Monday, July 30, 2012

Homeschool, Market Forces, School Choice, and the Future of Public Education

In doing work for an administrative licensing program this summer, I came across the concept of the Grammar of Schooling and the idea of "real school" - that is, the way school is supposed to be.  And, with everything I've been reading and writing about in terms of a paradigm shift in education, I was intrigued by the "stickiness" of certain models in education.  For the most part, despite a century of public school reform, public education has looked the same for about 150 years.  Before that, by the way, the concept didn't really exist.  But the notion of "real school" stuck with me, especially as innovations like the Khan Academy and Coursera have challenged the conventional wisdom about seat time and contact hours.  And as I've noted before, Anya Kamenetz has published some excellent analysis of the shift in education which she is calling "DIY-U" - that is "Do It Yourself University."

The term "real school" surfaced again this weekend as I read Quinn Cummings WSJ article "My Education in Homeschooling." Ms. Cummings addressed her year-long experiment in home schooling and challenged many of the traditional norms about the practice - such as religious zealotry and the fear of society, as well as the warnings about under-socialized kids.  Cumming's arguments and insight were quite inspired and erudite, but I was also intrigued by her assertions about "real school" - as in the neighborhood school that her friends and neighbors would ask about.  She poses the interesting prediction that "... many Americans will adapt to the new social and economic realities.  Online classes have already become part of the extended curriculum for many students.  In the iTunes version of public education, relevant learning experiences will originate from the large red brick building, from a recreation center, from a music studio in Seattle or a lecture hall in London.  It won't be home schooling, but 'roam' schooling."

Ms. Cummings imagines a day when kids spend some time at their brick and mortar school, but it is not a regimented day if they don't want it to be so.  Because they will leave that school for more internship and experiential education such as "two afternoons a week, he logs into an art seminar being taught in Paris ... or takes computer classes at community college .... or studies web design on YouTube ... or practices Spanish on Skype ... or studies AP Chemistry with a tutor at the local library."  All these ideas break the mold of required seat time, which I support.  However, they also depend heavily on highly motivated students and parents, and are likely to work well for the middle class and affluent, but fail miserably for those most in need of education.  And, of course, despite the growth and value of online learning, there are still many intangibles that give superiority to lively, engaging classrooms in the traditional Socratic model.

Certainly, A Teacher's View is always about whatever works.  And, I view with suspicion the continued adaptation of market models promoted by people like the the Gates Foundation.  In fact, Elizabeth Stokes of the Next New Deal offers some valuable insight and criticism into those market models in an article for Salon.  She also offers a great link to Daniel Pink's Wash Post expose on the flawed ideas behind market forces such as merit pay or pay for performance.  However, back to the original point about "real school" and the way things ought to be.  I'd argue that institutions in society remain for good reasons - overall, they work.  However, that is not to say we can't - or shouldn't - expand our ideas about what "real school" really is.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

WSJ Editorial - High Hopes for School Choice in Michigan

Some education reform advocates place a great deal of emphasis on school choice - notably the development of charter schools and the use of vouchers - as the magic formula to "fix failing schools" in poor neighborhoods.  The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal picks up this mantra today with a hopeful position on new charter programs in "two of Michigan's most [troubled] districts" - Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.  Because both districts have struggled financially, they are handing over management to private charter school operator's "to save money."  The WSJ - and many other choice advocates - see this as a grand experiment that will change the face of school reform.

If it works, I am all for it.  Though, I view with suspicion a plan for school reform that was hatched simply as a way of making money.  And I have doubts about a charter school model which can turn around a "neighborhood school" by taking it over.  The key to success at charter schools is, of course, "choice."  When the plan is imposed on a neighborhood, their is no "choice" by the neighborhood constituents.  And they may resist the changes.  This happened in Denver when the KIPP program - which had operated successfully in Denver when kids "chose" to leave their neighborhood schools to attend - took over the Cole Middle School and imposed its "reforms" on a community that did not want it.  They resisted - and when KIPP managers realized they couldn't "show the kids the door" for not meeting expectations, they literally backed out.  The "experiment" failed.

The WSJ - and others - seem to believe the Michigan experiment will be successful because the districts "will not be bound by labor agreements."  That is a rather narrow view of the problems in schools like Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.  This position runs home to ideology and assumes that schools in economically disadvantaged areas are struggling because union teachers who can't be fired are the cause of failing schools.  Certainly, there is argument that a lot of bad teachers - or formerly good teachers who have given up - are not helping the problems in these schools.  And the WSJ validly argues that they districts can save money by going with the charters.  However, school turnaround requires long term commitment, and history shows that places that give up workplace rules in order to reform eventually begin to ask for those rules back.  Or the teachers will leave for "better" working conditions.  What may happen - like the common pattern in Teach for America (TFA) - is that teachers will "put their time in" for a couple years, and then make a jump to to place where they can have a career and earn a living.

Thus, I too have high hopes for Michigan.  But workplace rules aren't the cause of problems in poor schools, and getting rid of them won't ease the ills that cause most of the trouble in schools.  And, "school choice" is not necessarily the answer when the kids and parents don't actually "choose."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More News on High Paying Skilled Labor - No Bachelor Degree Required

Despite stubborn unemployment numbers in the United States, and despite continued groaning about the rising and unmanageable cost of college tuition, plenty of non-bachelor degree jobs are still going unfilled, as manufacturers still can't find enough skilled labor.  As millions of kids rush off - often naively and mindlessly - to four-year colleges, plenty of jobs remain open for machinists and welders and electricians.  While Americans tend to ignorantly believe we don't have factories in this country and all the manufacturers have moved offshore, jobs at factories paying as much as $100,000/year remain unfilled.  When will we learn and be more honest with our young people?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on School Choice

School choice has been one a divisive issue in education reform for decades now.  Vouchers, it has been argued, would allow poor children in failing schools to take "their tax money" and spend it on a better school of their own choice.  Competition for this funding would logically force all schools to improve, or so the story goes.  The pro-con points - separation of church/state, local control, leaving some children behind, freedom - are well known.  Recently Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has weighed in on the school choice issue from a new angle - the suburbs where schools are reasonably well performing.

Michael Petrilli believes that even parents in stable and even affluent districts with "good schools" should be able to "choose" which school would be best for their kids.  Petrilli argues from the perspective of a "Koala Dad" - as opposed to a "Tiger Mom" - and believes that escaping failing schools shouldn't be the only reason parents deserve the freedom to choose their children's schools.  Why should the be restricted by neighborhood?  What if their district school is athletically focused or better in math and science, but a school down the road has a better theater department which suits their child who has more literary interests?

I don’t entirely disagree - logically people should be able to choose their child's school.  And, that's true even if choice critics claim suburban parents "choose" their school by "choosing" their neighborhood.  That is certainly true where I live - realtors comment on clients who simply map out our district and tell the agent to find a home within that boundary.  And, Petrilli is probably aware that this issue is currently being played out in the suburbs of Colorado in the Douglas County School District.  While that plan has been frozen by a judge - because Colorado's state constitution specifically prohibits spending public money for religious institutions - this court case has stirred the debate precisely because the area is one of the richest in the nation with some of the state's best schools.  It has seemed to be a more political/ideological move by the school board as opposed to community driven in search of improving schools.

I believe kids should be able to choose their school – in fact, I remember watching Waiting for Superman and thinking, "Just let them go."  Period.  If more kids want to attend a charter school, the district should simply expand the school.  Shift the funds.  There should be no lotteries and no waiting lists for schools.  Kids and parents should have such freedom of choice - which is why I like that Colorado has open enrollment statewide. Colorado has open enrollment and a thriving charter system.  However, when you expand to private schools you must acknowledge the reservations. I don’t have a big problem with the religious angle – but you can’t endorse vouchers for private schools that don’t have to meet basic public education laws. As long as the school allows regulation and total transparency, and as long as it can’t refuse to provide services to all students, his argument is valid. But if the school refuses state assessments and refuses to provide special education services and refuses to provide transparency and regulation that district schools do, then I fundamentally oppose the use of public funds. I hope Michael does, too. And, Michael, should have mentioned that the private schools must be accountable in all the same ways.
And, as a side note, I challenge Petrilli's attempt to support his idea by piggybacking on Jay P Greene’s flawed and biased argument that even our best schools “trail the world.” Because they don’t. If you remove all schools that have poverty rates above 15-20%, then in TIMMS and PISA, the United States schools rank number one in the world. Michael needs to concede and acknowledge these realities. Otherwise the arguments are not credible to people who actually know the facts. And he is, subsequently, just misleading an uninformed US public.
That's part of a teacher's view on school choice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Teaching Pedagogy & the Whatever Works Model

Recently, a former student asked for my thoughts on pedagogy - specifically what different approaches I might use.  Having been teaching for nearly two decades, I've seen various ideas come and go.  Thus, I'm of the "Whatever Works" philosophy, especially after years of teaching in a profession that is incredibly prone to fads and flavors-of-the-month.  I wouldn't rule out any approach as long as kids are engaged and learning is happening.  In my heart, I am a pretty traditional teacher, and I can lapse into lecture fairly easily.  And years ago, I would have dismissed ideas such as multi-genre writing as "foo foo" education.  Now, I am passionate about it - and I believe it produces some of the highest quality and relevant writing my students do all year.

These days I am willing to try any approach as long as it produces results.  At the core, classes needed to be well organized, challenging, and engaging.  They need to be child centered enough for interest, but also focused on the acquisition of knowledge and skills they students lack - even if the students don't know why they need it.  I'm more suspicious of learning technologies, but I have taught web design in class, and I think the model of the Khan Academy is exciting and revolutionary in terms of pedagogy.  There is no one truly effective school model, and any classroom, school, and district must incorporate and adapt to the culture of the community.

As noted, teaching fads come and go, and the idea of pedagogy can be complicated, inspiring passion and revulsion alike among educators.  But few would disagree with the argument that if it works, it's probably good practice.  And, that's a teacher's view of pedagogy.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Justin Wins the Next Food Network Star - 2012

As was obvious from almost the first episode of the Next Food Network Star this season, 28-year-old culinary rock star and "Rebel with a Culinary Cause" Justin Warner established himself as the Next Food Network Star.  I've argued from almost the first week that Justin was the only one who consistently proved he had Food Network Star abilities.  Justin Warner is an exciting and innovative chef who has already had an exceptional career, running his own very popular and eclectic restaurant - Do or Dine - in New York's Bed-Stuy neighborhood.  And, now, he's on the Food Network with a new show to be produced by his mentor Alton Brown.  How appropriate.  If there were ever a future Food Network Star who could take over for the brilliant and quirky Alton Brown, it's Justin Warner.

One comment I really enjoyed in this finale episode of the Next Food Network Star came from Bobby Flay who said, "I'd rather have someone green in front of the camera than green in front of the stove.  We are the Food Network, and I think sometimes we forget that."  Truer words could not have been spoken.  This show - and this network - has to be about culinary masters who can - in the words of Alton Brown - teach us something.  They need an engaging point of view that makes viewers not only want to watch, but also believe that they can in some small way do what the celebrity chefs can do.  Bobby Flay nailed it with this comment - and his team was the only one filled with excellent chefs who could regularly bring it to the table.  Of course, one of the biggest disappointments this season was executive chef Eric who went home far to early because he was - in Bobby's words - the best chef in the competition.  Sadly, Bob Tuschman conceded that he wanted to keep Eric but was swayed by Susie Fogel who, for some reason, seemed to support Giada in her belief that Ippy was a star.  He wasn't.

And speaking of not being a star - and not even being a skilled chef - the second best part of tonight's show was the early elimination of Marti.  However, the connection between Justin and Marti was quite touching.  It was almost a mother-son relationship, and it was very sweet.  Throughout the competition, Justin spoke quite emotionally of his father who has passed away.  However, there was no mention of a mother or siblings or really any family or community.  So, the team of Marti and Justin was sweet.  He pulled her through many parts of the competition - and I'm glad they made that clear again.  Clearly, Marti is not a chef, and certainly not a Food Network Star.  However, she apparently played an important role in the competition as a teammate for Justin.  And that was nice to see.  In the end, he seemed quite overwhelmed with the victory and attention.  Once the shock wears off, though, he should be great.

Ultimately, it was a no-brainer that Justin Warner was the Next Food Network Star.  However, the executives at the Food Network are crazy if they don't give Michelle Ragussis her own show.  Michelle's idea for "My New England" is a great idea for the Food Network.  Michelle can not only bring it in the kitchen, but is also entertaining on camera in a Guy-Emeril sort of way.  It would be quite entertaining for Michelle to visit and open up for us all the nuances of New England.  It's a great travel-food-culture sort of show, and the ideas are limitless.  Of course, the Food Network may screw this up, as they seem obsessed with the competition format now - Robert Irvine saving impossible restaurants, Bobby Flay helping restaurants open, Anne Burrell hosting competition for exec chefs.  It's all a bit much.  Robert Irvine's show is amazing and informative - the other two, not so much.  And, of course, they still have Guy and Diners, Drive-in, and Dives on constantly - when they aren't showing "Chopped."  So, let's open it up to some feature-style shows.  Michelle's My New England is a great start.  And they should seriously think about giving Jeff the Sandwich King more airtime, exploring sandwiches the way Guy does diners.

So, congrats to Justin Warner.  It looks like the viewers actually got it right.  Justin led voting in almost every week, so it only makes sense for him to succeed and be named The Next Food Network Star.

Milk, School Lunches, Ignorance, & Bad Policy

Having always taken my lunch to school as a child - mostly because I attended Catholic school - I never had much experience with the federal school lunch program.  Beyond that, what I did know of the program never impressed me much.  For example, the scene in Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me which exposes the program as mostly processed, reconstituted, reheated white carbs did nothing but turn my stomach.  And the connection the program has to a massive, bloated federal farm bill that subsidizes the corn, wheat, and dairy industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars only makes it worse.  Most Americans support efforts to rein in the mismanagement of federal farm funds that gives billions to agribusiness like Archer's Daniel Midlands and Con-Agra.  However, no politician will take on the task of cutting the funds because the lobby pays billions and cutting the farm bill would cut the federal lunch program.  And who wants the blame for cutting meals for poor kids?

Now, the debate gets a new angle as a credible challenge has arisen over the mandate for requiring that a daily serving of milk be included in every free and reduced lunch - and breakfast.  As if milk is the holy nectar of the gods and bestows all sorts of irreplaceable health benefits.  The reality, of course, is that it doesn't.  The inclusion of milk - and even the hugely popular "Got Milk" campaign - is more the work of an effective lobbying wing and marketing department for the dairy industry.  Milk is "a source of calcium," that is true.  But it's not a great source, or even, really, a good one.  And for the millions of people who are allergic to dairy or intolerant of dairy or simply don't like dairy, the advice and the mandate are worthless.  The human body is not really adept at synthesizing the calcium from milk, and despite the other nutrients and proteins that are in milk, it's not that great for people.  Of course, the best part of milk is the "milk fat" which is actually quite beneficial in the development of the gray matter in the brain for children up to about age five.  But, of course, Americans know little about nutrition and health, and, thus, they make the ignorant mistake of consuming - and even requiring - the use of low fat milk.

Beyond the basics of milk nutrition, consumers and schools also mistakenly allow the blind faith in milk to justify the sale, consumption, and even requirement of chocolate milk.  Because sugar is simply not the root of our weight problems, right?  The sugar is far more detrimental to the body than the fat, but school districts now must provide chocolate milk - because "the kids won't drink it otherwise" - and they must also make sure the chocolate milk is low-fat.  Of course, most people are clueless that milk manufacturers replace the milk with, wait for it .... sugar.  Taking the fat out of natural food products actually removes much of the flavor.  Thus, producers need to replace the flavor, and they generally rely on added sugar - even though sugar is far more dangerous to health.  In fact, it's worth noting that "fat" does not make people fat.  Sugar does.  That's why Atkins dieters can lose so much weight eating a high-fat, high protein diet.  Sugar is the danger - not fat.  Thus, chocolate milk as a required part of the lunch program is a terrible idea.

And, in many ways, the entire lunch program is a terrible idea.  Schools would be much better off if they received a block grant from the federal government, and schools could use the money to purchase locally grown and produced foods that could be prepared at the schools.  In fact, one of the best ideas I've heard is to make the federal lunch program part of a department for nutrition and culinary training.  There is so much we could do in schools to better promote health, if we didn't have dairy farmers and corn farmers setting the nutritional guidelines for schools.

And, that's a teacher's view of the dairy industry, agribusiness, and the federal school lunch program.  We can certainly do better.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Go Nuts - They are Nature's Perfect Food

When I was growing up, I suffered from asthma, allergies, respiratory problems, and a pretty regular assortment of childhood illness.  However, I wasn't bedridden or anything, and I still managed to lead a pretty active lifestyle - playing soccer and baseball, swimming and biking, and general hiking and tramping around.  So, despite a range of maladies, I maintained a degree of health that I think still impacts me today as a healthy - and health conscious - adult.

One reason I think I maintained reasonable health and have continued it into adulthood is because when I was a kid my mom didn't buy much junk food.  It wasn't being overly healthy - she just didn't want to spend the money on soda, chips, cookies, crackers, etc.  However, she was a pretty regular baker, and thus there were always those supplies in the house.  So, growing up my "snacks" were pretty much whatever my mom had around to bake with - walnuts, pecans, almonds, etc.  And I ate a lot of nuts.  I can remember snacking in front of the TV with sunflower seeds and a handful of almonds.  Or celery/apples and peanut butter was the "go to" answer when I said in the middle of the day, "I'm hungryyyyy ...."  Thus, to this day, nuts are simply a natural part of my diet.  When I head to the pantry to snack, it's a handful of sunflower seeds or almonds.

For some great starter information about the value of nuts, then, it's worth checking out Carl Bartecchi's recent piece in the Pueblo Chieftain (reprinted in the Denver Post) about the value of nuts - "close to nature's perfect food."  Nuts are an integral part of nearly any healthy diet, and for years people like Dr. Mehmet Oz has been telling his viewers - and patients - if you're going to snack make it a handful of walnuts.  In fact, he recommends a handful everyday.  Of course, people have long warned that nut eaters should be careful because nuts have a lot of "fat" and they are high in calories.  That's a misnomer, though.  "Fat" does not make people fat - sugar is the far more sinister diet enemy.  And, the calories won't matter as much because nuts are filling - so people eat less and feel full.  That's not true with Doritos or Chips Ahoy.

Of course, the closer to natural form, the better.  Eating a can of honey roasted nuts, or nuts that are drowning in salt, is not the way to go.  But they don't have to be bland.  One of my favorite snacks is a spelt pretzel with a couple of almonds - the blend of sweet and salty is great - and it fills me up without making me full and bloated.  And some great places to find bulk nuts of high quality are at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

So, go nuts, people.

And, that's a key part of A Teacher's View on health.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mind Mapping with MindMaple is One More Tool in your Teaching Toolbox

Mind Mapping is a technique for visually organizing thoughts and ideas, and its usefulness in the classroom is only growing as we transition into a more visual and technological society.  I originally encountered the idea of "mind mapping" when I first learned of the work of Tony Buzan, an educational consultant.  Having read several articles by and about Buzan and mind mapping, I became intrigued by the concept.  Making a mind map begins with a central topic and expands into a web of branching subtopics and ideas.  It is an obvious and useful tool for brainstorming ideas, planning projects and events, and managing notes.  Recently, I encountered MindMaple - a company committed to developing helpful and accessible mind-mapping software.

Mind mapping is an exciting educational tool because it promotes creativity and innovative thinking in ways other information techniques do not.  And, as I've long argued, creativity and innovation is the key to American success.  I've also noted the importance of using the brain's natural capacity for making connections to process and make sense of new information.  Thus, it's worth talking about what MindMaple does and how mind mapping can be useful in the classroom and how it offers benefits that other information technologies do not.

For example, consider students in a high school biology class who are asked to design an experiment to answer a scientific question of their choice.  Ideally, the assignment provides students a way to engage with course material, asking difficult and interesting questions that perhaps haven't been asked before.  How can we encourage to interact with knowledge in a dynamic way, especially in today's world of standardized testing and rigid curricula.  Mind mapping - and associated educational software - can help inspire minds and keep kids engaged.  The mind map begins with the general topics covered in class ...

 ... and proceeds to expand these ideas into more specific concepts and related details.  The branched structure of the mind map makes it an excellent tool for categorizing information.

What mind mapping offers uniquely is the opportunity to make connections between these various branches and concepts.  After expanding these biology topics, students begin to notice connections between some of them - micro-organisms provide a good system for studying genetics and selection/fitness, and are also an integral part of the ecosystem.  The mind map illustrates these connections with arrows and creates new topics for experiment ideas.

One of the greatest benefits of mind mapping is flexibility.  Reorganizing the elements of the map is as simple as clicking and dragging.  There's space for continued development in every region of the map, allowing your brain to see connections between different map branches, and develop those connections into creative ideas.  Ultimately, it can be a pretty useful tool, and MindMaple software is worth checking out.

MindMaple, Inc. are the makers of MindMaple software.  These maps were made using MindMaple Lite, a free software available from

NOTE:  This entry is a Guest Post sponsored by MindMaple, Inc.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Next Food Network Star 2012 - Four Finalists Shoot Pilots?

The Food Network's Next Food Network Star wrapped up the competitive elements this week with the elimination of Ippy and Nikki while three finalists were supposed to shoot pilots to be judged and voted upon this week, leading to next week's finale.  Of course, in keeping with Bob and Susie's inexplicable obsession with Marti, the rules were broken and an exception was made to allow four finalists to shoot pilots - Justin, Michelle, Yvan, and ..... ugh .... Marti.  Alas, it's mystifying.

Of course, in the end with all the weeks of competition completed, the clear winner of Next Food Network Star is obvious - Justin is the only one truly ready to step in and headline a show.  And, I must acknowledge that his pilot paying homage to the style of Alton Brown was quite an insightful move, as Justin's quirky style/look/POV, along with his extensive culinary knowledge and skill make him an obvious heir apparent to Alton.  The pilot was clever, the dish was amazing, and his persona is ready for a time slot on the Food Network.  Thus, Justin is the obvious pick from throughout the competition.  Hell, he basically competed twice each week - once on his own and a second time as coach, teacher, surrogate, and savior to Marti.

NOTE - Hopefully, it's real time slot and he doesn't get stuck with a pathetic Sunday morning hour so Guy Fieri can continue to have basically his own channel in the evenings.

However, I would be equally comfortable sitting down in the evenings for a little Michelle and "My New England."  Michelle's pilot was top notch.  She had that flair and ease in front of the camera that was so evident when she "auditioned" for Bobby.  And, there is so much that could be done with a show about the New England that we don't know.  She could do a Guy-style show for NE.  (NOTE - Just like Jeff the Sandwich King could - if the producers had a brain - do a Guy-style show for sandwiches.  Anyway.  My gut tells me that if Justin wins, Michelle will still get her own show.  It only makes sense.  She has great presence and a great POV.

As far as, Yvan?  Well, I think we all like him, and his show would be interesting.  But I cannot agree with sending him to the finals when he completely changed his POV on the last night of competition. Where did this "Yvan's Family Style" stuff come from?  He was about cooking from the heart - but in small plates with stories from his youth.  Now, he's all about cooking family style.  As much as I like him and wish him well, that story doesn't work for me - and I won't watch the show.  Marti - enough said really.  Marti is not a chef.  She has no culinary POV or skill.  And the Food Network does not need a party planner.  Marti needs to go back to whatever little nell she left to visit the big city, and she needs to stop wasting our time.

Thus, it should be Justin.  And hopefully Michelle gets a shot, too.  Justin already has a thriving career as a restaurateur - at the age of twenty-six.  So, he's ready and can handle the pressure.  Here's to you rebel.  Hope the country agrees.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Is School Too Easy?

School is too easy.  That's the word on the street these days from students themselves, as the results of a  study from the Center for American Progress were released to a great deal of discussion - and criticism of public schools.  According to the results of student surveys, many students nationwide "are not being challenged" in schools.  This would seem to contradict the data about student test scores dropping, or students falling behind, or the dropout rate holding steady.  If it's too easy, shouldn't everyone be doing well?  Or are the classes too easy, and that's why the students don't do well when tested by outside forces.  Certainly, the ACT/SAT are of concern.  However, I would take exception to relying on tests such as the NAEP or even state tests.  Any test that doesn't have student accountability is not a reliable measure of student learning.

The more interesting question for me this week was well articulated by Anthony Cody at EdWeek who wonders if "School can be too easy AND too hard." From a teacher's view, Cody aptly describes the conundrum of our varied school system with inconsistent standards across states and grade levels and even within single schools and departments.  There is, of course, no way that any of my AP Language students would claim that school is "too easy."  Not a chance.  But, they are being held accountable in serious ways, and they have very high post-graduate aspirations.  Even my CP level kids work diligently in my class, and complain that they should get honors credit - until they learn what my AP kids are doing.

School can be too easy in some ways - such as levels of homework or the number of essays written - and too hard in others such as the teaching of algebra in middle school or college classes in high school or textbooks written in manners which defy the knowledge and abilities of the average teenager.  I know that the ability of some high school sophomores to pass AP World History or any high school student to handle AP Calculus or AP Bio defies any criticism that "school is too easy."  But when statistics about the number of rigorous courses in high school indicate that the average high school senior takes as few as two core academic classes all year, it's not hard to accept that some schools in some places at some time for some kids is way too easy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Online Learning - Coursera, Khan Academy, and Education Portal

Online learning has been around for almost as long as the internet.  In fact, the earliest forms of electronic higher education were probably adaptations of the old correspondence course model used by universities to enable students to catch up on missed classes or get general requirements out of the way without interfering with regular school schedules.  Working people could also acquire higher education credits and skilled labor credentials this way.  We've certainly come a long way with the rise of online universities like Phoenix.

The latest developments come with the rise of online classes and tutoring designed to close education gaps and increase access to higher education.  The rise of Sal Khan's Academy is one of the most prominent and exciting of these forums, and Khan Academy is one that has been written about extensively.  I am incredibly impressed with what Sal Khan has been able to accomplish, and keeping with "a teacher's view" that whatever works is good practice, I am happy to see the Khan Academy grow and offer greater access to knowledge and education.   A logical development of this, about which I've written before, is the offerings from Coursera, which is offering full curricula and certificate programs for online completion of bachelor degree programs at revered institutions such as University of Michigan, Columbia, and Stanford.

Another entrant into the world on free online classes is the Education Portal Academy - an online company about which I just learned.  I don't have much experience or knowledge of their classes, but at first glance, EPA appears to offer free online tutorials in all sorts of subjects and skills - in much the same vein as Khan Academy.  The difference appears to be that Education Portal is also operating as a bridge to college credits, and so there is a business motive that is not present in Khan, which is funded privately by groups such as the Gates Foundation.  Regardless of the model, though, Education Portal seems to have some quality online resources available, and they may be poised to become a bigger player in online education.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"I'm Farming and I Grow It" - A Teacher's View

Americans have little connection to their food - and that may be part of our problem.  This gap in our knowledge has been at the heart of arguments made by people like Michael Pollan in the book Omnivore's Dilemma and the movie Food, Inc.  Americans have a poor diet of predominantly processed foods because they don't even know what "real food" is anymore.  Well, it's grown on a farm by people like Greg Patterson and his brothers.  Greg, a student at Kansas State University, was annoyed one day at a drive-in restaurant when he heard the radio playing I'm Sexy and I Know It.  Greg - from a Kansas farm family - began rapping a new refrain - "I'm Farming and I Grow It."

Eventually, Greg and his brothers would craft enough lyrics for the full song, and proceeded to produce a video parody, which has gone viral on YouTube.  According to Greg, they posted it to Facebook for some of their city friends who don't know anything about farming.  In turn, they ended up educating millions about the hard work of farming.  And, that's what I like about this video - it's farming and agriculture from "a teacher's view."  Farming is important and hard work that is under appreciated by too many.  And, I am hoping that a better press campaign for farming can pick up on this video sensation.  Of course, I'd hope that more people turning to farming would be interested in organic farming and more natural practices.  For example, I was pleased to see the cows eating grass, or hay, as opposed to corn or feed.  That's not to say they don't also eat feed.  But I'm hopeful.

Patterson's video reminds us that one farmer regularly feeds more than one hundred million people, and the country often has little appreciation for the hard work of men and women in the Heartland.  And we should.  Of course, I am not offering some schmaltzy idealistic image of farmers as being these perfect hardworking people.  Farmers are like all people - they have their flaws.  But the work is hard, and it's valuable, and we under appreciate it.  And, that goes for all the migrant workers picking our fruits and vegetables, too.

So, if you ate today, thank a farmer.

Next Food Network Star 2012 - Martita

Food Network fans will not be served up episodes of "Martita's Mesa" - a great relief to many of us who knew that the camera-frozen Martita did not have star quality.  For a young woman with not much culinary background, she went surprisingly far in the competition.  Ultimately, she lost in a producers's challenge to Ippy, who is not much better for the long run.  But Martita - whose accent mysteriously appears at the start and end of presentations only - really had nothing to offer.

Giadia DeLaurentis continues to embarrass herself, coming off like a catty middle schooler as she coaches and cheers on "her team."  Neither Alton Brown nor Bobby Flay were seen coaching and cajoling and leading their people through the live presentations on Sunday, but Giadia couldn't sit still and cheered wildly when Yvan handled a simple microphone malfunction.  Giada just wants to win this competition - exposing a surprising insecurity - and isn't really about finding the Next Food Network Star.  I used to really enjoy her shows, but this season has really turned me off to Giada.

And about those "challenges."  Each contestant was supposed to face an obstacle during their set to throw them off their game.  And Michelle, Ippy, and Justin faced some tough challenges.  Michelle's was the worst of all with having no idea what the time was and a cameraman acting crazy.  But Yvan had a simple microphone go out.  That was not a difficult problem.  And a technician ran up with a replacement - which he "heroically" waved off.  And Marti was missing an ingredient.  Oh, big deal.  I saw nothing impressive in the response of Yvan and Marti because any adult could have dealt with that.  Had Marti faced Michelle's problem, she would have broken down in tears.

And let's say it again.  Marti cannot cook.  She is not a Food Network Star.  She has no culinary training.  She makes the most simple of dishes.  She doesn't "teach" an audience anything.  For goodness sakes, she made "Fish in a Bag."  That takes no skills, and she can't even make it interesting.  The folksy party schtick is wearing thin, and I do not understand why Bob and Susie find her interesting.

The competition still is - and should be - between Justin and Michelle.  They are the only potential Next Food Network Stars.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Coursera and the 21st Century Classroom

After posting recently about the rise of Coursera - or the availability of full university curricula in certificate form - I was sent this graphic about the 21st Century classroom.  The significance is clear, as online learning is changing the classroom rapidly, and that will impact the way higher education is funded and delivered.  The following image and explanation was created by Open Colleges, one "of Australia's leading providers of distance learning." The concept of distance learning is not going away, and with the rise of organizations such as the Khan Academy and Coursera, educators are going to need to adapt to the shifting infrastructure.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Right Brain Rising - Push for Creativity in the Classroom

Though I'm quite the traditionalist in the classroom, I've been trying to push for more creativity in the classroom for quite a few years now - ever since I completed the Colorado Writing Project staff development and attended a poetry conference led by Georgia Heard.  Since then I have added multi-genre research papers to my writing instruction, and I ask my honors English freshman to engage in interpretive dance during our poetry unit.  Each year I am more and more surprised by how truly insightful and creative my students are - and can be - when given the opportunity.

The importance of creativity is explored in a new book by Tony Wagner called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  Wagner's first book The Global Achievement Gap was instrumental in developing the concept of 21st-century skills and encouraging a development in our outdated curricula from the 19th-century model.  It was eye-opening for me and many teachers, and while critics argue that it waters down classic education, his ideas seem valid to me.  His new book is targeted toward "Waldorf parents, Montesori moms, and Koala dads," and while  I am sometimes put off by too much of a child-centered discovery approach, Wagner's ideas are worth considering.  Innovation has always been the strength of America and the key to our success.

As the push for right-brain thinking and creativity in the classroom continues, take a look at what the Lowell Milken Center is doing as well.

* thanks to Joanne Jacobs

Monday, July 2, 2012

Next Food Network Star 2012 - Malcolm Goes Home

Who will be the Next Food Network Star?  Not Malcolm.

Malcolm went home last night after an intra-team square-off against Michelle following the beach party competition.  Of course, it makes sense that Malcolm finally goes home because, while he is an exceptional executive chef and reasonably comfortable on camera, Malcolm never had a point of view.  POV is the key to success in this competition, and his idea of "cooking with soul" but not necessarily cooking "soul food" was just confusing and ultimately unmarketable.  Michelle survived, which makes sense because she was initially the one with the most star quality - great culinary skill, solid point of view with My New England, and completely comfortable on camera.  I disagree with Bob and Susie that New England is too narrow for a show, and Michelle opened that up this week.

As far as this week's show and competition?  Well, let's put it out there - Paula Deen is gross.

The idea of heading for Miami - with the goal of being there for the Miami Food and Wine Classic - and then bringing in Paula Deen is baffling to me.  For a network that is committed to culinary arts and high quality cuisine, the Paula Deen angle is depressing.  I realize she's popular - but so is McDonalds.  And Paula Deen brings nothing but crass personality and disgustingly unhealthy food to the table.  She certainly sells well among the Walmart and McD's crowd, but she has no business rubbing elbows with Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and Giada.  And her fuzzy little connection with Marty was annoying at best.

So, about Marty.  I do not understand the judges'  fascination with this woman.  It's like the story of Herb from a couple seasons back - where they kept him around with some bizarre hope of a show for a new demographic.  But he could neither bring it in the kitchen nor handle himself on camera.  And with Marty, let's be clear:  this woman cannot cook.  Her offerings are so simple they could be done in an Easy-Bake Oven, and Justin has saved her butt countless times in this competition.  Additionally, she simply randoms along in her camera moments and apparently the only appealing quality is her accent and self-deprecating stories.  But intentionally mispronouncing the names of classic dishes and techniques is not impressive and it's not Food Network Star material.  My only explanation for this woman's "stickiness" is that the Food Network thinks they have the next PD in the making, and they don't want to lose the tater-tot casserole crowd.  For my part, cut her loose.

Clearly, Justin is still the only contestant who has consistently shown star quality - though I'd like to see Michelle come on.  Ippy won this week, and he certainly deserved it.  But he is not a Food Network Star.  Yvan was reasonably successful, but Martita has to go.  The only thing Martita has going for her is the way she says her name to open and blowing kisses at the end.  In between she is completely flat - and the Mexican food angle is already saturated.  She's nothing special there.  Finally, thank goodness Nikki finally pronounces the "grill-lll" next door. Other interesting points from the show that I liked were the comments from Ippy, Yvan, and Martita that when they grew up the kids ate what the adults did.  I really like that commentary.

So, Malcolm is not the Next Food Network Star, and hopefully next week we will finally learn that Marty will not be the Next Food Network Star.  And, regardless of who wins, I'd like to reiterate my hope that the Next Food Network Star starts getting some air time, so the Food Network can stop being the Guy Fieri Network.  Diners, Drive-ins, & Dives is nice, but Jeff the Sandwich King could do the same thing at least one night a week for Sandwiches.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Lowell Milken Center Discovery Award

Discover An Unsung Hero with the Lowell Milken Center

Innovation has always been the key to America's success.  Innovation and creativity are integral to the American spirit, and they have been the foundation that has led the United States to greatness for more than two hundred years.  As an educator I have written often of the importance of creativity, innovation, and discovery in the classroom.  From the speeches of Sir Ken Robinson to the writings of Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink to my own experience with multi-genre writing and multi-genre research projects, I have tried to promote an emphasis on creativity and innovation in the classroom.

In the world of education reform, project-based learning has gained increased attention over the years as teachers and reformers seek ways to the move our classrooms away from the monotony of textbook-based lesson plans and the all-too-common lecture.  Students are naturally creative and unique individuals, and, thus, many struggle with a one-size-fits all education model that is, in many ways, based on 19th-century thinking.  On the other hand, giving students a path and an interactive way in which to make their journey unleashes their creativity and engagement with learning, regardless of the subject.  It's like making students into explorers and adventurers - and that's far more intriguing than being note and test takers.

One little-known organization that has been working hard to share and promote the power of project-based learning is the Lowell Milken Center.  Named for and founded by education philanthropist Lowell Milken in 2007, the Kansas-based organization has been churning out rather impressive projects that have resulted in  national and world news coverage.  And, now, they are offering students the chance to win a whopping $10,000 for their efforts in uncovering an unknown historical figure.  $10,000.  That is huge.  And, I am impressed with an organization that is so committed to creativity and innovation that they are willing to honor student work in such a way.

The winners of the Inaugural year of the Lowell Milken Center Discovery Award will be announced this July, and I can't wait to see what history students and teachers have come up with in pursuit of this goal.  If you haven't yet heard about this award, the Lowell Milken Center asked students across America to create projects around the story of an unsung hero who has changed history.  The really cool part is that students can present their discovery in a variety of genres such as documentary film, a performance, an exhibit, or a website.  That multi-genre angle is what really caught my interest and inspires me about this organization and this contest.  Far too often, these contests are essay-based, and that requirement turns off many creative and insightful students.  Students today have much to say, and they can do so in a variety of engaging and professional multi-media formats.  It is truly amazing to see what a group of young people can discover and produce when given the opportunity and a supportive teacher along for the journey.

This approach reminds me of the multi-genre research projects my students have done in our study of individuality and the American spirit.  Rather than complete an essay or research paper like they've done for countless classes, I encouraged them to research their information and then present it in whatever genres speak to them.  This lesson always produces their best work of the year.  Additionally, such an approach is much more real-world practical and represents the type of educational model we need for 21st-century learning.  So, I encourage you to check out the Lowell Milken Center and the Lowell Milken Center Discovery Award.  I know I am going to promote this organization and its award to my students and colleagues.  I hope parents and teachers encourage their students to take advantage of this cool and exciting opportunity.

The Lowell Milken Center Discovery Award is the type of creative and innovative thinking that will help improve American education.

NOTE: This entry is a Guest Post sponsored by the Lowell Milken Center