John Edwards’ plans

John Edwards unveiled his education plan today.

From scratch, he wants to create a new university that will prepare one thousand teachers and offer advice on best practices to other schools of education. He uses Arthur Levine’s love letter to ed schools as justification.

The present rate of attrition will mean that this school will produce 500 teachers who stay more than five years in a tough district. That means that Philly will get five to seven of these folks — hooray.

another use of myspace

So I’m teaching this morning — another glorious day at West Philly High — and a kid asks me if I can get to myspace on my computer. I think he assumed that I had a broadband card (I didn’t) because the School District has blocked myspace.com.

It turns out he was using myspace as a file server, as a way of keeping files (including those for my class) and was now unable to download the paper. I think the smart folks downtown and most adults see these “social networks” as counter to the academic mission but here was a kid using it appropriately only to be unable to access his work.

Testing writing

Good article in the Globe today describing the written part of the SAT. These ‘grafs are money:

Les Perelman, director of MIT’s writing program, disagrees. He became so frustrated by what he believed were formulaic essays that freshmen were turning in after the SAT essay was introduced that he conducted an experiment: He trained three high school students, who had taken the SAT once already, to insert some factual errors, use big words, and ignore logical thought on the SAT essay, and each received a near-perfect score.

“They’ve learned to write paragraph essays where they don’t care whether the facts are correct,” Perelman said. “We have to spend a year in freshman composition deprogramming them.”

Bunin and other College Board officials contend that Perelman’s findings are inconclusive, since he only worked with a few students. But they acknowledge that factual accuracy was not crucial in the scoring.

What the essay portion is about is a student’s ability to express himself in writing,” Bunin said. “This is not a research paper.”

I can’t think of another context where content would be irrelevant to one’s writing.

Is this English?

It’s the title of a wonderful book by Bob Fecho. The opposite also applies — today in class I had a student proclaim “this feels like an English class.” Discussions of writing seem to be limited to “English” class as if writing is not something you should be doing elsewhere.

There are a lot of reasons why students see things this way but it makes me wonder just how much writing high school students are actually doing.

Rice (1893) vs. Tough (2006)

Contrast Rice’s 1893 description of a classroom in New York City:

Another way in which time is saved is by compelling the children to stare fixedly at the source whence the wisdom flows. When the teacher is the source of wisdom, all the children in the room stare fixedly in the direction of the teacher; when a word on the blackboard is the source of wisdom, all eyes stare fixedly at a point on the blackboard.

Now, here is Paul Tough describing a KIPP classroom in New York City:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools follow a system for classroom behavior invented byLevin and Feinberg called Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track thespeaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at
me. ”Do you notice what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.

They all called out at once, ”Nodding!”

Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background learn these methods for taking in information nearly on and employ them instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly. And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity
and discipline in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.)

When Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — ”Give us the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing off, staring into space and slouching. Middle-class Americans know intuitively that ”good behavior” is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.

Ghetto Film School

This sounds like an awesome program. I like how honest the kids were:

“One said, ‘I don’t want to come into a place and find out someone is trying to raise my self-esteem,’ ” Mr. Hall said. “Another said, ‘Yeah, it’s not like we want a ghetto film school.’ Everyone started laughing, and I thought, ‘What if we could co-opt a negative term and throw it back out there, do the exact opposite?’ ”

Enough of these half-baked programs — the kids know immediately whether it’s a fake or if real resources have been committed.

NCLB jokes

The parts of NCLB that makes me craziest are the provisions that allow students to transfer out of a low-performing school. This section is based on the highly-problematic assumption that there are genuine options in locales where there are poor performing schools.

There was an editorial earlier this year suggesting that NCLB allow for cross-district transfers, a worthy idea that has absolutely no chance of passing. Any suburban representative who voted for this would lose his or her job immediately; a legal challenge would ask the Supreme Court to overturn Milliken, which frankly, ain’t gonna happen. Maybe, if there were huge state and federal incentives, you might convince a few suburban districts to take on a handful of good students, but even that would require a well-respected School Board that could handle the response from reactionary residents…

Either or…

I’ve been working on this piece lately emphasizing the continued significance of the philosophy of education essay in teacher education programs. I argue that it ought to be the starting point for each class and that the process of revising this piece will make it that much stronger and relevant to the students.

But one of the things I’ve been addressing is how students deal with the question of location. One of my students wondered last semester why so much of our time was devoted to “urban education” when she just wanted to be a “regular teacher.” In a recent conversation within my department, the question of how much of a course ought to be devoted to special education and how much to “regular education.” In setting up my literacy course, I agonized over how much time ought to be devoted to “struggling” students and how much to “regular” students.

Are these distinctions necessary? Is good practice enough to address the needs of all students? Will well thought-out methods work, regardless of who is sitting in the classroom? Is there a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate methods based on the student population?

My gut response is no, but only if the teacher is paying very close attention to each student.