A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, April 30, 2009

More on the grading controversy

A commenter who is a student of Ken O'Connor's has asked how I was exposed to his work (there was lots of other interesting comments made too, so it might be helpful if you read them on this previous post.

Classroom teachers in my building were given a fifty-five minute or so presentation on Ken O'Connor's theories about "standards-based" grades during which no comments or questions were allowed until the very end. Mr. O'Connor is from Canada, but has also apparently worked in Australia. The title of the book from which this material was drawn is A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades,which is published by Educational Testing Service.

Now let's leave aside the fact that the end of the school year is usually a frantic time for teachers, and we do not have loads of time hanging on our hands to do research on a system presented in a rapid-fire manner via fifteen or twenty PowerPoint slides before we are being asked to buy the proverbial "pig in a poke," or we could talk all day long about how this method of extracting teacher feedback could be interpreted as being designed NOT to elicit real conversation or contemplation before it is, shall we say, shoved down our throats.

There are certainly some practices that were outlined that I personally would never use, such as giving a group grade for a project to every individual in the group. I do not like group work for a plethora of very practical reasons.

But since entire books have been written on the subject or grading, let me be very brief and very specific upon ONE aspect of this presented system.

One part of the system presented that caught my eye was the idea that plagiarism or cheating should not receive a consequence upon a student's grade, since it was stated that this is a BEHAVIOR, and grades should only reflect ACHIEVEMENT. We were told that administrators would administer consequences for the behavior, but that any paper or assessment upon which there had been cheating should simply be thrown out and or redone to be included in the grade.

Here are my responses to this, and they come from a practical, experienced, and current classroom teacher's point of view, and from the get-go let me state that my response touches upon far more than grading, because assessing students is only a part of what a classroom teacher does (a consideration that anyone suggesting an overhaul such as this should keep in mind, much less respect:
1) Apparently a concern leading to "standards based" grading is that letter grades are meaningless and capricious. Unfortunately, so are the expected consequences that one can usually expect in a school that has several administrators. Already, the consequences assigned by administrators vary wildly for identical infractions and circumstances of students. The expectations of behavior we already have are not enforced anywhere near uniformly. I can only imagine the further erosion of academic and character standards were principals given the only right to assign consequences for plagiarism or other infractions against academic honesty. And my concern about academic honesty is not out of a masochistic desire to punish students-- it is because I am actually interested in my students' learning and their present as well as future success.

2) But more to the philosophical point of Mr. O'Connor's system (as presented to us), it was exclaimed repeatedly that BEHAVIORS should not be represented in grades. I find this to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is. A real education, which is the one that students all ultimately craft for themselves for good or for ill, is based completely upon the way in which they choose to behave, to change or not change the way that they act and interact with knowledge, skills, and opportunities that are presented to them. This is what cognitive theory is all about, and it is much neglected in an era in which it is assumed that if a student fails to achieve mastery, it is always due to some external factor. Learning is an individual process in the end. That's not a cop-out, nor is it meant to negate the very real impact that instructors, school, community,or parents can have. But the ultimate determiner of success in education is the student and his or her attitude or behavior, if you will.

3) When am I supposed to have time for all this retesting and re-evaluation of assessments that have been tainted by plagiarism or cheating? I already have forty-five minutes a day to plan (short term as well as long term), to write assessments that are meaningful, to contact parents, to grade papers, to confer with colleagues, to talk to counselors about concerns I have about students, to touch base with administrators, to enter grades, and to perhaps go to the bathroom (doesn't usually happen). Continual reassessment of papers and tests and the like due to plagiarism simply teaches students that cheating has no consequences about which they care. And that is a BEHAVIOR that this type of system would certainly enforce, to everyone's detriment.

Tell me what you think.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tunesday 14: Couldn't Stand the Weather

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Couldn't Stand the Weather

Since it's spring, and I am tired of the rain, it has given me the Blues. Not depression-- I mean The Blues. And who else comes to mind than Stevie Ray Vaughan for those of us who are children of the 80s? This classic album came out on May 15, 1984, and still sounds so powerful and fresh nearly twenty-five years later. In honor of the upcoming anniversary, I pay homage to one of the truly great guitarists of our time. I first heard his genius on David Bowie's "Let's Dance," which was one of Stevie's biggest breaks outside of Texas. He later recorded several albums with his band. How sad that Stevie was killed in a tragic helicopter crash in 1990.

Stevie starts off strong showing off the extreme manual dexterity with a little 90 second gem called "Scuttle Buttin'." The title track follows with more innovative work. On this album Stevie also does the memory of Jimi Hendrix a solid with his impassioned cover of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." But for sheer fun, nothing can beat "Look at Little Sister." It's still one of my favorites all these years later. Especially since I had a sister like that.

And here's a bit of trivia for you: the slang term "raising sand" (also the name of a fine album by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss) shows up twice in the lyrics on this album.

So for your viewing and listening pleasure, here is a longer version of "Scuttle Buttin'" from the 1985 Montreux Festival. Be amazed!

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another Question: What Practices Are Reinforced by Practice?

If you read through the slides about Ken O'Connor's ideas (see previous post for link) about how to fix "broken" grading systems, you might have noticed that one of the things that is suggested is that grades be based primarily upon "summative" scores (read performance events, such as tests and essays and the like for those of us in the core subjects) rather than "formative" scores (which basically means homework).

So about what is the percentage weight you assign to homework, and what is the percentage weight you assign to quizzes, tests, and the like in determining your overall grade?

Let's discuss.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Question About Grades and Plagiarism

So I have a question: What policy does your school district have regarding plagiarism and grades? According to Ken O'Connor, students grades should not be impacted by cheating. Or by failure to meet deadlines, either, apparently, since in the "real world" (imagine fingers making little quotation marks as the presenter is saying it) everyone can negotiate deadlines (and if this is so, can I renegotiate the end of my contracted school year to yesterday?)

Let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tunesday 13: I'll Fly Away

What can compare to the songs of spring? The tiny birds trill welcome as the redbuds shed a rosy carpet below each branch outside my window.

"And Your Bird Can Sing," Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs
"Flowers in the Window," Travis
"Mockingbird Hill," Leo Kottke
"Sky," Joshua Radin
"Highway in the Wind," Arlo Guthrie
"Birds Fly Away," Theresa Andersson
"Tree Hugger," Kimya Dawson & Antsy Pants
"The Littlest Birds," The Be Good Tanyas
"Velvet Sky," Los Lonely Boys
"Flightless Bird, American Mouth," Iron & Wine
"Further to Fly," Paul Simon
"Break the Sky," The Hush Sound
"Little Bird," Annie Lennox
"Bye Bye Blackbird," Joe Cocker
"Little Bird," Jonatha Brooke
"Little Wing," Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
"Blackbird," Sarah McLachlan
"All Things New Again," The Wallflowers
"Skylark," k. d. lang
"Over the Rainbow," Jane Monheit

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Haiku

Spring comes on dog's paws
then tracks cut pieces of grass
all over the house.


Friday, April 17, 2009

The Rise of the Roamin' Empire

So you know how in my previous post I talked about kids openly roaming the hallways while skipping class is a sign that the administration has abdicated their responsibilities?

A staff member approached an administrator and expressed concern about the Rise of the Roamin' Empire, as some of us like to call the parade in the hallways. The response?

A big ol' accusation of lese majeste: "Mind your own business, sirrah."

Hmm. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Life lessons for principals: 5 signs that your school is not well

Well, given that I've been teaching for longer than one of my assistant principals has been alive ( not really, but almost!) advice is being offered, solicited or not. This goes out to all the administrators out there, even those who do NOT understand the photo illustration to my left here, which is an example of what NOT to do as well:

1. Walk out into the hallways right after the tardy bell rings. Are there more than one or two kids in the halls? Are those kids ambling, or scrambling? If the answer to either one of these is yes, then you and your staff are not in control of the amount of content being delivered to the students, and therefore the school is not doing its main job. You are not in control of the school. This means that you are not performing your main job, which is to ensure that instruction can take place.
1a. Let me be clear: the main job of a school is NOT to provide a bright clean place to hang out. It is not there to keep potential thugs or partiers off the streets. It is not there to provide social services such as meals, haircuts, or visits with health care professionals. A school must primarily exist to provide the opportunity to gain an education. A school must emphasize this as its main mission, or it will be merely a very expensive community center full of people who don't seem to know very much-- and that could include the staff, and that means YOU.

2. Walk out into the hallways fifteen minutes after class has begun, or ten minutes before the end of a class period. The last class period of the day is especially good for this. Are there kids wandering around (Wait! you interrupt. Don't you mean "students?" And the answer is, No, I do not. Just hanging out in a school does not make one a student any more than just hanging out at Cape Canaveral makes one an astronaut. But I digress.) Kids skipping class with impunity means that you and your staff are not in control of the amount of content being delivered to the students, and therefore the school is not doing its main job. You are not in control of the school. This means that you are not performing your main job, which is to ensure that instruction can take place.

3. Walk into the bathrooms. Smell smoke? If you want to see how much damage and panic can ensue from a real fire evacuation, just continue to ignore this, and then stand back and watch the fun. This means that you are not performing your secondary job, which is to ensure that the school is a safe and orderly place to be.

4. Does your school have a behavior code or guide? Do you regularly ignore or act unaware of the consequences prescribed in the behavior guide and merely "talk to" students with referrals or place them on "suspended sentences?" Do you then wonder why the staff either a) no longer trusts you or b) no longer enforces the behavior guide themselves? This means that you are not performing your secondary job, which is to ensure that the school is a safe and orderly place to be. Only have the rules you are going to enforce. Otherwise, stop pretending and get rid of the behavior guide.
4a. Really, you're a grown person and you want to be "friends" with adolescents? You need to be something much more valuable to them: an adult whose behavior they can predict and rely upon, and someone who cares enough to encourage them to better behavior and safer behavior by predictably responding to poor choices with correction and redirection. The kids really don't think that spineless poseurs are cool. They think they are chumps. And chumps make more work for themselves by not being clear about what the limits for behavior are, because kids will push until they find out those limits.

5. Do you make eye contact with staff when they are speaking with you? Do you respond to emails in a timely manner? Do you seek out information and then act upon it? If you want to be openly supercilious, then go work at some snooty retail outlet, where they seem to cultivate such disregard in their staff.

Just trying to be helpful. You should try it sometime.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tunesday 12: Indigo Girls, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug

The Indigo Girls, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug

This album has only been out for a couple of weeks, but already it has won a place in my heart. As a guitarist myself, I have always been a fan of folkies given that that is how I learned to play guitar: "El Condor Pasa," the Sound of Silence," and John Denver's Back Home Again-- the entire album. So I was pretty amazed when a young lady I met at the Eisenhower Presidential Library out slightly east of TheMiddleofNowhere, Kansas (and yeah, I know that just about describes everywhere in Kansas) told me about this wonderful duo back in the early years of their amazing twenty year career.

This two disc set contains 23 songs, including acoustic versions of several of the songs. Poseidon and the Bitter Bug marks the Girls' first foray into the indie scene, and I am so glad they did, since it is obvious that they relished not having to kowtow to some fatheaded music exec. To me, this album hangs right there with my favorites Rites of Passage and Strange Fire.

Amy channels Bob Dylan on "Second Time Around," the song from which the phrase "bitter bug" of the album title originates. Both versions of "Sugar Tongue" include the inventive chord structures and tight vocal harmonies that the Girls always deliver. But probably my favorite is "Fleet of Hope:"

The fisherman comes up
Puts his two poles in the sand
He stares out at the sea
Just exactly like me
But I've got a book in my hand
We will have caught on to something by the end of the day
But mostly we think about the one that got away.

I've seen like a bird
What pleasures the surface can bring
I've lost my best craft
Going foolishly back
To where to Sirens sing
I've stared up at the place where the water meets the sky
And though I stopped breathing I still believe I should try
Maybe a boat in search of lost treasures will pass by.

'Cause the fleet of hope is so pretty
When she's shining in the port
And the harbor clings to the jetty
For protection and support
Out in the choppy waters the sharks swim and play
You're all washed up when Poseidon has his day.

I've walked through the desert
Climbed over mountains so high
Through jungles and plains
I took buses and trains
And airplanes across the sky
But none as seductive as ocean before me alone
And now I know why
You layered your pockets with stones.

'Cause the fleet of hope is so pretty
When she's shining in the port
And the harbor clings to the jetty
For protection and support
Out in the choppy waters the sharks swim and play
You're all washed up when Poseidon has his day.

When I was a girl
All of my fancy took flight
And I had this dream
Could outshine anything
Even the darkest night
Now I wait like a widow for someone to come back from sea
I've always known
I was waiting for me

'Cause the fleet of hope is so pretty
When she's shining in the port
And the harbor clings to the jetty
For protection and support
Out in the choppy waters the sharks swim and play
You're all washed up when Poseidon has his day.

Sadly, there are no videos yet available that I can find of songs from this album. Therefore, let me treat you to a performance with Sarah McLachlan and Jewel that I originally heard on the Lilith Fair album. Nothing like a classic to make you appreciate an artist's ability to make the familiar new and and renewed.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Have you evah?

... felt like you are a mere cog in the machine existing for the convenience of others?

... wondered if your body can physically take the demands placed upon it in this job, where we don't even get to pee until 4 pm?

... tired of suffering fools not even gladly?

... awakened and thought you just couldn't drag yourself into your sick building for one more blasted day because your allergies are just that bad?

... thought that if one more kid who doesn't pay attention while you're teaching and who writes down nothing you say asks you what they can do to raise their grade the day after grades are due, you are going to snatch hanks of hair from your head?

... realized that you are tired of being the only person who asks kids where they are going or what they are doing when they are out roaming in the hallways in the middle of a class period?

... feared losing the joy of a job you love under a mountain of paperwork and other soul-deadening tasks that are, of course, unremunerated?

... feared that the administrators in the Central Office really don't seem to care about what students are really learning as long as school is made as easy and simple as possible to keep those butts in the seats in the cash from the state rolling in?

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tunesday 11: Holy Week

Have a blessed Holy Week, and try out some of these songs:

"Heavenly Day," Patty Griffin
"Praise Song for a New Day," Suzzy and Maggie Roche
"Hymn," Brooke Fraser
"Calling All Angels," Jane Siberry
"Faithful," Brooke Fraser
"A Living Prayer," Allison Krauss and Union Station
"Blind," Jars of Clay
"Heaven (Acoustic Version)," Live
"Heaven to Me," Madeleine Peyroux
"Psalm 104," Amy Grant
"Angel Standing By," Jewel
"My Heaven," Mary Chapin Carpenter
"Jesus Maria," Leo Kottke
"Jesus Was a Crossmaker," Rachel Yamagata
"How Great Thou Art," Amy Grant and Vince Gill
"Ship Wreck," Jars of Clay
"Anyway," Suzzy and Maggie Roche
"Shield of Faith," Allison Krauss and Union Station
"Morning Has Broken," Cat Stevens
"God Will Lift Up Your Head," Jars of Clay
"Saving the World," Brooke Fraser

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Never a good sign....

... when every teacher you encounter in the hallway is slumped against the lockers with their heads drooping on their necks like a jack-in-the-box.

... when a kid who just doesn't understand why she doesn't have an A in your class says to you, after you've been discussing the presidency of Nixon for almost a week, says, "Wait-- you mean Nixon was a Republican?????"

.... when an AP approaches you and starts making jokes and then says, "Listen, I have a great proposition for you...."

Run. Run and hide.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Vesuvius erupts....

... and that does not refer to the big zit shining on my chin like some blasted solar flare. No. But...

1. Holy SHIT! Will someone-- ANYBODY-- walk two steps from their AP office to the bathrooms in the new wing and chase out the five kids who skip their last class of the day and hang out in there each and ever' day???? Because I am TIRED of running into them and chasing them out myself. I just want to go the can in peace! I only get to go once a day, and I'd like to be off duty when I take care of this little function.

2. I would politely ask that Redneck Mother, my inestimably inert department chair, to please go SOAK HIS HEAD. And since you've gotten my Okie up, that last word is pronounced, "HAY-UD."

3. How is it that my colleague Mr. Clapton (as in Eric) didn't get even an interview for Teacher of the Year finalist? This guy is what TOY should be all about! (I didn't even turn in the paperwork, since until Mr. Bipolar Helicopter Parent leaves the school board, I am the proverbial snowball in terms of chances, and that's fine.)

Gripe, whine, growl.


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