What Does Ketchup Have to do with Diversity?

Where do you keep your ketchup? If you run out, what do you reach for? Chances are, if you keep your ketchup in the fridge, you are white or northern, and if you are not white or from the south (of America, to be clear), you keep it in the cupboard. This Reply All podcast begins with a “Yes, Yes, No” segment on the “Manosphere,” which is throw-up-in-your-mouth worthy, as concepts go. Listen, or skip ahead until the Leslie Miley story about diversity – or the lack thereof – at Twitter.

The point about ketchup is this: if you keep your ketchup in the fridge and run out, you are likely to reach for other condiments you keep in the fridge, like mayonnaise or mustard. If you keep ketchup in the cupboard and run out, you are likely to reach for a condiment that you keep in the cupboard, like malt vinegar (or mustard, I suppose). Diversity offers ways of problem solving in ways that we can’t anticipate in monocultural or monolithic organizational cultures. Even a diverse culture may lose out on problem solving options native to someone with a background not represented in the decision making space.

Diversity is a moral imperative in schools not just for obvious reasons, but also because diverse learning environments are necessary to prepare students for life in a broad, diverse world! This podcast makes the argument better than I can, so give a listen.

Honoring Anxiety – Acknowledging Reality to Improve School Culture

In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.

Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.

Obviously, that list could go on.

A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.

I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?

I think it’s worth a try.

Constructivism & Learning – Reflection from Session 3 of “Learning Creative Learning”

* What ideas in the readings interested or resonated with you?

Seymour Papert’s seventh chapter of The Children’s Machine, “Instructionism vs. Constronstructionism” was incredible. Particularly, his argument that school overvalues abstract reasoning or thinking while undervaluing concrete thinking resonated deeply with me. As a teacher of text from literature to media, new and old, I often find myself talking about abstract reasoning based on abstract data sets like “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” by e e cummings with reverence. At the same time, I brew a variety of British, American, and Belgian beers as a hobby. I meditate, and I snowboard, and I cycle. I enjoy working on engines. I’ve learned that precision and speed on a snowboard mirror my experience in yoga meditation. I like writing and brewing beer for similar reasons – both allow me to create something new, based on an existing form, and engage in a reflective cycle of improvement. I learn from all of these activities, and each involves some level of concrete and abstract thinking. I find each valuable. Linking to the Maker pieces, I greatly enjoyed them and believe in making as a way of being creative. In my secondary school experience, I found great solace in the photography darkroom, making photographs from my negatives tangibly in a way that Photoshop and a printer has not been able to replicate. This space in my day was essential. Schools should have maker spaces, absolutely, for kids to hang out, mess around, and geek out on low tech and high tech making.

* How could you apply these ideas to help others learn in your own work, family, or community?

This is a big question – how do I turn an externally moderated course like AP or IB Literature into a tangible maker experience, where the concrete meets the abstract? I don’t know. My AP Lit Badges have yielded one student-created dress based on a Tennyson poem, which was awesome. I have also created a choice menu for assessment outcomes for a choice novel or drama unit to end AP Lit. Still, my students are either in full embrace of the primacy of “the formal stage” from Piaget as the top of the hierarchy. Few make. Some create, certainly, but nobody is building beautiful cabinets, and my school has zero facilities for making anything other than music, art, and digital anything. We teach to AP/IB outcomes, and there’s no making. This is not a dig; this is reality. Certainly, my Digital Journalism course asks students to explore digital media through making digital media, which is a kind of making, but nothing so tangible as the Soulcraft laid out in this book that began to change the way I see my teaching practice. After reading “Big Ideas Need Love, Too,” a nagging question about, if not the value of making media, the lack of tangible making in my teaching became totally realized. I don’t want to be an agent of superficiality, driving kids to ever more banal forms of expression, turning them into little Alex Joneses. However, I believe in bringing kids to language and inquiry into their world through digital journalism. How else can I make this concrete, real, making? I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.

The Big Empty

Sometimes a notion creeps, advancing slowly in moments of clarity and surprise. Lately, a notion is banging down my door, tired of creeping, and it began during a talk by Simon Breakspear at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum last November in Prague.

Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!
Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!

Simon gave an inspiring talk to the group the day before, but due to some delayed flights, I missed it. The next day, we got more inspiration. PowerPoint slides flew fast and furious.

There was a bell curve, but we were all on the right side of it (the right side is the left, of course). There were photos of 19th Century schoolhouses, desks in a row, followed invariably by titters as we were asked if this looked like the classrooms of some people “we” knew in “our” schools. I recognized this rhetorical device. Pictures of candy replaced photos of assembly lines. This trope, too, was familiar. As if in a seance, or as if poised over the Ouija board, the specter of He Who Is So Often Channeled in such situations spoke to me, and he spoke in the form of an Idea Worth Spreading.

He, who is the second most recognizable two-named Sir of my lifetime; first is Sir Mix-a-lot (the hyphens make it one word), second, Sir Ken. For the love of Pete, he’s been animated and knighted.

And so it went, until the slides about what “we” must do to maintain competitiveness with China and India popped up on the screen. I was aghast, looked around, found one or two pairs of eyeballs equally aghast. From where I sat, though, I couldn’t see my Indian and Chinese colleagues who were also being inspired. In the same room. At the same time. Who, after all, were “we”?

They're the same candy. Wait, no...they're different. We're all individuals! Mass produced individuals!
They’re the same candy. Wait, no…they’re different. We’re all individuals! Mass produced individuals! Thanks to sudeep1116 for the photo.

This trope, of course, plays like gangbusters to the Western audience. Fear of a rising China and/or East lies latent, economic distress compounds the concerns, appeals to “competitiveness” strike deeply. Unless you’re Chinese.

What bothered me most in that moment was how this “we” was woven, a roomful of career teachers and a young, charismatic, almost-totally-probably well-meaning ed reformer were “colleagues.” It struck me as odd that a career student of education would so demonize the classroom of the past, present, or future because some are so obviously poor places for learning. I’ve had a bad ski lesson. Should I no longer go to the mountains for skiing?

Of course students learn beautifully outside of classrooms, less so inside some classrooms. Of course education is flawed. Of course education is something we do together; “we” is apropos. Simon is one of us, somehow. But can we reduce the cliches, visual or otherwise? And can we, please, not pit us against them, if we can at all avoid it?

The current educational discourse, so far as I can tell, includes actual teachers on the ground in places like Craig, Colorado, and

You see, it's a factory model, comrade.
You see, it’s a factory model, comrade.

reformed teachers with their heads in the clouds. Both, I’m sure, love kids and want only the best for them, but in the second link is a perfect storm of edufluff. There are two word clouds and two bulleted lists, each in its own format. But this author, Angela Meiers, is not alone. Every day on Twitter I view and re-view blog posts sponsored from upon high (Education Week) and from individuals like myself pouring out thoughts into the ether. Many feature titles such as

  • 17 Amazing Things To Do With an iPad!
  • The Problem With Disengagement
  • Finland – Utopia, or Simply Perfect?
  • Standardized Testing – What Are We Measuring?
  • The Opt Out Movement – Occupy Classrooms
  • Homeschooling: No Classrooms, No Limits!
  • Can Charters Succeed?
Wordle: Untitled
Small. Powerful. Words.

And so on.

When I sat whilst being inspired, quietly seething, I formulated vicious blog posts now sitting in draft format on my server, posts with titles like “Everyone Who Generalizes Sucks.” I sat on those ideas. My 180 Twitter followers might abandon me if I wrote what I felt. Twitter works that way, and so does Facebook, and most other media channels – the system indoctrinates its users into norms, simply and efficiently. Here I sit, typing into a blog read by my Mum (Love you Mum, and appreciate your readership!) and almost nobody else, and I actually censor myself. Seriously.

WikiCommons is a cesspool of filth like this AWESOME "Classroom Birching" image. The Id reels.
Any ed reformer wishing for a 19th C classroom pic should be required to use this AWESOME “Classroom Birching” image. The Id reels.

But today I played a short snippet of a conversation between genius blogger/writer Seth Godin and Krista Tippet on her radio show “On Being” for my Digital Journalism class. We were walking through the “Feature Rubric” for podcast and written features, but I wanted students to feel empowered to edit the rubric and ignore it, “discerning” what was good on their own. Seth, in speaking about art, spoke about discerning what contributes and what fails:

 And the only way you get that discernment is by practicing. Is by saying, when I pick this am I right? When I put this in the world, did it resonate with the people I was trying to reach?

Further, he said:

So tell 10 people — there are 10 people who trust you enough to listen. And if you tell your thing to 10 people — if you send your e-book to 10 people — if you do your sermon to 10 people or show your product to 10 people and none of them want to tell their friends, and none of them are changed — then you failed. That you didn’t really understand what was good. But if some of them tell their friends, then they’ll tell their friends, and that’s how ideas spread. So it’s this 10 at a time — 10 by 10 by 10. How do you put an idea in the world that resonates enough with people if they trust you enough to hear it. That then it can go to the next step and the next step.

I think he’s right. So I challenged students to put the work they care about out into their social networks, to share in any ways they see fit, and to test their ideas in public. Seth goes on to say something interesting (albeit a bit confusing) about social networking, compelling about kids living out loud online, and revealing about his new work, The Icarus Deception. He said:

So if you and I had been sitting around just after the Dark Ages and heard the story of Icarus — what we would have heard is this: that Daedalus said to his son two things — one, put these wings on but don’t fly too close to the sun because it’s too hot up there and the wax will melt. But more important, Son, do not fly too low, do not fly too close to the sea, because the mist and the water will weigh down the wings and you will surely perish. And for me the most important message that I’ve come to after thinking about this for so many years is, we are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk. All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I’m not buying it.

Twitterverse, #education Twitterati, we are flying too low. I can’t continue to reflect the discourse when it is so repetitive. We’ve got to move beyond the packaged message as teachers, and recognize that sometimes, when messages feel familiar, it’s because that’s how they were designed. I want to write the education that I do, the teaching that I organize, the values that I hold. I am putting this out there, sharing with more than 10 friends, and we’ll see if it gets repeated. I’m trusting my voice, my knowledge, and my expertise. It’s time for pragmatics and ideals. I want to raise standards for behavior and turn ethics into action within and beyond my classroom. I don’t know how, but I know what I won’t do ever again:

  1. Quietly digest nonsense
  2. Use photos of 19th century classrooms or candy as a metaphor for “personalization,” which is a bullshit term anyway
  3. Gratuitously abuse lists (OK, I’ll do this all the time, but feel weak as I do so)
  4. Discuss boredom
  5. Retweet a cliche
  6. Embed a word cloud
  7. Complain without a solution
  8. Fetishize social media
  9. Censor myself (editing and revising myself will remain active)
  10. Write a top ten list

I will try to fill the big empty space with something that I care about. This is my notion: Do, then write. Share. And see what happens next.

Conference Like A Champion Today

Heck, I hate ’em, but it’s been a long time, so the title nod (at least on this post) goes to the guys from South Bend.

I’m here in Prague where drizzle congeals for the 2012 Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum, and the fun has begun. Re-connecting with colleagues from around the globe like Bram Faems and many others from the European Forum in Lisbon is great. Other, less expected opportunities have cropped up already, as well.

I have sprung brief, very focused monologues about student-centered, constructivist, project-based learning on several edu-luminaries, including one whom I believe may be connected with the French Ministry of Education. Also, upon some visiting professors of education from a number of European countries. I waxed rhapsodic about Turkey to a Turkish teacher, about China to a Chinese teacher, and about my desire to visit India to several Indian teachers.

I’m in my element.

I also somehow immediately gravitated toward two women who engrossed my edu-nerdhood with extreme prejudice: Suzie Boss, who termed our wee cabal “the anarchist’s table” and Lisa Nielsen, who I watched demolish a Twitter echo chamber this week with guilty schadenfreude. Our conversation was excellent because it ranged from who’s interested in PBL in India to the vagaries of education in NYC to strengths (*gasp*) of the Common Core. Also, I was reminded that not everyone has my personal experiences, and that these personal experiences give me an angle on this big topic of teaching and learning that I care so much about. I tell kids often, as they write college app essays, to plug into their personal history, that which they take for granted, because it’s not what their audience has experienced.

So, dude. Come on. Like, heal thyself, too. OK?

I’m excited about learning new things this week and building some strong connections with smart, interesting people who dedicate themselves to helping children have wonderful learning experiences. Also, I’mma write this one up. So stay tuned.

Oh, Good Teachers Have Always Done That…

The cliche says: Man, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. One cliched turn deserves another. I’ve been thinking about backwards design and this concept, what good teachers do anyway.

Very rarely do I say, or hear said: Oh, that’s a great idea that I’ve appropriated for serious misuse. But when I make my big mistakes, it is so often thus. Backwards design from an end that is meaningless, or worthless, or counterproductive, or at cross-purposes to colleagues, or ill-conceived will yield a process that takes us all to this barren shore together, a la high stakes standardized testing and the general, shallow outcomes it yields.

Of course, I can find silly outcomes on my own. However, by identifying what I value most, I can find high-value targets for students to hit. Additionally, I can design curriculum that allows students freedom and choice in their journey towards meeting or surpassing such targets.

Even more powerfully, communities and institutions like schools can come together and make shared decisions about what they value, and focus in on that. For example, when politicians decide that critical thinking has no place in schools, we can expose that conversation and have it at the local level where I feel solidly that few parents would argue that critical thinking and analysis is bad for their kids, even while they worry that (thanks to decades of demagoguery) schools may be undermining religious beliefs and the like.

Simple, focused statements of value are clear and transparent. Simple, focused statements of value can create outcome targets that aren’t obscure or scary, leading to paranoia like that reflected in the Texas Republican platform. Simple, focused statements of value can help teachers do what they’ve always done, better.

Everything we do in teaching is based fundamentally upon what we value. We should endeavor to honor these values with names and descriptors so that we can work purposefully in the same direction within our schools and our communities. I bet that’s something really great schools have always done…

What We Talk About When We Talk About High School

Sometimes, an education blog post crosses out of the Twitter educhat echo chamber, into the larger Twitterverse of politicos, journalists, and ür-parents. Roger Schank is today’s pole vaulter, springing out into the Zeitgeist of our moment, criticizing much that is wrong in high school while engaging in more than a little over-pragmatic, under-intellectual pandering to the lowest common denominator. Hate high school? Here’s why you should, kids. Yet somehow, I feel this isn’t aimed at kids…

Schank writes of English (represent!):

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Do high school students still write book reports? Probably, but that still feels 25 years out of date. Parentheses abuse aside, I can’t quibble with Schank’s points; indeed, I model my English classroom after them. While students don’t write daily, they structure oral, written, or media communication in class most days. The problem with daily writing is that is difficult to ensure quality feedback for each, or most writing opportunities. Daily writing can be longer form, as well, with guided practice from day to day as formative feedback. Again, Schank more or less nails it on all counts. I particularly like the choice reading concept, which I am incorporating more and more into how I teach. Each of my classes includes choice assignments, with the digital journalism courses being almost all student choice. As in math, as in science, students should grow in English proficiency by doing, by critically examining texts and media and by communicating in a variety of styles and genres.

But where Schank’s argument grows facile is its treatment of academic subjects like economics as so abstract as to be meaningless (emphasis mine):

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

How to balance a checkbook? I can barely type that sentence without an F-bomb in it, the concept is so ridiculous. Who’s out of touch – the person teaching economics as case studies and the application of theories or the person who still has a checkbook? How can one earn a living? A job. Entrepreneurial application of self. Holes in the tax system, nepotism, irresponsible banking. Spurious reasoning breaks through breathless disregard for all things high school, subject silo by subject silo, and a smattering of fair points are quickly subsumed in a tide what the reader already expects (American education is all bad!). It’s as though Schank has never heard of students doing actual things in school, or working together effectively – it happens, regularly, and it’s not useless learning.

I regularly wish that the discourse around education in America was more constructive. I regularly read shock titles that look good in tweets and witness them leading the discourse. At least Schank didn’t use the words crisis or war. It’s too bad that, as a reaction to responses to this sensible article in The Washington Post, Schank chose the lowest hanging fruit in this blog post.

Edu-Drama, and My Response

In early June, a great friend and colleague of mine, Geoff Grimmer, was abruptly terminated from his position as Principal of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. I wrote the following letter to Dr. Sandra Smyser and the Eagle County School Board in response and in support of Geoff. I also attended the public appeal hearing where I spoke in support of reinstating Geoff.  In my remarks, I expressed great surprise at Dr. Smyser’s unfortunate characterization of good principals as “middle managers” and about the power of modeling as good leadership. In my opinion, firing Geoff for being a poor “fit” in the district and for a perceived failure as a middle manager signaled that returning to teach in Colorado would be impossible for me in the future. If one gets fired for success in public education, we have major problems. Happily, the Board voted not to uphold Geoff’s termination and he will return to VSSA this year. 

Dear Dr. Smyser,

I am writing today to express my extreme shock at your failure to renew the contract of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s Principal Geoff Grimmer. Mr. Grimmer is a former colleague of mine and an inspiration to me in my teaching practice as an English teacher and department chair at Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland. Mr. Grimmer is an example of an ethical educator who places the whole student firmly at the center of his practice. My only consolation for the loss of such a leading educator to the children of VSSA is that we may be able to lure Mr. Grimmer to our school.

First and foremost, I am surprised at your decision to terminate Mr. Grimmer’s contract. Mr. Grimmer is a nationally recognized leader in education, as noted in coverage by The New York Times of the great success of students at VSSA. Negligence or incompetence on the part of an educational leader is not mentioned by the journalist in this coverage; rather, success and positive innovation aimed at helping students realize their highest potential form the backbone of the article. Mr. Grimmer was also very recently featured in Microsoft Vice-President of Worldwide Education Anthony Salcito’s “Daily Edventures” blog aimed at uncovering “global heroes in education.” Do you disagree with Mr. Grimmer’s view of education as expressed in these two media pieces? Is the vision that Mr. Grimmer expresses so out of touch with your vision, or the vision of Eagle County Schools, that this represents grounds for termination? If so, I would be interested in learning the areas in which you disagree. On your “Office of the Superintendent” page, you state that “Eagle County Schools is an innovative district that pushes the boundaries of what public education can do.” Surely VSSA, created and led by Geoff Grimmer, stands as nationally-recognized proof of such a statement. Is this grounds for termination in the Eagle County Schools?

Perhaps more surprising is that by any objective measure, VSSA is flourishing under Mr. Grimmer’s leadership. As your district reporting on 2010-2011 CSAP results states, “Eighth graders at VSSA and GCMS improved their [math] scores from 55 to 79 and 62 to 77 this year“ and scored “79% proficient or advanced” on the reading portion of the test. Your report goes on to note that VSSA students and 8th grade students district-wide “boasted stellar improvement scores at 79, 76 and 70 percent proficient or advanced.” If such success as measured by the admittedly questionable instruments of Colorado state standardized tests proves grounds for dismissal, have you failed to renew the contracts of Mr. Grimmer’s similarly successful colleagues? Of course, as you declare on your Superintendent page, “We are clearly a district that is serious about student achievement – not just test scores, but meaningful learning that is relevant, interesting and promotes abilities like critical thinking and problem solving. We expect that every student can function at high levels, and we are determined to help them achieve.” As VSSA allows students with exceptional talents to pursue their skills at the highest levels while at the same time employing 21st Century learning platforms to maintain high standards of education, it seems a model for your claim. In the design and implementation of this innovative model for learning and teaching, what failed to meet your expectations, or the expectations of the Eagle County Schools?

Finally, I wonder by what standards you assess your instructional leaders? By the ISTE NETS-A standards for administrators, Mr. Grimmer is an outstanding example of educational leadership in the digital age. Beyond areas previously mentioned, Mr. Grimmer understands key metrics for evaluating success in a diverse, unique environment like VSSA and has clearly utilized them to provide a safe, positive environment for individualized instruction – best practices all around. Per the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, Mr. Grimmer clearly meets all standards and, most importantly, is a reflective educator and lifelong learner dedicated to continually improving his practice and the learning community under his charge in a healthy, humane manner. Even the inconsistent Colorado Principal Standards provide a steady list of strengths attributable to Mr. Grimmer or areas in which growth can easily be realized. While I am certain that Mr. Grimmer “Exemplif[ies] a personal and professional commitment to ethical conduct and respect for others and their rights,” I cannot be sure that he does not hold the bar for student achievement higher than “Colorado State Model Content Standards” or that he always “Convey[s] respect for the roles of elected officials and administration.” What is unclear in the Colorado Principal Standards are the benchmarks upon which a meaningless abstraction such as respect for elected officials and administration are judged; does the absence of a positive, for example, prove a negative? Of course, ethical behavior and the holding of high expectations seem minimal expectations taken for granted until compelling evidence of their absence is uncovered. In lieu of such evidence, surely it is incumbent upon you, Dr. Smyser, to present findings worthy of termination of employment for an otherwise fine educator.

Dr. Smyser, as an experienced educator yourself, you must recognize the relationship between objectives or benchmarks and judging performance. By measures qualitative and quantitative, Geoff Grimmer is a successful educational leader of Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. When district leadership suddenly terminates the contract of a successful school leader, especially so very late in the school year and without any prior notice, they risk deeply undermining the trust and authority placed in them by the community, and so should not do so without a volume of compelling evidence. If gross negligence or incompetence was obvious before, why did you not act earlier to mitigate the damage? In fact, such a decision fails to meet all communication and environmental management standards for administrators such as those linked above. For these reasons, and for the children of your learning community, please accept this statement of protest of your decision not to renew the contract of Principal Geoff Grimmer of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. You should reconsider this decision immediately and move to renew Mr. Grimmer’s contract today. The health and vibrancy of your learning community demands it.

Sincerely,

Ian W. Hoke

English Teacher & English Curriculum Area Leader

Zurich International School

On High Stakes Testing

I just read a fascinating blog post from Will Richardson entitled “The Parent Factor.” In it, Richardson discusses his experience with the superintendent of a New York school district’s meeting with 15 parents about changing their curriculum “from a traditional classroom to a more student centered, authentic, inquiry based classroom” and the possible impact on test scores. Richardson notes that high stakes tests are frustrating both parents and children, but that “test scores are seen as a hugely important factor in maintaining property values and in tracking student achievement.” I highly suggest giving his entire piece a read.

What struck me the most reading this was how truly crazy the entire situation behind this meeting is. The tests don’t actually track student achievement in a meaningful way. The superintendent knows that, Richardson knows that, and the parents suspect that, but the stakes are so high for communities, from housing values to teacher employment to maintaining school funding, that they are forced to maneuver in convoluted ways to avoid the brutal punishment of NCLB censure: In Need of Improvement, Restructuring, and so on. A metaphor flashed repeatedly before me: It’s like a village knows more or less how to meet all of its own needs, but there is a moody and capricious dragon in their midst that must be consistently appeased through repetitive, time-consuming, mind-numbing ritual. Time is taken away from sowing fields, from teaching children, from playing games, from commerce, from conversation. Appeasement, managing the basics always to avoid the dragon’s scorch, overrides all other concerns.

I strive to make my views of high-stakes testing clear. My views of these tests became clear the day I saw a Navajo student in Tohatchi, New Mexico, try to answer this question on a state test:

Where are you most likely to see a motorboat?

  1. In the sky
  2. On a lake
  3. On the highway
  4. In a volcano (or something silly)
  5. Again, a silly option

Now most students will recognize what answer the question wants, but this question is not the right answer in Tohatchi. A child in Tohatchi is far, far more likely to see a motorboat go by on the highway en route from Denver to Lake Powell than anywhere else. This test question could never judge achievement; it judges cultural capital. How can the good people of Tohatchi appease this dragon in an ethical manner? Why would they want to, if the fate of their schools and their children did not hang in the balance? My heart goes out to educators working to shape authentic, student centered curriculum as the dragon lurks. At long last, when will we free our children from this abject nonsense and work to solve the actual problems at hand, rather than paper over them with bubble sheets?