August 31, 2006

Seeing familiar things from a different point of view

Reading Maxine Greene's Dialectic of Freedom, which has alerted me to the value of seeing the familiar in new ways. One way to do that is to see unfamiliar things, things, people, events, sceneries, that are similar overall but different in the details.

I was reminded of this when I read on the Internet someone recommending Naguib Mahfouz's novels as a way to get to know Arab culture. Well, just today I came across the name Naguib Mahfouz again: his obituary.

Books: a way to communicate with dead people.

International Blog Day - August 31st

Yes, there is such a thing! August 31st. Globalvoices online. Click the link to find out more.

Basically, you blog about 5 new blogs that you find interesting, with the authors’ permission of course.

1) Following a link (PDF file) about student ethnography from Borderland’s post on the first day back at school, took me on an intriguing virtual journey. The idea of students as ethnographers intrigues me (I first came across the idea in Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning), but a) I don’t really know what ethnography is, and b) I have no idea how a teacher might use it in class. (Apart from that, I’m all set.)

Borderland’s link gives a single reference: Egan-Robertson, A., & Bloome, D. 1998 Students as researchers of culture and language in their own communities. I tried to locate a copy using the Japanese university inter-library loan system, but the system I used could not locate a copy in Japan. I tried searching on Bloome, D. and found Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation and Literacy Practices  What is “Mass-Observation”? Google it. (and/or Wikipedia it). It seems Mass-Observation was a nationwide ethnographic project started in 1937 in the UK by poet and sociologist (and isn’t that an interesting combination?) Charles Madge. It lasted until the late 1950s and thus covers the years of the Second World War. The collected material is now housed in the University of Sussex.

The Mass-Observation project has been resurrected, in 1981. Here’s a page about writing for the project from the point of view of one the correspondents.

This page links the concept of Mass-Obervation with a BBC video documentary series that was inspired by Mass-Observation, and with vlogging (video blogging). The author also writes about audio as the “once-and-future medium” and gives an example of a “poet-reporter”. (I like this quote: “the way we find things is changing… it feels more like things are finding us: manufactured serendipity.”)

2) Then there is this story in the Guardian:

a new UK-based website displays the writing of survivors of torture and asylum seekers from all over the world
The article tells of Write to Life, a therapy project created by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a national centre based in Finsbury Park, north London. Some of those who have taken part in this therapy have gone on writing, and so a new website was created,
Lots of Big Ideas, which has been created to provide a platform for their work and that of other people with similar stories to tell. Lots of Big Ideas was partially inspired by Global Voices, the successful global citizens' journalism site.
... which brings me back where I started.

August 24, 2006

Getting Things Done or Wasting Time?

I've been a fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done since I read the book about 6 months ago. As I also use Gmail, I was interested to see this Firefox extension that seems to incorporate the Getting Things Done (GTD to the cognoscenti) concept into Gmail (or vice versa). I'd also come across this article on using Google Calendar using GTD principles. This evening I spent about an hour fiddling with both of these.

These days, I seem to get "punch-drunk" after using the computer for a couple of hours. My brain stops working, and I notice I'm just jumping from web-page to web-page without really taking anything in.

Anyway, after about a couple of hours of jumping back and forth between different help pages and web-sites, it finally dawned on me that GTDGmail isn't an application of GTD to email, as I'd thought; it's using Gmail to get things done in the GTD way! In other words, instead of helping me to file my existing Gmails according to the GTD principles, it asks me to CREATE emails, and send them to myself, each email being a "task" or "action", and the conversations being the "projects" you're working on.

That didn't seem like such an efficient use of my email-time, and I was starting to feel bored, so I turned to the GTD/Google calendar thing. Again, after playing around with it a bit, it dawned on me that I was basically starting to do exactly the same things as with GTDGmail, but using Google Calendar instead. In other words, I was duplicating a GTD system.

All in all, an evening well-spent! My head's spinning, so I'm off to bed. I do recommend David Allen's GTD book, tho. It's a sweet read, and I'm still using his system (or rather still learning to use it, but not bored or tired yet) 6 months later.

August 21, 2006

Jesuit success story in Chicago

An inspirational story. How do they do it?

I've been interested in how the Jesuits "do" education ever since I read about John Taylor Gatto's experiences.

And here's the employers' report

The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) has produced their report on school-leavers' skills, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. Here's a summary from the Guardian. Not very encouraging, is it?
No doubt tomorrow we'll have some reactions, probably first from one of the teachers' unions. I wonder what they'll say, don't you, boys and girls?

An earlier article about this issue, mentioned a "scathing critique" by Baroness Warnock, which you can read here (comments are listed below the article and worth reading, if only to gain a clearer picture of how complex this issue is). One comment reads When education stops being a political football we might get some progress- but that's never going to happen. Well, probably not till hell frezes over.

Many of the comments are of the "hear, hear, Baroness" variety, but there are some dissenting voices. One of the commenters refers to Peter Wilby's (former editor of the New Statesman) dissenting article he wrote also in the Guardian, A Grade for the Better Off

Revolution? Again??

Here we go again.
I couldn't help thinking of Doug's recent post when I read this article in the British Guardian. Isn't a similar dynamic of fear-mongering at work?
GCSE exams in English and maths are to be made harder as part of a major government crackdown on schools that are failing to teach basic educational skills.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, has introduced the tough new measures in one of the biggest shake-ups of the exam system in a decade.

'Every single young person must have a good grasp of the basics,' Knight told The Observer. 'We are changing the way we measure performance and toughening up the English and maths GCSEs to ensure that young people master the three Rs.'

Just look at the emotive words in these first few lines: "crackdown", implying toughness, direct action, promising results, perhaps also implying safety (from what?) with its associations with crime and the police (at least in British newspaperese);
"failing", again fear-arousing, but where's the evidence? All we get, later in the article, is
There has been a growing clamour in recent years from education experts and businesses against what they see as the poor standard of literacy and maths skills of many school-leavers.

and this
In a report to be released tomorrow, the Confederation of British Industry will warn of widespread levels of dissatisfaction among employers.

The article presents some serious concerns:
While the present system allows pupils to get a pass in English or maths without mastering such skills as long as an overall points total is reached, that will no longer be the case.

However, it fails to present any kind of real historical context. When I read this, for instance,
In the future, employers will have a guarantee of the quality of the school-leavers they are taking on. A good pass will mean that young people are equipped with the basics.
and this
In today's Observer, the philosopher and educationist Baroness Warnock issues a scathing critique of the government's education policies for having left many school-leavers 'unable to write intelligibly, read critically or think analytically'. She predicted that one result would be that the country could soon find itself without any world-class universities.
I wonder, haven't such "basic standards" ALWAYS been a concern of employers and employers' associations like the CBI? And what about all the present systems and standards? Weren't they introduced precisely in response to precisely these kinds of concerns and "clamours"? We seem to see the same kinds of "scathing critiques" every few years. And here's another scream for "back to basics". If the PREVIOUS rounds of "back to basics" (and how many have we had now?) didn't work didn't work, and obviously they didn't otherwise we wouldn't be having the PRESENT screaming for "back to basics", why should the next one be any different? Some will say, Ah, that's because all these "back to basics" are sabotaged by the bleeding-heart liberals who dominate our teacher-education system!

And finally, the article ends with...? Not a quote from a teacher or educator, but another politician! One from the "other" party, the Tories. That's called "balance", don't you see, O best beloved?
Students now spend so much time concentrating on exams that their basic education is suffering, said David Willetts, the Tories' education spokesman.

To add to all the fun, there is the ongoing dispute about the validity of the GCSE exam results themselves:
The move has been announced before Thursday's publication of this year's GCSE results, which are expected to show a further sharp rise in the number of pupils achieving an overall 'benchmark' pass.
A leading private school's headteacher yesterday called for a national inquiry to review the future of the British examination system, warning that public confidence in GCSEs and A-levels had sunk to an all-time low. Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College in Berkshire, urged the government to set up a royal commission to review the system in order to avert a looming "national crisis". The historian and author - a biographer of Tony Blair - was speaking on the first day of a two-day conference at Wellington College, attended by heads and senior staff from the state and private sectors, to debate whether GCSEs and A-levels had "reached the end of the road". He warned: "At the end of the day, you can't discriminate between so many As and the intellectually gifted from the well-drilled."

Ooh! Biographer of Tony Blair, eh? Well, no better way to stamp these words with vailidity. I'm convinced already. And here's more on the debate.

Aside: there's an interesting ad on that page of the Guardian Education section. Check it out.

And just in case that doesn't get you rofl, here's an extra tidbit. The whole debate, at least as presented in the media, is so completely politicized, trying to get the grains of truth out of such articles is like how I imagine it was for readers of Pravda in Communist Soviet Union.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the best analysis of this debate, between the business-thinkers and the teachers/educators, was in a short essay by Neil Postman in Conscientious Objections. I'll try and dig out the essay title. What I recall from it was that Postman was saying these two groups of people speak different languages, and yet they share many similar concerns, if only they could talk (and listen) to each other. He picked out the good and weak points on both sides. The business people have a point, about accountability and the importance of achieving desired objectives, but also they are blind to certain pedagogical realities, and tend to think that it's all a pretty straightforward matter of cutting costs and creating a more efficient business model: if your employees are not doing the job you hired them to, either ensure they are properly trained or get rid of them and hire new (properly trained) ones. Short, and well worth reading, as it's the only attempt I've seen to bridge the gap between the two groups, and indeed the only that seems to understand the ways of thinking of both sides, AND the importance of having these two ways of thinking talk to and understand each other.

August 19, 2006

Why is she leaving?

A British friend of TimesOnline journalist and blogger Richard Lloyd Parry is leaving Japan after 15 years here. Why? Parry summarizes her reasons on his blog.

My favourites:
Things she'll miss - The sound of suzumushi and semi (crickets and cicadas). Who needs a CD of whale song or waves with these natural melodies to hand?

Onsens [hot spring resorts]. 24-hour absolute dedication to sensual pleasure and relaxation. Bathe, eat, drink, sleep, eat, bathe (and usually a few other activities thrown in). If only the Japanese knew how to live like that outside the onsen.

Drinking alcohol in the cinema
Drinking alcohol in the park
Drinking alcohol in the street
Drinking alcohol on the train....

What I won’t miss

Squeaky bicycle brakes. I still don’t get it. Is it intentional? Are they made like that?

Gokiburi [cockroaches]. I have had close encounters with venomous sea snakes and 400,000 Indian chikans [molesters]. But nothing gets me on a chair screaming as quick as a Japanese goki.

My Japanese neighbours. Humourless, cold, petty, joyless. On bad days I see them as representative of the whole nation.

If you were leaving the place where you are now, what would you miss and not miss?

August 10, 2006

I'm grading on a bell curve, don't know when I'll be back again

Slowly realizing how unbelievably ignorant I am about grading and related issues, I went on a short trip and discovered these  two articles that discuss grading on a bell curve. The second one is particularly interesting, as it uses this quote from Einstein (or rather a sign he had in his office) :
 Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts
and includes a discussion of summative versus formative assessments.

For the mathematically challenged like me there are these  two articles that explain how grading on a bell curve is done. The first gives the general idea, the second is a tutorial on how to calculate standard deviation using Microsoft Excel.

August 09, 2006

The value of experience

I like Charles Nelson's comments: they are brief but force me to do some thinking about what I (thought I) understood when I wrote my original post. Here's another one: Charles, citing Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World writes Consciousness appears to play very minor roles in choosing its foci and in making sense of things. and adds I haven't read the book but it seems odd to me to say that experience has no meaning or value without hindsight.

I'll need to re Britzman's book again (it's heavy going; I had to re-read pretty much every sentence because it didn't make sense the first time!), but I suspect I mis-represented her. I don't think Britzman is suggesting experience has no meaning or value without hindsight, but rather that experience by and of itself does not embody its own meaning. Meaning is assigned to experience by the experiencer. Britzman is challenging what she sees as a myth: that student-teachers lack experience and they will learn how to teach by simply having lots of experience. She sees this as an assumtion that experience carries with it given meaning, because veteran teachers/administrators who express this view often have quite fixed ideas about what it is exactly that they expect student-teachers to "learn" from their "experience". (Here's a Britzman quote that is perhaps relevant to this matter:
The problem was that Jack had borrowed a discourse that was incapable of doing anything other than positioning experience as the ground of knowledge. Such a discourse would not help him with the complications he lived. At this point, all Jack was learning from his experience was that simply being there was no guarantee of pedagogy.

(Update: I agree with Charles that most behaviour is unconscious, and therefore ascribing meaning to experience is also a largely subconscious activity.)

In addition, perhaps Britzman believes or hopes that inviting the student-teachers (and others) to reflect on their experience will help them develop a deeper awareness of what they went through and the various forces at work on them and from within them. I would assume that doing so would stimulate evaluation and re-evaluation of the meaning one had ascribed to one's experience.

Moodle whines and images of teacher

I've been whining about Moodle recently, but I've also been reading Deborah Britzman's Practice Makes Practice, which reading makes it difficult to avoid seeing my own responsibilities for my present predicament. One of the many issues Britzman raises is the image or concept of a "good teacher" that teachers bring with them to the job. Of course, other players in the action also bring their concepts to the mix: other teachers, students, parents, administrators, etc. My image of a good teacher is someone who is organized and keeps good records. That's not all, of course, but I want to limit this post to the topic of handling assignments and grading. In addition to my having my own concept, I am required by the administrations I work for to be able to justify the grades if a student challenges me. For that reason, I feel I need as many objective measurements as possible, and rely on a subjective score for a minor part of the final calculation.

However, a colleague commented about the use of points as coercion (Britzman also mentions this in the context of the concepts teachers have of the vital need to gain and maintain control of the class before transmission of knowledge can occur; Teacher Man McCourt also wrote about his own desperate need to control the class, especially in his early days, a need probably based on his own memories of school and reinforced by his colleagues' warnings, and he vividly describes classes where he clearly was not in control and where not a lot of learning went on, tho a good time was had by most).

This niggles.

Having experimented with lack of coercion and found it a failure, I feel some coercion is justified: without it, students (accustomed to coercion from their years of previous schooling) assume the teacher doesn't care, and either sit around doing nothing or stop coming to class. Actually, we didn't drop coercion - we still gave grades - but we did not coerce or give specific guidance or assign tasks during class; we left it to students to choose what to do from the materials we made available (after an initial orientation period). Many students remained clueless and aimless for the semester, and complained that they never understood what on earth we were expecting them to do.

On the other hand, coercing by using points gained in quizzes or assignments (which points are later "traded in" for grades) seems unsatisfactory: it seems to me to close the door on less extrinsic motivation. It makes it difficult to open students up to what I consider more interesting educational activities, e.g. blogging: accustomed to trading effort for points, students will ask, "how many words must we write in the blog? When's the deadline? What's the penalty if we write it late?" etc, etc. This is part of the difficulty I've been having calculating my final grades: I assigned some relatively free-form homework, but now I have to decide: do I give them a point just for doing it? Do I give them a point for every correct sentence? What if someone wrote 10 lines, and another student barely wrote three words, do they get the same point for having done it? If not, how do I grade this? What if someone answered the questions correctly, or wrote relatively correct sentences, while someone else made a lot of errors, either factual or grammatical?

Of course, I should have thought all this out before I assigned the homework, foreseen these potential problems, and either abandoned the assignments or tailored them such that it would be easy to give an objective grade for each one without spending too much time. It's much easier to give points for correct answers to questions.

It's boring and tedious in the extreme to make these kinds of judgements for 100 students who each did about 15 assignments over the semester. In my present mood, I'm ready to abandon all open-ended-type assignments in favour of easy-to-mark, right-or-wrong-type tasks.

Bob Leamson writes about the conceptual gap between freshmen university students and many of their teachers: the teachers are often teaching procedural knowledge and assume the students understand this, whereas the students are assuming the teacher is giving them declarative knowledge which will be tested in the exam. As Bob Leamson puts it, the problem is quite deep: it's not just that freshmen students assume that everything a teacher tells them will help them answer questions in the final test, it's that they assume that what the teacher tells them IS the answers to the final test questions! All they need to do is copy it down, and they'll be OK on the day.

Perhaps that is part of my difficulty: I'm giving assignments that are intended to help students practice doing something, and students are assuming the activity is simply an end in itself to be traded for points which go towards the final grade.

This discrepancy between teacher expectations and students' assumptions is not entirely the fault of either teachers or students. Bob Leamson suggests this is a perennial difficulty which must be overcome by teachers a) being aware of it, and b) giving students repeated activities that will give them practice in working in the ways they wish them to become proficient at.

August 08, 2006

Yo, teacher man

Practice makes practice is a book about what learning to teach does to student teachers. It examines the various voices that find their expression through the student teachers and their interactions with others.
When we learn to teach, we are also trying to make from this uncertainty narratives of education: our own and those of others. It is not just that we must put into words how we thing about our learning ...The existential tension is that just as we try to make from our learning a narrative of what we think has happened, we are also learning the happenstance of narrative. We try out a series of story lines that may or may not be acceptable, useful, or intelligible to us and to those who surround us.

Frank McCourt's Teacher Man is a riot of heteroglossia. Being at first almost incapable of teaching, he resorts to the only thing he knows well, true stories from his own past, many of them of life in Ireland.
Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning. And you called yourself a teacher? I didn't call myself anything.

Britzman, in describing her two student teachers, writes of their chronology of despair and hope in trying to learn to teach in public secondary high schools. Supervisors, administrators, university lecturers and principals are also interviewed. Some describe student teachers as "accidents waiting to happen." ...
(From Teacher Man): You think you'll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name, write it on the board, proceed to teach.... On the first day of my teaching career, I was almost fired for eating the sandwich of a high school boy. On the second day I was almost fired for mentioning the possibiity of friendship with sheep.

Britzman: Some will blame theory and judge university course work in education as pretentious, useless, and idealistic. For others, the problem is with the student teacher who seems to be a wrong-headed idealist or cannot control a tendency to over-identify with the plight of her or his students, and, consequently, under-identify with the authority of the school.

McCourt: Then I met the new principal in the elevator, the department chairman who had fired me from Fashion Industries High School. I said, Are you following me? and when his mouth tightened I knew, once again, my days were numbered. A few weeks later I sealed my doom. In the presence of other teachers, the principal asked, So, Mr. McCourt, are you a father yet? No, not yet. Well, what do you want, a boy or a girl? Oh, it's all the same to me. Well, he said, as long as it's not a neuter. Well, if it is, I'll train it to grow up and be a principal. The letter that I was "excessed" soon followed....
Augie was a nuisance in class, talking back, bothering the girls. I called his mother. Next day the door is thrown open and a man in a black T-shirt with the muscles of a weightlifter yells, Hey, Augie, come 'ere. You can hear Augie gasp. Talkin' a yeh, Augie. I haveta go in there you gonna wish you was dead. Come 'ere.... The man ignores me. He is busy banging his son so hard against the wall that Augie hangs limp in his hands.... On the way out he slams the door so hard chalk dust slides down the blackboard and the windows rattle. There is a cold hostile silence in the room that says, We know you called Augie's father. We don't like teachers who call people's fathers.

Britzman identifies three cultural myths: everything depends on the teacher, teachers are self made, and teachers are experts, and she follows how her student teachers struggle with these myths, not realizing they are myths. Despite the persistency of cultural myths that position the teacher as expert, as self made, as sole bearer of power, and as a product of experience, those learning to teach feel a rupture between the ethic and the experience, because learning to teach constitutes a time of biographical crisis as it simultaneously invokes one's autobiography.
Prospective teachers... bring a dominant concern with methods of classroom discipline, because they are quite familiar with the teacher's role as social controller... An implicit theory of teaching... based on the assumption that without first establishing control and being able to establish it without help from colleagues, there is no chance of being able to put across the subject matter of the lesson, and consequently, little chance of being regarded as a competent member of the teaching profession.... students daily observed the consequences of the teacher's private battle to maintain classroom control.

McCourt: In a minute the bell will ring. They'll swarm in and what will they say if the see me at the desk? Hey, look. He's hiding out. They are experts on teachers. Sitting at the desk means you're scared or lazy. You're using the desk as a barrier. Best thing is to get out there and stand. Face the music. Be a man. Make one mistake your first day and it takes months to recover... In the teachers' cafetaria veterans warned me, Son, tell'em nothing about yourself. They're kids, goddam it. You're the teacher. The little buggers are diabolical... They can smell it when you're going to teach a real lesson on grammar or something, and they'll head you off at the pass, baby. Watch 'em. Those kids have been at this for years, eleven or twelve, and they have teachers all figured out. ... The advice was wasted.

Teacher Man is McCourt's story of how he finally found himself, found his voice: in teaching creative writing, and being a writer himself, thanks to a sympathetic principal and supervisor who trusted him, saw good promise in him, and left him free to his own devices. I was finding my voice and my own style of teaching. I was learning to be comfortable in the classroom.
The time McCourt taught a class of 29 black girls and 2 Puerto Rican boys is worth the price of the hardback book all by itself:
The girls ignored me, white guy standing up there trying to get their attention. They had stuff to talk about. Boy. Boys. Boys. Serena said she didn't go out with boys. She went out with men. ... She was fifteen and the center of the class, the one who settled arguments, the one who made decisions... They complained to me, We don't do nothin' in this class. Other classes do things. I brought in a tape recorder. Surely they'd like to hear themselves talking. Serena took the microphone. My sister was arrested last night. My sister is a nice person. She was only liberating two pork chops from the store. White people take pork chops an' everything all the time but they don't get arrested... Now my sister in jail till she go to court. She stopped, looked at me for the first time and handed back the microphone. I dunno why I'm telling you this. You just a teacher. You just a white man. She turned away and walked to her seat. She sat primly, hands folded on the desk. She had put me in my place and the class knew it... On the train they squealed and pushed and fought for seats. The passengers looked hostile. Why aren't these Negro kids in school? No wonder they're ignorant. At West Fourth Street an obese white woman waddled onto the train and stood with her back to the closing door. The girls stared at her and snickered. She stared back. What you little bitches lookin' at? Serena said, We never seen a mountain get on a train before. Her twenty-eight classmates laughed, pretended to collapse, laughed again. Serena stared, unsmiling, at the large woman, who said, Come over here, honey, and I'll show you how a mountain can move. I was the teacher. I had to assert myself, but how? Then I had a strange feeling. I looked at the other passengers, their frowns of disapproval, and I wanted to fight back, defend my twenty-nine. I stood with my back to the large woman to keep Serena from coming near her. Her classmates chanted, Go, Serena, go. The train pulled into the Fourteenth Street station and the large woman backed out the door. You're lucky I have to get off this train, honey, or I'd have you for breakfast. Serena sneered after her, Yeah, fatso, you really need breakfast.... I followed them to the balcony, where they pushed and fought for seats and disturbed the other customers. An usher complained to me, We can't have this, and I told the girls, Please sit down and be quiet. They ignored me. They were a tight pack of twenty-nine black girls at loose in the world, raucous, defiant, flinging bits of popcorn at one another, shouting up at the projection booth, Hey, when we gonna see the movie? We not gonna live forever. ... I pleaded with them. Girls. Please be quiet. Management is on its way. They turned it into a chant: Mangament on it way, Mangament on it way, Hi ho the daddy o, Mangament on it way. They said management could kiss their ass and that upset the usher. He said, OK. That's it. That's i-t, it. You are out, o-u-t. Oh, man. He know how to spell an' everything.

August 07, 2006

Process of becoming vs experience?

In response to this post, Charles Nelson asks
Perhaps you could explain more how using the phrase "process of becoming" informs your personal pedagogy more than the word "experience."

Not at this stage I couldn't. I'm still learning what the heck "process of becoming" means. Any suggestions?

One thing I learned from Britzman's book is that experience is not "given", but must be interpreted, through reflection or talking about it to someone else. It is thus only in hindsight that experience takes on meaning and value.

Another thing I learned was the danger of dualistic ways of thinking. Seeing things in terms of dichotomies seems to be something humans do a lot. Perhaps it's a kind of shortcut? However, dichotomies can preclude or blind one from further, creative, possibilities. In terms of Moodle, while my blog post might give the impression that I attributed a single meaning to my experience with Moodle, I think I realize that it's not just how Moodle is, but also my own perceptions of what a teacher is and should be (and do) that are ingredients in this mix. A colleague who is re-reading "Teaching as a subversive activity" pointed out to me that grading and giving points (one of the purposes I used Moodle for, and which I complained about for taking up too much time) is often used for coercion. He suggested giving everyone 100. But if my image of a teacher says that "a teacher keeps track of who has done what, and gives fair grades based on performance", then this "solution" will not help me.

August 05, 2006


Deborah Britzman's book Practice Makes Practice is giving me lots of food for thought (see previous post). I haven't got to the digestion stage yet: I see many different dishes on the table, most of them are new and unfamiliar to me (imagine a table-full of Indian or Chinese dishes).

Here are a few concepts or themes that I have caught hold of. One is decontextualization. Altho Britzman doesn't use the term in this case, this is one example that I found memorable: the critical theorist Theodor Adorno asks what is the responsibility of educators after Auschwitz? And perhaps we in Japan can ask "after Aum 's sarin attack?" (take a look at the the educational history of the perpetrators).
How does it happen that catastrophic history is so easily forgotten, or reduced to an answer to a question on a test? Unlike contemporary discussions of historical amnesia, Adorno believed that knowledge itself, in a place called education, became irrelevant. This, for him, was the crisis of education.

Elsewhere in the book:
In a study of stratification and credentialization in education, Randall Collins points out that much of the impetus to make education compulsory came from the need to control the socialization of the children of European immigrants in order to perpetuate the values and insterests of the middle class and the knowledge base of traditional Anglo-Protestant culture. The myth was that education was to serve as the "melting pot" of culture. That metaphor itself was manipulative, not descriptive:
Insofar as the school system was created to resolve the [severe multiethnic] strife by reducing cultural diversity, one can say it has met with a degree of success. It did manage to make training in Anglo-Protestant culture and political values compulsory for all children up to a certain age, and it did make it virtually compulsory for a continually increasing period beyond this if the student wanted to be economically successful.
On the other hand, Collins indicates that as the press for credentials beyond high school became more and more a prerequisite for employment and social mobility, the knowledge base of compulsory education appeared more trivial because it had no relevancy to the majority of students' lives or to their future as workers.

I'm just blogging these because they caught my attention, not because I think they are related. I'm not even sure why they caught my attention.

The first, about the problem of knowledge, I connect with the search for meaning. Humans need to find meaning in what they do, and that does not stop when they enter a classroom, either as students or teachers. And yet, Adorno seems to be suggesting that knowledge is rendered meaningless by the very environment of "education", by which I guess he means schools, as education is not "a place".

I find myself connecting this with Mosaic of Thought's rationale for coaching students to make connections between what they read and their own experience. This seems to me a vital part of finding meaning in reading or studying or learning. Without this kind of connecting, linking words and concepts (abstract realities) with our own felt experience and feelings, it is easy for momentous events to become just items on a test, bereft of meaning. Britzman's descriptions of the 2 student teachers contains several examples of where their own idealistic and naive hopes and expectations failed to materialize. In some cases, what sabotaged the success was the very ideas the student-teachers held as to what a teacher is, what teaching is.

Jamie, a student teacher who hated school, chooses The Ox Bow Incident as a text.
At first glance, themes from The Ox Bow Incident should have lent themselves first to an investigation into justice, socialized bigotry, and its consequential mob violence, and then on to a student's own life and investiment in social justice. During these classroom discussions, Jamie's primary objective was to communicate with students. This was missing in her own education. So raising grand questions and soliciting student responses to them was her primary pedagogical approach. The problem was that Jamie took up a discursive practice in which her students could not participate. The philosophic nature of her questions must have seemed puzzling to the students... The silence of the students was puzzling to Jamie. She identified and empathized with them, and presumed herself to know as they knew. And yet Jamie did not understand the way in which classroom discourse is done, that classroom discourse makes certain things sayable and others not...Jamie continued to identify more with the students than with the teachers. Official and unofficial student communication, however, was fraught with contradictory advice...In an attempt to establish a less contradictory communication, Jamie decided to take calss time and talk about the relationships between the explicit curriculum, the hidden curriculum, school structure, and her own teaching intentions. She meant to have students explore how their experience in school shaped learning expectations, their own sense of power, and their relationships with teachers and other students. During this classroom discussion, Jamie violated a cultural rule by stepping out of her teaching role: she attempted to critique the very system that, in the eyes of her students, she also represented....
Jamie's recolleciton of this discussion opens the tension created by her desire to personalize learning in an environment maintained by objectified social relationships...
Jamie's understanding of this cultural tension was reminiscent both of her working-class background and of her present status as a student teacher: preparing for the harsh reality turned into simulating one. This reality, constructed as if it were "other", appeared as if it could not be changed. To take up this reality meant instituting authoritarian pedagogy. On the other hand, Jamie desired to create a learning environment that valued ambiguity, subjectivity, contradictions, and the struggle for voice. But because these features of humanity contest institutional values of stability, certainty, and control, and because Jamie was not familiar with the discursive practices that might provision a pedagogy from such existential dimensions of life, all she could express to her students was what she hoped they might do.

I see myself reflected. I think I'm becoming increasingly aware of the stresses and strains that are a part of being a teacher. Like Jamie, I have alternately blamed the school structure for producing passive students and blamed the students for their inability to try new ways to learn. Britzman seems to be suggesting that these stresses and tensions are intrinsic to the situation, and that a way forward can be found by first going back, by examining my own autobiography, as a student and as a teacher.

I'll have to stop here, or I'll be just quoting the whole bloody book, but here's one last snippet, that links back to Mosaic of Thought and ways of engaging students in their own learning by teaching them how to create and find connections.
Implicit in Jamie's stance was one counterstrategy, "the autobiographical impulse," the ways in which we use our personal experience to connect and engage with others. She invoked the terror of her own educational biography and invited students to do likewise. But more than merely "swapping stories", Jamie had faith that stories were instructive in and of themselves. The problem, as revealed in the student discourse, is that relevancy does not have a monolithic and self-evident meaning. Jamie expected her students to assume the value of their personal voices, but in a context that militated against such ownership. .. She thought that if given the opportunity, students would naturally take charge of their education and be clear about their learning needs. Jamie's organic theory of educational development, however, did not take into account the power relations of any classroom or the ways in which power is negotiated. Nor could she think about the problem of agency, that agency encompasses not just our capacity for social change, but the ways in which our interventions become populated with institutional imperatives and constraints, and thus produce practices that betray our deep investments. Jamie expected that if she identified with the students' experiences, they would reciprocate. While none of these expectations materialized, they both organized her perceptions of classroom life and contributed to contradictory interpretations of its meanings.

Got that? OK, good night!

August 04, 2006

Learning from experience?

Doug has an interesting story to tell.
The theme of "learning from experience" (or not) is timely for me as I'm reading Deborah Britzman's Practice Makes Practice. The bulk of the book is an ethnographic study of 2 trainee teachers doing their practicum in highschools. Britzman interviews them and their principals and surrounding characters, and attempts to deconstruct their experience in terms of power differentials, and also in terms of discourses. It's a little hard to read for me as I'm not so familiar with this kind of discourse (critical pedagogy), but I find it fascinating.  A key theme that Britzman highlights, both in the practicum and in her analysis before and after, is the role of experience: both the student teachers and their surrounding actors/actresses often repeat the idea (which Britzman calls a myth and a mantra) that "one learns from experience": she questions experience and whether we learn from it. She raises the ugly head of interpretation, as well as personal biography, which also affects interpretation of experience.
In the idealized story of learning to teach ["we learn from experience" and "practice makes perfect"], classroom experience guarantees the teacher's continuity and progress. And while, of course, familiarity with the teacher's work does matter, it is not a direct line to insight. For the newcomer, more is at stake because he or she already feels the teacher's work is uncannily familiar and utterly strange. In the daily work of learning to teach, experience in education feels discontinuous, disjointed, fragmented, and alienating...

Despite the persistency of cultural myths that position the teacher as expert, as self made, as sole bearer of power, and as a product of experience, those learning to teach feel a rupture between the ethic and the experience, because learning to teach constitutes a time of biographical crisis as it simultaneously invokes one's autiobiography. That is, learning to teach is not a mere matter of applying decontextualized skills or of mirroring predetermined images; it is time when one's past, present, and future are set in dynamic tension. Learning to teach - like teaching itself - is always the process of becoming: a time of formation and transformation, of scrutiny into what one is doing, and who one can become.

Doug's story is one close to life and death. It is very different from classroom experience because of the political overtones in that latter environment. When veteran teachers say "learn from experience" they may mean "learn to suppress your own voice and learn to speak with the voice of authority; use the authoritative discourse, and take on the mantle of maintaining the status quo. Do not allow your own personal feelings to take control."

The rather difficult theoretical passages at the beginning and end of the book make more sense after one reads the trainee-teacher stories. There, thanks to Britzman's theoretical perspectives, the banal experiences take on a near-tragic dimension. 

Here's Britzman later, talking about one trainee teacher's experience in particular:
Like his cooperating teacher, Roy Hobbs, Jack believed experience was a problem of already possessing knowledge, not the process by which this knowledge is constructed, interpreted, and transformed. Jack could not conceive of how one comes to know. So while he maintained that experience makes the teacher, he could not account for how that process occurs or how knowledge positions experience. The problem was that Jack had borrowed a discourse that was incapable of doing anything other than positioning experience as the ground of knowledge. Such a discourse would not help him with the complications he lived. At this point, all Jack was learning from his experience was that simply being there was no guarantee of pedagogy.

There is a further link between Britzman's analysis and Doug's story: Doug tells what happens but not how he felt. The reader is left to infer this from phrases like
I stopped with barely a wheel's width between the ravine and my right rear tire.
One of the trainee-teachers is suddenly ordered, as he arrives at school, to drop the regular syllabus for the day in exchange for a "discussion" about a powerful TV-movie shown the previous evening called "The Day After". Jack, the trainee, works evenings so didn't actually see it, but his ass is saved thanks to video. He just has time to see the program before class. His cooperating teacher (the one who normally teaches the class) is there in the classroom: after a few chaotic attempts to get a discussion going by Jack, Roy, the cooperating teacher, speaks -

For the next twenty minutes, no student speaks. Roy Hobbs has the floor. He recounts the horrors of nuclear winter, describes the four ways nuclear war kills, compares historical devastations, and discusses the technical features of nuclear weapons. Finally, Jack regains the floor.

Britzman's analysis:
It may well be that the discursive practices of gender identity thwarted Roy and Jack's attempts to explore the human issues of nuclear war. Rather than discuss the depression, fears, and vulnerability - the subtext of the film - Roy and Jack distanced their emotional response with an excessive focus on the instrumental features of nuclear war. ..  Both men  appeared to overcompensate for their felt powerlessness by stressing the destructive power of nuclear weapons.

Altho not an easy book to read, I am finding it rich and full of potential. While reading it, I could feel things shifting in the deep, like psychological tectonic plates. It brings to the fore such questions as why I teach, what my model or image of a "teacher" is, what it is I'm trying to achieve, and whether it is possible within the system I'm working in. Disturbing, in some ways. Are "my" ideas really my own? Or am I playing out someone else's script? Or (more likely), MANY people's different scripts?

I'll need to read the stories again, but the impression I received was a depressing one: as children we enter school with high hopes and expectations, and all too often those hopes and expectations are slowly crushed as we discover that a) school isn't fun (after a certain age), and b) it's not INTENDED to be fun, in other words, our teachers do not necessarily have our best interests at heart; there's another agenda going on. And in a way which Britzman examines, trainee teachers re-enact this when they enter the classroom again as teachers. Another key theme of the book is the split between the official discourse and the private one. This is highlighted most poignantly in one teacher's experience. Jamie Owl undergoes a gruelling, soul-searching and emotionally difficult few weeks, during which she at one point decided to give up the whole thing:

A few days after her internship ended, Jamie was required to attend a two-day debriefing workshop for student teachers at State University School of Education. There, she filled out the remaining certification forms, attended a series of workshops ranging from how to prepare for job interviews to sexual harrassment at the workplace, and was confronted with a workshop that required reflection on the student teaching experience. But Jamie deeply resented the workshop's underlying assumption that student teaching had been a good time for all and now that it was over, everyone would naturally enter the teaching profession. She felt the workshop's tone invalidated her entire experience. As a last form of protest, Jamie walked out of this last workshop session.

I remember sitting in the final workshop and everyone was saying it was wonderful. Student teaching was wonderful. And it was like, what is wrong with me and what are they looking at? What's happening here? And is it so wrong to see these things and question these things and not have a happy time?

Many of the questions Britzman and her narrative raise, resonate with me. I've been purging my bloglines subs because reading blogs is taking up too much time. But it's not just blogging that's robbing me of my God-given hours: my job and related responsibilities are taking up far too much of my time. And when I examine it, it's not "the job" alone, but my image of the job, my image of what a teacher does (and does not do).

I've moaned about Moodle on this blog before, and while it has been a "learning experience", I probably won't use Moodle next semester. Trying to track students' homework for the purposes of final grades has been a horrendous task. I'm not the world's most organized person and simple things knock me of course - after bringing up several assignments on Moodle and checking off students who completed them, I then take a break. When I return to my screen, I realize I haven't fixed on a system to tell me which assignments I've checked and which I have not. On my screen is an assignment with names of students who completed it. On my printed-out Excel chart is a list of my students with check marks by the names that completed the assignment. When did I make these check marks? Has anyone added their assignment to the Moodle since I made my list?

All these myriad details that just take up too much time. I'm going back to paper and pencil from next semester.

By a mysterious combination of exterior and interior forces, I find myself living a lifestyle that I did not imagine, and that I don't like. My aggregator lists are just the first to go. I need to redesign my whole existence.

August 03, 2006

No guilt over blogline purges

I'm feeling no guilt whatsoever, only pure, blessed relief, after purging my bloglines subscriptions. And now, thanks to hu and David Weinberger, I can feel even snobbish about it!
No, I'm not keeping up with your blog.

I would like to. I really would. I like it and I like you.

But we're now well past the point where any of us can keep up with all the blogs worth reading from the people worth keeping up with. Even with an aggregator.

I just can't do it any more.

Does relying on technology stop us using our brains?

I thought it might, so I was interested to read this article.

August 02, 2006

Digitalising those old records

Yesterday, I made a couple of CDs from some old records I have. 33s. One was very poor quality (the sound, not the music), which I was very disappointed about as it contains one of my favourite pianists, Stefan Askenase, playing one of my favourite pieces, Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor.

The CD tracks are now in my iTunes, but the pops and crackles almost drown out the piano in some parts. I wonder if there's a way to clean this up that doesn't cost a fortune? (I was unable to find a CD of the Askenase recording).

I probably couldn't afford this kind of technology. Check out the two versions of the amazing Cortot. Stunning.