Monday, December 31, 2012

Blogathon ground rules

I’m not sure whether I should be looking forward to the blogathon (that’s my grandiose term for my plan to post every day in January) or dreading it. I’m hoping it will force me to write posts that are less like finished products and more like thinking out loud. Also hoping it might inspire (provoke?) some conversation in the comments (hint, hint). Anyway, I’ve come up with some ground rules: it doesn’t count as a post if it’s (1) short enough to be a tweet, (2) a glorified link, without any real content of my own, or (3) just me whining about the blogathon. I’m not saying I won’t write such posts; only that they don’t count as the daily post.

Guest posts count, though (as long as they don’t link to!). Any takers?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The coming January blogathon

I’m feeling that the blog needs a shot of adrenaline, or at least Ritalin, so I’ve decided to commit to posting every day for the month of January. I suppose one post per day is not exactly a blogathon, but even that may exceed my abilities.

Don’t expect lengthy posts, or even fully-thought-out ones. If nothing else, I should at least demonstrate that quantitative goals always come with qualitative costs.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Information on pesticides in use at Hoover School

Hoover Elementary School here in Iowa City has had a longstanding problem with cockroaches, and the school district has recently been trying to address it with a stepped-up regimen of pesticide treatments. Another parent asked the school for information about the pesticides, and I thought it made sense to post that information here, in case others were curious.

School staff identified the pesticides as Talstar (information here and here), Zoecon Gentrol IGR Concentrate (information here and here), and Suspend SC (information here and here).

I know that people can hardly function in modern life without being exposed to all kinds of synthetic chemicals, and that we generally have little choice but to trust the government to ensure that we aren’t harmed by them. I don’t have any reason to think that these pesticides are creating any health risks; nor do I feel capable of evaluating that question. Especially because the spraying is occurring more frequently than would be typical (every couple of weeks, from what I gather), I figure it’s better just to put the information out there. If any of you have any particular knowledge of this field, feel free to chime in in the comments.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Equity: Thinking Beyond Facilities (Guest Post)

Intra-district equity is about to become a hot topic here in Iowa City, as the school board appears on the verge of approving an equity policy aimed at balancing out socioeconomic disparities among district schools’ student populations. I asked Karen W., who frequently comments here, for her thoughts about how curricular choices might also raise equity issues. This is her response.

The upcoming Revenue Purpose Statement election gives the community another opportunity to revisit the issue of what equity requires with regard to facilities. Certainly every child deserves to attend school in a well-maintained facility that is not overcrowded. And it is hard to argue with the notion that each school in the district ought to have similar amenities (air conditioning, technology, library collections, and adequate playground equipment, for example). Whether equity requires new buildings or upgrading current facilities, and whether equity requires adjusting attendance boundaries to balance student demographics, are issues that need to be publicly debated and resolved by school board members.

However those issues are resolved, I hope that the public conversation about equity in the district doesn’t end with facilities because instructional and curricular decisions can also contribute to inequity within a district.

My husband had a conversation with a recently retired teacher (not from around here, by the way) about seeing more and more job applicants unable to sign their own names to job applications. The teacher, defending not teaching cursive, said that cursive is not needed in a world of computers and that teaching cursive “is a good place for parents to step up.”

Maybe being able to sign one’s own name is less of a hallmark of literacy than it used to be, although I wouldn’t personally gamble on that, so let us consider that a district might have a policy of not systematically teaching phonics or grammar, not requiring “rote memorization” of math facts, or de-emphasizing paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms. Having those policies does not make phonics, grammar, memorization of math facts, or paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms inessential to later success in reading, writing, and mathematics. But it does shift the burden to families to recognize that their children may need help in these areas and to effectively provide that help.

So when decisions like these are made, such as not to teach X or to teach X in this way and not that way, I think equity requires us to consider the consequences for children whose parents are either unaware of the need to “step up” or whose parents are unable to “step up” for any reason.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does “teach” mean?

I’m always struck by how people use the word “teach” to mean such very different things. Sometimes, as Karen W. points out, people act as if “teach” just means “tell.” As a teacher (of law students), I know there have been lots of times when what I “taught” did not coincide with what my students learned.

But even if you focus on the desired end, “teach” seems to have at least two very different meanings:

1. To help someone learn something that he or she wants to learn.

2. To make someone learn something regardless of whether he or she wants to learn it.

There are better and worse ways of doing the former, but it’s not rocket science. Certain qualities help – being good at whatever it is your student wants to learn to do, being able to put yourself in your student’s shoes, being a good listener, patience – but if someone really wants to learn something, you’re already most of the way there.

The second definition describes a much more difficult enterprise. Yet we’ve come to see education almost exclusively in this sense, at the expense of the much simpler activity described by the first definition. More and more, education is now about deciding what kids must learn and then making them learn it, with no regard for what they might be interested in learning, or whether they retain any interest in learning at all.

So many of the features of our educational system – the endless curricular fads, the packaged programs, the reward charts and stickers and behavior management systems, the obsession with high-stakes standardized testing, the movement toward uniform mandatory curricular standards, the authoritarian discipline, the infantilizing micromanagement, the ed school empirical studies, the teacher training programs, the layer upon layer of administrators, you name it – exist almost entirely to serve this second function. Billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time and energy are spent on it. Yet, as far as I can see, trying to make people learn against their will – whether it be through outright coercion or through tricks or bribes or elaborate performances, etc. – remains a low-percentage enterprise, not to mention one with many unwelcome side-effects. This seems particularly true when the measure is not how students do on the test at the end of the unit, but whether they retain knowledge and understanding and skills into adulthood.

I don’t find a world in which we simply offered people an education, rather than forcing it on them, as unimaginable as most people do. But regardless, do we have to go quite so far in the opposite direction as we’ve gone?

Part two here.