Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Safety drill

You know the drill. You're sitting on an airplane, taxiing before takeoff, and either there's a crew of flight attendants (or a talking-head video) running through safety routines. How to buckle your seat belt. Where the exits, lavatories, and flotation devices are. You know.

That was me last night, experiencing a familiar ritual. Until the person on the microphone threw in a curve ball. During the bit about oxygen masks -- how in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, they'll drop from the ceiling, how to pull the mask towards me to start the flow of oxygen, how the bag might not inflate but that oxygen is still flowing, how to adjust the mask around my face using elastics, how to help my child first (if I had one) before putting on my own mask -- the flight attendant slyly said this, "If you're sitting with more than one child, choose your favorite."

I couldn't help smiling and connecting her joke to the classroom where there are countless choices to face, often impossible ones about what to prioritize over what. Fortunately, they also tend to be more forgiving ones that can be revisited and adjusted often, different from the looming finality of last night's dangling oxygen mask, tinged with dark humor.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Grades what-if

Starting our second week together Monday, I asked 82 eighth graders to respond to this in writing...
What if school didn’t have grades? What would be different? What would stay the same? How might this be better or worse than the way things are now?
Their thoughts ran the gamut from verbal shrugs to fire-and-brimstone proclamations that abandoning grades would lead inevitably to Armageddon.

Among the responses (paraphrased and noted by yours truly during class conversation):

  • Without grades, nobody will be motivated, and everyone will put in less effort.
  • Why should students work hard if not for good grades? Aren't grades why we come to school?
  • Students would enjoy lower stress.
  • What would colleges do? How would they decide whom to admit?
  • Without grades, teachers won't know how students are doing.
  • Without grades, how will students know how they are doing? How will parents? (who often feel out of the school loop, outside of grade communication)
  • There'd be no more tests and quizzes or, if there still were, students wouldn't care about them.
  • Tests can still show what people know, independent of having grades attached.
  • Maybe self and peer evaluation would become more important, but these methods have their own flaws.
  • Some people go too easy or too hard on themselves when judging their own work.
  • Social situations can bias peer evaluations. That's one reason mixing it up and not always getting feedback from the same person or people could be worthwhile.
  • Teachers would still have evaluative parts to play, grades or no grades.
  • Grades serve the purpose of identifying a "good" level of work.
  • Poor grades signal mistakes that students can learn from. How will such growth unfold in the absence of grades?
  • Ditching grades might provoke more creativity and risk taking in learners, but might also cause some students to pull up short of their potential.
  • Spending less time grading and worrying about grades would benefit both students and teachers who would have more time for family and fun.
  • What about middle ground -- not keeping grades exactly as they are, but also not throwing them out entirely?
I craved food for thought, and now I suspect my students and I won't go hungry for quite some time seeking shifty middle ground.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My why, first draft

I suspect there's more to say here since I've been carrying these thoughts around since Friday... However, given that I'm feeling under a variety of guns, writing short will have to do for now.

On August 12, riding the bus to school on the last day of week-long professional learning and back-to-school readying, I read Dan Myers' blog on the power of testifying. His three questions haunted me: Why are you here? What is your project? How do you testify on its behalf? Then, when I landed at school, we watched part of this video, in which Chris Anderson touts curiosity's power in facilitating learning. The serendipitous mash-up of Myers' and Anderson's thinking felt like a pedagogical Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, coming together into my delicious why.

Literacy is a crucial conduit, feeding curiosity through reading and enabling the spread of ideas through writing and speaking. It greases all the wheels in the learning machine. That thought makes me reach back to something I read last spring in The Innovator's Mindset. Its author George Couros quotes education professor Yong Zhao who says, "Reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling." And there's my why: Support learners of all ages to reach literacy's floor as quickly as possible, so they may start climbing higher as soon as possible.

While I read and (increasingly) write, how else can I testify on behalf of literacy's power? How can you? Or, if not for literacy, then for what?



Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Slice of summer-reading life

Back to school meetings convened today, with students to join the action next week. As far as I'm concerned, that's as good a milestone as any to close the book (heh, heh) on summer reading. I'm going to use this post to highlight my favorites, borrowing a lens I first encountered in Shannon Hitchcock's blog post for Nerdy Book Club.

  • The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner opened a window into how desperation can yield to hope.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs opened a window into how hope can yield to desperation. 
  • The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner opened windows into magic, coping, and the devastating ripples caused by addiction.
  • Lit Up by David Denby held up mirrors to the literate life I have and the ones to which I aspire with my students.
  • When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin opened windows into how loss can send us reeling and love can pull us back.
  • Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk held up a mirror to the importance of sticking up for principles.
  • All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely held up a similar mirror as Wolf Hollow, in a different age under different circumstances.
  • Originals by Adam Grant opened windows into the science and psychology underlying creativity.
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker opened a window into the bonds between people and pets.
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin held up a mirror to how middle school can sometimes feel unforgiving.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel opened a window into the ways family life can be fraught.
  • Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle opened a window into living one's dream.
  • The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey held up a mirror to why I compete the way I do and why that works sometimes better than others.
  • DIY Literacy by Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts opened windows into how simple tools can facilitate more complex writing and reading.
Convalescence turns out to be a boon for reading. The complete slide-show where I tracked my efforts is here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

This not that?

I had another close encounter of the media kind this week (two encounters, really), and I will embrace the blog fodder where I can get it.

I spent Sunday in a furious flurry of house-cleaning before school resumes. In the background, Slacker Radio played -- hyperbole alert! -- the "66 Songs That Changed Everything." A notable moment happened after the DJ cued up "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols. Instead of hearing the punk anthem, I heard a baritone voice alert me that my Slacker settings prevented the song and its "explicit lyrics" from being played. The recording went on to detail how I could change these settings online if I so chose. I hadn't recalled monkeying with any filters; perhaps some default arrangement remained in effect? I shrugged it off, actually finding myself appreciating that Slacker was at least making the censorship transparent and adjustable.

What left me stunned were two other songs bracketing the Sex Pistols' number that I thought would be similarly scrubbed, but weren't. "Strange Fruit," Billie Holliday's haunting ballad about lynching? Play on, says Slacker. NWA's "F*** the Police"? Every F-bomb came through loud and clear, despite its explicitness. I was left wondering: What does Slacker have against the Sex Pistols? Is the station's filter somehow cross over the Brexit?

The next day, I had a similar experience via Twitter, seeing this message in my stream for the first time:

Not unlike Slacker, Twitter gave me a heads up while still permitting me to proceed, eyes presumably wide open, to the "sensitive material." When I clicked through, I saw this ingenious art installation by artist Michael Murphy:


Fair enough to label gun violence as a sensitive issue, but why does Twitter choose to put that on the other side of the wall, while often permitting assorted spam body parts to flow through unchecked?

This aspiring critical consumer wonders: Who's filtering these wonky algorithms? According to Twitter support, we users are, at least indirectly:


P.S. Murray's piece is called "Identity Crisis."