Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Data driven off the deep end

Pam Allyn, Feb. 2017: Have we "medicalized reading" -- made it sound like a health emergency?

I remember, years ago, the first time I heard the phrase 'false positives.' Unsurprisingly, the context was medical. More surprisingly, it was awkwardly social as I found myself the plus-one at a a dinner sponsored by a medical imaging company. (Back when that sort of event was deemed kosher.)

Taking in the presentation along with some chocolate mousse, I reached the layman's conclusion that the spotlit imaging technology proffered both wonderful benefits and needless worry. For every legitimate problem detected, the cordial company representative warned, the equipment might flag false positives -- benign spots that looked, at first, malignant and might prompt unnecessarily invasive, costly treatments.

Now wearing my professional hat and considering digital reams of reading data for middle-school students, this notion of false positives looms again. The data are the fruits of the latest effort where I teach to screen kids (note: medical term) universally via online tools. The first broad strokes have me scratching my head about how best to prioritize next steps.

According to this one measure, sixth graders demonstrate a reading range from first through ninth grade; seventh graders from second through ninth; and eight graders from third through 10th.

My mind, untethered, spins with numbers. I feel urges to triangulate and validate. ("How much can the data be trusted?" a little voice in my head wonders.) I feel desperation to intervene, helping students progress at the low end, keeping students engaged and growing at the high end, not losing sight of students in the middle. ("Isn't this deficit mindset hurtful?" the same voice frets.)

Hundreds of snapshots of student literacy now in hand, I'm far from certain what I know even as there's no doubt I can't un-know it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Celestial & existential

Today, I heard a radio piece about this, which led to me browse this, which led me to write this:

Early in the second year of my career as teacher,
NASA coincidentally launched the Cassini orbiter.

By the time that spacecraft reached Saturn seven years later,
I had relocated west, discovering myself to be a mountain creature.

For 13 lucky years, Cassini became one more ring├Ęd feature,
of that remote planet, its moons pocked by countless craters.

Just shy of a 20th anniversary, Cassini's to be an atmospheric breacher,
disintegrating harmlessly (in theory), not unlike some careers.

Monday, August 28, 2017

An English teacher has a sobering realization

A sucker for animated features, I watched The Red Turtle yesterday,
a story told almost entirely without words.

That power inherent in speaking. writing, reading?
Sometimes, it's optional when pictures prevail.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What if -- musing on grades & their alternatives

The online grade-book with which I am saddled -- Infinite Campus -- has spaces for both grades and comments. This week, our second back from summer, I wondered:

save imageWhat if I lean extra hard on the comment box as a feedback repository and only use the grade box for either a symbol indicating a task has been turned in for my review or it is missing? What if comments spotlight both strengths I notice and moves to improve the quality of the work so far? (What if my Twitter training actually helps me satisfy the character constraints in the comment field?)

What if I bounce this idea off my principal, and she sounds supportive?

What if middle schoolers and I dialogue periodically to agree on a grade reflecting as best we can their self-assessments of their work and the growth they see (or lack thereof) via our ongoing feedback loops? Grades still play, after all, particularly when formal progress-report season comes around.

What if I'm pleased by several students rising to the initial comment bait, adding quality pieces to their work (responsible citations, say) or completing incomplete tasks?  What if I try this with some kind of new-fangled test rather than a low-stakes summer reading assignment?

What if some of these students aren't yet intrinsically motivated, but going round and round until they grab a gold grade ring?

What if I describe this approach to parents next week at Back to School Night? What if they later come looking for comforting grade symbols and become antsy when they find uncomfortably messy comments?

What if I'm curious to explore the possibilities of these what-ifs?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Funny thing happened on the way to work

One blog topic to which I resort happens to be transportation and commuting since riding a public bus to work affords unexpected grist for this mill. Today's slice, though, finds me behind the wheel of my own vehicle about 14 hours ago.

It's the first day of school, and I'm a solo commuter -- one more drop in the fast-rising traffic waters where I live. Then, just a few minutes from home, I spy my science-teaching colleague at another bus stop. No cars behind me, I flick on the hazards, roll down the window, and make an unscheduled stop. "Want a lift?" I ask. Once the incredulity clears from his face, he accepts. Our first point of conversation is whether we'll see our history-teaching colleague, another sometime bus rider.

At the next stop, we do. So we gather a new passenger, and now we have a spontaneous carpool. We dispel nervous energy en route to meet our new students.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer reading 2017 recap

Now that professional responsibilities have formally resumed, I suppose summer reading must lose its seasonal qualifying adjective. To mark that occasion, here's a list of books I finished since Memorial Day (along with parenthetical notes)...

Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead (soft-spoken picture book inspiration)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (first tome in epic -- yet intimate -- fantasy trilogy)
Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom by Douglas Fisher et al (Hattie's effect sizes explored, applied)
The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser (still topical, alarming inspection of Internet's influence)
Waking Up by Sam Harris (meditations on meditation)
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (more sweet than bitter MG ride with plucky young hero)
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas (memoir where cultures collide, sometimes causing cliches)
The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus (in-depth look at often overlooked insects and the industries/people trying to harness them)
Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee (YA sci fi takes on mixed-martial arts)
ROLE Reversal by Mark Barnes (early adopter on minimizing grades and maximizing project- or problem-based learning)
Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Ruby Powell et al (YA verse novel inspired by mid-20th century interracial romance)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (intersection of US aeronautics industry's launch and related rise of brilliant mathematicians who were black women staring down Jim Crow)
It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd (think twice about assumptions re: teens and tech; question pervasive, pernicious cultural forces)
Translanguaging with Multilingual Students by Ofelia Garcia et al (make room for multiple languages to fuel learning)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Shakespeare's Othello re-imagined in 21st-century elementary school; aimed at adult readers)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Saab story re: Swedish curmudgeon hiding heart of gold)
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Anthology of mind-expanding essays about still-expanding universe and its phenomena)
Why?: What Makes Us Curious by Mario Livio (Look at brain science and historical paragons fell short of stoking my curiosity about this trendy focus)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dizzying adult fiction about three-plus Dominican generations across five decades)
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by AKR (Actual text presented as amusing interactive hypertext, with musings loosely inspired by various school subjects/tropes)

This list comprises eight works of fiction and a dozen nonfiction titles. I consumed seven as e-books, one as an audio book, and the rest as I-turned-actual-pages paperbacks or hard covers. Of the latter, two I owned and the rest I borrowed from the library.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Risky business

I signed a waiver that I did not read. In my lame defense, the whole waiver transaction was electronic, without even a copy linked for perusal. I strutted past the signs that proclaimed, "Helmets mandatory." I saw nary a protected head, so I figured my baseball cap would suffice. I read the posted caution about getting off the alpine-slide track if it became wet with rain. ("How?" I should've thought to wonder even as dark storm clouds slid over the sun, making my neck cool.) I felt the first fat drops fall as I rounded turn six. By turn seven, the skies opened; the sled's brake no longer proved effective. I spent the next third of the ride traveling with -- not on -- my sled, experimenting with alternate ways to stop. I also had my camera available (for posterity, I like to tell myself).

The eventual self-arrest came at a reasonable cost: a little skin from one hand, one elbow, and one knee, along with the soaked-through backs of my shorts and shirt. I clambered out of the track with my sled just before the next rider whizzed past -- the last one before the slide closed temporarily due to weather. I considered the possibility of walking down the rest of the way. My escape, though, fueled new hubris, and my scrapes didn't sting much. I dropped the sled on the track, hopped backed on, and finished the ride.