Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ignoring Tuesday

He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday -- no matter what happened on Tuesday. ~Stephen Colbert

Among the most egregious aspects of the corporate education "reform" movement enthusiastically embraced by both the Obama and Bush administrations is the faith-based notion that teacher should be largely evaluated based upon the high stakes standardized test scores of their students.

Let's forget for a moment that these tests are an enormous time, energy, and resource suck: in many places, testing and test prep is pretty much all the kids and their teachers do while in school. And let's also set aside the fact that every study ever done on these tests demonstrate that they fail to test actual knowledge, but rather the socio-economic status of the test takers. And let's also forget about the incredibly narrow slice of education that is even addressed by these test, usually focusing on math and literacy to the exclusion of the entirety of humanities, science, arts, physical, and social education. 

I know that's a ton to set aside, but US Education Secretary Arne Duncan's continued insistence upon using student test scores to pay and fire teachers, no matter what happened on Tuesday, may be the most insane aspect of the entire federal effort. Specifically "reformers" are enamored of using a voodoo statistical trick called "value-add measures" (VAM) which is a formula that purports to take student test scores, then calculate the contribution individual teachers make. It sounds like it might be a good idea, except that time and again, it has been shown to be an unreliable measure of anything. In fact, it's quite common for teachers with outstanding VAM scores one year to wind up near the bottom the next. 

From Valerie Strauss writing in the Washington Post:

The American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, said in an April report that value-added scores "do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes" and that they "typically measure correlation, not causation," noting that "effects -- positive or negative -- attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model." This month, two researchers reported that they had found little or no correlation between quality teaching and the appraisals that teachers received using VAM.

Of course, teachers are aware of this, while dilettantish economists and politicians continue to plow-forward with their faith-based guesses about how education works. Teachers know that teaching children is not something that can be reduced to factory floor methodology and efficient turnkey operations. Every classroom of children is different, every child is different, and the circumstances and events that shape their educational attainment are largely outside of our control. Yes, good teachers can and do make an enormous difference in children's lives, sometimes even in ways that show up on high-stakes standardized tests, but much of what we do cannot be measured by a test taken by someone else. Children are not a delivery of blueberries that can be sent back if they don't measure up. To use VAM and other accounting gimmicks to fire teachers and deprive children of dedicated, experienced professional educators is the kind of craziness that comes from ignoring what happened on Tuesday.

When Ms. Strauss asked Duncan if he was aware of the overwhelming research against using VAM to evaluate teachers, he responded that he was. And then, in the same breath, took that opportunity to double down on his support for VAM. Why? I don't think he's evil or crazy, so there must be another explanation.

I've written before that I've come to an understanding this cabal of "reformers" are clearly no longer in this for the purpose of improving public education. It's about competition. Their goal is now simply to win. That's why they are ignoring Tuesday. How else can one explain it?

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Monday, September 22, 2014

"You Watched Me"

"Help me."

He was standing at the top of the homemade ladder, which was positioned as a ramp with the lower end in the wood chips and the upper atop one of the cedar rounds that line our sand pit.

I said, "You want to go down the ladder."

"I do."

"I'll watch you."

He put a toe on the top rung and found that the ladder moved a little with his weight, so he dropped into a crouch, a position that felt more secure to him, and which he assumed for the entirety of the decent, a cautious, focused, step-by-step, hand-over-hand process. 

When he got to the bottom, I said, "You went down the ladder."

And he answered, "You watched me."

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Friday, September 19, 2014

"Water Volcano!"

Yesterday, I wrote about a group of boys who managed to find a couple of different ways to "push water uphill" and wanted to share this as a follow up.

I had pulled a plastic tube from our storage room. It was designed to make a sort of haunting, whistling sound when it was swung in a circle. The thing used to work, but when I demonstrated it yesterday, it only made the faintest of sounds, probably due to a couple small cracks that have appeared on the business end. Still, the kids wanted "turns" so I left it to them, confident that it would wind up as part of the water play, which is the natural home for all tube-like things that no longer do what they were designed to do.

Sure enough, when it returned to my attention later in the day, it was as a bone of contention between a couple of guys playing up near the cast iron water pump. It was a sort of a heatless tug-of-war conflict when I arrived, so I stood back to give them space to work it out on their own. When they started taking swings at one another, I stepped in, doing that thing where you put your hand on the object under consideration, then saying, "I see you guys hitting each other."

Normally, I would say something like, "We all agreed no hitting," but the kids haven't yet found a need for rules this new school year, so we're operating as an anarchy right now. With no formal agreements to fall back on, I was left with statements of fact.

"He's had a long turn and I haven't had a turn."

"I had it first."

These are some of our older kids, so it shouldn't have surprised me, but it's still early in the school year, so I was gratified that they so quickly switched from talking through me to talking to one another.

"But you had a long turn."

"I'm not finished."

When they resumed their tugging, my hand still controlling the tube, I said, "Both of you want to play with it."

Isaac, who was nearby said, "I think they should share it."

I echoed, "Isaac thinks you should share it."

One of the boys, his hand still firmly on the tube replied, "I think nobody should play with it." He smiled at his rival in an effort to show his goodwill.

I'm not sure his rival noticed the gesture. "I didn't get a long turn."

Then Loic, who was also nearby, said, "I think they should share it."

I echoed, "Loic thinks you should share it."

There was a little more back and forth between the two boys, a conversation that found them at one point having entirely switched positions, with the second boy now recommending that "no body" play with it. I could feel through my hand that held the tube that the tension had drained out of the conflict, although they both held their respective ends of the tube. Now they were genuinely looking for a solution, albeit by talking in circles.

One of the boys bent down and picked up a small traffic cone. He put it over the end he held, which was the slightly expanded end, the part with the small cracks that was originally designed to make the haunting, whistling sound when swung, saying, "We just want to make the water explode like a volcano."

To which his friend replied, "Yeah, we just want to make the water explode like a volcano . . . but we have to put this end in there." Common ground. And with that he handed his end, the narrower end, to his friend, who in turn, traded for his end. Naturally, this is when I let go as well, the conflict now turned to cooperation. They then held the wider end under the pump while Isaac pumped, filling the tube with water. When it was full, the boy holding the wider end took a deep breath and blew forcefully into the tube, which cased an eruption of water to spout from the cone at the other end which was being held by his friend.

"Water volcano!"

Wild laughter ensued. They had clearly discovered this phenomenon previously and were now recreating the experiment, informally "proving" their science. They did it again and again, occasionally trading places, sharing as their friends had suggested, dousing themselves and everyone around them with the water that they had once more managed to make go "uphill."

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pushing Water Uphill

Like much of Seattle, our entire outdoor space is on a slope. We've positioned our cast iron water pump near the top, in the sand pit, which means it doesn't take much effort to get a nice river flowing.

It's one of the main things we do out there, year-round, with the exception of the month or so when there is a genuine risk of pipes freezing. When they're young, they're often just pumping and watching, but as they get older and more experienced it becomes about managing the flow through trail-and-error engineering.

We learn a lot by doing this, of course, and one of the foundational facts every child discovers is that water doesn't easily flow uphill. We know this because we've tried to make it happen.

Yesterday, we got a nice long river flowing that the kids terminated in a single, deep hole at the bottom of the sand pit. After playing with the mud for awhile, some of the guys decided to create an exit stream that ran toward the base of the concrete slide, a direction that is slightly uphill, but not so much that you would notice it without a close study. They dug hard, but the water didn't cooperate. Someone had the idea to incorporate a length of pipe only to discover that the great truth about gravity still held true. 

That is, until a friend figured out that he could dip one end into the deeper water, then lift it in a sort of scooping motion, collecting a bit of water in the pipe, which then, with the pipe tipped, ran "uphill" to where his buddies dug. He did it over and over, creating a fairly steady trickle for them to manage, which they did until he was ready to quit. Getting water uphill can be done, but it uses more energy.

Later, the play moved up near the pump, where the center of attention was a section of vacuum cleaner hose. They were attempting to attach it to the pump's spout in order to get water flowing through it as it lay in a length of gutter. It was flowing away, when one of the guys picked up the downhill end, lifting it higher than the pump's spout. The flow stopped. He looked into the hose to check things out, lowering it just a little so that it was now lower than the spout, but still higher than the center section of the hose. Suddenly, conditions just right, the water began to spurt out. 

"It came up the hose!" he laughed, redirecting the flow away from his face. "Keep pumping!"

And his friend answered, "It came up the pump, then down the hose, then up the hose." They knew what they had done. It took a lot of fiddling then, but they discovered that by raising and lowering the open end, they could use that flexible hose to direct the water to anywhere within reach, a game for the rest of the afternoon.

When I worked for the chamber of commerce one of my boss's favorite expressions was, "It's like trying to push water uphill," meaning, of course, that we were trying to do something that was next to impossible. It usually meant we should just give it up, perhaps a lesson for when efficiency is the goal, but these lessons are not about efficiency. They are about science, and when it comes to science efficiency is the enemy of truth.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My Secrets To Lesson Planning

I know that employment realities make writing out "lesson plans" a necessity for many teachers. Frankly, I don't know how one would write one of those, especially when it comes to the part about "leaning objectives." How can anyone know what someone is going to learn on any given day engaged in any given activity?

I once read an article featuring the warehouse used by the television program Mythbusters. I was so impressed by their balance between order and functionality that I've tried to emulate it here. I should note that I do know where most things are and that this area is off limits to children.

As a teacher employing an emergent, play-based curriculum, I figure my "planning" job is to keep up with the kids, observing, listening, calculating trajectories, then to do what I can to work with parents and our environment in support of their pursuit of knowledge, which, not accidentally, looks exactly like playing. Indeed, what I've found is that the more planning I do, the more likely it is that I inadvertently develop my own agenda. If I'm not then super conscious about setting aside that agenda the moment the children have a better idea, and they usually have a better idea, it tends to get in the way of their all-important pursuit. 

I use this aisle to park my lesson planning bike during the day

In fact, I do most of my day-to-day curriculum planning during my 30 minute bicycle commute to and from school each day. Every now and then I'll jot a few notes when I arrive on the premises and a few just before departure. Sometimes I'll leave myself a sort of reminder on a counter top, like the old technique of tying a string around one's finger. 

It occurred to me yesterday, however, while participating in an online discussion, that there is another level of planning in which I engage, one I'd never thought of as "lesson planning" until now. And that is to have a well-stocked storage room, because there isn't always an opportunity to swing by the shops in the heat of our pursuit of knowledge. Now I can't tell you what that means exactly. Yes, we do have the obligatory art, constructive, and dramatic play supplies. We have collections of stuff, leftover things, and "ingredients," such as vinegar, baking soda, flour, liquid starch, vegetable oil, salt, Ivory Snow, and corn starch. Much of what we have in our storage room is what someone has previously declared "garbage." We've taken charge of it by way of using it one more time (or often many more times) before it heads to the landfill. 

Without this well-stocked storage room (not to mention the stuff stashed in and around our outdoor classroom) it would be much more of a challenge to engage in bicycle commute lesson planning. It's this that allows us to respond quickly to the rapidly changing needs, ideas, and directions the children take in their pursuit. There are still times, of course, when what we think we need isn't at hand, but more often than not, in our storage room of garbage, we can find something that will at least make do for the moment . . . And in a emergent, play-based pursuit, the moment is often everything.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

"I wonder if the blocks will fall down again."

I made this statement the other day as a group of kids were attempting to build a tower to the ceiling. They paused in what they were doing.

"I think they will because they get too high."

"Somebody keeps bumping them."

"The ones on top get too heavy."

I often think I'm at my best as a teacher when I'm saying the least, and especially when I'm only saying certain, well considered things. Instead of pondering aloud, for instance, I could have asked a direct question like, "Why do the blocks keep falling down?" a question to which I already know the "right" answer. It may seem like a difference without a distinction, but when we ask questions like this, ones to which we already know the answer, even if we do it with a gentle high-pitched voice, we've made ourselves into testers and our children into test takers.

"What color is this?"

"What letter do you see?"

"How many marbles are in the bowl?"

I know it's a fun game for some kids, just like some of us adults enjoy taking tests, but for others, this kind of ad hoc grilling adds an entirely unnecessary level of stress, not to mention the fact that it often rips an engaged child right out of her own process of scientific testing, turning her in a moment from tester into test subject. Instead of following his own inquiry, he's the focus of someone else's.

It's usually best to say nothing at all, and the longer I've been teaching, the more my mantra has become, "Shut up, Teacher Tom," but when I do decide to verbally interject myself into the children's play, I really like the "I wonder . . ." construct. For one, it's not a question demanding an answer: children can choose to respond to it or not. Those who enjoy the give-and-take of Q&A will hear it as a question anyway, while those less inclined to performing on my cue can take it or leave it. 

But more importantly, I think, is the space that "I wonder . . ." leaves for children to take up the wondering on their own. 

Particularly satisfying is when I remember to make more philosophical, open-ended statements. 

"I wonder why squid live in the water."

"I wonder what will happen if I knock over that building."

"I wonder if I could climb onto the roof of our school."

Sometimes it sparks remarkable conversations, speculations about nature, social dynamics, physics, and physicality. Sometimes not. The underlying point I think is not the specific things we say after the words "I wonder . . ." but rather the role-modeling of the inquiry itself. When we make these statements aloud, children hear us engaging the world as life-long learners, as critical thinkers, as philosophers, as people who still don't have all the answers. It reveals us in our proper role in this world that is far more often gray than black or white: it teaches the habit of taking a stance in life not as a mere test taker, but rather as a tester, which is what lies at the heart of a true education.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Why I'm Gentle Today

When I was between the ages of 4 and 9 my family lived in a suburban neighborhood on the site of a former pine forest, meaning that pine cones were a plentiful resource.

We made things with them, holiday decorations, bird feeders, and other crafty things, but over the span of time I lived there, by far the number one use of these pine cones was as projectiles. I suppose there was some spontaneous hurling, but what I remember most were proper "pine cone fights." We would begin by stockpiling our weaponry, not by the mere armful, but by filling up the farmers market baskets our moms kept in garages.

Most of the pinecones we found on the ground had wound up there according to the natural order of things: they had ripened, opened, released their seeds, then fell to the ground like leaves do in the fall. Sure, these had some pokey bits, but for the most part they were relatively light weight, unlikely to raise more than a minor welt when they made contact. There were always a few pine cones, however, that had fallen before their time, compact, sappy and hard as rocks. Chuckling evilly, we would gather a few of these as well, burying them at the bottom on our baskets with the idea of saving them for "dire" moments. 

Of course, those dire moments never came, no matter how intense our battles, attacking and retreating in hails of pine cones. Indeed, there were moments when I had one of those last resorters threateningly in hand, but I don't recall anyone ever actually throwing one, at least not with the intent or velocity to cause injury. There were no adults around to "be careful" us, there was no threat of punishment if we did, yet we kept those potentially harmful missiles in hand. In fact, even when we threw the regular pine cones, I might have had to duck and dodge to avoid being beaned, but I was in no fear that anyone was intentionally aiming at my head where there were eyes and other soft parts about which to worry. Close range throws were always directed at the body, where it might well sting, especially if they connected with unclothed arms or legs, but not likely to cause any sort of debilitating damage. And we all instinctively knew to "take something off" our close-range throws, particularly when a younger child was involved.

No adult told us any of this: it was built into the game. Why? Because we knew that if someone got hurt, the game was in jeopardy. When one of us did take a shot to the cheek, the game froze, genuine apologies were quickly offered, even sometimes sympathy, and we all hoped for no sign of blood or bruising. And the injured party was in it with us in hoping for the injury to be sufficiently minor that we could avoid adult intervention, because we all knew that would mean at least a temporary end to our game. We had already lost backyard tackle football for a whole week when Ralph Cozart took a black eye from John Sain's knee.

This is what's called self-regulation or, as it was phrased as a data point on our report cards, "self control." Even within an apparently wild, intense activity as pine cone fights, we found ourselves in a constant, rapid-fire assessment of risk both for ourselves and others, driven by the desire to keep the play going. We practiced setting aside our own minor discomforts, to keep it going. We strived to adhere to our own self-imposed, largely unspoken, safety rules even when feeling angry, afraid, or frustrated, to keep it going. We learned to care for the minor pains and emotions of others without the help of adults, to keep it going. 

In all our years of pine cone fights, there were many scrapes and bruises, and we always knew, going in, there was a potential for tears, but we kept right on playing. I imagine that if any of us today have pine cones on our playgrounds, pine cone fights are not permitted just as they weren't on our school playgrounds, because that's how adults tend to solve these "problems." But at least we had those hours after school, where we got to play without grown-ups always there with their greater "wisdom." 

Those pine cone fights, perhaps more than any object lesson in caring for others, are why I'm gentle today.

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