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Leo's Interviews - Some Initial Thoughts

Before going into some specific thought on some things that came out of Leo Rigsby's interviews with my students, I just wanted to get some general thoughts out and respond a couple of the comments others made based on my original post.

Euclid wrote:

I think you are being too nice about the kid who said you made innappropriate comments. The little s**t saw it as a chance to take a cheap shot at you. Constructive critisim is great and worth its weight in gold. However rare is the 9th grade student that can provide us this feedback.
Here is the student comment he was refering to:
I found that Mr. Lazar was a terrible teacher. He had mood swings, and always found his opinion to be right, and never played devil’s advocate. I would actually feel bad for someone who gets him as a teacher, because of the way he acts. He said Catholics are bad, and Jews always are right, and they are God’s people, putting down other religions constantly. Another problem was his constant name calling, he even recently called a group of mine, “a bunch of dicks.” I mean if you call someone that make sure it’s someone who could respond, because if I responded, I could have been suspended for threatening him. Bottom line, he is the worst teacher I have ever had.
I think Lexi (who for the record, is a 9th grader that just provided some very intelligent feedback) already said much of my initial reaction to this comment. The student who Euclid refered to as a "little s**t" was doing exactly what she was told to do. Did the student take a cheap shot at me? Perhaps. But assuming this is the student I am 99% sure that it was, what she wrote was not inconsistent with earlier statement she had openly made to me throughout the year. The bottom line is that this student hated me, and because of that she did not learn in my class. And it is my job to insure that students learn. This student was incredibly intelligent and did well in some of her other classes, but for whatever reason she decided very early on in the year that I would not be an effective teacher for her and checked out. Was her criticism of me something I take seriously? Absolutely not. However, I do take seriously my inability to be an effective teacher for her.

Euclid also wrote that she/he believes it is rare that a 9th grader can provide constructive criticism. My question for Euclid is, have you ever sought out criticism from your students?

Because I did this formally on a quarterly basis, and informally much more frequently. Out of my 120 students, I would say that 50-60% of them consistently provided useful (worth its weight in gold) criticism. The student responses that were not useful were mostly either from students who loved the class and didn't want anything to change, or from students who would only write "This class is ok." And yes, there would be one or two students who would take 'cheap shots.' But those responses quickly made their way to the trash, and from the rest I could readjust my teaching (or more often, the way I presented my teaching) in a ways to benefit my students.

Much of what I will have so much to say in response to Leo's Interviews is because things came out that had not come out in my earlier attempts at getting feedback. My students had never said anything to me about being too strong on my opinions. They had mentioned the "friends" issue, but not in a way that I truly understood until reading these responses. And there are a handful of other things that came out that made me think about the past year in a different way that I'll be writing about.


Done moving

After what felt like 4 days of non-stop moving, I am finally done. Now I get to relax and spend some times with my family in Ohio. I'm really hoping to get a lot of writing done over the next few days.

In the mean time, here's links to the last three Carnivals of Education, which I also hope I get a chance to read over the next few days:


My Students Thoughts on My Teaching

I've been incredibly lucky this year to have Dr. Leo Rigsby as a frequent guest in my classroom. Leo is an education professor at George Mason University, and was paired with me through the Mentoring Program at the Center for Inspired Teaching in D.C. About once a month, Leo would observe my class. Afterwards, we would usually talk for about half an hour reflecting on the class. He would then type me up a few pages of comments. He was incredibly helpful throughout the year in terms of keeping me focused on empowering my students and keeping my classroom student-centered. I wish more teachers could have this opportunity.

Towards the end of the year, he asked if he could interview some of my students about the experience of being in my class. I jumped at the opportunity. A couple weeks ago, he spent 15 minutes each with three of my classes without me in the room and typed up a summery of the discussions. I have a lot I want to say about the comments, but I'm just going to let them speak for themselves for a few days (plus I have WAY too much packing still left to do). The comments can be found here.

The comments are exactly as he sent them to me with two exceptions.

  • I removed the name of the school.
  • I also, in brackets, denied two things a student quoted me as saying. They are both things that would be incredibly inappropriate for a teacher to say to students and I do not want people thinking I said them. However, I don't do this to in any way diminish the importance of the perception of this student. If a student perceived me as having made these comments, this is something I need to worry about.

Quick Thoughts on My Students' Final Projects

So the last set of Daily Shows were presented to the class today. Overall, I'm happy with the way they turned out. All of them contained a solid historical base and were entertaining. Perhaps most importantly for the end of the year, everyone seemed to have fun with them.

The major weakness of my execution of the assignment was my failure to make it more rigorous. There was really no critical thinking involved in this assignment on any level. While my students certainly had fun with it, I'm not sure how much students learned from that. And I'm okay with that for the end of the year. However, if I were to do this assignment again, I would move it earlier in the year, and try to emphasize much more of a critical approach to both history and the process of putting the assignment together. I would mandate a draft and peer review process. I would do a piece analyzing how an actual episode of the Daily Show really works and how it interacts with current history, and include this as part of the assessment.

But all in all, I had a lot of fun with the assignment, and it seemed like my students did too.


I'm Back!!!

Well, it took a week to get a new computer, and then a few days to get it up and running, but I am back and fully connected on my new iBook G4...just in time for the last two days of school and a move to NYC through the weekend.

There is SO much I want/need to write about. Over the next month, I'm going to (hopefully) have periods where I am very proficient in writing, and others where I disappear for about a week (going to L.A. July 13th to visit my best friend from college for a week, and going to Cape Cod on July 23rd for a week with my fiancee's family).

So things I need to blog about in the coming weeks (basically a to-blog list for myself):

  • Reflection on my students' final projects (hilarious videos!) and their blogging
  • Responses to one of my last posts on tracking
  • Thoughts on the end of the year
  • I've been working with a professor from George Mason University who has been observing my class throughout the year through a program from the Center for Inspired Teaching. He interviewed three of my classes last week and wrote me a fascinating seven page summery of their thoughts on my class (which I'll post once I change my web hosting). I need to write a lot of thoughts on this.
  • Thoughts on leaving Northern Virginia for NYC
  • Thoughts on books I've been reading
  • Responses to a ton of great posts that accumulated in my Bloglines account over the past two weeks
Some very quick thoughts:
  • While I have been counting down the days until I move to NYC for a few months now, I'm really sad to say good-bye to a lot of my students Friday. I'm really going to miss being in the classroom next year.
  • Right around when I first started this blog, Bud asked "How many days does it take to develop a habit to the point of sticking?" I don't know how many days it takes for the habit to stick, but it was VERY easy to feel like I got out of it. I actually got my computer Sunday, but it has taken until now for me to sit down and right again for fear that the habit would get in the way of other things I need to do. It's a similar fear to get back on the bicycle after falling.
  • As much as a I love Bloglines and how much more information it allows me to consume, it is overwhelming being away from it for an extended length of time. Even with nearly 1000 unread articles when I got back, I could bring myself to just mark them all read and start over. Have I become dependent on reading too much?
  • Thanks to everyone who has continued to comment on my site in my absence.



My laptop's hard drive failed this morning, so I am computerless for at least a day or two. I'm really looking forward to responding to the comments on my post on GT and Race, as well as this post over at Clarence's site when I'm back and wired.

UPDATE: Hard drive unfortunatly wasn't the only problem, as the logic board was also damaged. But a new computer is on its way, so I'll hopefully be back up and running at full speed over the weekend.


Next Year or, Why Blog Part II

In my first post (which - hard for me to believe - will only be one month ago this Friday) I talked about some of the reasons I decided to start this blog. There was one big reason that I left out, because I wanted to make sure I was able to tell my students in person first.

I'm going to be taking a break from the classroom next year to get my master's degree. I got the good news last week that I was accepted into the African-American Studies program at Columbia University in New York City.

Since I will not be in a formal education program, I wanted a way to connect what I'm studying to teaching, and I think this blog will very much help me do that in a semi-formal way. I hope to use this space as much as possible to play with ideas and issues that arise during the year, hopefully getting them into a form that will be useful when I return to the classroom in the Fall of 2006. Also, I look forward to staying connected with community of blogging classroom teachers who have helped me learn so much over the past few weeks.

A lot of people have asked me both why I'm going to grad school now, and then also why I'm doing my masters in African-American studies (full disclosure - I am very much a white boy from Ohio).

The first question is easier to explain. I got engaged this past March, and will be getting married next June. My fiancee lives in Brooklyn, and we'll be much happier together in New York than we would be in the DC area. Once we decided I would be the one moving (in 3 weeks now), we thought it made sense for me to get my masters before we get married as opposed to trying to teach and do a masters in the first years of our marriage (an MA is required for a full teaching license in New York). So I began searching for a one-year programs in the City.

I was lucky enough as an undergrad to be able to fully participate in an outstanding MAT program which got me certified in Social Studies and History, but gave me no advanced degree. I think, at this point, I will benefit much more from some more work in my content area that in more education courses. I'm also only a handful of courses short of English certification, and would very much like teach at a school that integrates Social Studies and English, so I decided to look for an interdisciplinary program. I didn't set out to specifically to pursue study in African-American Studies, but when looking at all my options, it seemed to present me the best preparation for teaching in New York City, as well as the largest potential for personal growth. From my application essay:

Columbia’s masters program in African-American Studies seems uniquely positioned to help me achieve this goal. I must admit that I do not have a very strong background in this area. I took two courses in Africana Studies at Brown, as well as Education and History courses that touched on the black experience in America. I hope to achieve two main goals by participating in this program. First, I want to dramatically increase the body of knowledge I will be able to use to develop curriculum that is personally relevant to the lives of my students. Second, I want to further develop my ability to see the world and myself through eyes other than the white, suburban, middle class ones with which I was raised.
I hope this blog will help me as I develop along this path.

Most Harmful Books of the Past 200 Years?

I whole-heartedly refuse to be identified as a 'liberal' or 'conservative' (the terms are WAY too simplistic, not to mention always changing). With that said, I came across this list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" from Human Events - The National Conservative Weekly, and my first inclination was to read every book on the list. I mean, any group that puts Hitler's Mein Kampf on the same list as the two books perhaps most responsible for the Feminist Revolution (The Feminist Mystique and Second Sex) has to be worth disagreeing with on many levels, right? MIght as well check out some of their enemies. (I've unfortunately only read 10 of the books from the expanded list. Maybe time to add to my summer reading list?)

UPDATE: Two slightly more serious posts on the same list from the Eduwonks and Jenny D.

Life is a Carnival...

...so is the new Carnival of Education.


Gifted and Talented?

Following on the footsteps of yesterday's post, I've been waiting for the time to write about a parent letter that was published in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago about tracking. Jacqueline Morgan is a parent of an 8 year old who recently had two friends tracked into the school's 'Gifted and Talented' program:

It was heartbreaking to see that our 8-year-old child was already being tracked in the "average" group and knows clearly that she is not part of the "smart group" (her words, not ours). Why are these children being tracked at such a young age? How much of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It's unbelievable to see the level of pressure from parents to get their children into the GT program. Of course, if our child were in the magnet program, maybe we would be perfectly content with the tracking.
There are far too many issues here to get into in one post. So to concentrate on only one - WHY DOES THE PROGRAM NEED TO BE CALLED GIFTED AND TALENTED??? Is there any reason that students who are not in this program should come to any conclusion other than "I am not gifted and I am not talented?" What effect will this have on students? I think one of these effects can give some explanation to the information on yesterday's post.

The gifted and talented program runs from 3rd-8th grade. I teach 9th grade, where there is no longer any official tracking. Any student can take any class. In core subjects, classes are offered as 'Regular' or 'Honors' (or AP). However, all my students in my 'regular' class refer to the 'honors' classes as 'GT.'

Let's juxtapose this with a couple statistics:
  • From yesterday's post: While 91 percent of Fairfax's white students demonstrate proficiency in English, only 66 percent of its African American students reached this level of achievement last year. As The Post noted in an editorial last November, African American students across Virginia demonstrate higher levels of learning than similar students in Fairfax (Washington Post).
  • In the 4 'honors' classes I teach, I have a total of 90 students, 7 would be visually identified as African-American. In my 1 'regular' class of 28 students, I have 11 students who would be visually identified as "African-American."
So, having a 'Gifted and Talented' program is teaching students that if they are not in the program then they are neither gifted nor talented. Significantly higher percentages of African-American students are 'choosing' not to take 9th grade honors history. Is it any surprise then, that African-American students are performing at a lower level on state tests?

I am not denying that there are many other issues that explain these discrepancies. At the same time, I cannot understand how these facts do not cause more outrage.


The One, Unquestionably Good Thing about No Child Left Behind

From Ross Wiener's op-ed piece in today's Washington Post:

Before NCLB, schools hid their achievement gaps behind their overall scores. Take Fairfax County, for instance -- one of the most affluent and highly regarded school districts in the nation. It turns out that Fairfax public schools are great for some but not others. While 91 percent of Fairfax's white students demonstrate proficiency in English, only 66 percent of its African American students reached this level of achievement last year.

As The Post noted in an editorial last November, African American students across Virginia demonstrate higher levels of learning than similar students in Fairfax. Indeed, African American students in the Richmond, Henrico County and Hampton school districts -- all of which are less wealthy and educate a higher percentage of African American students -- have been taught to higher levels in English, science and mathematics than African American students in Fairfax.


Without a Net

Two great posts against "protecting" students through filters and otherwise preventing access to various online sites. Will talks about the growing climate of fear about technology across the country. The Bionic Teacher argues against filters in general and gives us a line to rally around:

Block a website keeps a kid away for a day
Teaching them real world internet skills changes them for a lifetime.
I've had 90 students blogging for just about 2 weeks now. With nearly 1000 student posts and comments, there has yet to be a serious issue, and I don't anticipate there will be one through the last 3 weeks of school.

How would the argument change if the people arguing against the use of various technology in schools admitted what their basic concern is - They do not trust students. And how would the students respond?

UPDATE: Clarence had a great post on the same subject posted at about the same time as my original one. He wrote:
Classrooms are intersections where learning occurs. They are a space where students need to safely question what is happening around them. When we block the world out, these spaces become disconnected from reality and have little purpose or reason to exist.
I couldn't agree more.



One of my favorite lines from a song I liked in high school, courtesy of Rage Against the Machine: It has to start somewhere/ It has to start sometime/ What better place than here? / What better time than now?

I came across 2 non-education related articles about change this week that really got me thinking about the changes many of us in the edublogosphere are trying to make: changes in the way technology is perceived and the ways classrooms are organized.

The first item I came across was an article from Fast Company Magazine. The article talks about cognitive and psychological explanations for resistance to change. While it concentrates on the buisness world, many of the articles findings and analysis are directly related to learning. Some highlights:

Questions about resistance to change:

The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?
Adding more dimensions to arguments for change:
Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, California. Ornish, like Kotter, realizes the importance of going beyond the facts. "Providing health information is important but not always sufficient," he says. "We also need to bring in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored."
More change is better than less:
Reframing alone isn't enough, of course. That's where Dr. Ornish's other astonishing insight comes in. Paradoxically, he found that radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones.
The importance of life-long learning:
How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain's machinery for learning. "When you're young, almost everything you do is behavior-based learning -- it's an incredibly powerful, plastic period," he says. "What happens that becomes stultifying is you stop learning and you stop the machinery, so it starts dying." Unless you work on it, brain fitness often begins declining at around age 30 for men, a bit later for women. "People mistake being active for continuous learning," Merzenich says. "The machinery is only activated by learning. People think they're leading an interesting life when they haven't learned anything in 20 or 30 years. My suggestion is learn Spanish or the oboe."
The other article came from Jeff Jarvis' media blog - Buzz Machine. He posted about the need for old media to open a dialogue with its customers in order to learn and change:
You don't have to be young to use RSS or an iPod or mobile digital networks or wi-fi. You don't have to be young to appreciate the conversation the internet enables. You don't have to be young to question authority or distrust the press.

When we hear research about how young people treat news differently it could just be that they are the generation freed to think differently, unencumbered by our old-fart habits. If we old farts would free ourselves, we'd think differently, too.
I think there are many lessons to be learned in both these articles. More than anything, they force me to remember that change is not only not inevitable, but it is unlikely unless we are making a constant, intentional, and well thought out effort to change the minds of students, administrators, and the community. But of course, that the easy part. The next step - how do we do this?


Class Blogging Reflection Part II - My Role

There's been a nice run of posts on the roll of the teacher in students blogging at The Daily Grind, Random Thoughts, and Blog of Proximal Development. I've been waiting to respond to them so I could relate this to my reflections on my students' blogs.

I wrote in my last real post that I think my students blogs are going well in the sense that they are a public space where they share and express their thoughts about their final projects. However, I am not happy with the lack of critical thought and discourse. I've been thinking about how I can change my role in the blogs to better encourage the third goal of the blogs.

To this point, I have stayed mostly out of the way of my students (I have only commented when students have asked me a direct question). I have done this because I wanted my students to establish their blogs as their space, not an extension of the classroom (as much as I would like to try and make my classroom a student-centered space, it is still a classroom in school).

This leads me to Mr. McNamar. He recently posted an excellent reflection on his first year of blogging in class and came up some questions which frame the internal conflicts I'm facing right now:

  • Should the teacher post on the classroom blog?
  • Should the teacher interact, through comments, on the classroom blog?
  • Should posts be graded, if so, what should the criteria be?
  • Should blogging in the classroom be held to the same standards as essay writing, or should we give into the text-message culture?
All the questions speak to the tensions between this being a controlled, teacher-directed space as opposed to a dynamic, student-controled space. If I regularly post and comment, grade every post, and hold the writing to 'essay standards,' then the blog will certainly become 'just another assignment,' though there is a better chance I'll be able to help my students write (and think?) on a higher level. On the other hand, if I do not comment or post, if posts aren't graded, and if students write in whatever form they are most comfortable, there is a chance that the blogs will not just be another assignment, though the level of discourse will almost definitely stay where it is now.

These questions, directly or indirectly, have been addressed by many others.

Matt Johnson commented:
But in furthering my theme of expanding the writing skills of students, I would encourage you to require adherence to standard English. Using the text-message English that is now becoming common place detracts from the ability to formulate reasoned and lucid responses on the fly.
I think Matt has a valid point when trying to work specifically on formal writing skills. However, I think doing this comes at a very high price - mandating a certain type of discourse I think automatically makes it a teacher controlled space. As long as my role is playing "language police," a much higher emphasis in some students minds will be on writing properly as opposed to sharing ideas, building knowledge, and thinking critically.

Ivy, who is a student in online graduate courses, commented:
I don't think that posts themselves should be graded -- as it turns the blog into an assignment just like any other assignment, which is something you seem to want to avoid -- but participation in the blog can be graded. For me, in my classes, it is required that I "make a substantial daily contribution to classroom discussion". "Substantial" is highly subjective, but it's that subjectivity that prompts the class to really think about their posts and comments so that they will, hopefully, qualify.
I think she hits some things right on the nail. However, I am hesitant to trust the subjectivity of "Substantial." I think it may work well with graduate students, but I am not as confident it will work with 9th graders. What does 'substantial' blog participation look like? Is it just thoughtful posts? Is it responding to other ideas in others' blogs? Is it commenting on many blogs? I am not really sure at this point.

Nancy McKeand posted:
If we are truly committed to student-centered classrooms, we have to get out of the way. But I think that teachers can post as an equal member of the learning community.
I think she is 100% right in that we need to get out of the way to have a truly student-centered classroom (or blogosphere). One area I've struggled with tremendously this year is in trying to become an equal member of the learning community. I'm sure a lot of people would say that this is not possible with 9th graders, but I refuse to accept that. However, at least three different students wrote to me in reflections throughout the year something to the extent of "if you want to be our equal, we're going to treat you like we treat our peers, which isn't always good." What can be done to get around this attitude that certain students have?

Nancy also had a great post on grading blogs:
I think it should be graded in a portfolio format where students choose their "best" posts. It seems obvious that the student who writes more would have more to choose from and would, therefore, be likely to produce a better portfolio. That would seem to cover the question of frequency and content and, to a large degree, subject matter, as well.
I just think this is a fantastic idea that I will steal. I told my students when giving the assignment that they would be graded for their blogs on "effort and thoughtfulness." I can grade the effort in a straight - Did you respond to all prompts - manner. I like the idea of students picking their 2 or 3 best posts to be graded for thoughtfulness.

Finally, I love the ideas Konrad Glogowski expressed for how to interact with the students' blogs with out directly entering their space. He described how he doesn't post in students' blogs, but instead discusses student posts on his own blogs:
I use my blog to direct traffic, to let my students know that I also go online, that I do read their work - not because I am interested in marking it but because I am genuinely interested in what they have to say. I direct the cognitive traffic of my class blogosphere by using my own blog to post links to student entries and write about similarities and differences in their ideas. I sometimes see my work as that of an aggregator. I do not produce ideas, I just “catch” them as they move around in the ever-expanding web of thoughts.
I think it may be too late for me to establish this because I have already established this blog as something separate from the class. However, the next time I use blogging in class, I think I'll use this idea and have a class blog where I am the author, and use this primarily to reflect and respond to students' postings.

Take a ride

This week's Carnival of Education is up.

Blogs are not journals!

Great comic
(Thanks to Will)