Sunday, September 25, 2011

Constructing Creativity

One of my least favorite directions is "be creative." Nothing makes me shut down faster than being told to open up. (Ditto with "Relax," but that is a different post entirely.) I don't know if it's the cynic or the part of me that really, deeply, and profoundly hates being told what to do, which is the yang to the yin in me that loves a recipe and a knitting pattern, but I just don't like it. So, when I read about a class at Penn where students are told NOT to be creative but to plagiarize how could I think anything other than "Genius!" Not to mention "Honest!" Just thinking about it makes me want to plagiarize. In a good way! (And apparently with a lot of exclamation points.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bogin the Great

In this past week's Sunday Times magazine there was the article about character education which everyone is talking about, because it's great, and then there's an article by Clifford Levy about living in Russia and sending his children to a Russian school instead of a school for Americans in Russia. Even while I was reading the article, I was romanticizing the Russian schools' director, Vasilly Bogin. Levy describes his kids' first interview with Bogin like this:

At the school in Moscow, Bogin spent 45 minutes with each of the three, speaking to them in English. He gave Danya an algebra problem that was clearly too hard for her. He constructed the outline of a fish with toothpicks and asked Arden to make the fish face in the opposite direction by moving only a few pieces. He had Emmett take apart and rebuild a house made of blocks. He seemed to care about the way they thought, not what they knew.

It makes your knees weak, right?

Throughout the article, which is terrific, there are bits about how Bogin thinks about education, how Levy's kids responded, how they developed relationships. I won't retell what's in the article, although I'm tempted, I'll just say that Bogin as he's portrayed here is the kind of dynamic educator about whom people build up terrific teacher fantasies, and they should! Because the way Levy paints him, Bogin is someone who thinks forcefully and systematically about what kids do, how they think, and how they might engage with the world in many different ways. I know only very recently I complained about what happens when we only talk about great teachers, but at a moment when I'm feeling a little "meh" about where I am and what I'm doing, reading about this school was electrifying. That hard and engaging were not mutually exclusive? That no one was too worried about the fun kids might have in school and they liked going anyway? Sweet, sweet relief.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Have Test Will Cheat

OK. Pro Publica put together a list of great school cheating scandals. It shows that as long as there have been tests, there have been cheaters. Standards indeed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Cozy Lining

My son likes to play violent video games. On the iPad, his games of choice usually have an avenging superhero who smashes up bad guys. Often, but not always, they are bad guy aliens; sometimes, they look human. But it doesn't really matter if they're made from flesh or bolts, they get destroyed by my boy's nimble fingers and you know I worry about these games, both because I'm supposed to and because I really do, but I also feel somewhat resigned to them. By the time I had a son I had read enough stories of moms who banned guns only to have her kids (some of them even girls) make weapons out sticks and fingers that I knew a gun ban wouldn't matter. Besides, I'm not good at bans. The day I decide to ban something -- say, alcohol -- is the day I can't get through the pre-dinner hour with a big Campari and soda. (Don't judge.)

Still, the fighting games are the iPad are problematic for all kinds of reasons. A Terminator game my boy has (and yes, I know I'm the person who bought it for him, judge if you like, that's not my business) is very realistic. Sure the good guys are human and the bad guys are robot aliens, but the dystopian city they're fighting in is distressingly vivid, as are the guns, which have the added bonus of being large.

And yet, and yet. A few weeks ago when Elliot was busy playing the Terminator game with me sitting next to him, he showeed me how all the humans, except for the one doing the shooting, had been locked in prison. He pointed to a man in a cell and the bunk bed behind him. The top bunk was made up neatly with what looked like a standard issue army blanket. "See," he said, "he's got a really comfy blanket for his bed. That's lucky, right?" Sure just beyond the prison walls there's a city crumbling after an invasion of violent, evil, robot aliens, but inside, the men have their comfy blankets, their cozy cells, and that's pretty lucky. That's the detail that matters.

(Note: We are iPad-free in this house for the month of September. So far, so good. The only down side, really, is I can't read anything on the Nook in front of the kids, because Doodle Jump is on there, too.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Happens in Queens Stays in Queens

I just keep reminding myself that Weiner's district is up for elimination anyway.

And there's this:

But Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the district’s large concentration of Orthodox Jews made it unusual and meant the race had few national ramifications.

“In this district, there is a large number of people who went to the polls tonight who didn’t support the president to begin with and don’t support Democrats — and it’s nothing more than that,” she said in a telephone interview.

And while I'm sad about our disappearing president, I really, really, really can't contemplate 1012-16 without him in that office.

On Reading

A few days ago I followed a link from The Daily Dish to a very strange article by the famous English professor Helen Vendler in Harvard Magazine. In it she bemoans the intellectual preparation of her students at Harvard. She writes:

"As it is, our students now read effortfully and slowly, and with only imperfect comprehension of what they have seen. They limp into the texts of the humanities (as well as the texts of other realms of learning)."

Her solution? Devote the first four years of elementary school to reading in all its forms (and mathematics) (parentheses hers). These forms include singing, clapping to the rhythm of poems, and learning to conjoin "prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words."

She admits:

"I have never taught elementary school and grant that I wouldn’t know how to do it. I only see the results downstream, and wish that reading at the earliest levels provided better preparation for the higher-level intensity of the humanities."

It's not that I don't think reading, in all its forms, should be a backbone of elementary education. It's not that I don't think a lot of what Vendler proposes for elementary reading immersion is reasonable and good. It's just that this is cranky version of the same old great complaint about "kids today" with a twist in the direction of our bugaboo du jour, the failure of American education. It's not new it's just snotty (no surprise) and besides the point (except for the point about mathematics). This one probably started at a dinner party table and should've been better off left there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cups and Coffee

This story may be better for tweeting, but I don't tweet, so here I go on the old school blog: Yesterday, I bring a travel coffee cup to school. I'm very proud of this. I go to the Starbucks-on-Campus counter in the lobby and ask for a small, handing the nice lady my cup. She takes it, goes over to the coffee pot, and.....OK, you know what's going to happen. She takes a paper cup, fills it with coffee, pours said coffee into my travel mug, and throws away the coffee cup. Just what I wanted!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lemonade for the Library

Helen had a lemonade stand yesterday, I helped! We sold lemonade, of course, and chocolate chip cookies and we raised $85.00 for the library, which was terrific. There's more to say because it was September 11th, but now's not the time. (Since I'm watching Dead House,a Goosebumps movie, with Elliot, and it's creepy even with very low production values.)

Oh! And the best small world New York thing? Someone who works for the library happened by and now we're on the New York Public Library's blog, too!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Orangina on the Map

OK, so I usually don't go in for posts about cute things my kids say, but I haven't been writing enough and my sense of humor has disappeared down the rabbit hole dug by Rick Perry, Eric Cantor and the five classes I'm taking, so here goes:

Helen: "Is there such a place as Orangina?"
Me: "No, why? Where you reading My Father's Dragon?" (In which there is a place called, I think, Tangerina.)
Helen: "No." Here Helen looks at her shoes and furrows her brows. "Didn't Caroline (my niece, her very glamorous cousin) go to Orangina?"
Me: "Ahhhh....that would be Argentina."

See, kind of cute, but on reflection, not that funny. Still, I'm going to hit "publish post" on this one just maybe because I can.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On 9/11

There's a lot to read on the subject 9/11. Here's something from Andrew Sullivan, it's very compelling.

Near the start he writes:

We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda—and its heretical message of suicidal warfare—across the globe. It worked because this was not just another terror attack. The emblems were clear: the looming towers of Western capitalism in New York, the cradle of Western democracy in Washington. When the third plane crashed into the Pentagon and the fourth (United 93) was brought down by its passengers, the drama didn’t cease. We saw the symbol of America’s military preeminence lying with its side opened like a tin can.

The Romance of the Great Teacher

Yesterday, my husband handed me a folded up section of the paper and said, "Here, you'll like it." I looked down and there was Charles Blow's current column, one titled "In Honor of Teachers." In it there's yet one more telling of the same old story: A teacher changed my life! Teachers are great! Teachers should be respected, like they are in countries where children do well in school!

In this version, after falling between the cracks and being labeled slow Blow had an amazing fourth grade teacher who inspired him to work and by high school by golly this New York Times columnist was in a G&T program of two!

Now, of course it's great that Mr. Blow's life was transformed by a great teacher. But, honestly, I'm pretty tired of hearing that teachers should be respected because of the one transformational teacher a highly successful person met along the way.

I'm not saying that I'm not interested in transformational teachers or that I don't hope, fervently, that I might be one some day, at least for a child or two. What I'm saying is all the nostalgic talk about that one teacher out of many perturbs the discussion of teaching and sets up unreasonable expectations what an individual teacher should do for his students. It obscures the role of the school in supporting teaching. It elides the function of a community in which a school operates and a teacher teaches. In talking about schools and what they do the great teacher is starting to be a great big problem.

Because what about the everyday teacher who's doing a pretty good job and is working steadily at doing better? What about the school that's cultivating an atmosphere in which the professional insights of teachers matter and where a culture of learning informs all decisions? And the community that's engaged by and with that school and those teachers? These stories don't necessarily make great copy but I bet they make pretty darn good schools.

Fundamentally, great teaching is what matters for students and great teaching isn't isolated in one person. It's supported by institutions and communities, year after year. The romance of the great teacher is only that, a romance. Sure there are methods that all teachers might adopt, but the classroom experience that in retrospect changed everything, that experience relied on a certain chemistry between adult and child, an alignment of need and personality. When you had a great teacher, you had a relationship with that person for just one year. Remember what your life-long partnership was like after its first year?

If we want to talk about what will help students year after year then it's probably time to tear ourselves away from the rosy vision of the teacher as savior and turn to the question of how teacher and student and school and community might sustain a satisfying and evolving relationship. Maybe a student who went through a school where the focus is on fine teaching and not The Great Teacher won't one day mistily recall that one Ms. Smith who showed him all he can be. But he and many others will have had one heck of a time learning every day they were there. That's my theory anyway.

(Here's a footnote! "Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality," by Mary Kennedy. Educational Researcher. Vol. 39, No. 8, (pp. 591-598) November, 2010.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Huge Protests in Israel

Four hundred thirty thousand people demonstrated across Israel on Saturday night. Israel's population is 7.7 million. If 770,000 people are about ten percent of the total population, that means about 380,000 people would be five percent, that makes 430,000 people, what?, close to six percent of the population. Is that right? Even if I'm wrong, the numbers are HUGE. And what are they protesting about? The cost of living; the salaries of teachers and policemen; the concentration of wealth among an elite few families. Good golly it's heartening.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can't See the Forest for the Smog

Yesterday I just read a one-liner that went something along the lines of, "Obama rolls back smog regulations, capitulates to Republicans," and I thought: "Enough!"This morning I read this piece by Michael Tomasky which asks, basically, where did Obama go and will he come back in time to be taen seriously as a leader?