Broken neck? Let’s collaborate!

12/24/2013
Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view

Skull and cervical vertebrae, posterior view (Photo credit: Rob Swatski)

I broke my neck Thursday night.

I fell nine feet into a concrete stairwell behind my house. By all rights I should be a quadriplegic, but through some miracle I was able to stand up, brush myself off and walk away.

I did not escape completely unscathed. My head is immobile and tilts at a 60-degree angle to the left. This is the result of damage done to my first and second cervical vertebrae, minor compared to what might have been but still not ideal.

Over the past few days I have had two sets of x-rays taken, two CT scans and an MRI. Yesterday I met with a neurosurgeon. I do not have a lot of experience with surgeons in general and none with neurosurgeons. I expected a smart, arrogant man who would tell me what it what. That is not what I got.

What I got was a great lesson in collaborative problem-solving.

Apparently my surgeon, a very highly regarded teaching surgeon, had never seen a condition like mine. Apparently my two top vertebrae gave been displaced into what looks like those Chinese interlocking puzzles that seem so simple but are actually very complex.

After admitting to me he’d been puzzled by my condition, including why I was not a quad, he brought in a colleague to look at the MRI and CT scans on the computer. They pointed things out to each other and discussed a range of possible treatments, all with me in the room. Not satisfied with what they came up with, they brought in a third colleague and started the process over. Everyone was equal, everyone contributed and no idea was rejected out of hand. A plan emerged.

What happened next really stunned me. The two colleagues left and two others came in. The process was started all over again. When the same plan emerged, everyone, including me, was confident it was the right one.

Then my doctor turned his computer around and walked me through the whole process again. He showed me all the pictures from the scans and MRI and pointed out a variety of issues, then went into a detailed explanation of the two most likely treatments: external traction or surgery. He said traction was problematic because “you are a big guy with a lot of muscle in your neck.” He didn’t think they’d be able to put enough traction on to solve the problem. Surgery was clearly the better options. He as not satisfied until I fully understood the problem I presented, what they would do in the surgery, the difficulties they might face, and the potential downsides (I may be a quadriplegic yet).

In all, I spent four hours with the doctors. Four hours! And I came away with incredible confidence in the ability of these doctors to solve problems, work together and not let egos get in the way.

Collaboration works. No one of us is as smart as two or more of us together.

Surgery will be Dec. 31st.

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What Would Gandhi Do?

04/17/2012
Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), politischer und spiritueller Führer von Indien. Ort unbekannt English: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l'Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In its infinite wisdom, the New York State Education Department has increased the length of the state ELA and math tests by 50% this year. Now three days each instead of two.

They say that the increase is due to a need to field test questions for future exams based on the Common Core standards.

In other words, they are using our students, our children, as guinea pigs.

Any other field of science requires informed consent before experimenting on human subjects. I’ve never been asked if I consent to the state experimenting on my son. The state is either arrogantly flouting standard scientific procedure or they’re saying my son, and all the other students attending public schools in the state are not human.

Either way, they’re wrong.

I suspect that if asked, they’ll say that sending our children to public schools implies consent.

That’s nonsense.

It is the same as saying that by taking our children to doctors we’re implying consent for them to be used in chemotherapy studies.

I’ve spent part of the past week, and part of a week in February, working in the library of the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan as part of the state-required internship for the MLS degree I am almost done with.

The students at the Ethical Culture School don’t take state tests. Their parents spend $38,000 a year to buy out of them. Yes, somehow, their children get educated and everyone connected with their education knows precisely what each child is learning.

Not many of us can afford to spend $38,000 a year per child for an education that exempts them from state testing that has nothing to do with improving student learning and that also conducts experiments on those students. We have to find a different way to get our sons and daughters out of the grip of the edu-business of standardized exams.

I propose education civil disobedience. We should just keep our children home on testing days. Or if we must send them to school so we can work, teach them to refuse to take the exams.

Yes, it can have a disastrous effect on a school’s AYP if not enough students take the exam. If it happens in one school no one will notice.

If it happens in all the schools in a district people will begin to notice.

And if it happens in a lot of districts our educational leaders will have a decision to make.

They can try to enforce the laws and punish parents, students and schools for the boycott.

Or they can take their ball of data and go away.

At least for a while.


Education? What for?

03/02/2010
The Thinker
Image by afagen via Flickr

What Is The Purpose of Education?

This is the kind of philosophical question that drives people nuts. It drives me nuts.

Some say its A.

Some say its B.

Others propose C.

Then they spend the next decade arguing about which idea is right during which the education system marches along aimlessly without understanding why it exists.

This way of doing things has been good for some, not so good for some others and a downright disaster for the rest,

The realization of that last bit leads to pleas and demands that the education system be “reformed.”

Now that I have achieved middle age I can look back and see that these calls for reform are part of a self-perpetuating cycle that has a predictable pattern.

Here’s how it flows…

Every major change in technology raises fears that American children will be ‘left behind’ the children in the rest of the world. Those fears lead to calls for education reform.

New emphasis is put on math and science at the expense of social studies and the arts.

We accomplish putting a man on the moon or whatever.

We feel good for a while.

Then we notice that we’re still behind Latvia in math scores and Burkina Faso and Mongolia in science scores.

Rinse and repeat.

This is what happened when machines started to replace skilled tradesmen and women.

It happened again when airplanes started to expand travel and commercial opportunities.

The next wave of calls for reform came when the Soviet Union launched the first chimp-in-a-rocket and set off the space race.

Is it any wonder that as first computing and then communications systems became more pervasive, personal and portable, the calls for education reform have become feverish?

So here we go again, round and round into the spiral of another discussion of the purpose of education.

The one thing I’m sure about is this:

* Mission: STS-41-B * Film Type: 70mm * Title:...
Image via Wikipedia

The purpose of education is NOT rising to the top according to some exam.

When did our nation become so small-minded?

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Bring Real Life Into Education? Hah!

02/03/2010
garbage trucks (color)
Image by rdcapasso via Flickr

Many of the currently trending phrases in education revolve around the concept of bringing “real life” into education.

Some people see schools as dead places deeply in need of life, real or otherwise and they attempt to remedy this by introducing ‘real world situations’ into mathematics lessons.

My friend Ira Socol, as part of a larger critique of how math is taught, illustrates one of the difficulties in doing this with a story about negative garbage trucks.

You might be wondering what a negative garbage truck is. So did he.

Ira says, “We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems – which strip all motivation from the subject…fake issues drive kids away.”

But the difficulty of bringing real life into schools is much larger than merely creating plausible math problems.

The real problem is that education, at least the school part of it, operates on a completely different model than real life.

School is reductive; life is not.

In school, life is teased and isolated into different content strands called ‘subjects’: math, science, social studies (or, in its more pure form, history) Language Arts (which used to be English), etc.

Even in elementary grades, where one teacher might teach all those subjects (plus art, music, physical education and more), those content areas are often divided from each other much as a child arranges the potatoes and lima beans on his plate so they don’t touch.

Math is remote from science and even more remote from Language Arts. Social Studies somehow teaches us about vital events and concepts in our lives without reference to science or math.

At Educon this past weekend, in a discussion titled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency” (which had little to do with technology fluency), it was pointed out that when a student is required to perform certain labs in science class it is sometimes difficult because he has not yet been taught the math skills necessary.

It was suggested that the math teacher and science teacher plan together so each would know what skills the other subject requires and on what schedule so that, like in real life, skills are on-board when needed.

Real life is not like that. Skills are usually learned through a process involving failing in the task the first time.

I learned how to change the washers in a faucet, but I had to flood the bathroom to do so.

And that was despite having the book “Plumbing for Dummies” open in front of me.

Schools don’t often allow time for a student to try something novel, struggle with it, make errors, learn from them, try again and succeed.

Another problem with trying to bring “real life” (a tacit admission that school is an artificial one, for sure) is that schools have curriculums.

At their best, curriculums are a basic, streamlined statement of the learning goals for a class. Start here; end there.

I’ve never seen one like that. Life isn’t often like that either.

Most curriculums are heavily detailed, often week-by-week schedules of what is to be taught (and possibly learned) and when it will be done.

Those curriculums squeeze the random out of the classroom so efficiently that one wonders if that isn’t their real purpose.

Random is dangerous, some say, especially in the hands of teachers.

But life is random. You may make plans to go to the theater on August 2nd, but your plans may be disrupted by a hailstorm, a hurricane or temperatures so hot the roads melt.

Or you may get the measles.

Vogon Constructor Fleet
Image by Bladewood via Flickr

Or die.

Or find the need to dodge the Vogon Constructor Fleet.

Need proof? Haiti. No one there was expecting a massive earthquake on the afternoon of January 12th.

Schools are specifically designed to hide the truth that anything can happen without any warning at any time.

We all do our best to pretend that life is predictable and, to a large extent, controllable. Otherwise, we’d have so much anxiety we could not continue to function.

Bringing real “real life” into the classroom is actually kind of a silly idea.

I don’t know about your classroom, but in mine real life comes in every day with my students. They bring me their hunger, their fears, their precocious sexuality, their sibling rivalries, their problems with stepparents; their daily struggles just to survive.

On a lot of days there’s far too much “real life” for me to handle.

On those days, facing off with a negative garbage truck sounds like fun.

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Life vs. The Curriculum

01/13/2010

I went off the reservation today.

The Scope & Sequence, the map for mapping the curriculum map, says I should be teaching about Africa right about now and I was planning to introduce the unit today. Then something very unfortunate happened.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paradoxically, the unfortunate event pointed out to me how professionally fortunate I am.

Calling the Haitian earthquake an unfortunate event is a massive understatement: the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere had what little they had, including life and relative health, disappear in a flash and rumble.

I went to high school with some Haitian students, lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Haitians, and now live in a county with a sizable Haitian population. I’ve never been to Haiti, and never particularly wanted to go, but I could not get the devastation out of my mind.

When my smart, chatty 6th graders came into the classroom I had this picture of the devastation on the SmartBoard.

(REUTERS/Reuters TV)

I asked the students to tell me where they thought the picture was taken. The Middle East was a popular guess.

I told them the picture was of some of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti and then showed them a few more photos.

That’s when things became interesting.

These students are very smart and usually very, very chatty.

They were silent.

Rapt.

Awed by the destruction, the pain, and the death.

Then the questions started.

“Is it better to be inside or outside when an earthquake comes?”

None of us knew.

I pointed out that after the big 2008 earthquake in China, people were afraid to stay inside because the building could collapse on them. I showed a picture of collapsed buildings in Haiti.

“What causes earthquakes?”

Detail of the Cocos and Caribbean plates from:...
Image via Wikipedia

I told the oddly quiet students about plate tectonics, using two sheets of paper and some paperclips to demonstrate what happens when the plates separate or collide. Either way the paperclips ended up on the floor.

Map of Pangaea showing where today's continent...
Image via Wikipedia

I told them that I was going to start our Africa unit today, then mentioned that at one time, millions of years ago, Africa, North America and South America were likely one big continent called Pangaea and popped a world map onto the Smart Board so they could see how today’s continents could fit together.

Then I told them that in a way we were studying Africa as most of the Haitian population is made up of descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves.

One girl who hardly ever speaks in class raised her hand.

“Is that why Haitian people look so different from my relatives on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic?”

Another Dominican girl asked, “Could an earthquake separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic?”

I asked her to tell me the difference between a political map and a topographic map.

The light went on.

“Oh! Earthquakes are topological and borders are political. The earth doesn’t care where the border is.”

Suddenly one girl jumped up and said, “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!”

The students took over the class to discuss what they could do and how fast they could do it.

When the bell rang and they filed out the door, several students asked me to print some of those pictures so they could put them on the posters they were going to make to help in their fundraising effort.

When the class cleared I took a deep breath.

And that’s when it hit me.

My resume shows a lot of different jobs in different fields: print journalism, radio new and talk shows, restaurants, political action, advertising, and more.

I sometimes tell people all about it when they ask how it came to be that I started teaching when I was 50.
Then I tell them that every bit of knowledge, every experience, every sensation I’ve gained comes into the classroom with me.

And today it all came out.

The lesson my students got today could only have come from me.

I’m very fortunate not to have to prepare my students for a standardized test lurking at the end of the year.

And I’m fortunate not to work in a system or for an administrator requiring me to teach the same lesson that every other 6th grade teacher is scheduled to teach on January 13, 2010.

I know my supervisors would have been very happy had they been sitting in my room today.

Real learning took place. Authentic learning. The kind of learning you don’t need to use a test to see.

The students learned new material, made connections, and acted on their learning.

They realized that history is not a series of encapsulated isolated events, that its an intricate weave of people, places, ideas and situations, .

And I was very fortunate to have the time, the freedom, and the ability to go off the reservation.

Teaching has a much nicer view from there.

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Differentiating Deliciously

11/29/2009
The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
Image via Wikipedia

No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.

Nonsense.

Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

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The Student Who Knew Too Much

11/21/2009
Food coloring spreading on a thin water film.
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never really understood calling someone “too smart for his own good.”

Today it was explained to me and now I get it. It has to do with standardized testing.

I spent today in a cool science professional development session at the NY Hall of Science. For anyone thinking about becoming a teacher, science PD is way more fun than social studies PD.

This PD dealt with the chemistry of water and there’s a whole lot more to it than I would have guessed.  Then again, chemistry is the only class I failed in high school. It was political.

The teacher required the memorization of the Periodic Table of Elements. I refused.

I probably could have gotten away with just not doing it if only I hadn’t condescendingly pointed out to the rookie teacher that the whole point of assembling the Periodic Table of Elements was so that poor schnooks who happened to have rookie chemistry teachers wouldn’t have to remember all those details about how many electrons Gonzonium has (names of elements have been changed to protect the innocent).

I have a lot more sympathy for rookie teachers, even rookie chemistry teachers, these days.

In today’s PD  session we counted how many drops of water could be dripped on a penny before it overflowed (a lot) and why (surface tension caused by bonds within the molecules), why detergent weakens those bonds (it has a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail).

We also observed how food coloring dripped into water diffused differently depending on the temperature of the water (in hot water the blue food coloring spiraled like a hurricane) and I learned a new word:

Miscibility.

Miscibility is the ability of two liquids or gasses to mix.

Sounds innocent, right?

Well, miscibility is a very dangerous word.

Its dangerous because using it properly on the NYC or NYS science tests could get the answer marked wrong and lower the student’s score.

Yes, you read that correctly. Using the word properly could reduce the student’s score.

Here’s how:

The teachers who grade the science exams are not required to be science teachers. They could be math teachers, English teachers or, worse, social studies teachers.  Each grader is given an answer key and rubric. The answer key has a list of the words expected in the answer.

According to some of the science teachers in our group who have graded the science exams, the expected words for this concept of how two liquids mix include diffusion, mixing, combining, and blending.

Miscibility is not one of the expected words.

If a student uses miscibility to explain what happens when food coloring is dripped into water and has the bad luck to have a music teacher grade her exam, she will likely have her answer marked wrong.

Some teachers in our PD said they actually warn their students not to use the word at all because using it makes them “too smart for their own good.”

Imagine that, a student too smart for the exam.

Its a good thing we have teachers ready to prevent that from happening.

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