for weeks.

These men and women showed courage, too. Disaster sites are dangerous in ways those of us who have not worked in them cannot fully grasp.

These men and women worked for weeks, breathing that toxic air daily.

Now, nearly ten years after that date that will echo for decades, these men and women are getting sick.

They are suffering unusual rates and forms of lung disease, heart disease and nerve damage that did not show up immediately.

There is little doubt that these diseases are the result of their work at what quickly became known as Ground Zero.

Survivors of those who died in the attack have received monetary compensation for their losses of income, companionship and parenting from those who died in the immediacy of the attack.

Those people who rushed in afterward to search for survivors, remains or relics of the lives that were have losses, too. They have lost their health. Many have been told their lives will be truncated by the diseases they now have.

Morality demands that the rest of us take care of those who take care of us.

That same morality demands that we take care of the health needs of those who searched through the destruction at Ground Zero.

This does not seem to be a difficult concept to understand yet Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Morality demands that one do the right thing even when it is not convenient or easy.

ESPECIALLY when it is not convenient or easy.

NYC - Ground Zero Cross
Image by wallyg via Flickr

Congress has put politics ahead of morality, ahead of doing the right thing for those men and women who sacrificed so much so willingly.

Congress has refused to pass the bill that, if enacted, would pay the health care costs of those men and women.

We are not talking really big numbers here. The costs of this health care would not approach the billions of dollars given to banks or the billions of dollars given to automobile manufacturers.

But it should not matter if it would be that expensive. Taking care of these people is merely the right thing to do.

Congress should be ashamed but they are not.

Congress does not have morals. Congress members operate on the basis of self-interest and on their fears of not being re-elected.

If you are a teacher, teach your Congress member how to recognize moral obligation and what to do about it.

If you are not a teacher write a letter or make a phone call.

Write lots of letters.

Make lots of phone calls.

Get Congress to act now.

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