Saturday, March 22, 2008

Seven for Sunday... Because of God.

I missed posting last weekend because I was in Boston doing volunteer training, and it’s been busy this week. Since it’s Sunday, I’ll do a random Seven for Sunday post.

1. My trip to Boston was totally worth the hit to my weekend. I also had to go on Tuesday for a second session, during which I got to talk to someone who participates in reviews, and I got to sit in on a mock event. I feel a lot more confident now about how I can be a productive part of the process. I expect I’ll have a lot more to say about this later, but I have to wait until I can get to some actual review meetings to talk about what it is really like (that won’t happen until April).

2. Spring has arrived officially, and we can actually see bare ground in the front yard. Of course, there are still large tracts of land that are covered in the telltale sullied white that comes from all manner of debris drifting over and onto it. It will be a while yet before I can extricate my disc golf basket from under the small glacier that secures it, but I feel like I can begin to collect the tools and equipment that come out during the dark season, so they can go into the basement when a path to the bulkhead door becomes navigable.

3. I don’t often remember dreams that I have. I have them, sure, but my ability (interest?) in recalling dreams has, for as long as I can remember, never been a strength. That said, there are times when dreams really stick with me. I can still vividly remember parts of the dream in which my oldest daughter’s name was revealed to me, for example. I bring this up because I had something new about dreams happen to me the other day.

It happens from time to time that I have dreams, or scenes from dreams, repeat themselves. I’ve often discovered that this happens because the universe is trying to tell me something, and the same thing will continue to replay until I’ve received the message. Never, until this week, however, have I had a dream that came in sequence to one that came before. Sometime back in the summer, I had this weird dream involving primitive tribe of people (think medicine man with the bone in his nose and the ornate, feathered hat) and small kid-size containers of yogurt. The “chief” of this tribe offered them as a ceremonial gift of welcome to me and the other people in the hut where we were meeting. That was the essence of the dream and, while I can tell you about it now, it didn’t really resonate with me at the time. Fast forward to last week. I’m back in the hut, the same characters are in the dream, and the yogurt is being presented. Then, the dream moves forward! We’re tentatively eating the yogurt, presenting our own ceremonial gifts, and trying to bridge the gap in language and culture. It was like the second chapter of a mini-series! Has that ever happened to you?

4. I find the simultaneous variety and similarity of human behavior fascinating. I especially love exploring human personality and playing with tools that quantify and organize it. For me, it’s a great way to improve my sense of self, but I also find it valuable as a tool for understanding and predicting how others behave. As a teacher, this information really helps me to relate to my students as both people and learners, and I am far more effective as a guide to them for being able to see patterns in the ways they think and act.

There are lots of paradigms out there that define personality type. Meyers-Briggs, which is based on Carl Jung’s work, is popular. Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences has been very helpful to me, too (this link [HERE] allows you to actually contribute to ongoing MI research. I was introduced to one just today that I played with, and intend to explore some more. It’s based on the book, “The Personality Compass: A New Way to Understand People (Turner & Greco, 1998). It’s not terribly complex, but the fact that it draws on socio-cultural patterns is interesting. You can take a basic quiz to find your own place on the Personality Compass [HERE]. For the record, mine points mostly North and West. Where does yours point?

5. Wifeness and I have a joint blog in the works that will help to chronicle our efforts to establish a community and start a school. It’s not quite ready yet (I have some basic stuff to put into it before I share the link), but we both would love to have people check it out. Hopefully, having a forum for this work will keep it full present in our thoughts and routines, and will also help others to know just what’s going. I’ll share the link when I’ve got the first real post prepped.

6. We all went to Target today for the every-so-often-get-stuff-you-can’t-find-cheap-at-the-local-stores shopping excursion, complete with fast food lunch. The girls brought with them money which, as you may imagine, was burning some rather large holes in their tiny little purses. They saw a great deal of merchandise on display today, but what did they decide to spend their hard-earned cash on? That’s right! Electric toothbrushes! NiNi was particularly excited at the discovery of such technology. Her exact words were, “Yay! Now I won’t have to do any work!” No, really. No one can make this stuff up.

7. My classes are watching movies this coming week to avoid the need for homework during MCAS testing. This is not idle work, however. It’s part of a unit on how to use subtitling as a tool for expanding and enriching foreign language vocabulary. My first-year classes are watching Finding Nemo; my second-year students are watching The Incredibles (which relates to their recent work on the essential question “What makes a hero?”) I love these units because they show my students something valuable and useful, and they really seem to appreciate it. I suppose the popcorn helps, too.

I have a scene from The Incredibles running rampant in my head because we reviewed the scene in which it is found, like, a thousand times on Thursday. I can’t find a clip of the particular scene online (“…officers, ma’am. Squeaker.”), so I’ll leave you my favorite from the movie for you [HERE].

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Training to Volunteer...

This weekend I’ll be in Boston for training to become a DSS Volunteer Case Reviewer. This is part of one of my goals for this year: To be active in the foster care community. I’m looking forward to the chance to see things from inside the system, but I’m not sure how I’ll handle what I’ll see. Many of the people whose (foster care) blogs I read confirm that it can be heartwrenching at times to see and hear about the experiences faced by these children. That, compounded with the frustrations a system woefully inadequate to the task of helping them, often lead to burnout. I’m mentally preparing myself for that, but I hope I’m strong enough to stay with it.

Every foster child who is put into care in Massachusetts receives a status review about every six months, at which time a case reviewer from the DSS Foster Care Review Unit, a member of the administrative staff from the local DSS area office and a Volunteer Case Reviewer from the local community meet to review the child’s service plan (what DSS must and can do) and discuss progress towards the established goals for the child. My role as a Volunteer Case Reviewer is to bring an outsiders understanding to this process, to help the DSS people understand those issues and concerns that they, as people entrenched in the system, might not consider.

Very often, the state likes to bring in people for these reviews who share the same cultural or ethnic background as the child and family, but this is surprisingly difficult. I’m a little bit of an asset because I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and because I have a fair awareness of the cultural sensitivities of a variety of cultures. The woman who interviewed me for this position fairly drooled when she found out these things, so I guess they’re skills they can use. It will be truly rewarding if that’s the case. I became interested in languages because I really liked connecting with people through them; if I’m able to use them to make someone’s life a little better, that gives them a much higher, more sacred sense of importance to me.

There is more information on foster care in the state of Massachusetts [HERE], if you’re interested in learning more.

In other news (this is for you, Kizz), I managed to fall down the entire flight of stairs from my office in the attic to the second floor of our house last night. My legs were jello after finishing an hour-long training ride on my bike and, when I missed the first step, there was no chance for recovery. I did not stick the landing, and cannot compete in the all-around. Fortunately, I didn’t bruise anything except my pride, but as I was going down, all I could think of was, “Jesus, there sure are a lot of stairs!” It seemed like I tumbled for a good 3 minutes!

My apologies go out to Caleb and Maeve for making such a racket. Their daughters’ bedroom is right underneath the stairs, and Elena woke up at the sound of the gawdawful clattering of my ass going over my tea kettle. I hope she didn’t fuss too much!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

One mind at a time...

Diana Watson, who works with the outreach arm of the Center for School Success, visited our school yesterday to talk research related to Mel Levine’s book A Mind at a Time. She’ll be back next week to talk with us more, but the essence of her visit this past week was to share with us some of what they’ve been teaching at CSS. I’d like to share it with you because, whether you’re a teacher or not, it has implications for how we think about our potential as people. Be prepared, though. This is a loooooong post. Do you have coffee? Several minutes to kill? Then read on!

If we, as teachers, think about what goes on in the classroom, we might describe it as an interchange between what the tasks we’re asking students to perform and the skills they bring to those tasks. We say, “Here’s what I want you to do,” and the students draw upon what they can to do it. Simple, yes? Well, why is it that it doesn’t work that way? Diana suggests (and I agree) that there is a disconnect in the interchange.

Let us play a game to illustrate the point (this is a fun game to do as an ice breaker, by the way--a full version is available [HERE]). Imagine that you are with a group of students (age is not important) sitting in a circle. You each have a baton. The game is this: You must pass the baton to the right or left on cue, according to the reading of a story. When you hear the word LEFT or RIGHT/WRIGHT, you hand the stick you have in that direction. You keep passing the stick you receive to the side that's mentioned next in the story - back and forth. Here’s a part of the story…

Mr. WRIGHT prepared to take Mrs. WRIGHT RIGHT to the hospital just as she went into labor. As he LEFT in the car, he turned RIGHT out of the driveway. He had to go RIGHT back home because he LEFT Mrs. WRIGHT at home. As soon as he turned into the driveway, he went RIGHT inside and RIGHT up the stairs, where he found Mrs. WRIGHT sitting RIGHT beside her overnight bag. They both got in the car on the LEFT side as the RIGHT side door wouldn't open. Mr. and Mrs. WRIGHT again LEFT for the hospital, turning RIGHT out of the driveway.

Make sense?

What are the skills, then, that you need to have in order to play this game? There’s a long list of physical requirements to this game, including good hand-eye-ear coordination and quick reflexes. Then there’s the very basic ability to hear and understand English. Having played this game myself, I can attest to the fact that an ability to focus on the story while simultaneously focusing on the sticks being passed back and forth is important, as well. Play it in your mind. Imagine yourself passing the stick left and right, and doing a pretty decent job of it. When the story is done and you’ve got the stick you’re supposed to have, imagine how good that’ll feel. You’d feel proud, right? It is not an easy game to play, even for adults!

Now, imagine the teacher telling you that you did a great job, and if you’ll just recite the details of the story in your own words, you’ll get an “A”.

How do you think you would feel? Could you even do it right now without having to go back up and look at the paragraph?

This is what it is often like for students in our classes. They come into our worlds with a set of skills, many of which are still in development (this is true even of older students in college). Often, however, we give them tasks to do that presuppose that these skills are fully developed or, worse, we demand of them tasks that are not at all in line with the skills they’ve used to prepare for what we’ve asked of them.

Let’s put the next example in the classroom. Say you’ve just given your middle or high school students a paper to write. The topic: Take a news article of your choice and do an analysis of it. Talk about it using all five question words (who, what, etc.) Tell what about it makes it newsworthy, then give your opinion of the article. Since this is a piece of writing, let’s make it clear that you intend there to be proper grammar and punctuation, a standard format (12-point Times Roman, 2x space, title at top) and, for consistency in evaluating, let’s require the five paragraph structure. Is this assignment pretty clear?

Let’s be clear that you’ve done your job as a teacher. You’ve taught them how to find an article in a newspaper. You’ve stood in front of them and explained about the five question words. You’ve put information on the board for them to copy down and given them a link to refresh their memories of what makes up a five paragraph essay (see [HERE], for example). You’ve even given them a rubric spelling out exactly what you were going to grade, and by how much. How much more do you need to do here? Most of us would say that sets them up pretty well, I think.

The due date arrives. Where are the papers? Some of them might have come in, but they were miserable. The writing was full of errors, they didn’t follow the format and, what the hell?! This one doesn’t even have five paragraphs! Does this sound familiar? Everyone who’s gone through this as a teacher, raise your hand.

Now let’s consider just what we’re asking the students to do in this assignment. That is, what skills do they need to have already in place to complete it to the standard we, as teachers, would expect? Here are just some of the things I could think of off the top of my head:

-- Read and understand a news article and an Internet site
-- Summarize the article in one’s own words with all five question words
-- Type on a keyboard
-- Understand and be proficient in formatting in a word processing program
-- Learn or review the concept of a five paragraph essay from a piece of writing
-- Think beyond the article to other connecting events
• Be aware of other connecting, prior events related to the article
• Interpret and communicate concept of “newsworthiness”
• Interpret broader public interest
-- Understand what the instructor meant by “analysis”
-- Develop and express an opinion

What did I miss?

Now, for the point: How many of your students (how many of US, for that matter) do you expect could easily perform all of these tasks simultaneously? Like in the left-right game, above, most people could do SOME of what was required, but few of us could do ALL that was required to do complete the overall task well. It’s no wonder, then, that our students produce substandard work. It’s not unlike expecting someone to pat their head and rub their tummy while also trying to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy, and it sets people up to fail and be frustrated in the process.

Many of us who teach at higher grades lament the fact that students simply don’t know what they need to by the time they get to us. It’s not our fault, we say. They’re supposed to have these skills in place by the time they get to us! Well, maybe they are and maybe they’re not.

We often label these students (and there are millions of them in the U.S. public schools through grade 12) as having learning disabilities or, at minimum, serious learning issues. Neuroscience is beginning to challenge this assumption, however. One of the things the work of Dr. Levine and others are making clear is that, in fact, we may be expecting students to have skills that they may simply not universally have fully developed by the time we call upon them to use them.

We know a lot of students (and adults) like this, don’t we? Bob is a brilliant artist and good with math, but can’t write well to save his life. He’s gone through Language Arts twice in the same grade, but still isn’t reading up to grade level. Jenny needs to have instructions repeated, like, 12 times before she’s able to them. You’d think she just wasn’t paying attention, but she’s looking right at you! These are examples of people (and they could be adults or children) with a solid ability to understand what they need to do, but who must contend with the unique, subtly different variations in the wiring of their brains that get in the way of their learning. Sometimes these variations are easily seen because they affect basic skills such as reading, writing or arithmetic, but very often they’re far less obvious. They may have trouble with time management, expressing things orally, remembering isolated bits of trivia or ways of solving problems, or even learning how to navigate social situations. In adults, we often accept these as eccentricities. In children, we consider them handicaps. I would philosophically argue that they are neither, but I’ll leave that be in favor of looking at how to actually solve the problem and get the students learning. That is, after all, what all this is about, right?

If we acknowledge that there is a diversity of ways in which people’s brains are wired, we can begin to think about the necessity of a pluralistic approach to teaching--or, more appropriately, to learning. We can recognize that, if each of our students learns in a different way, a couple of things about our practice as teachers become important. First on this list is the ability to accurately assess just what our students are individually, and collectively, capable of. Then we can create learning opportunities that are built upon what our students know (for learning cannot take place apart from what we know) and that take our students out of what Lev Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development (in real person’s English, that means that we take students just a little out of their “comfort zone”, but not so far out that they get scared and can’t pay attention).

Second on the list is the ability to approach our teaching from several different points of view, recycling or spiraling around the concepts repeatedly in ways that draw upon different paths in the brain (what Howard Gardner terms intelligences). At some point I’ll be motivated to talk more about this, since it’s central to my own practice, but I’ve already droned on for nearly 2,000 words in this post and you’re probably bored to tears by now.

In closing, I’d like some feedback from y’all out there--teachers or not. Does any of this make sense to you? Does it fit with your own experience as learners or as teachers? Even if you don’t agree, does the logic of what I’m saying seem sound? What, if anything, does not hold? I’d love to hear from you!

By the way, an interview with Dr. Levine by Margot Adler on NPR is available [HERE].

Friday, March 7, 2008

Learning all about cycles…and cycling!

I had on my list of goals last year to compete in a triathlon. I didn’t end up doing this, but instead chose to do a 400-mile ride to Lock Haven, PA to pick up my M.Ed. in person. That event was supremely satisfying, not only because I got to actually see the campus and faculty of the institution that awarded me the degree, but because I was able to prove to myself that I could, in fact, become physically and mentally fit enough to ride the distance.

I didn’t end up finishing the blog entries about the trip (I’m not sure that anyone else would have been interested in what happened over those 5 days, anyway, and I didn’t need to put it all down into words to remember it), but the experience left me with an incredible sense of accomplishment. Sure, there were a couple of moments when I questioned whether I would actually be able to do it (that first day was the worst!). I grumbled when I had to change my second flat in as many days and when I got soaked to the bone, but this nothing compared to standing with my bike at the top of the Rhinecliff Bridge in Kingston, overlooking the Hudson River after climbing for 20 miles straight up from it or pulling into Lock Haven just as the Carroll announced the noontime hour. I will forever keep the very personal memories of that journey close to my heart, and I am grateful for what the trek has done for my self-confidence (and my leg muscles), but I do not want this event to be a singular, isolated one. I want it to be the first step toward a more active, more fulfilling lifestyle.

The next step takes me back to my original goal: A triathlon. I decided to dedicate myself this year to being ready to compete in an Olympic-distance race (there’s a local event that qualifies, which is convenient) and at least one smaller sprint-distance race in the early part of the summer, as preparation. For those who don’t know, an Olympic-distance triathlon is 1.5k of swimming, 40k of biking and 10k of running. The sprint distance version is half the Olympic version. I have my work cut out for me. I put on a good 15 pounds after my ride last summer, which I’ll have to take off again. I’ll have to go back to a base training schedule, but work quickly to get beyond it while at the same time not injuring myself. I’ll need to make a serious, concerted effort to get into the water (I run and ride right now, but I don’t have a regular swim component in my training regimen). I’ll need to “taste bitter”, as Shaolin monks say, so that I can get to a peak level of health and fitness that will carry me through a summer of heavy, physical training.

There’s a lot about doing this that I’m going to enjoy, but it will not be easy to get from my current state of fitness to something that will survive an endurance event. Fortunately, spring is nearly here! The temps have risen steadily during the last week. The snow is melting. The birds are back (we saw geese yesterday)! I’m feeling a lot more motivated to take care of business knowing that the end of the dark time is at hand.

Gearing up for this triathlon has reminded me that fitness, like so much in life, is cyclical. Longtime endurance athletes already know this, but I’d forgotten it until recently. It puts a lot of things into perspective, though. Consider the following provision of Murphy’s Law: That it takes months and months to get to peak fitness (or any fitness, for that matter), but only days to lose it. If fitness is cyclical, then the body simply cannot maintain a high level of peak fitness indefinitely. Whew! Doesn’t that make you feel better knowing that you were never supposed to keep the chisled, bikini-ready physique you worked so hard for last year? Me either. But at least now I know how to approach my weight, fitness and workout routines. If our bodies maintain fitness highs and lows, I can prepare for that. I can even figure out how to maintain a high base level of fitness for a long period of time that will fluctuate with things like the seasons, stress, illness and injury.

Realizing this cyclical nature of fitness has really opened my eyes again to how I need to train for this event, and how I need to approach exercise differently in general. I used to work hard to get into peak shape and push, push, push to hold onto it for as long as I could. If I got derailed for some reason, I’d end up going all the way back to the starting block. I don’t have to do that anymore. Now I know that, if I plan to work toward a particular event (in this case, a triathlon), I’ll get fit much faster than if I don’t. Once the event is over, I need to be prepared for a decline in fitness, but I don’t need simply to go all the way back to base fitness. I can come down slowly by training lightly after the event so that I actually end up at a higher level of base fitness than I would otherwise.

The thing I really have to do is make the commitment to be active every day. It’s something that, like blogging, I’ve been struggling with, especially during the most stressful time of year--the dark season. Last year I did better with it than I have for a long time, but I still got into that depressing funk that often leaves me completely unmotivated to do anything but vegetate. I’m committed to doing better this year.

This brings me back to cycles—well, to cycling at least. Of the three disciplines involved in a triathlon, cycling is my strongest by far. It’s the one I can do most easily during the winter because I have a trainer in my office onto which I can attach my racing bike. I’ve gotten back into the saddle over the last several weeks, and it’s been a great help in helping me get started. It’s the activity I like to turn to first, for solo fitness. I’ve already hit 100 miles, and I’m excited to see 1,000 by the end of the summer.

What do you do for fitness? Do you enjoy being physically active? Do you play sports (competitive or individual, casual or more than that)? I get that not many people would be interested in endurance sports, but I’m curious to know how different people feel about exercise and such in general.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Getting off in the workplace...

I was talking with one of my colleagues this week. She said, “God, wouldn’t it be great if every room here at a TV with a DVD player that worked, and a projector for the computer with one of those Smartboards®, and a computer that worked, like, all the time…(deeply contented sigh).

Right there in front of me, I witnessed a professional orgasm.

This got me thinking about the things in my professional life that get me excited like that, so I made a list. It’s in no particular order, and keep in mind that I teach primarily foreign languages.

Workbooks with good practice exercises. There’s a lot of stuff out there, but very little of it approaches practice in a way that connects well to what I teach. I do a lot of trolling for this stuff and, every once in a while, something comes in that really works. When I open it up and see that I can totally use what’s there, I get all tingly.

Technology. I’m a guy. I like my toys. I lobbied for two years to get a projector to run from my laptop for the presentations, exercises and games I use in class, and it is the shizzle! Gimme more! I had access to a Smartboard® years ago, and I shake at the thought of having one again.

Useful, fun websites for my students. I spend a fair amount of time in my classes showing my students how to make full use of the incredible resource that is the Internet to help them study language on their own. To that end, I show them everything from how to use an online dictionary (and the forums that go with it) to how to use online translation algorithms to translate a website from, say, French to English. Armed with this information, they can go and explore the rest of the world! When they come back with some nugget of interest to them, it always gets me excited.

Office supplies. Damn, but I get drooly just before I open the Staples box at the beginning of the school year! What’s that about? I mean, it’s just paper clips and markers! It’s embarrassing.

Audio and video my first-year students can use--that is not dorky! Why is this so goddamn hard for people to produce?! If I ever leave the classroom (hell, I may not even wait that long), I’m so totally going to make a pile of this stuff and make a mint!

Quality, creative writing from my kids. I’m not openly effusive about it when I get it, but I absolutely go foolish over some of the stories and journal entries my gang hands in, especially if it’s from students whose work shows that they really worked on it and who made real progress. Nothing makes a teacher love the job more than good demonstrations of learning!

Exhibitions that leave lasting impressions. My students each complete a semester-long project that is composed of a research paper and a classroom presentation. The classroom presentation requires an activity that actively and directly involves the class in learning what the student has researched. In any given year, I’ll have a bunch of these that are really good but, every once in a while, I see one that everyone really connects with, that they talk about long afterwards. I had one last year on traditional cultural art from Mexico, where the student produced a video that introduced the concept (she’s given me permission to put it on YouTube, but I haven’t done it yet), then she gave each of the students a small hand loom to show them how to make their own tapestries. The looms were made of cardboard, but there was clearly a lot of time and creative energy given to this idea, and it totally paid off. There were kids walking around the school weaving little tapestries for days after! It attracted all kinds of attention, and it was wonderful to see.

Faculty workshops where we get to collaborate and share. This happens pretty regularly at my school, and I look forward to it every time. I work with an amazing bunch of professionals, and I really get energized when I have the chance to plan, create and connect with them.

Having the right classroom experience for the day. Teaching is a lot about good preparation, but there’s a necessary need to adapt to circumstance. I pride myself on being flexible, and I’m not afraid to depart from the plan when it will make for a better experience for everyone concerned. Of course, this means I’ll make adjustments when my students are exhausted and just not into doing what I’ve got on tap, but the best thing is when they’re really ready and willing to go, and I have to keep up with them. When they go well, those classes always leave me emotionally and physically spent, but with a smile on my face.

So, what does it for you professionally?