Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interesting Times - How NOT to Address Tragedy and #muslimrage in Schools

"May you live in Interesting times" 
- A saying from the counterweight continent, Discworld (among others)

War. What is it good for?
I was flipping through Facebook one morning this week and came across a few disturbing posts to the effect of: 

“Why isn’t the [US Government] administration doing anything?  Do they want another 9-11?”
Comments like this tend to activate the snarkiest part of my debate mind. I immediately start crafting cross-examination questions:
  • “You would like to go on record that it is your belief that our politicians (or any Americans) want another tragedy like 9-11?”
  • “What specific action would you like to see taken?”
  • “Can this action be accomplished while maintaining or respect for sovereignty, innocent life, etc?”
Ultimately, though, while these mental exercises are fun, they don’t really help to solve any problems. Understanding the full expanse of the tragedy in Libya last week would require an understanding of a number of complex issues: international politics, recent history, religious differences, the interplay of government and religion in extremism to name a few.

News organizations, politicians, and the vast political and media machines that they control (or are controlled by) do not have the profit or vote motive to explain these issues. Decades of sound-byte culture have stripped away most of the mechanisms that could even deliver complex explanations anyway. Thus, in the light of smirks and anti-smirks, vague pleading for action on social media, and the real feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that surround any loss of life, the questions becomes “how do we educate the next generation on these issues?”

Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now
School is rarely like what we see in the movies. Few schools actually pull all of the girls into the gymnasium in order to convince them to stop being cruel to each other through trust falls. More often than not, big showy gestures end up feeling more like that scene in HEATHERS where well-meaning teachers, apathetic students, and a dash of media or parent hype create awkward eye-rolling moments.

Interlude (Overheard):
“Can you believe what is going on in the Middle East? It’s tragic”
“And on 9-11!”
“Have you seen the video on YouTube that started the whole thing?”
“We should do something. For the kids. An assembly or something.”
“For the whole school. Something to really address this whole thing”
End Interlude

There are a lot of logistical issues with putting something like this together. I don’t want to address any of those.  There is also a strong argument to be made about when to "pull the all-school trigger” or, put another way, what makes this particular event worthwhile over so many others? Not going to write about that either.

Instead, I would like to approach this idea of teaching about the middle east tragedy as a worthy subject for our students. I will further assume that the logistics can be easily overcome and that the loss of classroom time in any other subject is relatively minimal. And yet, despite these two (rather significant) assumptions, there should still not be an all-school convocation on this topic. 

Why?-- it’s just bad education.

It’s not that all-school convocations are universally bad. We hold all-school masses and prayer services to worship together as a community. We bring students together to raise the emotional bar before homecoming games or to pay honor to students and alumni who exemplify the school's mission. We remember significant moments in our history (Martin Luther King Jr., Holocaust Remembrance Day), particularly when we have the rare opportunity to hear first person accounts that are increasingly rare and always precious. 

The best of these gatherings have a simple straightforward message that can be easily comprehended. The appeal,  when they work, is not an intellectual one, but one of emotion. Conversely, the worst large gatherings strip away emotional appeal entirely (boring), present a message that is too complicated (confusing), or make assumptions about the audience that interfere with the one-way messaging (offensive).

A large gathering about a currently-unfolding tragic event for any purpose other than grieving or solidarity is difficult to justify. Once we decide that the event is worthy of being taught, it becomes important not to become caught up in the chance for a big-moment if that same moment sacrifices the opportunity for true understanding, for true learning by the students. Instead, we should begin with the end in mind: if our goal is to achieve some sort of understanding about the underlying cause and potential actions possible in the Middle East, we need to construct learning opportunities that will likely lead to this understanding -- fortunately, for these situations we have a the solution:

It's called SCHOOL.

Teach Your Children Well

Context: The best classroom environments take into account student context. This context has a variety of factors, including grade level, maturity level, and the amount of information on the topic to which students have already been exposed. Teachers are trained to understand the context of students individually and as a group and expose them to information and experiences in units that can be processed and understood.

A world civilization teacher at the Freshman level will help students trace the cultural, religious, and historical factions that influenced the diversity of perspectives in the Muslim world.  
A teacher of a senior World Religions course will setup time to research the religious differences within sects of Islam and discuss the impact of specific religious texts within the context of extremism. Students in mass media or film production classes will dissect the editing of the YouTube video to maximize negative reactions.

Experience: One of the advantages of the modern age is the sheer amount of information that is available to our students. One of the disadvantages of the modern age is the sheer amount of information that is available to our students. Teachers have the two-fold task in situations like this to expose students to the relevant information (appropriate to maturity level, subject matter, etc.) while also beginning to help students form their own filtering processes to adapt to and account for all of that information.

Students in the Digital Citizenship analyze  the growth of viral Youtube videos compared with claims about causality. Use of #muslimrage as a pressure release and context shifting use of social media.
 Sophomore Speech and Debate students can break down the claims on the same event as covered by a variety of media types and sources.

Reflection: This information is processed (and the information filters are created) through processes of reflection: merging prior knowledge with new experiences through discussion, journaling, debates, and other thoughts.

Use concentric circle discussions (personal, partners, small groups, large feedback on butcher paper) to identify opinion/fact, overstated claims, insufficient research for conclusion, and fact checking. Compare papers as a class (gallery walk) and do the fact-checking on articles and op-ed broadcasts

Additionally, breaking the learning into cross-curricular units has the advantage of providing repetition in a variety of contexts (this strengthens the subject itself and weakens the intellectual silos that students tend to build in schools). Students also have more opportunity to share feelings, listen to multiple points of view, and confront passionate and, at times, contradictory material. Finally, in smaller settings with a teacher who is a subject-matter expert, they have the safety of the group and a guide as material become complicated or frustrating.

This is learning. Real learning.

There is an oft-used expression that is popular in science-fiction: "May you live in interesting times" 

We do...And they are. 

It is easy to long for a simpler time and easier solutions. 
One big event. 
One simple message. 
One cathartic moment. 

But life is messy. Politics and religion are...interesting. We do ourselves and our students a disservice to pretend that it is otherwise. Embrace the complexity and allow the students to do the same. In that struggle to comprehend and the structured experience and reflection provided by our classes, we can challenge our children to do more than passively absorb -- we can ask them to understand and, based on that understanding, to take action. 

Now that would be interesting. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Centennial Post - Deciphering The (Lexile ) Numbers - Education as Big Business

Preface: The Score Letter
I think every family with two working adults and multiple school-age children has that table that gathers piles of paper. You know the one that I mean. Our main one (because we have many) is the kitchen island. One stack is generally for comic books and various non-urgent papers, another stack is bills, and my wife has her own stack of "i will go through these as soon as I have a spare moment...say 2020?" papers. My children have followed the example of the parents with stacks of "you may want to look at these" papers (in which every permission slip, late homework notice, etc. invariably ends up). When I got home one night last week, I noticed an official letter on the top stack for my eldest, the ten-year-old Daughter Prime.

The letter described a formal exam taken by all students to determine her LEXILE score. The score, the letter went on to explain, was a measure of reading comprehension that had been validated seven ways from Sunday and had a great many uses for teachers and parents. I could find out more information by going to Lexile.com and reading about the score there.
End Preface

Thoughts on Milestones and Education Reform
As I write this post, my hundredth on the geekreflection site since @40ishoracle and I decided it would be a hoot to share our thoughts with the world, I have been thinking about the changes that have been happening in education in the short time since i set foot in the classroom 15 years ago. Back then, high-stakes testing was not a significant focus of classroom activity nor was it a significant piece of the educational dialogue. In most schools, students were told that it was a measure of what you had learned in class and was not something over which you should stress. Exit exams were in place at the high-school level and classes had been created to prepare or remediate the lowest potential scorers, but it had not affected the students who were likely to pass (note: i spent my first three years of teaching in low-track and test remediation courses -- the youngest teachers often did).

The tide had not yet turned against teachers in the political rhetoric. Our job was still considered professional and difficult and while there was a murmur of anti-union rhetoric starting, it did  not have the venom that is present in today's attacks on teachers. Movies that were made talked about difficult environments and socially ingrained issues (which could include clueless administrators and burned out teachers) but often focused on the need for committed and dedicated adults as a key factor in turning around a troubled school (note: this is still presumed to be true in the sound-bytes of most politicians, just not in any of the legislation that they produce).

Education as a business was beginning to gain some ground with charter schools being touted as the market-based solution to the woes of the most struggling schools. The focus on the profitability of the classroom was limited to textbook publishers and a few very specific educational technology providers, particularly in Math and Science. Today, my mailbox fills up with catalogs promising me improved test scores, pre-packaged curricula that strives to take the wild-card factor of the teacher out of the equation as much as possible, and every kind of metric-based, value-added software on the planet to pre-test, address, student-personalize, and teacher-assess my way to a bright future where we will be competitive with the overseas armies of better standardized testers.

Interlude: A Look into Lexile
My wife, having read the letter, asks me what a lexile of "1377" actually means. I had no idea. So we went to the website. On the website, we learned that:
  • The Lexile was not a grade-based equivalent score (you should not use this to see how your student is doing in class or how a school program is doing in preparing your child)
  • The Lexile is not a comparative - no data will be released or found on where your child is in comparision to other children of the same age or grade
  • The Lexile is an independent measure of comprehension, measured on its patented scale - don't try to use this score to draw any conclusions whatsoever about - well - anything.
In fact, the only thing that we were supposed to use the Lexile score to do was to type it into a database to find Lexile-scored books that would be appropriate for my 10 year old to read.

That's it. Plug the number and get the book list. So that is what we did...
End Interlude.

Choosing Between Two Masters
The disturbing part about the education-as-business model is not that there are people who want to make money off of education. We live in a capitalistic world. If there is a market, someone will make money. The disturbing part is that this system, devoid of any kind of common-sense oversight (dare I say it, "regulation") can easily twist itself into the worst the marketplace has to offer. Think of the millions (low estimate) of dollars being spent by school districts to measure teacher value-add. School districts that are cutting teachers and support staff, raising class sizes, and choosing refurbished netbooks for their students are investing in a resource that has dubious validity in improving actual learning and slightly less dubious validity in improving test scores. Maybe the money should be spend in actually validating a connection between test scores and learning...or test scores and teacher effectiveness...or test scores and -- any connection -- that would at least be some interesting research.

Interlude II: Plugging and Chugging
The Lexile choose-a-book system is relatively simple. Enter the score and press enter. There is even a place to enter some rudimentary information to try to get a book list without the Lexile score (grade level, reading easy/hard, etc.). Once the score is entered, you select categories. My daughter is into post-apocalyptic dystopias (Hunger Games; Among the Hidden), so I chose sci-fi/fantasy. and the results (drumroll please):

The recommendations for a Lexile of 1377. Witchcraft and Eroticism
Well, that was disturbing. After repeated attempts, I could pull nothing but literary criticism. I am not sure if there is age-appropriate lit.crit for a ten year old, but I prefer to think that if it exists, it does not articulate the correlation between sex and science-fiction.

Fotunately, there are some limiters by age as well as Lexile score, so i decided to play around with those as well. I chose to limit the age range between 10-12. As a proud parent, I had to give her a few more years of range.

The good news is that the limiters did erase some of the suggestions. The bad news is that a) my daughter was still stuck firmly in the world of literary criticism (does no one in the 1300 range read fiction?) and many of the titles that I thought a little mature for the pre-teen set were still suggested:

YES MEANS YES: Straight feminism fun with fetishes...
Clearly being a dad has turned me into a prude. I noted the book to download into my wife's Kindle and decided to start over from the beginning. Cleared my cache. Entered 6th Grade, reads above her grade level. The results: lots of lit.crit. I narrowed the categories to fiction only. Those results constituted the type of writing that would drive children of all ages far from reading.

Finally, despondent, I re-entered a lexile range, limited to age 11-12 (i was a little weary), and limited it to straight fiction...no more choice reading for my daughter:
One Book Available
There you have it. One book available. The 208 pages MONSTER MEN by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Happy reading, dear.
End Interlude

A Twisted Business
This summer, I got to listen to Sal Khan describe the humble beginnings of the Khan Academy: a tutorial for a young, bright relative who was struggling with math. This was before his dream of providing "a world class education to any child, anywhere". This was before Microsoft founders and the Gates Foundation labeled this system a great boon to education.  As I listened to him, the image that I could not shake was that he was sincere and inspiring. That his simple idea and aspirations for a future where money and location did not preclude access to an education, had been perverted by politicians and businessmen who saw the potential to sell a system that could replace teachers.

He specifically responds to critics, saying that the videos make excellent supplements to the relationship between the teacher and student necessary in the best of educational environments. And yet, entire charter schools are set up with Khan-Cubicle formats for learning math. Teachers are threatened subtly and not-so-subtly with replacement by video or replacement by younger teachers -- well, both methods are at least cost effective.

Reflection: This Piper Must be Paid
When I asked librarians about the Lexile, they had all heard of it. All knew that it was a measure of reading comprehension, had some vague memories of it being used to mark books. None of the librarians I talked to recalled using it as an essential instrument in helping students choose books. These librarians had list-servs, colleagues, recommendations from other students, and their own training and experience. They did not need these scores. But that was then...

The same school district that provided this most-excellent diagnostic resource is clustering or eliminating librarian positions. In some cases, schools are fortunate to have a librarian assistant a few days a month. No time to create effective book clubs, setup programs for encouraging reading, or learn enough about a class's context, let alone an individual student's to recommend a good book. Now we use Lexiles.

(note: in direct violation of the spirit of the score, the Lexile is also used by the district as a contributing piece of data to determine who needs additional reading resources. Evidently someone is willing to match the number to a reading level).

  • The Lexile system is contracted out to standardized tests in order to provide scores to test-taking school districts - money.
  • Publishers work to have their catalogs scored and listed on the ever-important find-a-book list - more money.
  • School districts test students independently to give students a lexile score - even more money.

Money that could be spent on books
Money that could be spent on librarians
Money that could be spend on teachers

But politicians want numbers and companies want money.
Its just too bad that the students are the ones who end up paying.