Thursday, November 30, 2017

Scary places in the mind's eye

Recently there was an incident in which Islamist militants in Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula bombed a Sufi mosque, surrounded it, and shot up everybody attempting to exit – something like 320 dead. Some months ago, a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria was bombed, killing I think 52. Living here in Egypt, we heard expressions of concern from various relatives and friends back home. Are we okay? Should we really be living there? I’m going to try to shed some light about this. 

There is a huge disconnect between events like those and the world we inhabit in Cairo. We live among a class of people who are almost entirely oblivious to such matters, and they can afford to be. If I hadn’t heard about these events from expats, American news, and friends back home, I might never have known they happened. This is not to say people like us and the Cairenes around us are blind to real dangers. We are very familiar with the US State Department’s warnings as to risks and where in Egypt one should not go. But if you sensibly heed that advice, these events are far more distant than you might think. They don’t affect us in any tangible way. It's not just that that mosque was hundreds of miles away in a city and province I've never heard of, targeting a small sect. Or that these events come predictably, sparsely, every few months – a far cry from the reports from war-broken societies that our media has so marinated us in – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen... To understand the distance people here feel from these events, the sense that they don't involve us, one needs to grasp the great cultural difference between Egyptian and American perspectives. It’s taken me quite a while to begin to decipher it. 

This society is very tradition-bound, deferential to authority, fatalistic in outlook, and indirect in its communication. It can be hard to know what people ‘really’ think. Yes, there are these rebellious tribal groups in the hinterlands, and there are some disaffected, violently-inclined ISIS-types pushing a fruitless agenda to divide the society against the security forces, Coptic Christians, and now ‘heretical’ Sufi Muslims – yet these events don’t come up in conversation. The attitude here is that it’s not in your hands to do anything about it, so it’s basically not relevant. 

It’s a world apart from American ways, in which every aspect of a terror event must be devoured in media, social media, and personal exchanges. You might think this is a head-in-the-sand approach, but there are other differences between these worlds that help to account for it. I think Americans are, in a way, equally oblivious to our own unique brand of male hyper-violence, the random mass shootings by crazy men (not 'terrorists'!) who own most excellent assault rifles. It’s not that we’re not bothered by it, but so what? NOTHING will make the society change in a way that would confront the problem. You could say the same thing about the failures of the heavy-handed Egyptian security state. 

Yet Americans are deeply rattled and traumatized by Islamist political violence. It envelops our vision of mass violence in a warping lens. I think it goes back to the early days of ISIS, or, actually, to events in the Iraq war: the beheadings of westerners by masked Arabs embedded in us the very deepest vein of fear and terrorization. This was the genius P.R. coup of the ISIS brand! There is this incomprehensible otherness, and the idea that such acts could be undertaken for (ostensibly) political or religious motives is creepily incomprehensibly to Americans. We can’t get their heads around it. 

By contrast, one white guy can kill/injure 500+ in Las Vegas, and the fact is, it’s almost normal, expected. Life goes on, for most. We have a sickness, that’s all there is to it, and it takes its victims randomly and anonymously, not for any reason at all. It just is what it is. Compared to what we see as the Middle Eastern variety of violence, we are, at the end of the day, far more comfortable with our own problem. 

What's hard for those on distant shoes to believe is that families could be safe here. The fact that it's a city of 20+ million souls with very little crime, just people getting along reasonably, does not really register. Our huge part of the city has never seen any problems whatsoever. It's like, there have to be bad guys lurking, you must be a target. But Egypt is not Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya. It has the largest population in the Middle East, and its occasional violence problems are at the margins. You know the pattern of where and to whom the occasional acts of violence occur, and you stay well away from it, you’re not of the populations targeted... and nothing happens. Just life.

Just put the shoe on the other foot for a minute. Did you know that the young Egyptians I know find today's America a very frightening place? Egyptians, by and large, really love America. But recently, news coming out of the States has really hurt our image. I submit that Egyptians' view of the menaces they would face in daily American life is just as exaggerated as Americans’ outsized sense of danger here.

It's the season for college applications, and most of the Egyptian students at this elite school look to colleges abroad as the place to build their futures. It's plain to see that applications to American colleges are dramatically down - it's all Canada and the UK these days. I've asked the seniors about it. You have to prod, but eventually I have learned that there are two factors: number one by far is the Trump effect. Not only do they feel targeted by Trump as Arabs, they believe that America is crawling with newly empowered white supremacists who would take a dim view of their presence there. Number two is guns: they imagine the streets of America as a place where your odds of getting randomly shot are too high to risk. 

Do you think their view of America is in accord with the sense of danger you feel? America might be a bit messed up these days, but it’s not the wild west. And as for them in particular, by and large, are Muslims being victimized by physical violence in America? There may be rare incidents which get magnified by the media. I've tried to get them to understand that in American college communities, they would be easily and genuinely accepted for who they are. But the very idea of stigma and danger is deeply disturbing to them. 

From the privilege of living for a while in a strangely alien land, what I have come to see in sharper relief  is that we are, all of us, in our different ways, awash in outsized fears.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Our new life in Cairo. Where to begin?

After a rapid jolt of settling-in and work training, we have completed our first week of school and things have shut down for Eid. Really shut down! Yesterday, on the eve of this 10-day holiday (and break from school!), I went to get us signed up for home internet service, and was told that because of Eid, it would take about 2 weeks - around Sept. 21st. Ouch. 

Well, we can get internet at the school, which is just a 3-minute walk across the street. So any Skype or FaceTime would have to be pre-arranged. But there are other ways to get in touch. We both now have cellphones here, so we can do video chats using Facebook messaging, WhatsApp, or the new Google Duo vid-chat, for anyone who might have signed themselves up to those things. Skype is no longer permitted on cell phones here.

Meanwhile, we LOVE our apartment. I'll copy here some of the photos just posted by Jen Alice on FB. Our main entrance is on the 3rd floor, where the living room, kitchen, and terrace are, as well as a 2-bedroom wing that we really have no use for until guests appear; there’s also an entrance on the 2nd floor, which is where our bedrooms are. The place has an elevator, and 2 other faculty families live here, two more next door, and another two around the corner. 

Sometimes we use air conditioning; and often it is wonderful to open the big french windows and let the air flow through. Tonight is very still, but most nights a strong breeze picks up on these upper floors, cooling us off. I personally am crazy for the weather here. Nary a cloud except at nightfall, and while the sun can be oppressive, it’s often just lovely. Sunrises and sunsets are radiantly golden orange, as is the sun itself when setting, easily stared directly at (through, admittedly, a shroud of pollution). 

The city has by no means conquered the desert, which blows a fine dust everywhere. You can’t keep it out of the house. We walk barefoot around the house and the bottoms of our feet are always a greyish-brown color. Luckily, we have four bathrooms, so plenty of places to wash them.

From the terrace, we look across to the school and its lushly watered playing field surrounded by a running track - beyond is an olympic-sized pool that we can swim in any time. Further off to the left is the very fancy Festival City mall, where most of our shopping occurs. Immediately to the right is the sprawling national Police Academy, with an imposing concrete edifice that looks like a water tower but is actually a giant gun
turret. We have been told that we live in the safest place in Egypt, rest assured.

Our neighbourhood - Ketamaya, the 5th Settlement - is a really weird place. It’s an endless sprawl — block after block — of big, new, very ornately decorated 4-story multi-apartment dwellings. But at least half of them are empty or unfinished. It seems there’s nothing available for the wealthy to invest in here except for real estate. We go for a walk and the roads are sparsely sprinkled with people and cars. Packs of dogs run free - friendly, well shaped hounds. Not sure if some or any of them have owners. 

“Boabs,” who are building caretakers hired by the landlords, are assigned one to a building, so their families are often the only ones occupying the buildings that are lacking in tenants. Our building is one that is well occupied and our boab, Wahid, lives with his wife and two children in the ground floor apartment. He is extremely friendly and speaks as much English as we speak Arabic, so we all play a rollicking game of Charades every time one of us needs to convey something to the other. The other day he saw us smelling the basil plants growing outside the gate and we think he told us that he will get us a plant or two to pot on the terrace, however, we’re not sure. Time will tell…

At the mall and elsewhere, people mostly take no special notice of us as being unusual here. This is a very cosmopolitan city - although some things seem really backward, in other respects it’s entirely up to date, and people are very worldly, so we’re no big deal, which is nice, because we’d rather not be especially notable figures out and about. One can see a woman in full hijab talking with a woman in a mini skirt, and tank top and no one seems to think that’s strange. We’re seeing about 50% head scarves, 40% bare heads, and 5% hijab. The remaining 5% is up to the imagination.

Cairo is unimaginably vast. We’re told there’s something like 24 million people in the greater Cairo area, and there’s a million people a year moving in. Everywhere you look, there’s a construction site. If it’s not private dwellings, it’s the 15-storey office buildings and corporate headquarters that line the avenues of New Cairo, featuring all sorts of weird and interesting shapes in concrete and glass. Apparently, they often remain in a half-finished state for years.

We have had some adventures on the roads! The cars go either direction on virtually any street or intersection, and there are no traffic lights or lane markings. Highways/Freeways are often populated by crossing pedestrians and cars parked on the side for loading and unloading, socializing, or conducting business. (But have you heard of the Dutch traffic experiment where they removed all traffic lights and there were fewer accidents? There are a fair number of scraped-up cars here, and a lot of derring-do, but there is something to the idea of drivers having greater awareness and responsibility for themselves.)

We are relying on taxis to get everywhere, often using Uber. It’s cheap and most of the time very convenient, though at times you find yourself waiting while your phone shows a car apparently arriving, then not really. The driver will call you and you’ll say, “You speak English?” and try your luck.

Sometimes it’s one of the white cabs with a black stripe. The other day we were traveling to the mall in one of these cabs when the engine gave out on the highway. The driver parked in the exit split. Cars raced by as we considered our predicament. Soon another taxi appeared in front of us, and we were urged out of the one car and into the other. It sounds hairy, and we’d all rather not have done it, but around here’s such transfers are just ordinary. 

A very nice thing about Uber is that in ordering the car, you’ve sent the driver a precise map of the pickup and drop-off locations. With regular taxis, they rarely understand where you’re saying you want to go - addresses here can be very vague - so you show them a map on your phone, and they begin to zero in. Frequently they pull over and ask somebody else for directions. And we try to always carry our taxi terms in Arabic provided by the school.

When our realtor drove us to meet the landlady in Heliopolis, a lengthy tour of the city via the ring road, at one point he stopped the car at side of the busy highway, and presently another fellow appeared out of the bushes to hand him an envelope - our lease contracts. And the other day, somebody in another car hailed our driver over to discuss something while they both continued to putter down the road. It’s all a bit weird here, but we’ve found that if you relax and keep your humour, and don’t worry about the time, it all works out nicely, as intended.

In this part of the city, there’s no such thing as a corner store. That’s not true in other parts, but it sure is here. So the food shopping is a big production. And WATER. Here in the dry desert air, one must drink a great deal of water each day, and the ubiquitous disposable water bottles (all controlled by Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Pepsi) come in 1.5 liter sizes. They don’t last long! Our first couple of weeks, when we hadn’t gotten the hang of delivery of the large water-cooler bottles, were dominated by the need to keep finding and bringing home enough water to get through a day or two, like hunter-gatherers carrying these bottles on our backs.

Fortunately, they have a highly developed online delivery system here. From one website, you can order your complete supermarket delivery. The fruit and veg come in little paper bags! From another, you can order dinner from any restaurant in your area. And from, you can order beer, wine, and liquor (all Egyptian-made), yup, delivered to your door. And there’s laundry service. 

In all of these cases, you hope that the delivery person speaks a bit of English, since they often have difficulty locating the ordering person’s apartment. The other day we received a call from the person delivering our dinner and he did not speak English (understandably). We understood that he couldn’t find us, but we couldn’t direct him. Fortunately, he hung up and called someone at the restaurant who served as our translator. Never before have we been at such a complete loss with the local language. One of our goals for this Eid break is to learn some key terms. At this point, each of us can count to ten, say hello, good-bye, please and thank you. That’s about it. Xenia is required to take Arabic at school, but she is in the class with Arabic speakers. The government has cancelled the EFL class for 1st graders. It’s all apparently in negotiations still, but for now… she’s just grateful there is one other native English speaker in the class. Don’t worry - the kids do all speak English, and are required to do so the rest of the day.

The school is a great place to be. It certainly serves the Egyptian elite - many very rich kids who will inherit their parents’ businesses. It seems that it is in fact the premier K-12 school in Egypt, with the children of billionaires and high government officials. As well as kids from more normal circumstances, whose parents are putting everything into the education of one or two family members with the hope that they will take care of the rest of the family once they have their first “real” job. The kids can be rambunctious, but they are also very friendly and goofy. Nate is learning how to deal with a couple of large classes of students that need to learn basic computer stuff. The subject can get boring, and the students get very talkative and unfocused quickly, so it’s a bit of a challenge for someone new on the job. Fortunately, the administration here is really helpful and has good ideas, and we’ll work together on it. While moments like that can take considerable energy, really it’s nothing like the stress that I’ve experienced with some other jobs.

Periodically we hear the call to prayer ringing out from minaret speakers in our area, a couple of them competing for attention. It’s always a reminder that we’re in somebody else’s world and to respect what is. More on that next time… for now, we’d just like to add that in the states we all have been herded into painting the Middle East with one big brush, dominated by the colours of the Syrian war and Isis. We hear that Egypt has its own troubles, which it surely does. But it’s hard to grasp that the one is a totally different world than the other, and that here, you look at the news of war in the region with almost the same sense of distance. THAT is not what’s happening HERE. So please be assured. All that stuff has no tangible bearing on the people we see here every day. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Education Products

Here are highlights of the assignments I submitted for the teacher training program I attended, Teach Now, in the fall of 2015:

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

My case for Bernie

I agree with Bernie about just about everything, and there has never been a presidential candidate I could say that about who has taken a campaign anywhere near as far as he has.

But if I were to reduce my case for Bernie to simplest terms, it is this: I believe there are only three big issues that really matter for America going forward. Better solutions to almost everything else flow from a sound response to these three. They are: global warming, economic inequality, and militarism. And to wrestle these interlocking horns, we need Bernie to ride on in.

1)    A person who does not in 2016 grasp that climate change is the biggest human issue of our lifetimes and our epoch has a shrunken heart for the future of life. We need inspiring, bold, sweeping dedication and action. Only Bernie takes it well beyond business as usual into the transformative territory we need to enter.

2)    Extreme and still-growing economic inequality is the bread-and-butter daily life issue of our era, far out ahead of any other. You don’t have to be anti-wealth or anti-rich to recognize that the radical concentration of top wealth, especially the 1% of the 1%, has dragged our proud nation into the configuration that only a generation ago classically defined a banana republic. It’s pathetic.

But more than that, extreme wealth concentration goes hand in glove with our civilization’s failure to date to adequately address climate change. The two phenomena are bound at the hip, and must be transformed together. That’s because the acquisitiveness, competitiveness, and selfishness of extreme wealth concentration makes all of us run faster and faster on the treadmill, taxing our planet’s resources beyond capacity, just to live – and feeds our insatiability, our will to excess consumption, and our distancing from others with whom we compete in scarcity. It doesn’t have to be this way.

3)    And this living on edge, this widespread forcing of insecurity, leads to irrational competition, feeding the vilification of the other (xenophobia), and militarism. The most obvious future if climate change and wealth concentration are not addressed transformatively is a future of increasingly violent competition between nations, communities, and ethnic and religious groups across the globe. Blinders and madness. Our large, permanent military budget is a major driver of own our domestic life-impoverishment and at the same time a glaring signal to all the world that your best shot is to arm yourself to the teeth. We need a change of orientation that will lead the world, to whatever extent possible, more towards calmness, civility, peace.

Friends, this here is what Bernie can do. It doesn’t matter if he should turn out to have a Congress that won’t pass anything he wants. We need this authentically progressive, meaningful, and effective agenda telegraphed at the highest level for an extended period of time in order to pull not only the Congress and the Washington and New York elite who control the instruments of governance, business, and messaging, but also everyone who is simply comfortable enough to feel isolated from these matters, into a greater acceptance of a general popular consensus that the interests of the people must be much better served at this time. Then look to the subsequent midterm election to build electoral and legislative strength, and a greater mandate.

Is the better alternative really to have Hillary pursue a path of continuing to soft-pedal these life-in-the-balance matters for years to come, in the face of an opposition that loathes her easily as much as Obama, and is guaranteed never to do anything she wants?

Better to have a president who effectively rallies undeniable support around a progressive agenda, and let the agenda’s strengths grow as more real leaders move into the fast lane. Four years for Bernie, then he hands it off for eight to America’s first woman president, Elizabeth Warren.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Hillary, give your fortune to charity and win my vote

I’ve been saying for quite a while that I’m not anti-Hillary, I’m just very pro-Bernie, because I recognized from long before he started running for president that he shares my values and the authentic desire to see the nation swayed in a direction I favor. I have said that if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, I will be very happy to vote for Hillary against any Republican opponent.

But I’ve recently come to recognize more clearly what sticks in my craw about Hillary. There are plenty of critical positions she’s taken over the years that I really disagree with, the Iraq War vote being exhibit A. Right now, though, what looms largest for me is the Clinton wealth. I ask you: do you really know who this person is? She and her husband are people who, since his presidency ended, have amassed a personal fortune of, it is said, $125 million. Hello – that’s about the same as Mitt Romney’s. Do you identify with that? How many other people do you know like that?

And how did they get all that wealth in less than 20 years? Did they found a great and profitable enterprise? No, it was purely through tight political connections to the wealthiest and most powerful. That’s not even exploitative capitalism; that sort of insider game shades closer to the formal definition of fascism (government owned by business); or if you find that idea too distasteful, let’s compromise and say it’s generally how wealth is amassed in and around the world’s politburos. Is that the profile of a model leader for the Democratic Party? Really?

To be honest with you, I look at that kind of amassed wealth through my own kind of religious lens, and I see in it too much of what’s deeply wrong in our time with our world, and with our country.

Here’s how Hillary could win my vote: she’d wake up tomorrow and say, “For one couple to win the trust of the American people and hold the presidency of the United States twice is enough good fortune for one lifetime. We don’t need this money also. Bill, let’s give $120 million of it to charity, today. I insist…. And no, not to the Clinton Global Initiative.”

That act of letting go would be a sign of personal integrity that would win my enthusiasm. Without it, I ask you, why and how should I imagine her to be different from her fellow members of the 1% of the 1%? The distinctive perspective of people of such high wealth doesn’t make me go after them with pitchforks, but it does disqualify them from getting my vote for public office, because I believe very high wealth individuals are psychologically unable to represent me and my values and interests. I’ll make the exception in this case and vote for her. But enthusiastically? Can't say so.

And by the way, as soon as the general election starts, Trump will thump Hillary about this - with great success. He will argue that he earned his money by building businesses and creating jobs, whereas Hillary and Bill just rode the corrupt Washington-Wall Street circuit, and represent everything that's gone wrong with America. I could critique Trump as 100 times worse than Hillary in all sorts of dimension, but you gotta keep your eye on the ball: that critique doesn't matter to a large proportion of 2016 voters across the spectrum. When it comes to the sin of money in politics, Trump will have Hillary by the balls.*

* Note: I stoop to this low rhetorical level here because Trump has shown that in 2016 this kind of unrestrained, intentionally crude archetypal mastery over the opponent - characterizing them as pitifully weak or fatally flawed so as to disarm them - is essential to victory. To overcome it and win the punch-drunk public's favor, the "liberal" candidate will have to somehow counterpunch with as much devastating force and more, while managing to retain their personal integrity. Good luck with that! Not for nothing, Bernie's faithfulness would help a lot for that job... 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How High-stakes Assessments Are Impacting Students, Teachers, and Schools

High-stakes testing – the widespread use of standardized tests that can affect, at times, the futures of teachers and students – has greatly increased in this era of policymakers striving for “accountability,” and in some states has been a wave that has crested, leaving everyone looking for an elusive new equilibrium.

The criticism of the testing regime that has grown vary familiar in the United States centers on these points:

•    It narrows the curriculum by excluding subject matter that isn’t tested
•    It reduces learning to the memorization of facts easily recalled for multiple-choice testing
•    It diverts too much classroom time to test preparation rather than learning

Educators report that the testing emphasis has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, focusing more on critical reading and math skills.  Some think this narrowing shortchanges students from learning important subjects while others see it as the recipe to help low-achieving students catch up.
All in all, for all its flaws, high-stakes testing does seem to increase the amount of learning, and “emerging studies suggest that teaching to the test can be good or bad: Good if it means teaching a focused and aligned curriculum; bad if it reduces instruction to the memorization of test items.”

I spoke to two teachers in New York state public schools to get their perspectives on the effects of high-stakes testing in recent years. Here’s what I found.

In New York, as of this year, the connection between high-stakes testing results and teacher evaluations has been greatly reduced, as a result of a parent popular uprising against too much testing. The governor, in essence, declared a four-year moratorium on the practice. But it would be a mistake to suppose that tests are not continuing to be a major presence with a big impact. For one thing, it depends on how the district’s union negotiated the last contract, and in places it can still be between 20 and 50 % of a teacher’s score.

Tavis teaches 9th grade global studies, for which there is no test. As a result, his assessment is based on results of school-wide Math and English Regents exams which are entirely unrelated to the subject matter he teaches – a situation which he finds to be ludicrous. He also teaches AP Psych, for which students spend significant time in test prep, taking 13 exams leading up to the AP test.

Steve considers himself lucky because he mostly teaches in a special STEM program that is unrelated to any standardized testing. 2 of his 10 classes, though, are in 5th grade math, which is tested heavily: a “Star Assessment” 3 times/year; “benchmarking” tests of teachers; Common Core state assessments; and, last year, field testing for a future test, which he finds ‘criminal,’ essentially free market testing for testing behemoth Pierson. He feels there is too much testing.

Both Tavis and Steve affirm that they and other teachers most definitely teach to the test. Tavis reports that students are taking the AP course to have it on their transcript, and for credit, and they need a 4 or 5 for credit they have to get good results. He says that those teachers who don’t deliver results, the admin asks them “what’s going on.” He says the administration “says they want you to teach various ways, but in the end they look at the scores.”

Steve agrees, but he also highlights the other side: “Content knowledge in tests, especially as per Common Core, is not inherently bad. And we need assessments, even if the way they’re doing it is bad. I’m being hired by them, it’s my job, I can’t just say my ‘y’ is better than your ‘x.’ And a lot of teachers are much more comfortable teaching to the test. It gives them a framework, and without it, they flounder a bit.”

Does this testing increase pressure on the students? Both teachers say it does, but Tavis emphasizes that there have been tests for a long time, and students put pressure on themselves. But now, the students have to pass tests in order to graduate. It used to be, the school would “find a way to make them pass.” And now, with test directly tied to teacher, teachers put more pressure on the students to perform.

Steve suggests that the test highlight the value of being a high performer. “Face it,” he says, “it’s status in the classroom. It’s real.” And in tune with the research of Carol Dweck, he sees how test success translates into a desire by student to preserve the appearance of high performer, over intellectual curiosity. High achievement leads them, he says, away from wanting to explore processes more deeply. And the irony, he says, is that this this effect is exactly antithetical to the Common Core goals.

Considering Teacher Evaluation

It’s time to consider teacher evaluation. What practices lead to effective teaching outcomes? On what elements should a teacher be judged?

A most instructive starting point is to examine the broad principles and propositions for teacher evaluation put forward by the National Education Association (NEA), Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’(NBPTS). I am not going to reproduce them all here; they can be read on pages 6-10 (PDF pages 12-16) of the NEA document “Teacher Evaluation: A Resource Guide for National Education Association Leaders and Staff.”

The big common themes among all three are:
  • Understands how learners grow and develop
  • Demonstrates in-depth content and professional knowledge
  • Understands and uses multiple and varied forms of assessment
  • Establishes environments conducive to effective teaching and learning
  • Integrates cultural competence
  • Develops collaborative relationships and partnerships
  • Provides leadership
  • Participates in ongoing professional learning
I see no reason to argue with those guidelines or attempt to innovate. They are justifiable professional standards that are clearly oriented to creating the conditions for effective teaching and learning, and they can hold teachers accountable in meaningful ways. They provide a cohesive and coherent professional context and sense of direction.

Undoubtedly, though, how assessors arrive at judgments about individual teachers is a different matter, needing a strong effort to achieve validity, minimizing bias and variability.  Clear, rigorous expectations, multiple measures, meaningful ratings, regular feedback and meaningful, actionable implications, all as defined by the New Teacher Project document “Teacher Evaluation 2.0,” are essential to the process. (I’ve been evaluated in other professional contexts and found processes that pretty well lack all these qualities!)

I was really impressed with the 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers,” by Amanda Ripley. It shows that students’ evaluations of their teachers, collectively, are very accurately correlated with the results of other measures. I would be more than happy, as a teacher, to have my evaluators put significant weight on student evaluations. Of course, other data sources are necessary, to continue the validation of correlation.

I looked at the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, a measure of what value individual educators add to their students’ educational growth. For grades 4-8, the system measures the growth, gr 4-8, of a single student from one year to the next. It uses state test assessment data, with various factors to adjust and create “scale scores” that show a student’s performance in relation to other students across the state. The starting line is different for each child – it’s based on their previous year’s scores. Then teacher is evaluated based on results for all his/her students.

It’s all very rational. But I would be concerned about the amount of testing it requires, and how much such a system drives teachers towards teaching to the test, and pressuring students on that basis. Also, in my conversations with New York state public school teachers, I found a lot of frustration with teacher assessment based on student test scores. Two teachers spoke of being evaluated on testing that everyone acknowledges doesn’t even assess the subject matter the teachers teach. I can’t imagine Tennessee having solved this except at the cost of testing the students way too much, which has caused a great outcry in New York. I would want it to be put in a bucket along with in-person assessment by administrators and teacher peers, and student assessments.

I also looked at the Ohio Department of Education’s State Board of Education Approved Framework, and I liked how it offers an “alternative” assessment component that can include student surveys and student portfolios. If that alternative option is chose, the final summative evaluation draws on 50% teacher performance (as evaluated by school staff), 35% student growth measures (similar to Tennessee’s), and 15% alternative components. As for me, I’d be willing to up the percentage of the alternative measures.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

On pre-assessment and innovative differentiation strategies

I have developed a unit for 8th grade social studies, addressing the New York Social Studies standard 8.1f, “Muckrakers and Progressive Era reformers sought to address political and social issues at the local, state, and federal levels of government between 1890 and 1920. These efforts brought renewed attention to women’s rights and the suffrage movement and spurred the creation of government policies to enact reform.”

In a nutshell, the activity is for students to select any aspect of the era that interests them beyond the material for which they are all responsible, research the topic, and figure out how to present it to the class in an interesting and engaging way that also relates in some way to present times.

What follows is a hypothetical case study.


To get a sense of what the student know, and especially of what gaps exist in the students' knowledge around this topic, and who is ahead on this topic and who knows little about it, I began with a simple pre-assessment, a Quizlet with a number of terms that embody the era and a task to match them up with their definitions. Quizlet is a really neat tool for quick assessment; I could have used a more standard quiz format such as matching, multiple choice, and fill in the blank, but this time I chose to use the scatter function, in which the student must match up terms and their definitions against a timer.

Differentiation strategies

Next, I sought ways to provide innovative differentiation strategies to work with the fact that some students already seemed to have the topic down, and others were discovering it for the first time. The methods are shown in this lucidchart mind map

Top performers

These students will take a closer look at the question of contemporary relevance of the issues being investigated by the whole class, and will provide resources that others can use. They will create a "Then and Now" mapping of parallels issues and events, drawing a strong distinction between issues that seem to have been put to rest, those that haven't, and those that have successor/related issues today.

Some Awareness (the majority)

As these students work through the required concepts in an open classroom setting using varied resources (texts and online, we will have a running competition for those who get there first to speak up and share what they’ve found, provide sources, and generate visual aids for digital display in a group resource of findings.

Those with Limited Knowledge

These students will be paired them up with others who are tracking down the same concepts, to share, explain, and provide peer assessment. For students who would have significant difficulty presenting their topic solo, there will be opportunities for practice sessions with peer feedback, preferably from volunteer 'advanced' students.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Planning Assessments

I’m going to break down the way in which I devise formative assessments to determine whether my students are meeting a learning objective I have defined. The course I will be teaching is college-level History of Christianity and the students are prison inmates in a community ministry program.

The objective is: Identify the relevant characteristics of a new independent group (Protestant denomination) that formed as a result of decisive differences with the mother church. By formative assessment, I mean bite-sized opportunities to grasp how well the students understand the material we’re covering while we’re covering it.

The formative assessments I will use are:
  • Assess an ‘opening thoughts’ writing assignment: at the start of the class, the students will write on a card, what they found interesting or relevant in the reading. I will collect the cards and use them as the basis for a brief discussion of several of the points raised, asking the contributor to elaborate, and then another student to suggest what they’d add or revise about what’s been said. This will help me tune the lesson to areas that actually matter to these students, who could use affirmation and anything that would bolster their motivation.
  • Ask questions of students throughout the open-book discussion: I’ll have a series of discussion points which I’ll introduce as questions to both engage students and help me gauge the level of understanding in the room.
  • Assess an in-class ‘very short essay’ writing assignment: realistically, my evaluation wouldn’t happen until after the class. This exercise, early in the term, is designed to help me understand where each student is in terms of writing and analytical capability, in advance of the first major writing assignment.
  • Revisit the key topics with a series of quick questions at the end of class: for those topics that will appear later on a summative assessment (an exam), I’ll ask for definitions or a quick explanation of their significance. This will help the students to grasp what “big idea” really matter in this course.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Applying Standards

I just completed a series of activities unpacking a standard, backwards mapping, and writing objectives. The logic of this sequence is very clear to me, and I am fully bought into it. Whatever complaints are voiced about Common Core in the public sphere, I now, through completing this exercise, have a full appreciation of standards-based teaching and learning. I think the bellyaching comes out of ignorance – people don’t understand what standards are about, and assume Common Core is dictating content.

Anyway, I find the process gets more difficult as you progress through it. The starting point, unpacking a standard, is a pretty simple exercise, in my view. But that’s not to understate its importance. What I found was that a well-written standard is a very powerful, highly compact distillation and call to action. If it is not that, it needs a rewrite. If it is, it provides the rationale for teacher and student to be in the classroom.

Backwards mapping, in which you define and design proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences to fulfill the standard, was also pretty clear sailing. If you know the material, it’s a fulfilling imaginative exercise to plug in content and activities that have the effect of building up student knowledge and capability to achieve the standard. 

Where I got into difficulty was in defining SMART objectives to promote student learning related to a standard, in two respects. Using a college-level course made it difficult. I think if I had used a Common Core standard would have been an easier exercise. One problem was that the standard I chose was very content-oriented, and very high-level stuff (“be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church”). I mean, to demonstrate achievement of that, you’ve pretty much had to progress through the whole course. And college-level teaching to adults is just going to have fewer touch points with individual students than K-12. So the examples I gave seemed a bit strained – I tried to consistently deal with factional division of the church, and perhaps I was being overly specific and too high-level. I don’t know.

And some of the SMART objectives I found hard to meaningfully define for the activities I created. In particular, I found “Attainable” pretty confounding, and “Targeted/Timely” got a pretty generic definition in most cases. While I’m glad I’m getting the chance to develop my curriculum plans for this course in this way, it’s probably not the easiest starting point for me to master the pedagogica concepts.

Standards and Backward Mapping

The following is an exercise in which I describe some components intended to achieve a standard for a college-level course I'll be teaching to prison inmates starting in January. The course is History of Christianity II: Reformation to the Present. Specifically, we'll look at several proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences designed to fulfill the standard.

The standard is:
  • "be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church." 
You can learn more about the standard here

Here are three proficiencies that students should achieve to meet this standard:
  • Identify the two main perspectives on any divisive issue around which a group formed in opposition to the prevailing orthodox view (example: the appropriate age for baptism in the sixteenth century)
  • Identify a new independent grouping that formed as a result of these differences
  • Express in written or verbal form an understanding of the significance a breakaway sect or denomination
Here are three assessments that will indicate that students have met the standard:
  • A one-page reflection paper on how a specific historical instance of factional division within the church had a long-term effect or legacy
  • A series of questions on the mid-term exam that probe specific knowledge of important instances of sectarian formation
  • Observation of student answers and engagement during class discussions which address the existence of opposition from within the church to some aspect of the subject under consideration (there are many instances)
And here are three learning experiences or activities that will help students develop the knowledge and skills to meet the standard:
  • An in-class reading and discussion of a primary document such as a section of a formally adopted confession of faith addressing an issue on which groups split irreconcilably
  • An in-class “Socratic Dialogue” in which we seek to arrive at a consensus answer to a question around which historical divisions were apparent, such as the appropriate age for baptism.
  • An in-class debate between students representing the views of specific historical leaders, one side from the church hierarchy and the other spearheading a breakaway grouping.
The preceding has been an example of how to develop course plans by working backwards from the standard, which should have the effect of focusing greater attention on the purpose of any activity and enabling us to better judge its efficacy in achieving its intended goals.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Applying Classroom Rules and Procedures

Providing positive reinforcement to students who are following class rules and procedures, and consequences to students who are not, is essential to creating a well-functioning learning environment. It begins with setting the tone and the expectations from the outset, with well-defined rules preferably reinforced by collaboration and agreement by the students in the rule-making. From there, it’s a matter of well-tuned awareness and consistent and immediate application of responses to behavior observed in the classroom. Setting up the expectation that behavior will not go unnoticed, un-commented on, un-reacted to puts the students in the position of unambiguous responsibility for their own destiny, which is ultimately empowering.

Things will come up. Most dramatically, the teacher’s conduct seeks to prevent these things from spinning out of control. But it’s also just about knowing what’s going on, such as picking up on what kids are bringing into the classroom from outside, and knowing what responses are effective. I see my ideal default state as being that I act in a state of withitness: occupying the whole room; observing proactively; reacting with cues both verbal and nonverbal, directed at acknowledging what I’m seeing and steering it back to a reasonably level state.

When a student is deserving of positive feedback…
I’ll offer direct, private acknowledgment. Even as the class proceeds, I’ll seek to provide a nonverbal cue or a quiet word with that student, without drawing attention to the exchange.

I may look to give rewards, which may be symbolic gestures or material goods, but I expect to operate more in the territory of added privileges or choices.

I will endeavor to call or email home regularly to acknowledge the good things I’m seeing.

When a student’s behavior needs to be reined in…

At times, I may let the student express their frustration (to me or the group), if that allows the emotion to “drain off.” For this to be effective, the student needs to get right back on task after that release is allowed.

I’ll use humor, which can ease the reasons for anxiety and reinforce my leadership/control. It’s important that my humor not convey a sarcastic tone.

If the whole class is starting to grow restless, I’d be inclined to divert and re-direct into an activity that re-focuses their interest and attention. I’d want to do that in a way that isn’t obvious to them, or show an obvious pattern of doing so.

I’ll say “no” when that’s what needs to be heard. A responsible adult creating boundaries can be reassuring. Consequences encourage responsible decision-making.

More than anything, I’ll be sympathetic. That cannot solve every situation, but it can create the conditions that make for fewer such situations. I’ll encourage students, and “catch the child doing something good.” I’ll remember to highlight positive gains by pointing to concrete examples of their praiseworthy work or accomplishment, as opposed to offering personal praise, which can be hard or awkward to receive.

What’s most essential is the actions a teacher can take in the moment, proactively, exerting a kind of compassionate control, and offering both positive and negative reinforcement so that the students can see before them something to strive for, reasons to want what good behavior and performance can bring them. I know that achieving consistent, effective engagement in this way is an area of learning for me. But the value of it is such is that, for the benefit of oneself as well as one’s students, one would not want to operate in the classroom without it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Teacher methods to support high student performance

I'm going to consider here how a teacher’s expectations can either support or curb high student performance, using three real-life videos: In one, a 5th/6th grade STEM class, the students construct roller coasters to meet certain engineering requirements, with limited resources and a high level of teamwork. In another, third-graders learn math in Chinese, following the repetitive instruction methods popular in China. In a third, a high school class is led in their studies by a teacher using the Whole Brain Teaching methods.

I see in these three examples a pretty clear progression from higher to lower teacher expectations of student performance, and also some philosophical differences about how effective learning takes place.

It’s hard to find fault with the roller coasters example. The teacher expects, even demands high performance from the students, in that they must work together in quite a sophisticated manner to complete the project successfully. She has a clear methodology, even a worldview, about generating high student performance. This is visible in norms and procedures like the autonomous learning and valuing of student ideas in “chiming,” when students share their challenges and respond, without the teacher’s involvement; doing individual engineering sketches, then “selling” their ideas to others, then having to create a group sketch; adding in constraints that require tricky problem solving, particularly limiting materials, which must be “bought” with a budget; and requiring defined roles that match learning styles to students’ individual strengths in the jobs they choose, such as recorder to capture ideas, and accountant to manage the finances.

The whole approach is summed up in the teacher’s statement that a key is to see students welcoming problems, which signals that they are creating lifelong problem-solvers.

All of this responsibility assumes excellent student behavior, which is in fact visible in the video. I expect that much of this agreeable behavior is “inherited” by this teacher from prior enriching school, home, and community environments; we see here a student body that appears to be pretty uniformly white, with subtle signals of privilege.

The Chinese-language math class is quite a different scenario. When I first watched it, the methods were a bit impenetrable to me, yet the teacher seemed to be acting as wizard, prompting all the students to follow along in boisterously reciting their figures. An understanding of standard Chinese methods of math instruction helps explain what is happening. Quoting from The Conversation’s Explainer: what makes Chinese maths lessons so good?:

In order to understand multiplication, pupils have to memorise the multiplication rhyme: “four times eight is 32, five times eight is 40” and so on, which was invented by ancient Chinese scholars 2,200 years ago. The cultural traditions of Chinese maths education lead people to believe that routine practice is the most efficient way to learn.

So this is rote learning with a great deal of repetition. But there’s more: you also see all the students repeating their answers together in an enthusiastic, compliant, and skilled manner. You can imagine the student who doesn’t know the answer able to recite it anyway, just by going along with what the others are saying. Again quoting The Conversation:

China uses whole-class instruction, engaging all students in the material and prompting feedback. This is different to the UK model teaching of maths, which is more focused on small groups and individual attention.

I could imagine that in this way a high overall level of math proficiency is attained, as results in China attest. One might suppose that in China, the highest achievers would be less challenged, though the societal focus on math would seem to allow them many other avenues to take them further.

Here, though, we are observing an American class, largely African-American, in Chinese-language immersion, and I would think that this method is doubly valuable, as it also does a good job of instilling language learning. One might argue that the Chinese system produces a blend of high academic expectation with perhaps low expectations of student behavior (as individual expression is buried) that are just neatly circumvented with rigidly repetitive norms and procedures. But I think that when transposed into this US context, the virtues are quite clear. Behavior expectations are being instilled in an early grade at the same time that math and language skills are being effectively drilled in. In my perfect school, by the time these students get to 5th and 6th grade, they are emerging into classes more in the style exemplified in the roller coaster example.

And that brings us to the third example, Whole Brain Teaching. Here we see an entirely African-American high school class being led with gusto in a collection of attention-focusing methods, often using their bodies, with arms in motion following repetitive motions, accompanied by a kind of sing-song vocal repetition of the teacher’s words. The students are attentive and engaged while having fun, but let’s be honest: the basic content the teacher is providing makes it clear that these students are operating at an academic level below that of the roller coaster 6th graders.

So what is going on here? A review of the Whole Brain Teaching website shows a lot of techniques for turning around difficult class environments, with unruly, distracted and distracting kids, by capturing their attention and holding it using methods that have been shown to effectively make use of the human brain’s tendencies to focus and lose focus. Here are a couple of examples:

Whenever you want your students to pay close attention to an important point, say, "Hands and eyes!"  Your students respond, "hands and eyes!," fold their hands and stare at you intensely…. 

To get my classes’ attention I simply say ‘Class!’ and then they reply ‘Yes!’. Next is the catch, the hook that makes this fun, and gets them invested in it in a way that has them looking at me and grinning rather than continuing their conversations.

When I say ‘Class!’ and they say ‘Yes!’ they have to say it the way I said it. If I say ‘Classity-class-class!’ they have to say ‘Yessity-yes-yes!’. If I say it loudly, they have to respond loudly. If I whisper, they respond in a whisper. They have to match my tone and intensity.
Why is the Class-Yes, in terms of brain structure, so effective?  The neo-cortex, the part of your brain behind your forehead, controls, among other things, decision making.  Think of the neo-cortex as an executive, organizing other brain areas for complex tasks.  When the teacher says, "Class!" and students respond "Yes!," you have, in effect focused your students' neo-cortices on what you're going to say next.

To employ these methods is to impose a strong set of norms and expectations. I can see how having mastery of some of these techniques would be very useful in any classroom, when you’re needing to decisively refocus attention.

At the same time, the starting question – “How do you get cooperation from your class?” – assumes the worst. It’s a management technique for pulling a class out of a state of mass-ADD-like chaos. Hey, this is the reality is some schools. These techniques are needed. And the method does involve a series of escalating expectations over the course of a school year. So, one really hopes that this is a path to a better normal, in which higher expectations can be introduced. And yet – the  imposition of these techniques imposes low expectations from the start, it seems to  me. How do students in such a class really progress out of that? In the case of these high school students, I regret to say, it’s at a rather late grade to have any expectation that they’re going to be presented with higher expectations before they graduate.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Academic expectations of teachers, schools, and parent in the US

Let’s consider the academic expectations of teachers, schools, and parents. I hope to teach internationally, but not knowing where that path might take me, I’m going to report on the United States.

The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 report for 4th and 8th grade math and science proficiency ranks the US within OECD countries. The report shows that for 4th grade math, US student performance is very solid, above all countries except the several chart-busting leaders in east Asia. By 8th grade, the US results drop a bit, but still position the cohort of US students as a strong leader internationally. There is a persistent racial disparity within these results, with African American and Latino students underperforming. The results are very similar for science learning.

The OECD’s 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report, the premier international benchmark for ranking of 15-year-old student achievement in reading, mathematics, science and problem-solving within OECD countries, puts the United States slightly below the middle of the pack in all subjects, with a lower-than-average mean score and a higher share of low achievers. The US is in just about the same position with respect to students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs. You could say that by the middle of high school our students and schools are striving for middling performance.

So as US students progress into high school, their overall performance in math and science slumps rather badly relative to their achievements at earlier grades. I sought to find out why. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research April 2014 Research Brief Free to Fail or On-Track to College: Why Grades Drop When Students Enter High School and What Adults Can Do About It focuses on the distinct fact that attendance and study habits decline from eighth to ninth grade. Its conclusions are: declines in academic effort explain the decline in grades; less adult monitoring at school makes it possible for students to reduce effort; and school and teacher practices make a difference in the course grades ninth-graders receive, even among students with similar prior performance. They say:

[S]tudents’ grades are strongly affected by their high school context, as well as by their ex­periences in individual classrooms with individual teachers. The ways that teachers and schools monitor students and provide instructional support may help to explain these differences.

They also argue that teacher support can sustain student effort and grades, finding that pass rates, grades, and student attendance are better at schools and classrooms where students report high levels of student-teacher trust and teacher support. They define teacher academic support as clear explanations, regular updates on progress, and help with specific academic problems.

Finally, they assert that school structures can prevent declining academic behaviors, meaning that school policies can promote effective monitor­ing and support of academic behaviors, beyond the efforts provided by individual teachers.

Obviously, there are other factors that affect how any school or teacher strives for performance, and there are two that I think are worth mentioning here. First, that US teachers' salaries relative to per capita GDP, which correlates fairly well with student academic performance, is somewhat below the middle of the OECD nations’ pack. A formula for increasing success would ideally involve moving the pay scale up significantly.

My own view, in line with these findings, is that it is very important that a teacher sets high academic and behavioral expectations for students. And while everything “the system” (including the school culture, the school administration, the parents, the community’s standards and funding, the state and national educational policies) does certainly greatly influences the teacher’s response to this challenge, the teacher has decisive actions to take. If he/she cannot find herself sufficiently supported to prioritize his/her own unique daily role in setting the context for high performance, then he/she would be better off finding another job and letting the community figure out what more they need to do.

And yet… “the system” in the US allows some communities to languish with far less enriching support than others. This leads to my second factor, that greater equity in the allocation of educational resources (between richer and poorer communities) also correlates fairly well with overall academic performance, and in this respect the US is well towards the low end of the scale in international comparisons. So, sadly, the schools that need this kind of smart teacher involvement in expectations and outcomes most are the ones least able to hold onto teachers who can deliver.

This certainly accords with my personal observations. I see in front of me private schools and public schools, and while most of the private schools I see really understand these points and nourish the teacher’s capacity to cater to high performance, for the public schools it’s all about the school district’s wealth demographics and resulting application of resources. Right within minutes of where I live, I can point to prosperous school districts that do really well for their students, and poor districts that have a mighty struggle on their hands every school day.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Establishing a Positive Classroom Climate

I wouldn’t be getting into teaching if I didn’t highly value caring for others as an aspect of the work I do. I like the ethical guidance that says that our task is basically to heal the world, and I see that assignment primarily as involving helping those around you to flourish (having first taken care of yourself). I got tired of work that has me almost exclusively in front of a computer. I wanted a new career working more with people, and I’m very motivated by imparting knowledge/insight/meaning. And I also wanted some kind of caring role involved. Teaching fits these parts together.

The goal is to create a positive classroom climate. Now comes the interesting part. Me with a class of 20 kids, some of them challenging my control, others beating each other up emotionally just outside of my view. And suppose many of them are not from my cultural background, which is predominantly white and rural, with quite a lot of exposure to privilege. I have to admit, imposing authority hasn’t been my modus operandi in life. But I understand that it’s the necessary other half of the coin for guiding with empathy to be effective. To be trusted to resolve interpersonal problems fairly, to take care of a student in need, the students’ experience needs to be contained within a boundary of active control. The caring and concern needs to be distributed so that each student feels that he/she is an equal recipient of it.

Rules can be bent, in a sense. That is, before imposing a disciplinary rule, the teacher can pull the student aside to a one-to-one chat about what’s going on with that student. Almost certainly, if the teacher is not an out-of-touch authoritarian to begin with, the acting out is going to be more about the student’s situation than about the teacher or the class. The teacher’s task is to get some clue from the student “what’s going on.” Best to get it from the student him/herself. Then a meaningful resolution can be built around that understanding.

I was thinking of the horrible video that emerged this week of the white school cop throwing the black girl out of her seat. There’s a lot that can and should be said about that, and I’m not intending to blame the teacher, but with this topic on my mind, I’ve asked myself, what might lead up to such a situation? Ideally, the teacher would not have had to ask the cop into the classroom to intervene, right? But there’s this disruptive student, not relinquishing the cellphone in class. The things one would hope the teacher would have implemented before things got to this point include: having an agreement that the students have bought into, about no phones in class; making an effort to get to know something about each student; watching out for students who are inclined to be disruptive and focusing extra attention on them to better understand what’s triggering them; and finding a strategy to overcome their resistances.

The main idea is to show the students that they are part of creating the positive climate. It can mean involving them in defining class rules or agreements. Then, when students break these rules, they all have more of a stake in where the situation leads. And this allows the teacher’s response, if it’s more compassionate than literalistic, to be seen as restorative and intentional, rather than as reneging on applying the rules.

With respect to bullying, I like the idea of “zero indifference” – never letting disrespectful conduct go unaddressed; always naming and respond to behaviors. It’s not about punishment. It’s about making every incident of the conduct consequential, modeling concern.

Concerning bias and respecting different cultural backgrounds, the recommendations are to provide safe spaces where students are seen, valued, cared for and respected. If you show you value students’ lives and identities, and commit to avoiding and challenging stereotypes, you are creating conditions in which misunderstandings have less chance of arising or sticking.