December 30, 2006

UK woman treks alone to South Pole in 39 days

Another amazing story about a solo voyager. (BBC video here). And this trip is not the only one she has done, nor the last:
Miss McKeand has just under a month before her next adventure: sailing from Tasmania to the South Magnetic Pole, off Antarctica, in her 20-metre yacht Blizzard, accompanied by her partner David Pryce, a master mariner.

December 29, 2006

Lots of solitude and responsibility

Gatto writes about the days before compulsory education, and how, to our modern minds incredibly young children were doing amazing things, and how that would not be possible in this day and age when kids have to go to school:
Our official assumptions about the nature of modern childhood are dead wrong. Children allowed to take responsibility and given a serious part in the larger world are always superior to those merely permitted to play and be passive. At the age of twelve, Admiral Farragut got his first command. I was in fifth grade when I learned of this. Had Farragut gone to my school he would have been in seventh. (Gatto)
Well here's a story that proves him not exactly right:
He is not old enough drive a car or buy a drink in a pub. It will be two years before he can get married and four before he can vote. Michael Perham, however, is on the verge of making history: at 14, he is within days of becoming the youngest person to sail across the Atlantic single handed.

Will they also teach for me?

December 22, 2006

Birth in 1940s Britain

The National Childbirth Trust, Europe's largest parents' charity, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in recognition the BBC has created a short but interesting slide show of a couple in their 80s reminiscing about the experience of giving birth in hospital in Britain in the 1940s.


While on the subject of schooling, I came across this article (a speech?) by Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael. Ishmael is a quirky, thought-provoking book about culture and civilization, as viewed from an unusual perspective (a gorilla's, in fact). Hm, back to Animals again.

December 21, 2006

Animal school - school or homeschool?

From TeachingHacks comes a link to a short movie called Animal School. What do you make of it?

It certainly gives food for thought. It tugs at the heart-strings, sure enough, and the music and pictures are beautiful, and perhaps that's what makes me a little suspicious in these suspicious, paranoiac times. It seems to be giving a message that's all too loud and clear. Like an ad for some fancy new technology. In my present state of mind (after reading Gatto, and then this), the only message I take away is take your children out of school and home-school them.

As author Quentin D’Souza mentions, there's an email collection form at the end of the movie.

The movie was made by Raising Small Souls and they've got some feedback which is worth reading.

If you live in Japan, you might be interested in this website which gives info in English about homeschooling in this country.

December 13, 2006

The Japanese Renaissance

The (London) Times Online has a special section today on The Japanese Renaissance, with an interesting collection of articles.

December 10, 2006

Pandora Internet Radio

A friend turned me onto this today. It uses tag technology but not in the usual way where users add tags. It's not social software. You type in a song or artist name, and it searches its database for "other songs and artists that have musical qualities similar to ..." (in my case, to test it, I used John McLaughlin) "because it features jazz fusion elements, a tenor sax solo, an acoustic guitar solo, electric bass playing and electric guitar accompaniment" in other words, elements similar to what they found in their database for John McLaughlin.


But... it only accepts users who can provide a US zip code. Damn.

December 08, 2006

Liberating myself from the how-to-manual mentality

In the foreword to An Unquiet Pedagogy, Paulo Freire wrote:
The beautifully written chapters of An Unquiet Pedagogy demonstrate a profound understanding that practises and experiences can be neither imported nor exported. In essence, Kutz and Roskelly have liberated themselves from the North American culture of how-to manuals.
The minute I read those words, I knew I needed to read this book, and I also suspected that I have not yet liberated myself from the how-to-manual mentality. I read lots of books. I usually have two (at least) in my bag to read on the way to and from work. While I am sick with a cold, I have become more acutely aware of how damn heavy my bag is. What the heck have I got in here? Why do I always need to keep a book or two in there?

I'm not knocking reading, by any means. I'm addicted to learning! I'm stuck in the "I still need more information" mode. The eternal student.

December 04, 2006

Measuring. Don't know what, but I'm measuring

I'm sick with a cold, so I'm not in the best of moods, but I'm coming up, yet again, against a frequent frustration. Normally (when I'm not sick), I can ride over this kind of speed bump and barely notice it, but in my heightened awareness produced by the cold, I cannot let it pass. I've got to COMPLAIN!

In my previous entry, I quoted two students' writing. Both are in the same class, and both were written in response to the same two 20-minute segments of video. They were part of in-class work and I had all students hand them in.

Why did I have them hand them in? Because I've noticed that a few students sleep through most (or part) of the class, and I've felt that's unacceptable so I require them to hand in all work done, so that they will feel there is some consequence.

It's a sad statement, but how much would they do if I didn't require it to be handed in? And it really ticks me off that I have to play this silly little policeman game.

Back to the two samples of writing: what should I do with them? Give the same grade to both? If not, how do I scale them? Do I count the number of sentences (or words?!?) and make that the score? Or do I just check if they've done it or not, so that someone who has written one sentence would get the same "score" as someone who wrote 5 pages of A4? All I really want to do with this is check whether they've done it or not.

I feel they get some benefit from trying to express themselves in English. How much they do is up to them, I'm not prepared to go to whatever lengths might be required to force them to produce a certain amount (I did actually specify a minimum of 5 sentences, but apparently that wasn't clear to the majority).

A further irk is the vocabulary quizzes I give weekly. I do this in the first 10 minutes of class. They mark each others' and write the number of correct answers. It all sounds foolproof, right? But I've noticed some hand in papers which are completely, suspiciously, correct and which have not been marked by anyone else. I suspect such cases are students who came in slightly late (say a few minutes after the test was over). I don't collect the quiz papers straight away, because there is always some classwork writing to be done, and I would prefer everything they do to be on ONE sheet of paper, not 2 (or more).

So, another convolution: to avoid the "problem" of students handing in fake-perfect quizzes, I should collect all the papers right after the quiz? Will that fix the problem?

Obviously, the way to "fix" it, is to collect and mark all the papers myself. And that's what I'm going to do. Honest. It is.

Sheesh! This is driving me nuts! I hate this keeping track of all the bloody work they've done, just for the sake of keeping track of all the bloody work they've done, so that I can justify a numerical score at the end of the term that will give some measure of the quantity (and less hopefully, the quality) they have done.

What is learning and how do you measure it?

Schools are in the business of measuring learning. But what if learning cannot be readily measured in any meaningful way? Obviously, institutions are not likely to let a little thing like that get in their way. Once an institution has been set up, its primary goal, someone wrote, is its own survival and growth, not the mission it was originally set.

Here are two examples of student writing. One was copied down from the board, the other was unscripted writing cued only by watching a segment from the movie Home Alone. Can you tell which is which?

1) "Eye" rhymes with "my". "Eye" and "my" rhyme.

2) Kevin go to shopping. Then he get home on the way, two men pursue after kevin. Two men is thieves. When the night. two men come slyly kevin's house. and his family is bound to be paris, but the home held a party. so the thieves turned back the night.
"so the thieves turned back the night." Poetic, isn't it?

OK, the comparison is not a fair one, but it made me think that there are ways of tricking students into writing well. And that's fine until you ask them to simply produce an unscripted piece of writing. Then you find out what they really can (and can't) do.

After reading nearly 100 pieces like the latter example, I found myself wishing I had not allowed them to write freely, and had instead dictated what they should write. They wouldn't have learned much, but it would have been much easier for me to read! I wonder to what extent (if any) such subconscious longings affect teachers' procedures?

How much of what I ask students to do is genuinely meaningful and most likely to lead to some kind of learning? If I'm feeling bored and cynical after reading this stuff, maybe they felt the same while writing it?

I don't want them to write meaningless stuff. I don't want to assign meaningless assignments. I don't want to read meaningless assignments. Perhaps it is because it is I who assigns the assignments, without consultation? What do you think? Will consultation help create meaningful writing assignments? I suspect if I ask them for their input, I'll get variations on the theme of "You decide: you're the teacher, that's your job. (Our job is just to do what you say.")

I wonder if the following is a signal of cynicism?
The boy stoled a teethbrash.
The boy goes sleeping alone.
This is all he could write after watching two 20-minute segments. The first sentence is supposed to "summarize" the first segment, the second sentence, the second. That's all we get? Two sentences? Ah, but what if he hadn't been feeling so generous?

But I can't really blame him: I didn't ask him if he wanted to watch that (or any) movie; I didn't involve him in the decision in any way. I forced him to watch, then forced him to write about it. Perhaps I should feel lucky I got those two, completely civil, sentences and not a rude finger gesture or a clean pair of heels.

Google Reader popularity booming

First me, then Borderland, then Stephen Downes, then Alan Levine (not directly in that order). Alan Levine's and Borderland's posts tell me stuff about Google Reader I haven't tried yet.

I'm more of a consumer than a producer at the moment, so it takes me a while to understand the benefit of being able to bind feeds together into new ones.

(Thanks to TeachingHacks for the link to Downes, and the post on the A-list blogger image at

December 03, 2006

Freire = Postman + Weingartner?

Came across this definition of literacy, by Stanley Aronowitz in Henry
Giroux's foreword to Literacy by Paulo Freire and Don Macedo. What do you think? Is this the same as Postman and Weingartner's "bullshit
spotter" ability
"Stanley Aronowitz suggests a view of illiteracy as a form of cultural
The real issue for the "functionally" literate is whether they can decode the messages of media culture, counter official interpretations of social, economic, and political reality; whether they feel capable of critically evaluating events, or, indeed, of intervening in them. If we understand literacy as the ability of individuals and groups to locate themselves in history, to see themselves as social actors able to debate their collective futures, then the key obstacle to literacy is the sweeping privatization and pessimism that has come to pervade public life."

I'm trying to re-think my teaching goals: what are the problems, exactly, as I see them? Because my teaching goals are starting to become aimed at the problems that I see, rather than on specific linguistic abilities:
a) because I feel that learning is natural, and therefore if it isn't happening it may well be because of artificial blocks created (basically, what Holt said in How Children Fail, that children learn the game of school is not so much to learn but to get the right answer);
b) therefore my job should be mostly focussed on removing the blocks, rather than "teaching" (in the sense of transmitting information or training skills)
c) because, especially learning a language, a lot of the learning is noticing things (patterns of grammar, of lexis, of pronunciation, e.g. "student" is like "studio" in pronunciation; "blue" rhymes with "too" even tho they're spelled differently; "if 'carol' means a Christmas song, then 'caroling' which looks like a verb must mean..."), and the noticing happens on an personal level. Just because the teacher points something out doesn't mean that students will 'notice' it or learn from it. (SLA professionals who are familiar with Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development" theory did some interesting work on error-correction in Foreign Language Learning, and discovered from listening to recordings of students talking to each other while working on a problem, that even if one person points something out to the other, if the thing being pointed out is outside that person's "ZPD", it just doesn't register, either in the sense that the other makes some kind of acknowledgement or in the sense that it affects the other's actual language production. So there!).

What are the problems that you see?
What are your teaching goals (both for yourself and for your students)?

Problems that I see:
- lack of self-confidence in themselves as learners

- lack of a "voice" in their own learning ("check your personal history and feelings and knowledge at the door of the classroom; you don't know nothing and what you DO know isn't worth anything in here; only the "official" (teacher's/textbook's) knowledge has validity; THAT is what must be ingested and 'learned'")

- the positivist attitude towards classroom knowledge (see above: if "learning" means absorbing / memorizing/ remembering the "official knowledge", then obviously there's no need for students to debate, discuss, question or otherwise interact with the knowledge, just learn it) ("Positivism is the most evolved stage of society in anthropological Evolutionism, the point where science and rational explanation for scientific phenomena develops. Marxism and predictive dialectics is a highly positivist system of theory. However Marxism rejects positivism and views it as subjective idealism, because it limits itself only to facts and does not examine the underlying causes of things." - from Wikipedia)

- the lack of initiative (see above and above that: if there is no need for students to interact with knowledge (which belief is based on ignorance of the fact that only thru interaction/dialogue can real, deep, meaningful learning take place) then there is also no need for students to think for themselves; in fact, it's dangerous. Just as official knowledge requires no questioning, then neither does the actions of the teacher, and the teacher must therefore not only transmit the knowledge but also explicitly tell students what they must do with it. Hence, after receiving their handouts, students will just sit there, waiting to be told what to do with this (the Chinese students are different, tho; they don't wait: they see a worksheet with blanks, they start filling them out!))

- lack of communication/feedback: lack of initiative means also lack of response (there's no need for it; all they have to do is listen and learn/remember), which makes a Western (someone from an individualist country) teacher's job problematic: a Socratic approach becomes almost impossible. This lack of response (a 1995 JALT article was entitled "Answer! Please answer!") pressures the teacher into a "sage on the stage" approach, even if she/he doesn't want to and doesn't believe in that;

- little or no sense of their peers as people they can learn from, or of themselves as people who have something to teach others (that's not possible; remember, they're in school to learn the OFFICIAL KNOWLEDGE as purveyed by the OFFICIAL TRANSMITTER)

- lack of good study skills (pretty much summed up by the above): they might include many of the ones listed in Mosaic of Thought as the habits of effective readers.

If my perception is accurate (a big "if", which I need to bear in mind), even partially, then it's unlikely that much meaningful learning will take place in the classroom, however well prepared the teacher is, and however "good" the material is.

Trying to "teach" without addressing the above issues seems to me to promise nothing but boredom and frustration, for both teachers and students.

Looking back over my list, I notice the word "lack" appears several times: I need to be careful that I don't fall into the trap of the "deficit" model of learning, i.e. students "lack" all these things, therefore my job as teacher is to FILL UP this deficit. That's just falling into the same old trap: teacher knows best, and it's the teacher's job to teach; the student is a tabula rasa on which the teacher writes (cf Freire's "banking" concept of education)

(related resources:
- Disempowerment, Bullying, and School Non-Attendance: A Hypothesis

by Yoneyama Shaoko

- Education, Apathy and Post-Meritocracy

by Brian McVeigh

- nnotated A Bibliography of Books on Education in Japan

- Korst, T. (1997). Answer, please answer! A perspective on Japanese university students' silent response to questions. The JALT Journal, 19, 279-91.

Daily Kos diarists on World AIDS Day

Just found this today, a couple of days late, but better than never.

November 30, 2006

Difficult questions

JH's comment gives me food for thought. Herndon's books have inspired me to take another look at what I'm aiming for in my autonomy class and why. On the other hand, it's also a can of worms - opening up some issues I'd rather not think about because they complicate the picture.

Herndon did not believe in maintaining order in the classroom for the sake of maintaining order. He apparently wasn't like most people who simply feel more or less uneasy when faced with a number of younger people who either don't follow orders or don't behave as expected. Herndon wrote about his ability to wait, to give young people (and himself) room to grow and develop on their own, not a reaction to what an adult is doing to them, nor something they are coerced into.

However, JH's comment raises more questions: what if imposing order isn't just for its own sake but vital for the safety of the students themselves or the teacher him/herself? What if, by not imposing order and allowing the students to "walk all over you", you thereby demean yourself in your own and in students' estimation? Possibly jeopardizing your job, or at the very least making your own job much more difficult? Why did JH feel forced into a type of teaching he did not believe in? Is this inevitable? Is it OK for a teacher to teach in a way he or she believes is right even though it may not be to the students' advantage? What does JH mean by "best for the circumstances"? Am I prepared to teach in a way I do not believe in if the circumstances demand it (e.g. if the administration or students themselves were to insist on it)? What if a particular way of teaching, say a Socratic approach, irritates the majority of students (at least initially)? If the teacher is aiming at the students' growth in the long term, is he/she justified in pursuing this approach in the face of student resistance? And to present the other side of that coin, is an approach justified if the students are perfectly satisfied with it, even though they may not be learning very much? (I remember a study was done on these lines once, which demonstrated that a language school run on certain principles was very popular amongst students, even though a variety of test scores showed very few students learnt anything meaningful or made any significant linguistic progress there.)

World Aids Day today, December 1st

Upperdate: I'm building up a list of resources on HIV/AIDS for TEFL teachers, particularly those in Japan/Asia (I'm obviously open to ESL AIDS resources, too). If you know any good sites, or want to join the wiki (or know of a good wiki that's already been started on this), please leave it in a comment below, or email me directly.

Update: Mercy Corp has a good website on HIV/AIDS initiatives around the world.
And Barbara points me to the UK Oxfam website, which includes a video of Annie Lennox lending her support to the initiative.
Here's series of pages created by and for middle school students in the US. (The English is roughly intermediate/upper-intermediate level.)

UNICEF UK has a good page of resources for teachers, including this page on teaching controversial issues.

According to this table, the infection rate in the US is 0.6% of the population (2003 estimate) (rank #69), that in the UK is 0.2 % (2001 estimate) (rank #93), in China 0.1% (2003 estimate) same as Japan (rank #126), and in Japan 0.1% (2003 estimate) (rank #148).

World Aids Day - December 1st. Find out more on Wikipedia, the World Aids Campaign, or
Check out this 8-minute video: Stop Aids - what will you do?

November 29, 2006

Herndon's definition of institutions, or why you shouldn't save your money in the bank

In Herndon's How to Survive in Your Native Land, which Borderland reminded me to read, he defines institutions as places to do things "Where Those Things Shall Not Be Done", and gives an example of a savings bank: "you want to save money? Stash your bread under the mattress! Bury it in the back yard! **** you!"

I roared. How absurd. Of course you can save money in a savings bank.

Then I get a letter from my bank today: "From 1 January 2007, we will require all our customers to maintain a relationship with us of at least 25,000 or currency equivalent.... If your minimum 'relationship balance' is not maintained then, in order to cover the costs of servicing and administering your account, a 20 pound (or currency equivalent) monthly service charge will be deducted from your account."

Just 6 months previously, they had introduced this new service charge, levied on any account with less than 3,000 pounds in it. Then 6 months later, the bar is raised to 25,000...

My first thought was, I'd be better off withdrawing my funds, closing my account, and stashing my measly hoard under the mattress. Then I remembered Herndon's words...

November 21, 2006

Freedom versus autonomy

I just finished reading Herndon's The Way It Spozed To Be, and it has given me pause for thought.

About half-way thru the book, I summed up Herndon's approach to myself like this: "teaching as therapy". Therapy for the students, therapy for the teacher, a way to "work things out of one's system". Herndon's approach is exceedingly hands-off because he feels that students need to work things out themselves.
I looked up and watched 9D organizing itself. It's really almost impossible for adults, and no doubt especially for adult teachers, to see anything "constructive" going on in a bunch of kids shouting at each other. All the adults can see is just that: kids, all bunced together, yelling at each other. You can't believe they are doing it for anything you'd call a purpose; they are simply creating a problem... The adults also can't imagine that this problem is going to cease to exist unless they, the adults, make it cease. They feel that unless they issue orders and directions and threats, the kids will never stop making noise, never stop yelling, never get organized.

This feeling is wrong. The adults are wrong... because almost no one can stand to wait around long enough without doing anything, so that they can see what all the shouting is about, or what might happen when it eventually is over. They can't stand to, and so they never find out. Never finding out, they assume that there was nothing there... There they were, about fifteen or so kids all in a cluster, standing, shouting at each other... a hundred demands, questions, orders, all at once... But the fact is this outcry was orderly in intent and in effect, for in about four or five minutes it was all over, readers were sitting down, they had books, the audience was getting ready to listen. I doubt very much if 9D could have been organized to read a play in five minutes, even by an experienced teacher with a machine gun.
Self-regulation, that's what Herndon is aiming at, tho he never uses the word once in the book.

The thing is, Herndon is not afraid to stick to his guns and to see it out, where many teachers (like me) might dabble but then get cold feet when things start to get serious. This points to a difference in attitude and fundamental belief about the nature and purpose of human nature and human existence between Herndon and the school's administrators.

Here's Herndon listening to the vice-principal's lecture for the teachers on the first day:
In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must first be order... She didn't do much smiling. She had a job to do... and if she seemed to look us over speculatively it was probably to wonder which of us was going to understand. Which would be able to help - who might hinder? It never occurred to her, I think, that someone might not choose to act the way she thought correct; if some of us didn't do so, it was because we couldn't understand. At least, that's the way I came to think later on in the year. At the time, I wasn't very interested... My lack of interest wasn't simply naive, at least not in the way which springs immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive eduator who imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice, friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn't doubt that there might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I just didn't see that this constituted a "problem" any more than a quiet, studious class was a "problem".... But what administrations mean when they say "problem" is something which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of course, or it wouldn't be a "problem", but which isn't supposed to happen. A problem. You were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its nonexistence. Noise, quiet. I simply wasn't making any plans to promote one and forestall the other.
Herndon sums up his approach:
you do what you want to do or can in a classroom, and then you see the result, or something of the result, and then you deal with that as you want to or can. One result isn't really much better than another, as far as you can tell.
Herndon faces his first class:
After the roll call, I wasn't quite sure what to do. I had nothing in particular planned, but had counted on the class to give me a hint.
Whoah! Unthinkable! What kind of loon is this? You're the teacher, you're supposed to be the man with the plan.

I can't find the exact quote now, but somewhere in the book he writes about students working stuff out of their systems, implying that what he's trying to do is give them room and time to do this, hoping that they will eventually discover a self-discipline, an order from within themselves, not one imposed from outside. Herndon gets lots of predictable advice from his colleagues:
My problem was not what to use but how to get the kids to respond in such a way that they learned something... the other kind of advice, which was also the most common and which was useless to me... was a conglomeration of dodges, tricks, gimmicks to get the kids to do what they were spozed to do, that is, whatever the teacher had in mind for them to do.
This last distinction is an important one for Herndon, I feel. Think about it. Is there a difference, or is Herndon just splitting liberal hairs?
It really involved a kind of gerrymandering of the group - promises, favors, warnings, threats, letting you pass out or not pass out paper, sit in a certain place or not, A's, plusses, stars... The purpose of all these methods was to get and keep an aspect of order, which was reasonable enough, I suppose. But the purpose of this order was supposed to be "so that learning could take place." So everyone said - not wanting to be guilty of the authoritarian predilection for order for its own sake - while at the same time admitting that most of the kids weren't learning anything this way.
Herndon spends much of his time (and the book) focussed on his own classes and students, and pretty much ignoring what everyone else is doing. However, at one stage he starts to get hints that he is being observed and judged, and that those judgements are not favourable. Inevitably, Herndon gets fired.

(to be continued)

Sleeping with the enemy, or the pit and the pendulum

After years of reading books such as How Children Fail, Summerhill, Dumbing Us Down, etc., it was a bit of a shock to read JD Hirsch. Hirsch describes the many "student-centred", "project-based", "hands-on/experiential" etc, etc, approaches to education: "Great! I'm all for it!.." then throws a bucket of freezing water over you: "If only they worked!"

If I remember right, Hirsch bases his judgement on exam and test scores as well as anecdotes from parents and teachers. I don't know enough to argue about the test scores, but I remember recalling the students in my class who were just sitting around, or goofing off, and the comments after a 14-week term: "I didn't understand what I was supposed to do".

I basically said, "OK, enough of that. Back to some good ol' from-the-front-of-the-room, positivistic, no-arguments teaching (coz
that's obviously what everybody wants, other faculty staff, students, and administrators)." It was a matter of regaining my self-respect. I also felt I was in danger of losing the respect of students, indeed, may have lost it already.

I didn't swing around completely to Hirsch's point of view, but his book (and Melanie Phillips') combined with uneasy memories of my classes to prompt me to do some serious soul-searching.

It certainly burst my "romantic" bubble, and that is a Good Thing.

Lisa Delpit's book added to my critical awareness: she describes the discourse styles of white teachers versus black teachers, and how the white teachers' style doesn't fit well with what black children are used to or expect. The black teachers are more likely to lay down the law and be "tough", and the black children seem to prefer this, according to Delpit and the people she quotes.

Maybe it was just time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, but I was pleasantly surprised to read this exchange between a white teacher (of black children) and a black teacher of the same children in James Herndon's The Way It Spozed To Be.

Herndon had to take an unscheduled month off from work, and a substitute teacher (Mrs. A.) replaced him. Here, Herndon returns to his class after a month's absence:
9D... greeted me with an indignant and sincere-sounding outcry. Mrs. A was a better teacher than I, she was a real teacher, I wasn't no real teacher, she really made them work, not just have them old discussions every day; no, man, they were learning spelling and sentences and all they was spozed to. Moreover she was strict and didn't allow fooling around - all in all they felt they'd been really getting somewhere. I looked in my grade book, up to now pretty empty of marks, and saw, sure enough, a whole string of grades after each name - mostly, however, F's and zeroes. Many of them had nothing but zeroes, which I took to mean they had been busy not-doing this important work. I pointed this out to the class, but it didn't matter. They had been back on familiar ground; strict teacher, no fooling around, no smart-off, no discussions about how bad school was, and plenty of work. That was, after all, what school was and they were in favor of it.

7H was in a similar temper. They too had tales of plenty of real work, strict discipline, no talking, no gum, reading aloud every day, everybody - and then they came out with a long list of all of them who had been sent to the office for talking or chewing gum or refusing to read or laughing or getting mad at the teacher. Mrs. A gave them work on the board every day, they screamed, and she made them keep a notebook with all this work in and they were spozed to bring it every day to work in and get graded on it. That was what real teachers did, they told me. I asked to see some of the notebooks; naturally no one had one. What about that? I asked. No use. She made us keep them notebooks, they all shouted. The fact that no one had kept or was keeping them notebooks didn't enter into it....

In my free period that first day back I conferred with Mrs. A, who was sticking around to let me know what she'd been doing... She told me, although not in so many words, that my classes had been a mess when she took over, that she considered them well on their way to straightening up after a month with her, and that it was now up to me to keep them that way. She got this across to me very nicely in the kind but firm manner some people have with training animals...

It was important, she said, to get them into the proper mood for schoolwork as soon as they entered the room. In particular, avoid beginning the period by talking to them, explaining, or lecturing, which they would not listen to and which only encouraged them to start talking themselves....

The best method for getting them in order was to have a paragraph written out on the board when they entered, and get them in the habit of copying this paragraph in their notebooks immediately they sat down, giving them a time limit for its completion, erasing the paragraph when the time was up, and grading the notebooks frequently. Copying was something they could all do without further explanation from me; it got them in the mood for schoolwork, quiet, their materials ready, all set for the day's lesson, whatever it was.
Then Herndon dumps that bucket of anti-Hersch freezing water:
I didn't have a lot to say to this advice. In the face of the nonexistent notebooks and the unused or all-wrong spellers, the list of those trooping down to the office for misbehavior, I couldn't see that the regimen had been a great success. In any case, the advice wasn't new... Perhaps after a year or so of this it might work; I didn't think so, but it didn't matter either. I knew damn well that they'd been getting this treatment for the past six years, that during that this time they'd learned practically nothing about the "skills" this type of order was spozed to produce - no adverbs, not how to spell, no punctuation, not adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing; many hadn't even learned how to read. I couldn't see my way had been a great success either - in fact, I didn't know what my way was - but the other was a failure and was going to be a failure.
Herndon's book is a fun read, but it's also disturbing in a, well, disturbing kinda way: Herndon seems to be suggesting that his experience of teaching is that "teaching" is "spozed" to be mainly about control of kids, even if they don't learn anything. The disturbing thing is that Mrs A's arguments and suggestions sound so familiar, so reasonable, and so seductive. Who would argue against such a pedagogy? In fact, according to Herndon's account anyway, he was fired basically because he refused to take on the same values as the school (that keeping order is paramount).

So I'm back face-to-face with a familiar question: am I teaching or merely trying to keep order, believing that keeping order equals teaching (and therefore learning)? Were my uneasiness and guilt a few months ago merely the withdrawal symptoms of not trying to impose order? And if I am merely trying to keep order, instead of teaching, will I be able to recognize it? How can I tell?

November 14, 2006

Creative use of vlogging

Aaron, the Teacher in Development, points me to think:lab, in particular to a post about creative uses of vlogging for students. Check out the videos.

The Japanese High School

Upperdate: the London Times even has taken up the story. Hat tip to Trans-Pacifica Radio for the link. Japan Probe also has more.
This quote is particularly disturbing:
...said Yukiko Nishihara, who runs a suicide prevention centre in Tokyo."We have fewer phone calls from children. They think there is no point of consulting the adults about their troubles."
The London Times article puts a slightly different slant on the problem: the article focuses on the anonymous letters sent to the Education Ministry, and asks
Are the letters genuine cries for help or mischievous hoaxes? Is the publicity saving lives, or encouraging copycat suicides? And when is the daily tally of deaths going to stop? In schools across the country the atmosphere is close to hysteria.

My 17-year-old son's initial response to the spate of suicides was that the media are making too much of it. Perhaps he feels the media frenzy might encourage suicides or copycat letters and hoaxes.

The Times article quotes some of the anonymous letters, and the quotes make it clear that suicide is a strong and clear message of blame. In Japan, which has a tradition of suicide as an honourable act, and where direct confrontation is pretty much taboo, a suicide can be a final attempt to bring the guilty party to realize the true and awful extent and effect of their aggression or thoughtless behaviour, and leave them with the heavy (so hope the victims) responsibility of the suicide's death for the rest of their lives. Talk about guilt-tripping!

In a slightly different context (quitting jobs), some older Japanese have expressed to me their surprise and a degree of contempt for younger Japanese who quit jobs at the first spot of trouble (a disagreement with a colleague or some harsh words from a superior). One of my students has stopped coming to school pretty much altogether, A call to his mother revealed that he has been upset about something that one teacher said to me, but it isn't clear which teacher, or what was said, or indeed if that is the (main) reason for the young man to pretty much quit school this semester. What he said to me was that he had some psychological difficulty, which I took to mean a problem relating to someone or some people ("problems with human relations" must rank as the #1 headache for the majority of people in Japan).

Update: In case anyone thinks bullying and silence are unique to Japan, read this BBC article on the subject. And Anti-Bullying Week starts next week (November 20th) in the UK, sponsored in part by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

I just finished reading the 2001 book The Japanese High School by Japanese sociologist Shoko Yoneyama, who was a Featured Speaker at JALT's National Convention (I was unfortunately unable to attend her talk).

It's particularly topical in the sad light of the tragic spate of suicides among high school (junior and senior) students in Japan.

It's one of the best books in English on the subject to date. It has a tendency towards uncritical sympathy towards the victims (which is understandable; some of the stories are just horrific), and although the book uses data comparing Japanese with Australian high schools, the focus is very much on Japan. The book mentions the dominant discourses on "school refusers" (toukou-kyohi登校拒否), but does not give voice to the large number who pass through Japanese high school not only unscathed but with positive experiences.

That said, I think her analysis as to why nothing significant ever gets done about bullying in schools is pretty close the mark: because school culture itself is deeply implicated in this kind of behaviour. Yoneyama quotes a high school student who wrote in an essay on how to stop "ijime" (which Yoneyama distinguishes from bullying in that Japanese ijime is almost always group bullying): "As long as not everyone is all the same, ijime will never be stamped out." She states that school bullying is over-conformism, and thus teachers and schools generally are implicated.

The book deals with bullying, school refusers, and the "culture" of resistance and silence in Japanese high schools. Yoneyama includes a wealth of anecdotal material translated from the Japanese press, academic articles, and books and articles written by high school students themselves. Indeed her main motivation for writing the book was to give students a voice.

Despite being 5 years old, the book is still very topical. She predicts that the trend of increased numbers of bullying cases and decreased visibility (i.e. bullying will continue, intensified, underground) seems chillingly borne out by recent events.

Simple English Wikipedia

The scary-sounding Infinite Thinking Machine told me about the Wikipedia written in easy English. Of potential interest to EFL/ESL teachers and students.

November 08, 2006

Online courses from Harvard Graduate School of Education

Graduate school of Education at Harvard offers online courses on a number of interesting topics each year for 6 weeks starting in February. Two years ago I took a course in Multiple Intelligence Theory and its application in the classroom. The course was well done.

October 27, 2006

Suppressed voices, or just being polite?

Renata followed this up with an email. In response to my
these kids have been trained NOT to think, and NOT to rely on their own resources, to NOT trust themselves, to NOT believe in the value of their own experience or point of view - their "voice", in short.

Renata responds,
Now I won't agree there. Just they have been trained to not put it out in the classroom, which is a group of forty people, where too much personal brou ha ha can slow the agenda, which particularly at high school is entrance examinations…so like they separate the TPO to express their thoughts. That is to say, they just don’t let it all show in the classroom, in my experience. (Elementary school is quite creative and interesting, training independent opinions and the like). I've been working with a mix of Japanese and foreigners in the peace education certificate, and I see the foreigners can hijack the agenda with their verbosity (me too, arggghhh), whereas the Japanese are more able to sit and listen for longer stretches and figure out independently and ask questions after class if it’s not cleared up…if the Japanese system kills belief in own voice, as you say, how come there are so many wonderful and varied voices in a group of adult Japanese people when you get together to chat…

I agree. Japanese group dynamics mean that you really don't want to stick your neck out in a large group, because as they say the nail that sticks out gets hammered. But that doesn't explain the "stupid" behaviour in class which I described here and here. I'm not trying to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese population, I'm trying to understand what is going in my classroom, which is where I work. It's all very well to say Japanese are quite vocal, creative and forthcoming in informal settings with people they feel comfortable with (that's probably true of just about anybody, too); the logical extension of that is to abandon the classroom and classes and work with people in informal groups, which is certainly not a bad idea, and one that has been developed by at least 2 EFL materials developers.

I KNOW they are creative and intelligent. And I'm NOT asking them to show it all off in front of everyone. I'll illustrate with an actual example. In my classes, students work in groups of 2-4, with a text and CD, at their own pace. I wander around sticking my nose and giving advice, making corrections (pronunciation usually). I come to one group of 3 girls, 2 of whom are practising a dialogue. The third mutters "I don't get it, I don't get it." I ask her what she doesn't get, but she can't tell me. She can't (or won't) identify what it is that is her stumbling block. She won't give me any help to help her. I suggest we go thru the dialogue and check her understanding, line by line. This way, we identify the problem: "as far as". She's with 2 other girls, and this group's been working together for months. She doesn't ask her friends what the phrase means, or ask to borrow their dictionaries (she doesn't have her own, surprise surprise). All the students in this class signed up voluntarily, even knowing that it would be harder than the regular class, and they all RE-signed up again in the second semester, too (even tho they could drop out).

Then I stay and listen as she practises the dialogue with a partner (I even had to prod her to do this, to move onto speaking after listening and writing). She seems to have trouble even remembering very short phrases. She often seems about to give up. She obviously has little confidence in herself, and this isn't about not wanting to "stick out" because both her partners are quicker and more fluent than she is. Maybe she's just not that interested in learning English, but if that's the case, why sign up for my class? Why tell me "I don't get it" when I come near? That's obviously a request for help.

I give her as much encouragement (stick and carrot) as I can, but I can't shake this feeling that she's either playing stupid, or she's exhibiting behaviour which she thinks/feels is normal or required for class but which involves making herself more stupid than she really is. And most of the other students are not that way (or at least, not as bad!

Being creative vs creating knowledge

In response to an earlier post, Renata left a comment and followed up with an email, both of which helped me to clarify my thinking:
I've been here twenty years, but I really don't see how you can call this culture any less creative than any other. All the art from the impressionists were copying Japan, makers of bone china got their inspiration from Imari pottery, Haiku inspired poets to make cinquains and diamantes and discover shape on the page...let's face it, there is as much freedom where you are as you take.

I wasn't referring to the ability to be creative so much as the nature of schooling and of the experience of school. Nor was I writing about how students might be outside of class. I was referring to the concepts of an education that merely requires students to reproduce knowledge ("you tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, you tell 'em, then you tell 'em what you told 'em, then you test 'em to see if they can tell you what you told 'em"), rather than create new knowledge. It has nothing to do with how creative people may or may not be, but rather what they are expected and allowed to do within the context of schools and classrooms.

Renata adds:
I think the newspaper is feeding on a national myth of free America...sometimes you go half way across the globe to catch up with yourself, but it's not so much about where you land as what you bring with you...and not having family around when you're abroad helps sometimes...the US is full of restrictions and patterns you have to fit into without realizing as much as any country.

I'd agree there. Certainly there are common myths about the US, much of which are simply "the-grass-is-greener" syndrome.
I was listening to a young lady artist (singer, forget the name, on the telly) who said she had this idea of freedom in the US and came in for a rude shock when they told her to make grades or go home, that she had to study AND dance, not just dance, and that she had underestimated the severity of US culture (it's a puritan society, after all).

Yes, Japanese are "amae". This year I have a handful of Chinese students in a class of 20 Japanese; the English ability of these Chinese students is all over the place, but in terms of hard work, enthusiasm and initiative, they simply wipe the floor. In the end of term listening test I gave, one of the Japanese students noticed the Chinese students taking notes (shock horror!). The Japanese student was so incensed by this "cheating" that he/she lost all interest in taking the test. The Chinese students will make notes of vocab they don't know, then will either ask me as I walk around the classroom, or look it up on their electronic dictionaries. If they don't have one, they'll ask/borrow from someone who does. By contrast, very few of the Japanese students do this: they seem to be waiting for me to tell them what the words mean, or perhaps just waiting for me to tell them to look up the words they don't know. It's pretty disheartening, to be honest!

Renata's comment reminded me of how I felt when I took a group of Japanese students to the UK for a month's study. The British EFL teachers were pretty frank and scathing in their opinion of the Japanese students' English and general attitudes. It was a wake-up call, like someone opening a window and letting in fresh air into a dull, overheated room. I had become so accustomed to the atmosphere, I no longer felt it odd.

Yet I have found it impossible to maintain a "tough" attitude, and little by little, laxness returns to the norm. Thanks for the reminder, Renata.

October 26, 2006

"They don't hear anything you're saying"

Doug Noon has been visiting my classrooms, unbeknownst to me, and wrote about them:
The achievers are great at following directions, and they remember everything you say, even if they don’t know what you mean, and they figure it out after a while. The kids who didn’t know what you were talking about to begin with just copy what you’re doing, and they don’t hear anything you’re saying.

I'm still having trouble with students failing to follow simple instructions, or not doing things they're not told to do but which to my mind are common sense: e.g. if you create a blog, you should remember the URL and your login and password or at least make a note of these, because you'll be wanting to go back to your blog and post there at some future date. I've had students create their blog, then be completely unable to find it again! It must be "you'll be wanting to return to your blog at some future date" part that's pure assumption on my part. After all, I didn't say remember your blog's URL.

A friend who's smarter than I am, made the following suggestion:
I always pass out a sheet of paper with blanks for students to write down their URLs and passwords for Wordpress, Moodle, and Flickr. I try to encourage them to use the same combos for all three and to write it down in another place as well, including making a digital copy to place on their hard drives.

To which I responded,
Why (oh why?) do I assume that they will realize they need to figure out their own way to remember these names and then do something about it? They never do!! Is this yet another example of how schools make people stupid?

I created a powerpoint presentation made up mostly of screenshots showing how to subscribe to a blog using bloglines. Of course, my presentation was a model of clear communication, and yet unbelievabley some students had problems with it! The problem (snark aside) was not so much they didn't understand the instructions, as I discovered when I went around the room (someone recently playfully suggested that the mark of a good IT teacher is how far they walk during class! Are they wandering around helping out, or are they behind their screen, checking their email?).

The problem was ... well, perhaps you can tell me! Here's what happened in one case which was, while not typical, not uncommon either.

Slide #2 says "go to". Clicking on the URL in the powerpoint slide has no effect (something I hadn't considered). I wonder what the kid will do so I wait and watch. Mad clicking and rattling the mouse! Then he turns to me and says "It doesn't work!" Resisting the urge to tell him "Well done!" dripping with sarcasm, I ask him how he might solve this problem. He immediately opens a new browser window. I'm mildly surprised that he didn't do this straight away but instead turned to me, and I'm already wondering why. Meanwhile, he's got the new window open and he's clicking around on the menu bar, on the "back" button, and other places, randomly without any order or method or even purpose that I can see. I ask him what he's doing, or rather what he is (supposed to be) trying to do. He looks at me blankly. I suddenly recall myself earlier that morning, moving purposefully and quickly from my bedroom to the kitchen, only to pause when I got there and wonder what it was I came here, so urgently and purposefully, to do. But I've got an excuse: I'm 50! This kid isn't even 20 yet (so still a kid in Japanese law)!

Feeling that it would be fun to tease this kid, but realizing I don't have all day, I remind him that the other window is a presentation slide which has instructions on it; perhaps we could take another peek at it, it might give us a hint as to what to do next. Mr Diplomacy, that's me.

This pattern is repeated: every few minutes I will have to remind the kid that he is supposedly working on a task, and the instructions for it are on the slides. I have to remind him, because he's out there clicking his mouse, opening new windows and closing them, clicking in bookmarks and etc at blinding speed. What is going on? Is it a short-term memory problem? He doesn't seem to be messing with me (I don't think he's that bright). He eventually finishes the task, but I'm already imagining (or trying to imagine) this kid in full-time employment in 4 years' time, driving a training instructor to distraction.

My pop-psychology analysis is that, this boy, and others like him, have learned not to trust their own instincts because they are usually "wrong". They must, instead, follow directions, even if it means not understanding the why's and wherefore's.

I am reminded of the children that John Holt writes about, the ones who randomly yet frantically shout out (im)possible answers to a question he has asked; instead of trying to reason it out, using the knowledge he knows they have, they seem (to Holt) to be sucked into a game of "getting the right answer". Instead of quiet confidence, he saw fear in their eyes, and that disturbed him enough to write about it, and investigate where that came from.

Is that what I'm witnessing, too? Is it fear that has distorted these kids' ability to learn, so that they act stupid?

October 21, 2006

Lucky Man - a hero

I've been a fan of Michael J. Fox's work as an actor since the first Back to the Future movie (it's a family favourite), but my interest grew into stunned admiration when I read Lucky Man, Fox's memoir which tells his life story especially the part after he developed Parkinson's. So I had to watch this political ad he made recently; tho I'm not into politics (this is really an ad for stem-cell research funding which is the most promising line of research for finding a cure for Parkinson's and several other diseases), and although, as Josh Marshall writes, it's "hard to watch".

Connectivism re-re-visited

In this post I wrote, concerning my use of in-class surveys:
The kids seem happy to go along with this, although they evince very little interest in each other's lives, and certainly don't see each other as potential teachers.

I was reminded of the truth of this, and of the connection with blogging the other day when I was (briefly) telling a friend about blogs and blogging and why I (and a lot of other people) found it so interesting. I told her about comments and how conversations can grow and blossom, and interconnections are made. She understood this well. I then told her of some of the difficulties I'd encountered in introducing students to blogging. One difficulty seems to be that students are not familiar with the idea that they can learn from each other. I have students practice in pairs or small groups a lot, and I encounter resistance to this from students. "I paid good money to learn from YOU!" they seem to be saying (some people think so loud you can hear them). "Why you force me to talk to my Japanese classmate who speaks even WORSE English than me?! I won't learn anything that way!! Do you really know what you're doing?"

They seem unfamiliar with the ideas that knowledge is constructed, that meaning does not reside in words, or that learning is a social activity. They don't see their classmates as potential teachers.

"It cuts both ways," my friend said; "it means they also probably don't see themselves as having anything to teach their classmates."

A light went on in my head at those words.

October 17, 2006

Constructivism - creating vs reproducing

There's been an interesting conversation about constructivism over at Doug's place.

Recently while re-reading some Paulo Freire, one of the concepts hit home with me: the idea that dominant cultural groups impose a pedagogy of "reproduction" rather than "creation": students are encouraged or forced to merely reproduce knowledge rather than create new knowledge, which helps maintain the status quo.

This has inspired me to re-evaluate my own teaching, and to try and find more ways to emphasize the creation of new knowledge. I feel this is particularly important in the culture where I live and work, because Japan has a long, hard tradition (especially in the arts) of reproduction. A friend recently sent me this NYTimes article (you'll need to register, but it's free) about ex-patriate Japanese in New York; the article gives a good sense of the oppressiveness of this culture:

As a Japanese version of slackers, such young people
are often derided at home as selfish for drifting
through part-time jobs or trying to develop talents in
the arts — photography, music, painting, dance —
rather than contributing to society by joining a
corporation or marrying and having babies. The
pressure can be intense....

Peter Pachter, who runs the American Language Communication Center in the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue near Penn Station, has watched the ranks of his Japanese students increase 14 percent, to about 500 in the last two years.

“There’s a feeling that they kind of blossom here; they finally get a chance to express themselves,” he said....

“It was so hard in Japan to have the confidence to
say, ‘I can be what I want to be, I can do what I want
to do,’ ” Kaori, now in her 30’s, said in a
mellifluous voice. “New York is very free. I thought,
‘If I want to do this, I can do it. In Japan you have
to follow the rails.”...

Slowly, Ms. Mimura was gaining confidence about living
in New York, discovering an inner strength. She signed
up to go to a national dance contest in Boston, where
she made it to the semifinals. Her new friend, Smiles,
wished her “Ganbatte!” a combination of “Good luck”
and “Knock ’em dead” in Japanese.

But she didn’t win. She blamed too much technique and
not enough feeling for her loss. She needed to let the
freedom of New York and the let-it-all-hang-out
attitude of Americans into her heart while dancing,
she said. “Japanese dancers copy, not create,” she
said, “and I’m more like typical Japanese dancer.” She
resolved to be more American.

It reminded me of an FT article about the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara:

As a teenager Nara, like most young Japanese, came under intense pressure to conform, to stop inhabiting his "girlish" imaginary world of drawings and talking to animals. "I took up judo and got into rugby. I wanted to show that I was a man now and into sports. I stopped drawing as much and started hanging out with other guys. When I look back on that time, it's somehow difficult to remember who I was. I didn't really have my own identity at all."...

Pressure to conform is strong in Japan, where the transition between the uninhibited world of children and the custom-bound existence of adulthood is particularly abrupt. Until about the age of seven, Japanese children lead a generally carefree existence, allowed by indulgent mothers to play games and explore the world. Once they start primary school and begin the arduous process of learning the 2,000-character alphabet, the serious business of becoming a member of Japan's group-oriented society begins.

In Germany, Nara was finally free from this group pressure and was able to ask himself who he really was. "I finally realised that my real self was the self that used to play by himself as a kid."

What got me commenting on Doug's post was the quote from Brad:
I don’t know the extent to which constructivism can work for math education as an isolated strategy.

I understand only a little about schema theory, and even less about constructivism, but my instinct tells me constructivism is not a teaching method or approach, and even less an isolated strategy.

What I gained the most from re-connecting with some of Paulo Freire's ideas, was an inspiration to take a fresh look at my own behaviour and thought-processes, instead of being focussed almost exclusively on my those of my students. So now that my awareness has been raised, I have to ask myself, is it possible to live and work in this country for over 25 years and not be influenced by this oppressive, "reproductive" culture? Was I that way inclined before I came (hence the attraction)? "Creating new knowledge" now seems to me important for my own sanity and survival, even if I cannot influence the students who pass through my classrooms.

I'm not even sure I know what "creating new knowledge" means in practical, classroom-activity terms, but I've been experimenting with class surveys: I pick a theme and dictate a few questions to students, then let them add a few questions of their own, then off they go, interviewing as many of their classmates as time allows. We're using linguistic elements from the textbook chapter we've just finished, but we are (I feel) creating new knowledge because we're using the learned language to discover things we didn't know about ourselves as a class.

The kids seem happy to go along with this, although they evince very little interest in each other's lives, and certainly don't see each other as potential teachers. They seem to have learned that studying is a solo activity, where collaboration or cooperation is too akin to "cheating" to have much validity. I'm still working on the next, vital, step, which is how to return the shared knowledge gained back to the class as a whole (classes are not long enough for each student to interview everyone).

In one class, students worked in groups of 3-4 and created their own surveys. I then had them create graphs of the results on Excel, and present the graphs and results to the class. However, many students complained they had not been given enough time to "prepare". And few paid much attention to the presenting group - a depressingly common phenomenon in Japanese classrooms, I've found. It's as if presenting is one of those "school" things, something that must be done to satisfy the teacher, but that has no intrinsic value in itself; probably because (in their experience at least) it never did.

October 16, 2006

Moodle moans revisited

In response to my whinings about Moodle, I got some help. One Moodle vet who offered help asked me to invite him as co-administrator of my site so he could see for himself what was going on. He even went to the trouble of installing Moodle using Fantastico, as I had, so he could see how Fantastico distributed the various Moodle files, especially the language files. He discovered that the new Moodle upgrade, which creates a separate language folder in a folder called "moodledata", under Fantastico this folder is called "uploaddata", and (in my case at least) was still inside the "public_html" folder, together with all the other language files created under the previous (1.5) version of Moodle. He hypothesized that one or more of these language files was/were interfering with the charset selection, and so he suggested trashing the old language files except "en" and "en_utf8".

This solved one problem: the encoding of the pages in Japanese EUC, instead of utf8. However, it failed to allow users to be able to save and recall pages written in Japanese utf8: the text always appeared as ?????

A few days later, a collleague who is also using Moodle showed me how his is set up, and I was able to re-organize how my front page looks. We also suspected that our php and MySQL versions were not up to the required versions, and that might be the problem. However, my server (at least) IS up to the required version, so that is not the answer.

I think I will put this on the back burner for a bit, and simply tell my students they can only post in English for the time being.

October 11, 2006

Cursive handwriting in decline - surprised?

Josh Marshall points to:
...a fascinating article in tomorrow's Post
about the decline of cursive handwriting. I'm 37. And I certainly
remember fairly intensive instruction in handwriting -- first block
letters and then the more daunting and advanced cursive handwriting,
with the dreaded off-white paper with one solid line, one dotted below
it, and another solid beneath the dotted one -- all to keep your letter
creations bounded and in check. But, I guess not surprisingly given the
ubiquity of computers and keyboards these days, instruction in
handwriting has dwindled to almost nothing.

October 10, 2006

Building community

Speaking of building community, here's a novel idea. On yer bike, mate!

October 08, 2006

Not all women who veil are oppressed

Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary, currently Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal, has caused an uproar when he revealed that he feels uncomfortable with veiled women, and asks those veiled Muslim women who consult with him to remove it.

However, in another story today:
Ruth Kelly yesterday defended the wearing of the veil as a 'personal choice' by Muslims that must be respected. She made her comments as the Cabinet began distancing itself from Jack Straw's disclosure that he asked women attending his constituency surgery to uncover their faces.
What most interested me about the piece, though, was this:
Earlier this year, Kelly co-hosted a summit with Muslim women alongside Tony Blair. The veil was not raised as an issue, but the hijab - the more common traditional headscarf - was: she said the conversation had 'challenged her assumptions' about covering up.

'I, along with many people, probably thought that some people wear the hijab not through choice but because they were expected to, and I found exactly the opposite,' she said. 'There was an overwhelming view that the people who were wearing the hijab wanted to and, among those who were not, some of them would have liked to.'

October 05, 2006

More Moodle moans

(Sigh) OK, so I upgraded to Moodle 1.6, then discovered I had to install any extra languages I wanted. The help file says I must first backup my database. I'm perfectly willing to follow instructions... if only I could understand them. This "help" file was not only unhelpful but complete Greek to me, so I went ahead and upgraded without backing up my boring old database, then imported the language I wanted (Japanese).

It took me a while to find the administration page where this is managed, (due to the weird-assed way I installed Moodle).

Anyway, I figured it out and reckoned I was all set for class. To cut a long boring story short, here are the problems I, or rather students, encountered:

1) garbled text. EVERYTHING is garbled. Even the text on the radio buttons!

1 student eventually figured out a workaround by choosing "Japanese EUC" (NOT UTF-8, which is the encoding Moodle uses for Japanese language text. Figure that one out) from the "encode" menu. But you have to select this encoding anew on each new page!! This makes the English-language text appear properly, but won't fix the Japanese text in every case.

Students who logged in using Netscape instead of IE got even more dramatically garbled pages! I didn't bother even trying to figure that out. Just sigh, exit Netscape, fire up IE.

2) I had set up some fora for them to post to, but the majority of students, when they clicked on "add a new discussion topic" all they got was a completely blank white page.

3) Even after figuring out how to un-garble the text enough to be able to read the English-language text I had written, the Japanese-language text I had written showed up as merely a bunch of question marks! Nothing fixed this problem; not changing the encoding, even logging out, and selecting "En" as the language before logging in again (then logging out AGAIN and selecting "Ja" as the language, then logging in AGAIN).

Another disaster. Obviously with Moodle acting up like this, it is out of the question to ask students to do any assignments on it.

Altho my students are not enamored of blogs and blogging, it was a relief to be able to log in and post on blogger without any major hassles.

Moodle is living on borrowed time as far as I am concerned. Perhaps some of today's problems were due to my not properly backing up the database before importing the Japanese UTF8 language facility. But I simply do not have the time or energy to spend on learning how to deal with MySQL or whatever it is. I just want plug and play!! "Here's the Moodle URL. Here's how you login. Here are the assignments you need to go. Go!" End of story. That's how simple I want it!!

I know. It's free. So? I shouldn't complain? I'm more than willing to pay, if I could be sure of getting a hassle-free service.

October 01, 2006

Online Professional Development for teachers

From a post by Teacher in Development Aaron Nelson, I read today about Connexions, and took a look at this course. Education for the New Millenium. Sounds interesting, and it's all free. Can't judge as to the quality of content yet, tho, and I'm too busy at the moment to check it out just now. It's bookmarked, tho, and I'll be back.

September 30, 2006

"Creativity 'boosts pupils' work"says UK's Ofsted

So says this BBC article. Sounds interesting, but I have a couple of questions:
  1. Was it working with creative people that made the pupils punctual and better behaved? Or was it just the fact that they were doing something they enjoyed doing? Or was it the fact that they were responsible for something they enjoyed doing? Or combination?
  2. The challenge now was to get them to apply these skills independently.
  3. To get them to apply them? Why get them to do this? Did the students develop these skills because that was the purpose of the program, an explicit goal? Or did they develop these skills because of the environment they were in and the responsibility and pleasure they (presumably) felt in working? If the latter, then the way to get them to apply their skills is simple: offer them opportunities for similar work in similar circumstances.

September 26, 2006

European demand for sushi threatens tuna

Rising European demand for sushi is threatening stocks of tuna. Read more here. Also, did you know that sushi has a very long history, but modern sushi was invented about 100 years ago by Hanaya Yohei?

September 19, 2006

Safety for children online

Serendipity. After reading this report on the growing numbers of kids in the UK using mobile phones (that's cell-phones to the uninitiated), I wanted to compare those figures with those in Japan. While looking for such stats, I came across Childnet International, which includes a page on blog safety. This might be a resource for teachers using blogs with younger children.

September 17, 2006

So we made a video... now what?

I'm grateful to Borderland for writing about this, as I also have a couple of videos students made, videos just sitting on my hard-drive because of privacy and other concerns that weren't addressed before the making of the video.

September 14, 2006

Powerful woman #101

I don't know if Hina Jilani, a UN human rights representative from Pakistan, is on the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women, but she gets my vote.

She said the most difficult part about her fact-finding work was talking to people who were putting their lives at risk by coming forward, and not being able to ensure their protection.

Disturbing misuse of technology?

A story on the BBC newssite caught my attention: a video of two schoolgirls fighting, taken by a mobile phone and posted to YouTube, has been removed after criticism from anti-bullying campaigners. A member of the Association of Head Teachers commented:
""Both boys and girls have been scrapping as long as there've been boys and girls. But it's the mentality now and the way they think it's OK to stage a fight - because this is a staged fight, it's not one that just happened...What is disturbing for me is the misuse of the technology - of both the phones and the internet... I have to ask parents do you know what your children are doing with their mobile phones? Do they know what they're doing on the internet?"

More disturbing is this:
John Carr, new technology adviser to children's charity NCH, said the fact it was so easy for children to reach a "large audience", encouraged more staged fights than would otherwise happen. Mr Carr said: "There was a case in London not long ago where a young lad was killed and the whole thing was videoed over a mobile phone. The judge was quite clear that it was partly because they wanted to film what they were doing that caused the attack in the first place."

The fight was out of school hours and not on school property, tho from the couple of screenshots on the BBC website, it looks like the girls were still in school uniform.

An unpleasant incident, but great material for a class discussion/debate. The fact that it was videoed, and the suggestion that the fight was staged for that purpose certainly puts the spotlight on technology use, and the darker side of it being easy for children to reach a "large audience"

September 13, 2006

Japanese Jesus

I've always thought Jesus died in Calvary in Palestine. But apparently, I'm wrong. Jesus' grave is actually in Japan, in Aomori. Also, Jesus had a brother. You live and learn, eh?

Read more.

Wow them with technology

I'm on a committee in my university which oversees the information and computer science education. "Information education" (jouhou kyouiku) in Japanese. Halfway through one recent meeting we all moved downstairs to see a demonstration of a video linkup between two classrooms on the two campuses our university has. The two classrooms are just a few kilometres apart as the crow flies, and linked to the same computer network.

Each classroom had two cameras: one at the back of the lecture hall to show the instructor and the screens at the front of the room, and a camera at the front to one side facing the rows of seats. All the cameras can be swiveled and zoomed by remote from the control panel in each room (i.e. the instructor can manipulate the two cameras in the room where she/he is as well as the "remote" ones in the other classroom on the other campus). At the front of the room were two screens: on one was the video image of the other classroom, with a smaller insert showing the image from one of the two cameras in the local classroom. On the other screen was projected the image from the overhead projector, then the image from a laptop plugged into the console. As the demonstrator showed the image of the overhead projector, we could see, on the other screen, the same image shown on the screen of the other classroom. Same with the image from the laptop. There was a slight lag, and any movement was also rather jerky, but it was manageable (video would have been problematic, tho).

I was impressed by the technology. Not so much that it exists (it's not that new, after all), but the fact that we had it installed. It must cost a lot.

There was absolutely no discussion of the pedagogical implications. It all seemed to be organized on the assumption that the instructor is the source of knowledge and that knowledge is essentially information to be transmitted, altho of course the 2-way video suggests that students in the two classrooms could interact, either with the remote instructor or with each other (altho I wasn't able to find out how to plug extra, say, radio mikes into the sound system). To be fair, those demonstrating the system were technicians, not teachers, but then again, why weren't teachers involved in the demonstration? It all seemed so unproblematic except for the technical issues ("what does this button do? How do you do such-and-such?").

So it was with some bemusement that I read this article today on trying to woo young learners to Latin by means of technology.

Why try to woo them? According to the article, the aim is one of
making the classical world accessible for as many students as possible, whatever their type of school, age or social backgrounds.

I like that: as if the egalitarianism of the purpose justifies the whole venture. So the purpose is .... ?
It hopes that the approach will rewaken an interest in Latin in the hundreds of schools where it is no longer taught on the syllabus.
And this is desirable because...?
A decline in the popularity of Latin and Greek has led to a slump in the number of specialist teachers.

So this is just to keep present classics teachers employed, then? Is that really the best they can come up with? The cynicism of this implication seems to have been lost on the author of the article. Perhaps a little Latin would have helped her/him. (There's probably a great Latin quote from Horace or some other wit that encapsulate my point here, but.... I didn't get my Latin O-level).

Senior lecturers suffering morale crisis (UK)

I will cut this out, paste it on my wall, give copies to my colleagues and bosses...

Lecturers over the age of 50 are the unhappiest in their university jobs and almost half would quit now if they could, found a University and College Union (UCU) poll, released today.

UCU joint general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "We have a group of incredibly devoted and hardworking lecturers in their 50s, many of who are clearly very unhappy.

"In a sector where age and wisdom have traditionally been synonymous, I cannot understand why universities are failing to treat their staff with respect they deserve. All too often, it is this group that are the first to be considered for voluntary redundancy, and little is done to consider their needs and how best to use their wealth of experience and knowledge."

Future of Learning in a Networked World - New Zealand

The amazing Barbara Dieu tells me about  The Future of Learning in a Networked World conference in New Zealand which she will be attending along with an impressive list of bloggers and educators. Not just in one place but travelling through New Zealand which sounds like a lot of fun.

September 11, 2006

Be good... or else!

Hmm, interesting. Some universities in Britain are forcing students to sign good behaviour contracts where they promise to attend lectures and tutorials, and agree that  any breach of contract may lead to expulsion:

Thousands of undergraduate students are being forced to sign good
behaviour contracts with their universities and warned they could be
expelled if they breach regulations, the Guardian has learned.The
contracts put the onus on students to attend lectures and tutorials,
but have been condemned by the National Union of Students. The NUS claims the contracts are "one-sided", and do not spell out what
standard of teaching students should expect to get for the
£3,000-a-year top-up tuition fees they are being charged.
What do you think of that?

September 09, 2006

The Boondocks

The Boondocks is a cartoon I get daily in my email. Recently, it's about a couple of young black kids who become the ONLY black kids to go to a white school. First, it's the principal's job to tell the aging white teacher that he is going to have a very bright black kid in his class, and helps him get prepared (!). Then the kid himself refuses to go, simply because the school is called Edgar Hoover Elementary. After reading Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children, and living in a completely different environment, I find this hilarious and educational at the same time.

September 07, 2006

More women-power

Speaking of powerful women, Pamela Slim of Escape from Cubicle Nation tells of a new radio startup called Greenstone Media, for the launch of which she will interview Greenstone Media board member Gloria Steinem. (And check out the other board members.)

Kiss corporate life goodbye - join academia

Chris Pearson is a self-employed website designer and general geek. I came across his blog while looking for help with putting a Flickr "badge" in the sidebar of a WordPress blog I have. Chris' instructions were the most detailed and helpful I had yet found, but still I was unable to make the Flickr photos appear on my page. So I added a comment to Chris' blog-post, explaining my predicament. A few hours later (if that), I got an email from Chris himself giving me some hints and info. It took a couple more emails back and forth for me to achieve the result I wanted, but Chris replied very promptly, knowledgeably and with patience. I was impressed.

Chris' blog is a little too geekish for my needs, but I was interested to read this post on how to kiss corporate life goodbye. The comments are pretty funny, especially this one:
You sound like one of those infomercial guys selling books on how to make ten grand a day for sitting on your ass and placing tiny ads in the backs of magazines. heh

I found another method of avoiding the corporate world that is better suited to the risk-averse geek: working in higher education.

Altho first prize goes to,
Unemployment allows similar freedoms without all those pesky tasks like appointments, doing work and making bank deposits.

The 100 most powerful women

Update: On the other hand, there's this.

This is kind of in "alternative views" category, tho I don't know HOW alternative it really is, but it's kinda cool anyway.
Forbes has a slide-show of "the 100 most powerful women". Just click on the link and the slideshow runs by itself. Below each photo there's a link to find out more about the person, something I will have to do as I don't know 99% of the women who've appeared in my slideshow so far. (I don't watch TV. Maybe that has something to do with it?)

I don't know what Forbes' definition of "powerful" is (women who've "made it" in a man's world?).... OK, JK Rowling just appeared (without glasses), there's ONE I know.... This is embarrassing. Many of the women are white, but not all are North American, which shows that Forbes isn't as parochial or ethnocentric as many North American organizations (I was afraid it would be something like "all the women who've appeared on Oprah in the last xxx years").

Anyway, it's a kind of cool, Internetty way  of getting some education.

September 06, 2006

Triple Yay!

Yay! #1:
Your blog has been reviewed, verified, and cleared for regular use so that it will no longer appear as potential spam. If you sign out of Blogger and sign back in again, you should be able to post as normal. Thanks for your patience, and we apologize for any inconvenience this has caused. Sincerely,
The Blogger Team
I was on the point of abandoning Blogger, it was such a pain: I couldn't post from Firefox's Performancing, or even from Blogjet because the "spam blog" label meant that I had to type in the stupid little letters every bloody time before I could post. Initially, Performancing would at least post it as a draft, but even that wasn't working recently. Blogjet could park my post as a draft. AND BLogjet gave me this useful bit of info: a URL where I could apply to have the "spam" label removed. Until I read that, I has assumed I just had to wait until Blogger got around to reviewing my blog in their own time. It was about 1 week after I applied, that I got the above clearance from

Yay! #2: thanks to GTDGmail, I've completely emptied my Gmail inbox of over 1,000 emails!!

Yay! #3: thanks to GTD and Outlook, I've re-organized my Outlook email, calendar, contacts, tasks and notes, and completely emptied my email inbox!! (and no, it wasn't just a matter of selecting them all and hitting the delete, button).

How academics are like the 19th c laborers

A friend sent me this opinion piece from the NY Times, on how academics are like the 19th century laborers, in that they have control over their own time, a large factor in job satisfaction. It’s actually more about 19th century laborers than about academics today, a fact which is explained by a footnote which tells the reader,

Tom Lutz is the author of “Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America.”

It’s interesting, but I would be more interested in the dynamics of change in the academic world: there are forces at work changing the academic landscape, what are those forces? How do they impact academic life for both teachers and students? Jacques Barzun had some interesting things to say about that. Is there nothing worth saying on this matter since he wrote that 15 years ago?

September 04, 2006

Need more math students? Give 'em cash!

An Oxford college head has suggested cash incentives to lure more students into taking maths to A-level.

What caught my attention, tho, was the photo caption:

Maths has been losing popularity to less academic subjects

So “academic” means “difficult”?


Or perhaps History, English, in fact all the "arts" subjects, are "less academic" than the sciences? Maybe it's just me, but this strikes me as the kind of detail an editor is paid to spot before it is printed for the world to see.

September 03, 2006


Barbara Dieu sent me a message about co-link. I need to play around with it some more. Right now, I can’t tell if it’s something interesting or not. It looks interesting…