The Sorting Hat

The function of a school should play into the manner of feedback provided to students. Grades are shorthand for feedback, but what I think most educators recognize is that grades are more of a communication shorthand between the school and stakeholders like parents or universities. We say grades are a representation of learning, or symbolic of learning achievement, but unless they are differentiated student-by-student, they resemble the Sorting Hat.

In fact, there is great hunger for a Sorting Hat. Doesn’t everyone want to be a Gryffindor, or perhaps, if Type B, a Ravenclaw? We need an accurate sorting tool, and apparently, some people are willing to go 122 questions deep to find the answer.

Conversations about grading today reminded me that if grades are demanded, they should represent individual progress toward personally meaningful and important goals as co-determined between teacher and student, or between teacher-student-family, or between teacher-student-family-community. Grades that follow well-designed rubrics, but that require a fixed mark today miss the point of learning – that it is a journey.

If a student is not mastering content today, it doesn’t mean she won’t tomorrow, or next year. Breaking learning down into manageable chunks is essential and requires expert teaching. Students should ideally be free to explore their interests, but in a negotiated educational community, like public schooling, having fixed marks for successful outcomes is fair.

What is unfair is to decide arbitrarily that today is the day, and your performance today is what will determine your grade label with no recourse for improvement, and that your label will likely correlate to future labels, and that the aggregate of your childhood labels will directly impact your future educational and professional opportunities (class advantage and disadvantage notwithstanding).

Grades suck – this much I have known for some time. Grades are a major warping factor in all facets of school and of learning communities.

If we must have grades, embracing them as signifiers of individual learning rather than as labels to help Princeton discard 9/10 of its applicant pool automatically seems essential. No school has a mission to “Sort the wheat from the chaff, and let the hollow husks of 2.2 GPAs lay rotting in the fields.”

I don’t want to be in the business of judging kids; grades for sorting are just that, even when operated under “best practices”. Grades for individual learning progress opens the door through which to escape the sorting hat.

On Quiet

I just love this piece in today’s Gray Lady. In it, the demands of quiet for thinking are discussed, with some examples – the framers of the US Constitution apparently covered the street in front of Independence Hall with dirt so as not to be disturbed by cart wheels, which differ from this surprise cartwheel.

Noise elicits a physiological response that we cannot control. Noise can be stimulating for an extrovert like me, but is can be an endless jangle to our nerves as well. For focus, nothing beats some quiet. For the past three years, working in a shared office at school, I have been wearing earphones for quiet, which is hilarious and sad. This piece makes it clear that real silence is essential for truly uninterrupted thought.

Additionally, controlling the interruptions of digital technology and all of the noise that surrounds them, real and imagined, is implied and examined in the piece. In our 1 to 1 school, pop-ups and flags are constant interruptions to our students’ concentration, but they will be there for the foreseeable future. I’m glad we now have a silent room in our school for study and work. After a summer of study at Columbia University, I re-experienced silence, and remembered it’s powerful effect on concentration.

Silence. I am a fan.

What Can You Drop Today?

I never seem to lose much weight during the holidays; in fact, I have been known to pad on a few extra pounds, even kilos. When it’s time for resolutions to drop weight, the difficulty begins. When there is so much good, what do I choose to give up?

This is like most institutions or organizations, I’m sure, which layer on Good Ideas like paint. It’s hard to argue against a good idea. Think of student learning! This new process will streamline our processes. This will replace that.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Thanks to Mark Dilworth for the quote

But I have experienced precious little replacing. Instead, we add, add, add, until Good Ideas compete and swirl like currents in an estuary, each contorting the next. Some Good Ideas become Not So Good Ideas. Some Good Ideas become forgotten, obscured, or lost. In the wash, values can shift without our notice.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the power of a Good Idea like Yokohama International School’s “Global Citizen Diploma.” Things to love about this Good Idea include a foundation on digital portfolios, a liberal focus across skills in the outdoors and arts and so on, and service, to name a few. I dare say that any student who completed the demands of this program would be prepared for university success at least.

But this Good Idea also relies on a minimum score in the International Baccalaureate Diploma of 38. I have no question that this works well within the existing structure of this fine school, making the IB and its vagaries like CAS blend into a system that speaks of the school’s values more specifically.

As I imagine what this would look like in my own school, I wonder what Good Ideas that others have worked hard to develop and that members of the community have bought into would have to drop away or suffer a death by starvation? Duke of Edinburgh? Advanced Placement courses? Our cool Mission 10 projects? Our existing service learning structures? The degree to which a new Good Idea integrates into existing structures is important to grasp, as is the impact on those existing structures. So often, one contorts the other, leading to change intended or otherwise.

Perhaps, if the idea is good enough, it can supplant something like the IBDP. This, of course, takes courage and buy-in, but why not? Credentialing organizations beget only further credentials. IBDP > BA/BS > MA/MS > certifications/PhD/specializations. A portfolio of citizenship and engagement in the world should be an easy extension into showing evidence of and reflecting upon progress toward learning goals. Legacy echoes like IB/AP can drop away in favor of a richer learning environment centered on the student.

I may be wrong, but that sounds like a pretty Good Idea.

Conclusion: I Like NPR More Than NPR Likes Me

My biannual losing submission to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction follows. English teachers should write, so I do.

“Timestamp”

Timestamp:::

Hello? Hello. There’s, I don’t know. I’m going to try you again later.

Timestamp:::

I couldn’t – I think I tried you earlier. I’ve just lost track of time. I keep getting this machine. I just wish this was a conversation. It’s – I guess the machine tells you when this is.

Timestamp:::

I’m sorry.

I/

Timestamp:::

Listen: Maybe a story will help put this into perspective. Years ago, I think, we were in Gstaad and the wind came up suddenly. This was winter. Anyway, the wind came up suddenly and although it hadn’t snowed in what seemed like several days, the limbs of trees around our chalet stirred and flooded the air with crystalline glitter. I said the wind came up, but it came down, suddenly, with a rushing sound like a train passing through a local station, but then up again, maybe as cold pressed over warm air and rebounded. When the wind came down, then up, lifting the snow off every light surface, it stalled. Neither of us breathed for I don’t know how long and the air was solid. We were frozen in that moment in cut glass hanging in a windowsill framed in southern light. I don’t know, do you/

Timestamp:::

Look, that wasn’t Gstaad at all, but I think Les Gets or Vevey. Where are you? It’s funny. Not funny, but strange to dictate to you like this. Mediated. What time is it there? Jetlag. Jetlag is like a fat floppy bunny incubating my brain. I guess bunnies don’t incubate anything.

Maybe that actually makes more sense as a description for jetlag with the error about bunnies, but/

Timestamp:::

Your answering machine is demanding. How long is the time window for leaving a/

Timestamp:::

There was another time, maybe you remember, in the Alps, near one of those funny huts with beautiful shutters and boozy coffees in warm wooden rooms, above tree line. So much of the Alps is above tree line. Not like the Rockies, which are much higher, but which line their flanks with lodgepole and spruce. Anyway, the hut. I can’t remember when it was, exactly, but we were climbing on skis near a ridgeline when the snow came. Did I leave this story already? Did I tell you this? Perhaps you remember. Maybe I’d better/

Timestamp:::

I was remembering the alpine hut and snow falling over snow above tree line. The story doesn’t matter. It’s the dislocation of losing all definition. I could see you, clearly, above me. How far? Impossible to know, but I could see you. I couldn’t reach you, but we spoke, wondering – up? Down? Which way was which? We’d pick a few turns down and fall over slowly, simply lost within our inner ears, balance collapsing into itself without external cues. We had only the memory of the ascent to guide us back down, not even very far – 600 meters? But we doubted, slipped and slid, sure of the encroaching moment of weightlessness, when our skis would slip off into whiteness with nothing beneath/

Timestamp:::

I wonder with what voice your machine crows back the time of this call? Female, male, brash, muted? What time is it there? It doesn’t matter. I don’t even know what time it is here.

Timestamp:::

I was recently in the desert. It feels recent. Nighttime shocked with its cold, but the stars pierced the darkness and the Milky Way stretched overhead, at least from here to there, wherever you are, whatever the clock reads in that place.

This is no way to have a conversation.

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.

‘Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy!

In the annals of misunderstandings, maybe my favorite is the “Purple Haze” syndrome. Mishearing lyrics or poetry even has a terminology: mondegreen. I remember, hilariously, a friend making this mistake in real time; so awesome is the memory that I doubt its existence, like snipe hunting or cow tipping, a signifier masking misadventure.

In fact, so pervasive is Purple Haze syndrome, some believe it to be based on fact, even naming their mondegreen websites after the lyric as they ironically explore the possibilities that the whole paradigm of their site is, in fact, bankrupt.

But that’s not what I want to write about.

Sometimes, even when we say what we mean, it gets misheard. Misunderstandings arise as language bubbles through emotional and physical filters like stress and our cochlea. Saying what we mean exactly, then, is essential, especially when we are instructing children or offering feedback.

A student came into my classroom yesterday, venting: “I just don’t know what she wants from me!” What is she hearing? What is being said? There’s almost no way of knowing.

I’m working on condensing a general use  6 Traits rubric to 4  traits based on feedback from my English department. People seem generally happy with it so far, though some colleagues found it too specific. I’ve been processing that, and I believe I have come to an understanding that specificity expresses expectations. An analytic rubric should express expectations for product. As such, an analytic rubric must be specific.

Additionally, being specific demands that we make decisions about what good products or outcomes are. Too often, the hidden curriculum of what a teacher likes or wishes for filters through a rubric, leading to grades in the end. Student gets grades, tries again next time. A solid analytic rubric communicates expectations, ideally in language the student understands and has practice with. The hidden curriculum or expectations will still exist somehow, but the student can be empowered to improve in a creative cycle through solid feedback and reflection based around a good analytic writing rubric, for example.

Even when expectations are clear, the student has to apply them and get to know the expectations personally, through their own writing (or other performance) and through their personally significant mental models. Until then, pieces of a complex rubric will be mini-mondegreens, limiting student learning and agency.

We’ve got to be specific and clear. We’ve got to be repetitive when it matters. We’ve got to engage in cycles of attempts and feedback. And we’ve got to give students experience with the expectations to internalize them meaningfully. Because even when we do, someone is going to hear something differently.

Now, excuse me, while I…

The Tale of My Blankie – from “Gears of My Childhood”

For whatever reason new, first time parents make decisions that seem, in retrospect, hilarious, my parents bought for me a white baby blanket, waffle fabric like old fashioned long underwear with a synthetic silken border. A melange of vomit and other bodily fluids, dirt, foodstuffs of all kinds, pet hair, and Play Dough slowly, almost generationally melded into a gray Earth tone no bleach could penetrate. White was their choice, but experience turned the blanket into the color of a November Ohio sky.

I have no actual memory of the synthetic silken portion of the blanket. According to my parents, I immediately set about tearing it off, so the frayed, soft edges of cotton are what I recall. I’m not surprised I hated the snaggy, slick feel of polyester silk; I hate synthetic fabrics still. Once altered and mine, the blanket became a constant companion and the basis of a narrative that still shapes not only how I learn, but how I interact with the world.

Somehow, the blanket became wedded to an imaginary, invisible friend named “Ghost.” Today, I can see that Ghost allowed me to weaves stories through my daily activities, processing in words and imagining worlds within worlds. When I first read Seymour Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood” essay introducing Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, I thought “Oh, it’s books for me.” Books and stories have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but of course the stories came first – those read to me and invented by me.

Even today, watching my 4 1/2 year old daughter spin stories of play and possibility, I see the power of narrative to hammer experience into something comprehensible. In learning anything, I try, observe, reflect, and revise reflexively. Experience teaches, and narrative contextualizes the teaching intellectually and emotionally, in the way that we feel stories.

As I grew older, the blanket and I curled up on heating grates, couches, into corners, and in bed, endlessly reading. I read early, and continued reading. I’ve never really stopped. Growing up soaked in fiction led to an internalizing of narrative structures, and for better or worse, I recognize narratives unfurling in the world around me as a result. I explain ideas through stories. I see the inner narratives of people around me and their effects. I write stories. I am insufferable at the movies, often identifying the entire plot arc before the ice melts in my Coke and usually explaining my prediction to the groans of my wife.

Like Papert explains in his essay, the affective nature of narratives for me is anchoring and positive. Like Papert, nobody told me to read or love reading; in fact, people often begged me to stop or read less. When I write, I disappear somehow, absorbed. I still love imagining worlds, people, situations, reactions, causes and effects. The love that I have for narratives is engrossing. When I can build a narrative around an experience or through an experience of classroom learning, I succeed. When I can’t, I fail.

Through history, biological sciences, and some mathematics, I connected and made relationships with the subject matter, internalizing, revising, and building interpersonal narratives. When this process failed or was broken for me by teachers, I disconnected from the material intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond school and more importantly for my life today, my early experiences in the outdoors were regular and intense, leading to a very close relationship with the natural world. When I get to choose my leisure activities, they are outdoors or creative, like photography. Through these activities, I dream stories. I sit at night, quietly imagining the next time I run a rapid or snowboard through a tightly wooded glade, visualizing. Outside, I relax and my mind whirs through stories. Inside, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I often drift off to a Colorado mountainside or a Slovenian river.

So why a blanket? Attachment to a material object is an attachment to memory, and my memory is story, image, and a marriage of the two. Imagining a friend based somehow on the blanket is my earliest memory of making stories, constructing narratives. The stories we tell ourselves are the foundation of our identity. I process the world through stories and conceptualize of complex relationships between ideas, objects, and people as narratives. Further, I see narratives in my mind’s eye, experiencing them, feeling them. The blanket is the genetic object behind my relationship to narratives.

Papert claims “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.” My experience as a teacher and a learner supports this claim. I feel lucky to have a diverse and useful set of mental models for learning, but each gets processed reflectively through an internal narrative. From my earliest important material object to my career as an English teacher building literacy and writing skills with children, roots from this genesis of learning through narratives spread broadly, connecting it all into a (mostly) coherent whole.

Interest-Based Learning – Readings & Reflections from “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC

That learning should be interest-based is, to me, obvious; I base the curriculum of several digital journalism courses solely upon students following their interests. Of course, as a teacher, I also do my damnedest daily to wallop kids with material they will not only not approach with interest, but be bored by in large percentages. Such is the lot of the literature teacher in a traditional sense (there’s room for change here, but I’m only scratching the surface).  Still, plenty of stimulation from the readings and videos arose, and my short reflection is here, numbered by question:

  1. What did you find most interesting or surprising in the readings?
  2. What did you disagree with or have questions about?

1. I’ve written about Living and Learning With New Media before here and here. I love it, particularly the “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” heuristic. Providing the time, space, resources, and social opportunities for kids to work together or independently on chasing personal interests and to produce media (in my courses’ cases) based on it is my favorite part of my current job. Blending this heuristic with Mitchel Resnick’s brilliant creative spiral of Imagine Create-Play-Share-Reflect-Imagine provides the foundation for providing supportive learning environments for students to explore their own and shared creative processes.

2. However, what I found surprising, if not totally so, was how hard Joi Ito jumped up and down on school and his experience in it. Almost nobody goes broke in America these days by excoriating school; I also didn’t enjoy most of it, which is why I teach. Still, the degree to which academics beat up K-12 school is disconcerting to me and is a drumbeat that grows particularly tiresome, if not obviously hypocritical. (/soapbox)

1. Of course, as Joi Ito alludes to rightly in his talk, Mimi Ito loved books and structured her learning narrative around them – this works because reading is what school is largely based upon. A learner like Joi is destined to suffer if he is not a bibliophile. As Joi wrote on his blog, education should be more flexible and responsive, particularly by trusting the value of children’s interests – even when they are video games, etc, that stuffy adults almost reflexively distrust. But even as MOOCS start ruling the world, his experience echoes my own, in that as our interests get more and more focused and based on experience, we may also “find [ourselves] increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that [we] need to explore [our] areas of interest.” Finally, I loved “Dubai & Knowing the Unknowable” because it was an excellent explanation of why I have spent so much of my life abroad. Learning has many forms, and most are valuable.

2. The power of pull – I love it. How do we embed literacy instruction and guidance to shepherd younger students toward positive centers of gravity and away from, for example, the pull of Reddit’s found porn communities? I can’t be part of fostering such interests, nor can I value them at all. What is the role of guiding and modeling positive ethics as we offer opportunities for exploration, via messing around and geeking out?

The Slide, or The Problem With Rules

Think of the rule that you never enforce. Maybe it’s hats, or gum in the classroom, or cell phone use in the hallway, or eating outside the cafeteria, or using a black pen on Tuesdays, or whatever. There’s one, the bridge too far. The beginning of The Slide.

In general, I detest rules. It’s congenital. Of course, boundaries are the essence of society, and we must have them. I like setting my expectations at the upper limit, with a few ground floor expectations for consistency’s sake: Respect, Responsibility, Cooperation, Preparation, Engagement. I’m sure that’s a few too many; it could begin and end with Respect.

But the rules. Oh, the rules. At our one-to-one school, there was a laptop-free lunch several years ago. Then, we opened the top floor for the desperate. Then it spread downwards. Now, lunchtime is a battlefield of spell-casters and Gossip Girl-heads strewn prone throughout the campus, slackjawed, staring. Conversation, when it happens, revolves around which demon to slay, which is a step up from TV induced silence. Digital Natives, living in their Brave New World? Not exactly.

Let’s ignore, for now, the students’ free periods. (JOKING)

And there’s food strewn about, and litter, and hats, and halter-tops, and cell-phones, and a bunch of stuff that I don’t enforce regularly, mostly because, you know, come on, right? nobody is, and what a hassle, and are you kidding me? and so on. This is The Slide.

Straight-up – I am a guilty participant in The Slide, the loosening of rules and expectations, and witness first hand the bleeding over of one loosened rule into the transgression of many others. This is the essence of any society or institution: We’ve got to agree on a few boundaries, or the boundary I care most about will be transgressed, just as the ones I don’t care about are transgressed before me.

Schools often have too many rules. Those that we choose should be essential, and five or less in number (probably). We should model said behaviors. This is obvious. However, discarding the rules that we can live without is a foray into a dark barn of sacred cows, lit differently for each student and teacher by culture, background, and values, particularly in an international school. To halt The Slide, though, this is exactly where an institution must go, examining our shared values and laying them on the table for all to see.

Of course, it’s all theoretical for me. I have been nowhere that actually went through an open process of reexamining the detritus of the years, leftover rules and concepts to which some adhere and of which others know nothing at all. I wonder what it’s like. Tough as it may be, hard conversations about priorities and the inevitable give and take seem like a way to reset, or to halt The Slide.