February 28, 2007

Miss one, get three!

I missed Paul Nation in Tokyo the other day, but thanks to sista k, I discovered
  1. a link to a TESOL online webcast Nation did recently
  2. sista k's blog Teaching to Learn
  3. Japan Action Research, another EFL-er in Japan who is interested in vocabulary learning and teaching, and actually quotes a Question and Answer from Paul Nation's online TESOL vocabularly seminar
Miss one, get three free!

The Education Debate

Dan Meyer posted a thoughtful piece after watching Freedom Writers, an(other) inspirational school movie. I'm unable to post comments on Dan's blog for some reason, so I'm posting my comment here.

Quick update: IMDB offers quotes from the movie, including this:
Andre: It's the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb.
Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz.
Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?

The dumb class.

a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with JD Hirsch's push for a unified curriculum, "What every child should know" etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours "hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning". Not that I don't believe in those approaches; it's just that it's easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.

That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is described in Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)

Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians - people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth - and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring ? sadly ? is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.

And on which "side" should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?

It's not black or white, and it's not a 2-sided issue, "caring vs professionalism". It's a lot more involved and complex than that.

Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. The Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn't believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?

(I only know that it’s corrosive ... on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis...to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane.... no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn't martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)

Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how "our" approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn't believe any of that shit and he couldn't have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.

I'm not a big fan of the "inspiring teacher" film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a "system" that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.

(Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals [would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?], the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the "student-centred, project-based, free expression" approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)

Finally, here's a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you're still here, thanks for reading:
Every now and then, I go to some event -- I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor -- and essentially ask people why they're there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets...
So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.
(My emphasis).

(Related comment on Borderland)

February 25, 2007

Too late!

Damn! I missed it.

Inspired by reading Paul Nation's tome on Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, I've been surfing the 'Net and tagging all kinds of goodies with vocabulary and extensivereading. Rob  Waring, who's made an extensive study of um extensive reading (and  listening) and vocabulary learning. On his page of Word Frequency Lists, he writes Interested in Corpora? Then Mike Barlow's website is the best there is.
I click and discover the double coincidence that a) Mike Barlow is based in Auckland, NZ, which I visited 15 months ago, and 2) that he isn't in Auckland today but is in Tokyo to present at the Intensive Course in Corpus Linguistics with none other than Paul Nation.


February 24, 2007

MP3 patent fine for Microsoft could have huge repercussions

Oops! From the BBC:

News that Microsoft has been fined for violating MP3
patents belonging to Alcatel-Lucent could have widespread fallout for
the industry.

Experts now suggest the US ruling could lead to hundreds
of firms - including Apple and RealNetworks - being pursued for
payments relating to the format....

"Microsoft is saying 'we paid for a licence to use it from the company that everybody believes is the licensee'," Mr Glick says.

"But clearly there is something in that, the court in
the States has found that Alcatel-Lucent has rights towards this that
aren't covered by the licence."

February 22, 2007

Simile of the day

Simile of the (mine, at least) day:

white house press secretary tony snow is back peddling like lance armstrong gliding into a steroids testing station

Go see Skippy for what this is all about. (And before you complain, Skippy ALWAYS writes in lowercase - it's his trademark.)

February 21, 2007

Individualized feeds for tags

Dan asks for help:
I want to split my RSS feeds by tags. One feed for posts tagged with “lesson,” another for the rest.
A commenter explains how to do this with WordPress. It sounds really simple, and gives me an idea: I could create separate feeds for different classes, yet still post everything onto the one blog.

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February 17, 2007

Al Gore presents...

From a link on Harold Jarche's blog, I discovered Garr Reynold's blog in which he recently analyzed some presentations given at the TED 2006 conference.

Well, today in my Google Reader was a link to Jay Cross' Google Reader Shared Items page, and no 2 was Al Gore's presentation at TED 2006.

I have yet to see An Inconvenient Truth, but I'm already one of the converted (have been since I was about 16 when I did my own research after reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), and I strongly agree with Gore:
"The climate crisis will only be stopped by an unprecedented and sustained global movement", Gore said
and the Internet is one way this global movement can happen at the speed it needs to happen and reaching the critical mass of people it needs to reach.

I didn't get much of an impression of Gore while he was Vice-President, but I recently saw him on Japanese TV, interviewed by a gaijin TV "talento" who revealed in the interview that he was a graduate of Al Gore's alma mater. Al Gore had obviously done his homework on the program that was interviewing him; not only that but he also talked about the Japanese kanji for "crisis" and how it includes a character that means opportunity (the second of the compound character "kiki" meaning crisis - 危機), whereas the English word "crisis" only suggests something negative. A smart guy. I was impressed. Check out the video.

And Garr Reynolds is presenting on presenting at the Apple Store in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, Japan on Feb 25th.

February 16, 2007

Informal learning and PKM

Aaron Campbell blogged about From Courses to Learning Streams. The idea sounds ripe,

allowing students the freedom to assemble the pieces of their (own) course

but I feel there are more issues involved. One is the problem of information overload. So I was intrigued to read Harold Jarche's blog entry on precisely this aspect. Quoting Jon Husband referring to Constellation W,

This next era will create a society of knowledge; its principal tool will be the Internet 2 while its principal handicap will be too-large amounts of information that is not in context.

Harold has developed his own PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) system to deal with this. Check out the diagram, and the comment from Stephen Downes. (More on his PKM here). In another entry (I just added Jarche to my Google Reader, so these entries are coming like British busses - all at once), Harold quotes Downes asking 'what's the underlying theory of informal learning?' The post includes a link to the Informal Learning Blog, and a post by Jay Cross which likens learning to a sound mixer:

Imagine, if you will, a learning mixer. You could slide the switches to
give the learners a little more control here while shaving development
time there...The Delivery slider moves from courses and push (formal) to
conversations and pull (informal). The Duration slider goes from hours
(formal) to minutes (informal). The Subject matter ranges from
curriculum (what the organization says, formal) to discovery (what the
individual needs, informal) Timing goes from outside of work to during
work. Development time ranges from months (events, formal) to minutes
(connections, informal).

Harold has a more recent entry on informal learning or what some have dubbed free range learning. Perhaps this is close to what Aaron was blogging about.

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February 15, 2007

Web/School2.0 - what's it good for?

I just posted the following comment on Chris Lehmann's blog. See, I'd just read Pissed Off, and then read Chris Lehmann's entry, and the incongruity hit me. I had to say something. What do you think?

I'm a sucker for technology. I blog, read blogs, use Google Reader daily. Love it. But reading this post by Pissed Off Teacher (and then this one) just totally depressed me. Ruined my day. Can technology help here, or is it just insultingly irrelevant? I would suggest that if it can't help in this practical and political matter, then School2.0 or whatever you want to call it isn't worth much. Is Web2.0 just mental masturbation, something to stave off the boredom in between leaving our comfortable middle-class homes and returning to them in the evening? Or is it able to make a difference in the face of this kind of (to my mind) criminal negligence (and bureaucratic, systemic negligence, which is far harder to identify and root out)?

I'm sure this teacher is not alone or in a unique situation. Solidarity and legal advice, perhaps financial support seem to be needed here.

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February 14, 2007

A different work/play space

As a follow-up to my previous post on work environment, here's a pic of a different environment my partner-in-crime has created in a room which was not provided for that purpose. Unfortunately, this room will have to be dismantled in a few weeks, so I guess this photo has historical value! There's of course nothing stopping us from re-creating this kind of thing in our own private offices (and we will). But what we are hoping for is a bigger space, so that we can entertain a number of folks without everyone being squashed up nose-to-nose.

Your teaching environment

It's a meme that's going around. No-one tagged me (yet, boo-hoo), but this blog post by Eric, complete with neat Gliffy diagram) sparked my imagination. Where I work, we're not allowed to put things on the walls or leave non-standard (i.e. personalized) furniture in any classroom. The classrooms don't belong to any teacher, or any class; they are supposed to be "neutral" so that anyone can use them. My partner-in-crime once put some posters up in a classroom, but someone complained and he had to take them down (he was miffed, to say the least; perhaps they both were).

I think it's a cultural thing. The posters were nice: colourful and bright. But! They are the signs of someone else's presence in the room, and that disturbs some teachers. Also, the posters were in English, and that classroom is used by a lot of different teachers teaching a lot of different subjects, of which English is only one.

I think Japanese would feel that posters on the wall were SOMEONE ELSE'S POSTERS and therefore an infringement on their personal space and autonomy, whereas I suspect many Westerners wouldn't mind, and might actually welcome the introduction of colour to the bland, off-white blank walls.

Classes finished several weeks ago here in Japan (none now until April, but it's not like we're on vacation on anything, ya know, there's tons to do like like like grades 'n' stuff really there is). I'll try and put up some photos of my workspace. (I see WriteToMyBlog just added Flickr functionality but once again WriteToMyBlog refuses to publish my blog entries. Maybe it's personal: "you seriously want me to publish this? Are you SURE??? I don't think so. Forget it, pal. The world's better off without it. Trust me."

So it's back to the ol' reliable Performancing.
Damn. Can't figure how to persuade Performancing to upload a photo.

So, what's your workspace look like?

Learning to listen to each other

I recently blogged about a cyber spat which seemed to me to contain some elements of cross-cultural (mis)communication. I've just read Eric Hoefler's post on the NCLB debate. Eric says pretty much what I wanted to say. Only better.

February 12, 2007

February 10, 2007

New photo

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I switched to the "new" (Google-run) Blogger. It took me a week-10 days to figure things out, but after a couple of false starts (like choosing an inconvenient Google account to associate with this blog), I'm finally here, and quite happy with the environment. What do you think? I'm not sure about the colour scheme, but it will do for now.

I lost everything in my old sidebar when I moved, but manage to get it back, more or less. I took the opportunity of pruning my blogroll. If you think you should be on there, let me know.

February 08, 2007

Web 2.0 video

Interesting and well-made video here . I wish I could make videos like this. Thanks to Chris Lehmann's Practical Theory blog for the link .

NextGen Teachers

I recently got an email telling me about this edtech site NextGen Teachers. It looks interesting, and has a podcast which I plan to subscribe to, when my procrast... ahem, grades are all done.

There's an interesting blog entry on a teacher's use of a wiki, which I plan to revisit and explore later. It includes a link to a wiki being used for a course on sports. Both the course and the wiki look very interesting. I like Kristian Still's definition of a wiki as "a three-dimensional ring-binder". I also like his metaphor of successful students as "academic athletes".

February 07, 2007

Cross-cultural communication?

Borderland recently posted about an online debate/bustup. Follow the links if you're interested. I don't live or work in the US and never have, so I know nothing about NCLB ('No Child Left Behind'), altho if I consider it came from the same mindset that gave us the Clear Skies Initiative and the Healthy Forests Initiative   a little cynicism would not be out of place.

Anyway, the debate reminded that cross-cultural communication is something dear to my heart.

Can't WriteToMyBlog

Thru Borderland's Google Reader feed I discovered WriteToMyBlog It looks cool, and I'm all for web-based applications. Only one problem - I can't for the life of me get it to work! I always get an error message when I click "Manage posts" or "publish". Can't be bothered to write for help.

Update: I take that back. I've finally managed to get something posted, after going around and around in some kind of Kafkaesque loop. Plus, for some reason all the <> and () and similar characters were all screwed up which took 5 minutes of just editing. Not sure it's worth it.

I just added this post: after writing in the edit window, I click "publish". A new window opens with the editing window still open. The new window is the main WriteToMyBlog window, which shows me which ID I'm logged in under. There's a bunch of options and buttons, fortunately including the one I want: PUBLISH (why are all the others there? I just GOT here from clicking the PUBLISH button, so take me straight there already). Then I get another funny window which lists the blogs listed under my login ID. I click the one I want and hit PUBLISH NOW. Am I published yet? The editing window is STILL open. Weird.

Now, how do I create a NEW post?

Can't get Ecto's trial version to work, either. Oh screw it.

Zoho looks interesting (via the Fischbowl ). I think I'll drop all this grading and go and explore! On the other hand, maybe later.

Leaderless classes -idea versus reality

Borderland posted his response to a current meme on leadership. The leadership meme doesn't interest me but this caught my eye:
This is all good in theory, but classrooms don’t often work like this. In the classroom I’d like to be more supportive and less directive (Who wouldn’t!), but those groups are rare. These aphorisms represent little bits and pieces of an ideal.
Not too long ago I realized that my aim in the classroom was to uncover and encourage genuine learning. This is my personal goal, over and above the syllabus and curriculum. The realization was brought on by the usual crap students ask you: "How many times can I be absent (and still pass the course)? How many words do we have to write? How many times have I been absent? Do we have to write in English?", etc., etc. The whines and wiles of people trained in "doing school" as opposed to genuinely learning anything useful.

OK, fine, nice ideal. But then I have to face the questions that inevitably come up: if children are naturally curious (I have four of my own, but if you don't have children, or don't believe this, read John Holt), then what happens to that curiosity and desire to learn in school? And what is or might be stifling that curiosity and promoting this interfering utilitarianism instead?

It was reading JD Hirsch that reminded me, or pointed out to me, an obvious, if unwelcome, truth:
teaching or tutoring an individual child is very different from teaching a class of 20 (or 30 or 40 or 50). It's one thing to understand how human beings learn, but quite another to create a practical, workable curriculum and syllabus for a class of 20 boisterous youngsters. As Gatto points out, it is well known that the tutorial is the best (most effective) teaching method. But how can you have tutorials in a class of 30? It's not impossible, but...

My point is that unfortunately but inevitably, management becomes a large and urgent issue.

It's grading season here in Japan. Lots of papers, some with names missing, some with dates missing (which assignment is this supposed to be?), some names written in kanji,
which I can sometimes read, but not always which means I then have to identify the student via their student number. You get the idea.

No doubt I'm getting crustier as I get older, less patient, but these kinds of minor irritations make me resolve to be much tougher next semester, even if it has little to do with "nurturing genuine learning":
  1. Any assignment or email without a name in Roman characters gets tossed
  2. Any assignment without a date gets tossed
Borderland's quote of the I Ching reminded me of something I came across a while back and would love to explore more (although it's highly unlikely to be of any practical use to me in my teaching situation here in a collectivist society): leaderless teams.

This reminds me of an interesting post Aaron Campbell wrote recently about writing for an audience or to create community. I'm still thinking about that one, too.

February 03, 2007

The politics of education, and the importance of being a foreigner

Class are over, and although grades still remain to be done, blogging and reading are still much more fun distractions.

I'm now reading Between Borders : pedagogy and the politics of cultural studies, edited by Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. I find Giroux rather heavy going, and the cost vs value index is rather high (i.e. it takes a lot of hard work to extract a nugget of valuable meaning). But I find the nuggets valuable enough that I'm prepared to sift through another tome (this time it's mostly written by others).

Anyway, here's a nugget, right in the introduction:
it is necessary that we begin to imagine cultural studies not simply as the critique of disciplines [or, I might add, as simply another discipline] but as an alternative to the humanities themselves

(Michael Denning, 1992, 41 "The Academic Left and the Rise of Cultural Studies", Radical History Review 54:21-48)
(If you're like me, and enjoy putting faces to names, then go here to see a video of a Denning lecture: “Neither Capitalist Nor American: The Democracy as Social Movement.” DeVane Tercentennial Lecture. Yale University. February 13, 2001. (link found at Michael Denning Essays)

I think this is the first time I have come across a clear cut suggestion for a replacement to the humanities as a discipline. (It's also the first time I've ever heard of or read the name Denning.)

And here's another nugget, from the same chapter, by Lawrence Grossberg :
three models of a progressive pedagogical practice. The first, a hierarchical practice, assumes that the teacher already understands the truth to be imparted to the student. ... the problems with such a practice become more apparent when the teacher assumes that he or she understands the real meanings of particular texts and practices, the real relations of power embodied with them... The second, a dialogic practice, aims to allow the silenced to speak; only when absolutely necessary does it claim to speak for them. But this assumes that they are not already speaking simply because we, the teachers, do not hear them, perhaps because they are not speaking the right languages or not saying what we would demand of them. Moreover, such a practice fails to see that there are often real material and social conditions that have disenabled people from speaking at particular places, in particular ways, at particular moments.
(My emphasis.)

I feel that much of value can be obtained by communication, by exchange, by trying to communicate, by failing to communicate, by being frustrated in our communicative attempts, and particularly by talking about those failures and frustrations and difficulties with not just people of our own culture but also (and more importantly) with people from the other culture (whatever that may be). I feel that so much can be learned and gained from this exchange: insight into the ways that our own personal behaviour, our own values, are culturally directed; insights into our own essential humanity.

Unfortunately, even though my American colleagues and I are surrounded by people who are bilingual or close to it, and who have all spent some time living and studying in a country other than their native one, our Japanese colleagues don't seem to have the time or the interest to just sit around after meetings and "compare notes". Perhaps they just can't stand us. Perhaps the idea of hanging around speaking English or trying to decipher our tortured Japanese just isn't their cup of (green) tea. Or perhaps they don't realize, or have forgotten, the importance for a community of mutually talking and listening

I was reminded of this by an email exchange with a colleague. After a meeting, my (native-speaking) partner in crime and I discussed it and compared notes. The upshot was that we came to a clearer understanding of what had transpired and also realized we both felt strongly about several points. Although the meeting was over, we summarized our feelings and sent off an email to a Japanese colleague who had also attended. The reply came back: "I mostly agree with you. But why didn't you speak up in the meeting?"

Why indeed? Well, one obvious answer was that our Japanese language ability is still such that it takes us time to understand and to reflect. Most of the time in meetings, our energy is spent on just understanding what is being said or what is written in documents. Evaluating what we read and hear, that takes more time. That process is greatly helped by having someone to talk to about it, usually immediately afterwards. Comparing notes is often like watching Rashomon: we discover that we often brought away quite different interpretations, saw and heard quite different things.

Despite being nearly fluent in English, and having lived and studied abroad (in the US), our Japanese colleague seems to fail to see that there are often real material and social conditions that have disenabled people from speaking at particular places, in particular ways, at particular moments.

In the movie Rashomon, the viewer eventually learns what "really" happened when the victim's ghost tells the story. However, the viewer also learns something else: that different participants can and do have very different perspectives on the same event, even if, unlike the Rashomon characters, they have no particular reason to deliberately lie and distort their perceptions. The viewer's experience is enriched by witnessing all the characters' take on the central event, as well as by finding out "who dunnit" in the end.

But also, our Japanese colleague who asked why we didn't speak up at the meeting, seems to be forgetting the reasons he (or anyone) might not speak up in meetings: the fact that hardly anyone speaks up at meetings, for instance! The fact that "face" is so much more important in this society than in the ones my colleague and I grew up in; perhaps (gasp!) the impression that so few people seem to genuinely care about what is decided in meetings and seem happy to just rubber-stamp; perhaps (gasp! shock!) the view that so few meeting agenda items are worth getting worked up about. In other words, yup, we gaijin are human too.

Not only are we "gaijin", but in a sense, so is everyone. My Japanese colleagues need no reminding of the first proposition; persuading them of the second will be hard work. (Link is to a members' page; registration is free).

February 01, 2007

Student work-study opportunities

Neat little video. Can you figure out how they made it?

Festoon makes videos fun

OK this is a product plug, tho I haven't yet figured out exactly what Festoon does or is, but the video is fun.

A Girl Like Me

A few days ago, that manly Christian heterosexual Jesus' General provided the link to this amazing short documentary A Girl Like Me.

And today, via Steve Olson's blog, I discover that Kiri Davis who made the video is herself an 18-year-old highschool student who is now attracting attention thanks to her video.

Check it out. It's an impressive, powerful and moving piece of work by any standards. And be sure to watch the news item as well that provides the background and a short interview with the young movie-maker herself.