Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Don't Become a Teacher

In every year I've taught, I've heard some of my best and brightest aspire to be teachers. The idealistic side of me is so excited for this possibility, and I understand that it is their great educational experience and love of learning that led them to their decision. And my first instinct is to praise, congratulate, and encourage them. My second thought, however, is more melancholy, and my instinct resting just below the excitement is to counsel them away from the profession. For, in far too many places, teaching has become a thankless task. This week Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet offers a "letter of resignation" of sorts from a seemingly passionate, skilled, and veteran teacher who simply can't do it anymore. In response to Valerie's request for stories, she writes, "I would love to teach, but …"

It is with a heavy, frustrated heart that I announce the end of my personal career in education, disappointed and resigned because I believe in learning. I was brought up to believe that education meant exploring new things, experimenting, and broadening horizons … However, as the whipping boy for society’s ills, I could do none of these things. I was lambasted by parents as being ineffective because their child had a B or a C. “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers, I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them, I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time, I was not excusing their lack of discipline, I was not going back in time and raising them from birth, but I could do none of these things. I was called down to the principal’s office many more times before I was broken, before I ended up assigning stupid assignments for large amounts of credit, ones I knew I could get students to do. Even then, I still had students failing, purely through their own refusal to put any sort of effort into anything, and I had lowered the bar so much that it took hardly anything to pass. I would love to teach, but I will not spend another day under the expectations that I prepare every student for the increasing numbers of meaningless tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit. I refuse to subject students to every ridiculous standardized test that the state and/or district thinks is important. I refuse to have my higher-level and deep thinking lessons disrupted by meaningless assessments (like the Global Scholars test) that do little more than increase stress among children and teachers, waste instructional time and resources, and attempt to guide young adolescents into narrow choices. “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.” It is time that we fall on our sword. In our rabid pursuit of data and blame, we have sacrificed wisdom and abandoned its fruits. We cannot broaden our students’ horizons by placing them and their teachers into narrow boxes, unless we then plan to bury them.

Stories like these - and they are not uncommon - distress me to no end. And they would seem to validate my concerns about encouraging students to pursue teaching.  Of course, the issue is so complicated because, as most in education know, there are far too many unsatisfactory teachers out there producing little of the incredibly hard work and results that are mentioned by this teacher.  There is no easy answer to the problems that plague education - and I am certain that many of our current reforms are misguided attempts which will only worsen the situation. But I am not without hope.

So, with guarded optimism, I will still encourage my best and brightest to "Become a Teacher."

Monday, December 30, 2013

Stop Wearing High Heel Shoes in 2014

If I could recommend one New Year's Resolution for all women in 2014, it would be to end the torturous act of wearing high-heeled shoes. My students have long known - and laughed about - this rant of mine. In fact, I've been known to argue that women will truly take over the world once they shave their heads, throw away their make-up, and ditch the high heels. My example to students is any high school dance (Homecoming, Prom, etc) or any formal party (such as New Year's Eve balls). Inevitably, we will see women walking around and dancing in stocking feet, probably holding their shoes in their hands. Why? "Because they hurt my feet." The obvious question is why the women bought them in the first place. The answer, of course, is "because they are so cute."

Baffled, I am.

The sad reality is that "High Heels May Look Good, But They Are Killing Your [Health]." There is so much research and medical history in opposition to the wearing of high heeled shoes, and they are certainly a form of clothing that objectifies and even subjugates women. The damage done by these implements of high fashion is endless.

Therefore, lots of bad things happen. Shall we count the ways? Among the more common problems podiatrists say they see in women are calluses and, more painfully, corns, hard nuggets of keratin buildup caused by pressure on the skin. With high heels, corns develop up under the balls of the foot where the weight of your body presses down, and they feel like small rocks underfoot when you walk.  Liebow also sees capsulitis, a painful inflammation of the joints where the toes attach to the foot, and neuromas, or pinched nerves, where pointy high heels squeeze the toes. And when the heel is frequently in a high-heel shoe, it can cause the Achilles tendon (which connects the calf muscle to the heel bone) to tighten. When you kick off your shoes and the heel comes down to the floor at the end of the day, the extra stretching of the tendon can lead to a condition called Achilles tendinitis. Wearing high heels can also cause inflammation of the connective tissue at the bottom of the foot, the plantar fascia. That can result in severe heel pain and the need for aggressive treatments such as oral anti-inflammatories, oral steroids, cortisone injections, walking boots and crutches.

(Giuseppe Aresu, The Associated Press)

And, the history of high heels doesn't bode well for women's rights. High heels were, no doubt, invented by a man, and they were designed to promote women's feet as objects of desire. I know, I know, that sounds creepy. But is it not true? Granted, high heels were at one time also worn by men.  And the boost in stature is no doubt grounded in insecurity about height. But the male gender must be in some ways moving past that, as no contemporary man would subject himself to such torture, as pictured above - cowboy boots notwithstanding, which I've never worn but heard great things about.  In reality, no man would buy shoes that he then has to carry around because they hurt his feet. And, I've always understood that men who wore them for professional purposes suffered, too. If I'm not mistaken, rock star Prince has undergone hip replacement surgery which was necessitated by years of performing in high heeled boots. So, that seems reason enough to ditch the heels.

Now, we may have to talk about the necktie.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Education Reform Stories in 2013

Valerie Strauss - whose Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post is a top source for education news - takes the end of the year to reflect on the top stories in education reform in 2013.  With Common Core finally raising the controversial debates that should have preceded adoption and implementation, the year of 2013 provided the spark that will drive education talk for years to come. From new "standards" to "standardized testing" to teacher evaluations based on assessment standards, 2013 has set the standard for the education debate to come.  Some of the debate will be driven by former teachers like David Greene who are speaking out in retirement about what they believe is going wrong - and right - in the profession.

“Teaching is a performing art as much as a science,” he said. “It takes talent. And personality. The match of your personality and skill set determines what kind of teacher you are. What works for one teacher may not work for another. You can’t expect everyone to do it the same way. And yet…” Like many teachers, Greene is mystified by the reforms currently favored by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York’s educational leadership.In general terms, he thinks there’s plenty to like about the Common Core standards and even efforts to improve teacher evaluations.In fact, he argues in his conversational but impassioned book for many of the same things favored by reformers: greater depth in instruction; lessons that engage students; focused reading that leads to tight writing; and regular assessment of students. But Greene believes that reformers are betraying their cause by overloading the school day with too many new goals, over-emphasizing tests and trying to grade teachers with formulas and test scores. The result, he said, will be a uniformity that sucks the life out of teaching and learning.

Greene's book - Doing the Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks - is intended to spark the debate about what effective teaching and relevant effective reform is all about.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Education Commentary Proves Lucrative for Edu-vocates like Rick Hess in Era of Reform

As a teacher, I have always been a bit of an education geek. Beyond just teaching English or working in school administration, I enjoy reading and writing about the issues of the day. However, the recent news out of Douglas County, Colorado indicates I may be in the wrong part of the education field if I want to rake in the dough for writing about education.  A judge in Denver has ruled that the Douglas County School District "violated the Fair Campaign Act when it contracted for and distributed a paper that espoused" the reforms implemented by the school board. While the reforms - and the inherent controversy - around Douglas County Schools are not news, I was quite surprised to learn that education researcher and writer Frederick "Rick" Hess of the American Enterprise Institute was paid $30,000 for the paper in question.  Hess's article "The Most Interesting School District in America" was published in various places and distributed by the district.

Here in Colorado’s third-largest school district, with 65,000 students — an enrollment larger than Washington, D.C.’s and as large as Detroit’s — the superintendent and board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform. The Douglas County School District is trying to do something truly new. An all-Republican school board has created the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program, introduced market-based pay, allowed its teachers’ union contract to expire, and developed a regimen of home-crafted standards and assessments in lieu of the Common Core (which superintendent Liz Celania-Fagen dismisses as the “Common Floor”). Former Reagan secretary of education William Bennett has opined that Douglas County is “trying to do all the good reforms at once.”
Unwilling to settle for just adding merit raises atop the old industrial pay scale, Douglas County has adopted a market-based pay system. After hiring a former human-resources manager from GE to lead its effort to rethink teacher pay, Douglas County has established five broad pay bands based on the supply and demand for various teaching roles. This allows the districts to pay more for hard-to-find teachers, such as a special-education audiologist, and less for teachers in easier-to-fill roles. For the first time in memory, superintendent Celania-Fagen reports, the district had more quality applicants for special education than they had positions available. Douglas County has shown, with little media fanfare, that it is possible to pay teachers what the market requires instead of being tied to a rigid, union-imposed, one-size-fits-all pay scale.

Certainly, the Era of Reform has become a lucrative new aspect to the field of public education. With the rise of Common Core reforms and new education legislation that links teacher pay with student performance, education consultants are earning big money. This is certainly true for new College Board  president David Coleman who stands to earn more than a half-million dollars in base salary for his new position. Of course, that's no more than the head of the National Education Association (NEA) who earns north of $500K as well - and that comes out of teacher's dues which should support collective bargaining for, among other things, a respectable salary.  And back in Douglas County, it's not surprising that big money is going to consultants and researchers. The district allegedly paid former Education Secretary William Bennet as much as $80,000 for speeches touting the districts reforms.

Apparently, this blogging for ad revenue is the low end of education writing.

Anyone need an education consultant who will work for cheap?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hollywood's Heads of the Class

The "Inspirational Teacher Story" has been a time-honored tradition in Hollywood for more than fifty years. From impassioned but frustrated teacher Richard Dadier - played by Glenn Ford - in 1955's Blackboard Jungle to pathetic but ironically effective Elizabeth Halsey - played by Cameron Diaz - in Bad Teacher, audiences can't seem to get enough of engaging heads of the class.  Whether the films are documentaries or "based on a true story," or some scriptwriter's fantasy of what effective teaching looks like, the teacher movies are generally based on one idea - inspiring reluctant learners to achieve by caring about them and having high expectations.  They can certainly become cliched, though the connection between the true stories and the imagined ones are often so vivid that we have to wonder if it's really so simple.  Everyone has their favorite "teacher movie," but there are some standards that top any list.  Some of the "Best in Class" are:

To Sir, with Love

Stand and Deliver

Dead Poets Society

Mr. Holland's Opus

Dangerous Minds

Freedom Writers

The Great Debaters

And, of course, we can't neglect
Bad Teacher

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Disc Golf on the Rise as that Other "Frisbee" Sport

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my friends and I spent countless hours criss-crossing the neighborhood throwing our frisbees toward trees and mailboxes and front porches in "pursuit of par." We called it "frisbee golf," and the course was usually the whole neighborhood, and the holes might be a par-15 or more. Who knew it would actually develop into a sport with a national organization and formal courses in parks across the country.  But it has.  Of course, now it's called "Disc Golf," and the purists would take great offense to anyone calling the discs "Frisbee." 

Living in Greenwood Village, Colorado, I hadn't played any formal disc golf until the city re-designed Village Greens Park and put in an 18-hole disc golf course, alongside a new mountain bike trail. Disc golf has become the new obsession for my 11-year-old son and his friends, and this Christmas they received new discs and a disc golf bag. And, I am catching the bug and re-living a bit of my childhood playing the game. My best so far is two-over par.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love, Actually Turns Ten as Critics Declare Death of the Romantic Comedy

For five or six years now, our Christmas Eve tradition has been to wrap presents and drink eggnog while watching what has quickly become a holiday classic, Love, Actually. The British ensemble rom-com has reached the decade mark in 2013, and that milestone seemed to touch off debate about the health of the genre Love, Actually so perfectly encapsulates. Is Love, Actually a really great movie? Or is it the worst romantic comedy every?  Is it destined to become a Christmas holiday classic on par with It's a Wonderful Life or Christmas Story? Or is the movie overrated and deserving of all the controversy?  As Love, Actually turns ten, have we seen the apex, decline, and death of the romantic comedy?

The romantic-comedy is a truly classic American film genre which actually has its roots at least as far back as Shakespeare and his classic "Much Ado about Nothing." The romantic-tension fueled bickering of Beatrice and Benedict is the foundation of practically every version of how "Harry Met Sally."  While the genre has often been derided as fluff filmmaking and nothing more than "chick flicks," the rom-com can be an incredibly rich character study that frames the battle of the sexes as representative of the human condition and the struggle for identity. And contemporary filmmakers can provide entertaining satire and social criticism as well as any Jane Austen novel. In fact, when I begin teaching her classic Pride and Prejudice, I open the discussion with several clips from the non-fiction-book-turned-romantic-comedy He's Just Not that Into You. And despite contempt from some critics and the claims by many men that they would never watch such films if their girlfriends didn't make them, nearly everyone has a favorite scene or example of the genre.

Movies like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, Crazy Sexy Love, or 500 Days of Summer are tough to criticize as nothing but cheesy romance. They are often deeply philosophical and psychological studies that ask tough question and do more than tug at our heartstrings - they can rattle our existential existence. And some would argue that in the contemporary age, the romantic-comedy is getting even better.  With the philosophical beauty of movies like Enough Said - the full film from gone-too-soon actor James Gandolfini - Kevin Craft argues at Salon.com that "The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead." I would argue the same about a nice little small-release gem starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly called Stuck in Love. More than a Rom-Com, it is a story of complicated relationships in a family led by a writer and his dysfunctional family who seemed to have "lost their plot." The story which contains some great writing about the metaphor of writing and storytelling is more than just a romance.

Of course, like any genre, there are plenty of really poor examples which tend to taint the field. And contemporary studios have begun to dilute the genre as much as they blur it when the rom-com becomes the rom-com action flick.  And any genre is ripe for cliche when Hollywood finds something that works.  Often the films are just cheesy escapism.  And, maybe that's OK.  As far as Love, Actually is concerned, the "carol singers" scene may be ripe for criticism as cheesy and overdone , but for me it is a classic rom-com romantic moment on par with John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes outside Ione Skye's window.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Affluenza Defense Tests the Bounds of Sanity

The term affluenza was first coined - at least as far as I know - by John de Graff whose book began to spotlight the negative effects of wealth on humanity. Truly, lives of excessive privilege can blind individuals to any understanding of fairness and personal responsibility. And such conditions can cost people the basic empathy that must reside at the heart of any civilization.  The term "affluenza" gained new attention in recent weeks as news of the Affluenza Defense made headlines when a teenage drunk driver responsible for the deaths of four people was basically freed by a judge who bought the defense's argument that the defendant's wealth had left him unable to exercise proper judgment.

Basically, Ethan Couch is not guilty or responsible for the four deaths he caused because he grew up with such privilege that he never learned right from wrong.  It is, I know, the most preposterous argument you've probably ever heard, and it distorts the American justice system in ways rarely so explicitly blind. Certainly, we know there is a disparity between wealth and justice, a situation most clearly defined decades ago by the OJ case, when OJ Simpson was freed in the deaths of his ex-wife and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman.  Most Americans have little doubt that OJ's wealth bought his not guilty verdict. For, no average citizen could have mounted such a high powered defense with the likes of Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey.

Now, Ethan Couch is the new poster child for the wealthy's ability to kill with impunity.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Power of Dreams - Best Irish Band You've Never Heard Of

When nearly anyone mentions great Irish rock bands, U2 is obviously the first one that springs to mind. Other names that might arise are The Alarm - if you're from the 80s and were looking for more after U2 arrived. The Dropkick Murpheys are certainly a great choice, and Flogging Molly is pretty well known, too. Some people might reference The Pogues or The Waterboys, and fans of Irish rap might bring up Black 47. However, one the best Irish rock bands I've ever known - and one whose career ended far too soon after only a few albums - are Power of Dreams. Their first release was an EP titled "A Little Piece of God," and they followed that with an excellent debut album, "Immigrants, Emigrants, and Me." The band only lasted for through the early 90s, disbanding after a tour in 1995. Here are some of my favorites from this great Irish band:

The Jokes on Me:

My Average Day

1000 Ways to Kill a Love

Rain Down
Where is the Love?


Had You listened
See You
Does It Matter

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Speech & Debate Students Defy Stereotypes and Criticism of Teens

Despite the negative commentary on teenagers and the state of American education - especially in the aftermath of the most recent PISA test results which criticize the US schools as average and stagnant - the high achieving intellects of American students are alive and well and on display at speech and debate tournaments across the country on a regular basis. After spending the weekend at the 10th Annual Patriot Games tournament hosted by the Forensics Department of George Mason University, I couldn't be more impressed with the talents of America's ambitious and motivated and high achieving students. There is something truly impressive and inspiring and reassuring about spending time with students who are committed to competing against each other in tests of intellect and performance art.  Judging a public forum debate on the resolution that immigration reform should contain a "path to citizenship," I was overwhelmed with the knowledge and insight and rhetorical prowess of so many young people. These students are as well informed on the issue of immigration - perhaps better because they know both sides so well - as anyone on the country. That is impressive. Judging the Lincoln-Douglas (LD) on the precedence of truth seeking over attorney-client privilege, I was amazed at the profoundly philosophical banter and exchange between these young people. They've thought long and hard about issues of truth and justice, certainly more so than the average American.  And that's every bit as important, and more so, than their ability to answer math and reading questions on a standardized test for which they have no context or motivation.

Ask yourself if you can do that?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eating Healthy Is Not Too Expensive

Whole Foods is really "Whole Paycheck," right? Or is it really just an extra $1.50 a day?

Can people eat healthy, nutritious, and delicious food for an added cost that is less than half the price of a Starbucks latte? That's the consensus from a review of more than twenty studies across numerous countries. The overall cost separating a healthy choice from an unhealthy one is less than two bucks a day. Granted that equates to more than $500 a year. However, the added benefits that come from a healthier diet should certainly cover the cost. I can recall watching a story of the working poor struggling to afford a decent meal, as the issue was featured in the movie Food, Inc. And I was so bothered by the assertion that the family could not afford healthy meals when, at the same time, they were featured spending enough money on one family meal of fast food that could have purchased days' worth of meals at the supermarket. The reality is that people can afford to eat healthy, but they have to have the information to make the right choices. And overly processed foods are never the right answer.

Of course, it won't be easy to reverse a century-long march to an unhealthy, unnatural, processed foods diet. However, it's certainly worth the investment, no matter the cost.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

PISA Tests and the Problem of International Tests

By now the news of the latest "international test rankings" are out to the general public, and the "sky-is-falling" hysteria about public education is set to begin again.  Sadly, Americans will continually cite this shocking news without any knowledge of what the rankings really mean, or even how they are derived. While nearly two-thirds of Americans had no knowledge of the CommonCore national standards even a couple months ago, I would bet that more than 90% of Americans have never heard of the PISA test or the TIMSS test, even as they refer to America's educational struggles in "international competition." Alas, the international comparison is fraught with faulty logic, not the least of which is comparing vastly different countries and cultures based on single assessments. While some countries perform better on small student samples of standardized tests, that doesn't mean much beyond the ability to take a test. So, while Singapore's students may perform twice as well on the test, ask yourself if their doctors are twice as effective at healing, or if their buildings are twice as high and strong. Are their poems and paintings twice as beautiful? Is their economy twice as strong? And where is Singapore's Apple or GE or Tesla or SpaceX or Microsoft. Bill Gates is a big CC proponent, but he never had it as a student, so how was he successful? We need to think carefully about these questions before accepting that radical change is the answer. Or that it would even change anything.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Donate to Wikipedia

It's that time of year - time to pony up for all the great content you've been accessing on the internet through the largest open-source encyclopedia in the history of the world. That's right. Wikipedia is asking for donations to help support the platform and keep the source of information commercial free. Each year the founders and managers of Wikipedia campaign for support, and it's up to the users and curators to support the cause. Despite criticism and admonitions from teachers who tell students they "can't use Wikipedia," the online encyclopedia is an extensive and reliable source of information that is constantly being updated and refined to offer the most comprehensive source of content. Certainly, readers know that when they do an internet search for anything from Lady Gaga on MTV to Lady Catherine in Austen's Pride and Prejudice one of the top sites will always be Wikipedia. That is true because of the unique nature of open source editing by millions of content area experts. The pages of Wikipedia are constantly under review and revision by the very people who are most interested in the content. Thus, on the basis of pure factual information, Wikipedia is a great site. Of course, teachers do have a point in that Wiki should not be used as a primary source for research. The open-source nature of the content means that a single page can't be cited as a source. However, that doesn't mean students shouldn't use it. They should. Wikipedia is a great place to begin research, and students should become skilled at following the sources at the bottom of each page to extend and deepen the process. And with the support of readers, Wikipedia can remain the excellent launching point that it is. And, if you have questions about the "reliability of Wikipedia," you should check out the best source for a comprehensive list of studies on it - Wikipedia.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The NHL Needs to Ban Fighting

I went to a fight once ... and a hockey game broke out.

That joke doesn't seem so funny now in the era of concussions. As the NFL deals with increased scrutiny over the mental damage done to players, and parents fret about whether they want their son to play football at all, the spotlight on head injuries in sports has expanded to the ice rink with news of a major lawsuit against the NHL.  Several days ago, ten former professional hockey players - notably the enforcer types known for fighting - filed a class action lawsuit agains the National Hockey League (NHL), claiming the league did not do enough to protect players from the long term damage from head injuries. This legal move comes not long after the NFL settled a $750 million suit with its former players over the same issue.

Certainly, it's no surprise that hockey players suffer a fairly high rate of concussions, especially the players who are basically "paid to fight."  The grinders and enforcers are not on the ice for their prowess with a puck or grace on skates. They are there to hurt people.  And this just may have to change.  While hockey players and fans have long defended the practice of fights as "part of the game" or necessary "payback for cheap shots," those excuses are wearing thin as modern medicine learns more about the long term effects of multiple concussions.  And, it's become unacceptable in sports where the suicide rate is going up for players suffering symptoms of a brain wasting disease that results from repeated head trauma.

Perhaps the sentiment of hockey fans and players will change if we continue to put a human face to the dangers inherent in fighting and repeated concussions. The issue is being raised in the Denver area with a recent series of articles from Mike Chambers and Adrian Dater of the Denver Post.  The Denver Post is focusing on the head injury issue with a profile of former Avalanche player/enforcer Scott Parker.  Since being forced into retirement as a result of head injury side effects, Parker has seen his personal life and mental health unravel.  In a rather shocking story, Parker reveals that he was in 400 fights and took probably 4000 punches to the head during his career.  And that's just crazy.

There are many issues to be resolved, such as whether rules against fighting deter violence in the game. But it seems pretty obvious that the issue of fighting - and repeated gloveless punches to the head - is not in the interest of the game. It's certainly not in the interest of the human beings who play it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Engineering Instruction for Kids: Start Innovation Early

It's said that in engineering lies the future of mankind. Every innovation, every grand design has its roots entrenched in engineering knowledge. All things considered, this is a dynamic and hugely diverse field to join. Currently, forward thinking educational forces are realizing that in order to progress children's education and learning at a faster rate, it's necessary and beneficial to introduce kids to the basics of engineering as early as possible.

The benefits of this early introduction to computer science and engineering are plentiful. While it is highly unlikely that every child will go on to become an engineer, it has been proven that being taught to think like an engineer at an early age increases brain function and problem solving skills. It is skills like these that will help developing children to become more successful. Early training in problem solving helps to broaden developing minds and creates a structured approach to learning that will be invaluable even when studying other subjects at school and beyond.

When teaching young children engineering skills, there should be no pressure and no criticisms. One of the most successful methods involves children exploring the ins and outs of common, familiar items. These items include building blocks, marbles and strips of shaped wood. Desks are moved aside to create a zone where young engineering students can explore the possible combinations of these materials to complete set goals. The goals are as simple as ensuring that a marble reaches a bucket, but it's essential that students use the materials provided to make this happen. They are given free reign as far as creativity goes, which often results in some truly spectacular, sprawling arrangements. Children are encouraged to explore new, different ways of getting the marble to its destination.

With such promising programs in place, it is important to find out what types of environmental support structures could be introduced. There are four useful steps that have proven hugely useful in promoting this early learning and problem solving ability.

  1. Involve Young Children in Solving Design Problems.
Young children will benefit from being encouraged to find solutions to challenges that have been placed in front of them. The sense of purpose is a great driving force that in itself encourages children to formulate solutions to the problems set before them. The danger lies in over-simplifying the tasks so that the challenge is diminished. It is far better to pose a real challenge and offer a supportive environment where questions are encouraged.

     2.   Models That Enhance Learning

When explaining concepts that may be a shade too complex for children to immediately grasp, it is invaluable to have a visible, real world example solution to demonstrate. This helps children grasp what is expected of them and gets them excited to get their hands dirty. It is one thing to stand in front of a class and lecture them about the way a ball rolls down a hill, but actually showing them the ball rolling is an entirely different approach which has been shown to be massively beneficial. Young minds learn better through observation, not by instruction.

    3. Repetitive Work Is More Effective.

Engineering is a highly repetitive occupation that requires designing and revisiting designs in order to find the best operational solution to any given problem. It is this repetition that is so helpful to young learners, who learn to refine and improve designs until they are satisfied that they have mastered the task. By reaching the same solution by differing methods, lateral and creative problem solving skills are instilled.

    4. Take Your Time.

It is important that time becomes less of a factor in the problem solving process. Time constraints result in undue pressure and feelings of imminent failure, which effectively switch the learner's brain off. The learning process is far more effective when the focus is switched from time limits to task completion. At a young age, a child is far more likely to succumb to pressure. It is when this happens that learning ceases and is replaced only by panic. Allowing a pressure free environment allows the full absorption of the material at hand.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Common Core Math Problems

In a feeble and rash attempt to defend Common Core math standards, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apparently insulted millions of middle class suburban moms by saying opposition to the Common Core is simply a result of "“white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” That's certainly not the diplomatic approach I would suggest, especially when critics are raising legitimate concerns about the Common Core drafting and implementation. Arne Duncan seems to be expressing an ignorance of just what the standards say and why they may present problems.

On the other hand, Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss offers an extensive and valid criticism for "Why Young Kids Are Struggling with Common Core Math." And her criticisms are worth considering. The most serious issue is, of course, the potential ignorance that the standards reveal about the learning stages and styles of young children. While the Common Core proposed to offer deeper and more thorough teaching, it may simply be inappropriate. Strauss has addressed this issue regularly, notably in her Eight Problems with Common Core. And all concerned parties should at the very least have knowledge of her criticisms. That said, it's also important to acknowledge the claims that the Common Core is simply a step in the right direction in terms of standards actually being learning goals, as they should be.

That said, CC in theory is not a bad idea. It was an attempt by people to create a standard "floor" per grade level, so a kid who moved from Arizona to Illinois would be at roughly the same "grade level" no matter what. And it was an attempt to align grade level standards in literacy and math to some "standard" common to high performing nations, as well as better prepare kids for college and career. And, at least in math, the claim was that kids would "go deeper" and understand math "conceptually" in order to achieve "mastery" at each level. Thus, in theory, it's not a bad idea. And, in many ways, I am not opposed to CC, and have actually done a fair amount of promotion and staff development for at.

However, critics are crying foul for numerous reasons. The "standards" have never been tested with any data to prove they produce better results. They are not actually linked with any "international standard," of which there is none. They were created by a consortium of private interests, including textbook and resource producers and private testing organizations like the College Board. Thus, experts in the field including school districts and state boards were not consulted or involved. Two of the prominent voices on math verification committee, including a Harvard math prof, who were asked to sign off on the results (but were not included in creating them) refused to do so. They criticized the standards as a "move to the middle" that has lower expectations and is geared toward preparing students for community colleges and lower level institutions. Thus, the needs of advanced students are greatly compromised by this approach.
The standards were basically adopted and implemented in 45+ states with simply the signature of the governors, and there has been little support for training on the new standards. And if the teachers don't buy into the ideas, it's certainly a tough sell. Additionally, the very concept of "mastery" at any given level is seriously disputed, and it contradicts much research into how people actually learn. For example, we intro paragraphs and topic sentences at third grade, but as material complexity increases, so does the challenge of crafting a topic sentence. Thus, I have no expectation that my students "master irony" in one year. Finally, there is a serious pushback against the federalist component, as local control of schools is a foundation of the republic. We don't have a national education system, but the White House used Race-to-the-Top funding as basically a bribe - or stick - to force adoption. So people have a big problem with the federal government dictating to individual school districts what they have to teach.
It is a complicated issue, and while I actually support the theory, I am suspicious and disappointed in the manner in which the CC has been forced upon schools.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can ACT-Aspire Challenge PARCC on State Assessments

Since the adoption of the Common Core, a primary concern for many educators and parents has been the impending assessments associated with the "national standards." For, if state governors and school chiefs have determined the need for continuity of standards - in case a kid moves states and because all kids are applying to the same colleges - states will need some way to confirm proficiency.

Enter the PARCC Consortium.

PARCC, the Partnership to Assess Readiness for College & Careers (as well as SB, the SmarterBalanced testing group, and also an artificial butter substitute), was commissioned and given a grant of somewhere around $350 million to develop standardized assessments for grades 3-11. It has been, apparently, a monumental undertaking, as seen by the long years it has taken to even get a few samples. Of course, Bill Gates claimed that this new system of accountability would also bring competition to the marketplace to testing.

Enter ACT with a new program designed for grades 3-10 called ACT Aspire, which leads logically to the ACT for 11th graders. The benefit of something like ACT is that it is familiar, and it leads logically to a test that kids and parents understand. It also leads to the only test that kids, parents, and colleges care about. Additionally, ACT Aspire can be given any time during the year, and it can be taken care of for all grades in less than a day. For these reason, among many others, ACT Aspire seems like a reasonable and viable alternative to the PARCC.

Of course, the idea of ACT challenging PARCC is now a moot point, after the huge educational conglomerate Pearson, Inc. won the contract to produce PARCC's tests. Pearson also produces and manages ACT.

So, what now?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Country and Hip Hop "Mixing" It Up for Some Good Tunes

It may seem like the strangest pop culture marriage around, but the recent - and increasingly common - collaborations between the stars of country and hip hop are producing some quality music that is fresh and classic at the same time. This merger of uniquely American musical styles caught my attention today, as I was driving across the Dam Road in Denver on a beautiful day and heard the song Cruise by Florida Georgia Line with a remix featuring Nelly. And I really liked it:

The blend of country and hip hop is actually a lot more obvious and reasonable than many would expect. Both genres represent a culture of inveterate story telling and exceptional rhythms and choruses.  They are also both distinctly American genres, telling truly vivid American stories. Themes of pride and love are integral, and it was only a matter of time before a couple of renegades in their genres would cross the lines. The first examples I heard were Brad Paisley and Nelly getting together for Over and Over, and Kid Rock joining Sheryl Crow for Picture.

With Nelly now joining the Florida Georgia Line, he is establishing a niche for collaboration, and opening up whole new audiences. I am impressed with his openness to such innovation. Of course, growing up in the Midwest, Nelly was always going to have bit of a country drawl to his songs. And his use of Smokey and the Bandit motifs in his video for "Ride Wit Me" indicated a bit of country even in his earliest writing. And I would say that his collaboration with Kelly Rowland on Dilemma, while truly an R&B song, actually had a real "country" feel to the tone and story.

Of course, we shouldn't forget other collaborations that fuse the genre for one singer. In that I'm thinking of Jason Aldean's Dirt Road Anthem. Aldean's collaboration with Ludacris on this song actually angered many country music purists, but in true renegade fashion, both artists persisted and produced a quality song.

Finally, no discussion of this cross-cultural collaboration would be complete without mentioning the most controversial example - The Accidental Racist featuring Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.

So ...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Secession is the New Thing in Tea Party Politics

Prudence will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.
So, Thomas Jefferson said - but he never expected (irony) the rise of the Tea Party in contemporary American politics, where every political disagreement is a "Sky-is-Falling," "country-is-ruined" sort of conversation.  These days, some Americans believe the nation is so politically divided that a divorce is the only solution.  Thus, secession talk has rumbled up from the fringes, and it has begun to gain attention in nearly every political conversation - especially in Texas and Colorado.

While in Texas, more than a hundred thousand people favored seceding from the United States, the secession forces in Colorado simply want to create a 51st state out of some rural counties because they don't like laws being made by the urban centralized government in Denver. Apparently, it mostly comes down to gun laws and alternative energy regulations. You know, not any "light and transient causes." This is real end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sort of stuff. If people in Weld County, Colorado can no longer buy ammo clips with more than fifteen rounds, they're going to need to radically alter state lines for the first time since 1820. As it stands, the future of the 51st state of North Colorado is in limbo, as the eleven counties split on the decision to secede.

As a Coloradan, I find the whole secession talk a bit ridiculous, especially for the "light and transient causes" argument.  Of course, as I've noted before, there's a cynical part of me that simply wonders why we don't let Texas secede.  And, I'm not the only one who feels that way. A recent piece for the Huffington Post ponders the issue of Texas, and almost satirically comments on 10 Things We'd Lose if Texas Secedes.  Obviously, if we consider seriously the criticisms made of Texas, it might not be a bad thing to be done with the Lone Star State. And it might be fun to see yellow roses go it alone. Certainly, it has been the fantasy of many, and it's worth imagining, if just for posterity's sake.

Truly, secession talk really is the sour grapes of the political world, and in direct conflict with the American spirit. It reminds of the kid who doesn't like the way the game is going because he's losing, and so decides to "take my ball and go home."