Thursday, September 29, 2005

Back to the issues at hand

Something interesting happened the other day in my Educational Psychology class. This guy asked, "do they study schools in China, since they do so well?" Our instructor thought he meant, 'do American researchers study schools in China?' She responded, "of course. But it's a totally different situation, because the kids there just spend way more time in school." There was an awkward pause, in which some people thought, "huh. Perhaps that has something to do with their complete mathematical and scientific dominance in test scores?"

The funny part is that the guy was actually asking, "Do Chinese psychologists study Chinese schools?" His point was that they probably don't, because they don't need to. Their schools work. We talked about that for a bit. You know what young kids in China do to learn numbers and counting? The abacus. If anything in this world is old school, it is the abacus. Of course, they also just practice and practice basic math until it becomes automatic, or as we here in the always-clear education world say, until it "reaches automaticity."

I realized after class the irony of the whole situation. Usually, the instructor lectures for about 10 mintues, and then for the rest of the hour we just talk back and forth about the articles we read. The thing is, none of us really know what we're talking about. We read the articles, but that doesn't mean we really understand them. That's why we're in school for this crap. The lecturer, on the other hand, is familiar with many of the major studies on the issues we're studying and could actually set us straight about some stuff. So we end up arguing but not learning anything. And so, I am actually in a constructivist learning environment in which I am arguing about how ineffective constructivism is, and it actually is quite ineffective for me. Weird, huh?

Today I had a seminar in which we discuss our student teaching experience. It was interesting--a LOT of the people in my seminar have the same kind of complaints about their schools that I do: lack of discipline, lack of consequences, not enough attention to basic skills and knowledge, etc. Somehow the entire seminar agreed that these schools were examples of "liberalism run amok." So that was amusing.

That whole seminar is hilarious. The guy who runs it is probably the most intense person ever. He has wild black hair and I could tell from the first time I saw him that he holds views that are "radical." He's a great guy, and definitely has sound educational views--a result of teaching for three years in the worst high schools in Philadelphia. But somehow he always steers the seminar away from discussing teaching and schools and toward other social ills that we are really not going to be able to deal with. For example, today somehow we got to the prison-industrial complex.

I found myself discussing my visit to the Cook County Jail in Chicago. It's the largest jail (as opposed to prison) in the country, except for LA County. There's supposed to be like 9,000 inmates in there, but there's actually 11,000. Some of the inmates are there for short-term sentences. Others are still awaiting trial. Some wait for a trial for years, often imprisoned on bonds of $100 or less that no one will pay for them. Some just choose to plead out right away, so they can get sent downstate to a real prison, a significantly more humane place. The County Jail was built in 1929, and you can tell. Everything is metal and incredibly mechanistic, with levers and bolts. The cell blocks are shaped in a square, with 10 or so closet-sized two-person cells surrounding a center room. The inmates in Cook County usually spend 23 out of 24 hours in their cells or this center room, which is bare except for metal benches and a tv. The warden who was showing us around told us about how the inmates would throw feces at the guards as they walked by, and then showed us a rack of confiscated shanks. I think it was the most horrible place I've ever been. I felt sick and trapped, like an animal. If you weren't a criminal or an addict when you went in, I can see why you would be when you got out.

See how easy it is to get side-tracked? These issues are all so pressing and so depressing and dire, but really you can only concentrate on one thing. And you have to put all your energy toward it. That's my theory, anyway.

Anyway, I'm so exhausted and haven't eaten very much today, so this didn't turn out very funny. Sorry about that. Really, I'm here to entertain.

Just one last thing before I go: I have this feeling that when the United States empire is drowning in its own cesspool of overextension and debt, the very last thing it will see is an abacus.

I plugged it back in after it died


So some of you may be wondering why I skittishly removed my blog from the annals of cyberspace, and am now putting it back on. Ok, here we go:

Reasons I didn't want to have my bizness on the web:

1. I don't want to hurt the people I work and go to school with. They are good people, all, and they have been very nice to me. All this stuff is not supposed to be personal. It's not about what I said about you or what you think about me--it's about how to make schools work so everyone has a chance. It sounds so sappy but I think it's where you have to start from in this business.

2. A few months ago, I got seriously *burned* by a critical evaluation I wrote of an organization I had worked for. It was supposed to be read only by an independent third party, but for reasons that are still unfathomable to me, it got sent to my boss. Not only did she refuse to give me a recommendation for another job (I did a VERY good job for them), but in fact she will not speak to me. Needless to say, that wasn't a very pleasant experience.

Reasons to Plug Back in:

I think this topic is really important, and it's one that people "talk" about all the time but that no one really talks about. So I think we should talk about it. And if it's critical of existing institutions and structures, so be it. I guess you have to draw the line somewhere, or nothing ever changes. Other reasons for re-posting are that people wrote such nice responses, and that I want to be famous.

Just kidding about that last one. But I am really, really happy and surprised that people really read my stuff and liked it. It's definitely a good feeling.

So what I'm going to do is try to make the entries impersonal in terms of describing people and specific places. If it makes the writing vague, I apologize. I have to sleep at night.

I heart knowledge

Today in my educational psychology class we were discussing constructivism versus direct instruction. This one guy in our class had actually gone to a sort of constructivist middle school, and was telling us about this "history" project they had done. In small groups, they created their own civilizations, produced "artifacts" that would have emanated from such a civilization, then BURIED the artifacts in some kind of artificial "archaeological site" in their classroom. I'm thinking sandbox? Then the other groups took turns digging up the artifacts and trying to determine the nature of the civilization.

Now, I don't know about you, but I really don't think I would have cared to learn about some made-up civilization plucked out of the air by the girl across the room who always wore those annoyingly large scrunchies. I think I would rather have liked to learn about civilizations that actually existed, even though, realistically, I could not have gone traipsing into the desert to find the shards of pottery and the discarded waste products of that society. At least we'd be keeping it real, as it were. Also, I'm wondering what skills were derived from this exercise? Digging?

Anyway, this guy was really supportive of his old school, and is now sending his own child to one like it. When others, including me, tried to argue against various aspects of constructivism, he always shot back with the fact that it worked for him. He and this other guy started talking about how we, as graduate students, had been "good at school" so, naturally we would support "traditional schooling." They said that everyone tended to "teach how he/she was taught." I have heard this argument several times before. Each time, the speaker exhorts us to "learn to step out of the mindset of our own experience."

The question I pose to them is this: what the hell are you talking about? I went to a public school. My teachers lectured. We didn't do group projects. We didn't really do any projects, except a big research project in 10th grade. And yes, mine did involve making paleolithic tools out of obsidian volcanic rock. That's hard, by the way. But mostly we listened, and we read, and we wrote. We sometimes talked about these things, but not all the time. We had quizzes on the reading. We had to do endless DBQ's and our history tests left our hands literally aching, if we had done well. We had many tests, and some of those were (oh no, don't say it) scan-tron. School could be boring, and difficult, and long. And what came of all this? Well, let's see. I went to college, I did well, I graduated, I got a job, I did well, I got another job, I did well, I went back to school. In reality I am not an incredible genius, even though I tell people that I am (actually, I might be). The fact is that I am well-educated. And many of my classmates are also well-educated. And I don't see why we have to abandon all those methods of instruction that obviously worked for us just because now we're talking about black and Hispanic kids from the city instead of white kids from the suburbs. Especially since these things are working at schools like MATCH, and KIPP, and North Star. Speaking of MATCH, the MCAS results from last year came back. MATCH ranked 18th in the state in English scores and 4th in the state for math.

Wait, did you just say that MATCH came in fifth in math? Oh, oh wait, I'm sorry, you said fourth. And was that for the city? Oh, really? For the state? I see. Funny it worked out that way, since the kids didn't get to do any projects. I mean, I think they actually learned math instead of building rowboats out of popsicle sticks to illustrate what numbers really are. No one thought they had a chance.

I'm sorry. Sometimes I just can't keep all the sassiness inside. Anyway, I was going to talk about the class that is my savior, the perfect contrast. It's what our department calls a "content course," which is amusing, since it implies that the other courses have no content. It's a world history survey class up to 1500, designed for the New York state mandate for two years of world history education in 9th and 10th grade. Apparently most new social studies teachers get hired for world history teaching posts because the older social studies teachers don't know anything about world history. It's quite a lot of content knowledge, but the idea it all sort of molds is that human societies throughout thousands of years have been so incredibly similar that it's weird. You find all kinds of cool parallels between civilizations and societies that were completely isolated from one another.

My professor is a real history professor from the real university I attend. He specializes in modern Islam and European colonialism in the Middle East. He wears bow-ties, tells us we're wrong, criticizes us when we stay stupid things, and generally emits an air of effortless superiority. It's absolutely awesome. Finally, someone who values knowledge, who doesn't believe it's just a useless jumble of unrelated baubles. He's brilliant, and it's obvious that he's brilliant because he knows so much. It's not that he's used "transfer skills" from critical thinking projects he did as a kid. No. He studied for god knows how long in libraries across America, the Middle East, and Europe. He learned other languages and lived in other cultures, and he just knows his shit. Today he gave a narrative of the last few years in American life that was brief but so incisive I felt I would tear up. I hate that my school doesn't think this type of intellectualism is worth anything. The guy in my class who was so pro-constructivism, he said "our schools produce kids who are good at school." First off, most of them don't. Second, what is wrong with that? This professor could be doing a million billion different things if he weren't teaching. In fact, he consults with law enforcement about the increasingly radicalized cultures of the Islamic diaspora! Contrast the utility of that with whatever it is you learn when you make a model space station out of plastic pipes and rubber tubing and you'll see what I mean.

Well, it's bedtime for me. Last night I dreamt my apartment was filled with pink, newborn mice that looked like maggots. They were everywhere. My roommate and I kept stepping on them. It was all because we left so many dirty dishes in the sink. I think they're still there, unless she washed them.

Welcome to school

posted by newoldschoolteacher @ 7:14 PM 0 comments

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

So I am at a graduate school of education, home of teaching people how to give urban kids a crappy education. I am currently using all my powers to ward off the incessant doctrinal attacks on being oldschool. An argument I had with my instructor yesterday should serve as an excellent starting point.

The class is a "methods class" on teaching social studies. We were practicing writing a lesson plan, as a class. The lesson was about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on New Orleans. So we dutifully planned the lesson, and then came to the part about what homework we were going to assign. After deliberation, the class decided that, as homework, our high school students would have to design a Hurricane Survival Kit.

I meekly raised my hand and said, "well, this is a very creative lesson, but I think maybe it's a little too lite, especially the homework." My instructor replied, "well, actually, I think it's quite difficult. They have to use all this information from class and synthesize it and even maybe look up an evacuation plan for their city." Right. Here would be the Hurricane Survival Kit from most of the kids: , where the blank space represents how they didn't do the assignment because it was stupid.

I responded that, at my old school, god bless its hard heart, my ninth graders had 20 pages of reading a night for one class. And sometimes they didn't do it, but when they didn't, they failed quizzes. And eventually they would have to read it, or they would fail essays, tests, and the class. And failing a class meant summer school, or repeating the year. So a lot of them just did the damn reading. The rest of our conversation went like this:

Instructor (who is, sadly, very smart): Well, does reading 20 pages a night give you all the skills you need?

Me: Well, it sure does improve your reading.

Instructor: But what about life skills that are so important today?

Me: Those are great too, but there's not really a lot of time for that, what with needing to read.

Instructor: See, that's the thing: I don't consider these other skills "extra."

Me: But basically, reading and writing [we don't talk about math] skills are really what you are going to need in college. They are the limiting factor here. Even if you have the other skills, if you don't have reading and writing, you're just not going to college.

Instructor: Well not everyone wants to go to college.

At that point, I sat back in my chair, crossed my arms, and looked resigned. Let me paraphrase the underlying thinking here. Basically, we must produce project-based edu-tainment to occupy the kids who couldn't care less about school, meanwhile dooming the other kids (and there are more than you would think) to failure in ever attaining any kind of dreams of accomplishment. She argued that traditional education is a turn-off to urban kids and that trying to force them to do it will cause them to drop out of school. Hello. They already are, in huge droves. The schools that do what I'm talking about--the oldschools--are actually successful. I don't think it's easy to work with urban kids--they have a lot of really difficult things to deal with at a young age. But some of them can make it, IF we let them.

After class, in an email, she suggested we start a message board discussion of these ideas so they won't take up so much class time. Excellent.

And now for my student teaching placement. Here is a passage from an email I sent my friend about the school and its environment:


1. Kids call teachers by their first names.
2. Kids call the principal by his first name.
3. There is no dress code.
4. Kids can wear hats in class.
5. Kids can chew gum in class.
6. There is one hour of something called "Advisory," which I playfully call "A Big Waste"
7. There are no tests.
8. There are no quizzes.
9. In fact, tests and quizzes are pretty much forbidden, as I found out.
10. Instead, kids are evaluated based on projects.
11. I have seen these projects. They are riddled with basic skill errors.

Things that may or may not be policy

1. There is very little homework.
2. Kids don't do the little homework.
3. F-bombs go flyin' around.
4. Kids make inappropriate comments, often using the f-bomb.
5. Kids put their heads down on the desks.
6. School starts at 8. There are about 5 kids there at 8. The rest come in a steady trickle through 8:45.
7. Kids bring their cell phones to class.
8. Kids listen to music on their cell phones in class.
9. Often the music on the cell phone drops the f-bomb.
10. Kids talk on their cell phones surreptitiously, in class, while telling one another to go f-bomb themselves, mother f-bomber.

And I could go on. I really like the teacher I'm with, though. She's young, super smart and a good teacher. She just needs two things: 1. A good discipline system to back her up. 2. A reduction in guilt when she lectures instead of giving kids projects. I think the kids could learn a lot from her, but the setup is all wrong. Most of the teachers at my school are, I would say, a lot like her.

I feel like I’m in the wrong place. But what is it they say? Know thine enemy? I guess that's why I'm here.

my first blog

posted by newoldschoolteacher @ 2:18 PM 3 comments
Monday, September 26, 2005

My first blog
Hi everyone. I'm a little nervous, being out here in cyberspace. But since this is primarily for my own benefit, I guess I won't worry too much.

Just for background on me:

I'm a girl.
I graduated from college in 2003.
I attend graduate school in education.
I'm going to be a social studies teacher.
I am excited to be a social studies teacher.
I think most schools suck a lot.
I don't want my school to suck a lot.

So there you pretty much have it. This blog will pontificate wisely (or not) on my experiences in my graduate education program and the state of American education in general. Sit back and relax, enjoy the show. As someone who knows little to nothing of what I'm talking about, I'm sure it will be very interesting.