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.