Friday, January 29, 2010

Leaders in education

I have a cool assignment this semester in my policy class: I need to select a leader in education, research his or her life and work, and write a profile.

Who are some heroes of yours? Who do you recommend?

[not] an ode to passive voice

One of my textbooks has been written entirely in the passive voice. Assessment has been chosen as the subject matter. Coma has been slipped into. Disbelief is registered that editing wasn't applied. Teeth are grinding.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pen, paper, and a new idea

I love my teaching literacy class. Today, in small groups, we went through a stack of student writing samples. We talked about the stages represented in the writing:

pre-phonemic: strings of letters or near-letters without any attempt at word groupings

early phonemic: some matches of initial consonants with their corresponding phoneme, evidence of word groupings

phonetic: letters represent phonemes, some evidence of knowledge of sentence structure, beginning, middle, and end consonants, often readable by others without assistance from the author

transitional: a vowel in every syllable, a lot of phonemic accuracy, accurate spelling on sight words, attempts at other conventions

conventional: most conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and syntax in place

But these stages are points on a continuum, of course. Thinking of a writing sample in a particular stage is only helpful if we're not too rigid about it.

There is a big emphasis in this class on teaching writing as an essential part of the literacy package--we don't teach only reading, but reading and writing together. Like cross-training for an athlete--training in one sport builds skills in the other, and vice-versa.

My happiest memories in school involved a pen, paper, and a new idea. The freedom! The possibilities!
I love those early writings so much--the intense labor. The inventiveness. The brave willingness to say, well, I don't know much about this, but I'm willing to give it a go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Helping children help Haiti

We adults may donate to Haiti relief and get involved in bigger, more direct ways, but I'm intrigued by some of the small ideas people have out there. Because small donations add up.

My children's elementary school is collecting coins. This encourages the children to give from their own piggy banks--a size of donation that's in their grasp. But all of it together will add up to something.

I'm reminded of a favorite quote of mine:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything.
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
- Edward Everett Hale

Monday, January 25, 2010

a note about home

This piece is called "Never Leave Home Behind," an original painting by an artist in El Paso named Danita (she goes by her first name only). This one is sold out, but you can see her other work in her Etsy shop, here.
My husband and I just bid on a little house in our neighborhood (we rent right now). We have moved A LOT, and settling down feels so good, I hardly have words for it. We don't actually have our offer approved, so I'll keep you posted, but I have a good feeling about it.
We decided to go with a cozy, 1944 cape cod that needs a lot of TLC, but is on a wonderful, treed lot on a dead end street. We have friends on this street, and there are a dozen or more kids, and it's walking distance to our schools, the Metro, and a little bevy of shops and restaurants called Westover village here in Arlington.
It's going to require jettisoning some of this stuff we've accumulated over the years so that we can shoehorn ourselves in there, but honestly, that sounds good. Purge. Simplify. Lighten up. Settle in. Come home.
My fingers are crossed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A tale of two classes

I have two classes on Thursdays, back to back, and they just met for the first time yesterday.

Boy, is that pairing going to be interesting.

The first is called Assessment. I had a chip on my shoulder when I walked into the room, because I didn't feel happy that 3 credits of this 32 credit program are on assessment alone. This spoke volumes to me of where current public education priorities lie.

But (I bet you saw this coming) the first class already challenged my preconceived notions and forced me to think more deeply about the big picture of assessment, not just the standardized, high-stakes kind that were on my mind. There will be a lot of discussion in this class about informal assessment, and how to use it to evaluate my own teaching. This is a focus that makes sense to me. And regarding standardized testing, the sharp and extremely prepared professor said: "There are rules to follow that are in state law, and I will help you understand them, because you are a professional, and you must know the law."

Okay. 10 minute sprint across campus, and I'm in my Education Policy class. The welcoming, engaging professor shows us a documentary about some young students who organize a cross country trip for their friend with Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy, which becomes an awareness-building tool for wheelchair accessibility and a fundraising tool for DMD research. How their own awareness grew and how they built their coallition was meant as a model for our work in education. She said this: "Anyone who works with young children is an advocate. You are an advocate, and you need to understand policy, so if someone tells you, well, that's the policy and we can't change it, you'll know whether that's true or not."

All five of my classes this semester are challenging and useful, but the juxtaposition of these two classes--these two roles to envision myself in--is likely to break open my head to a lot of new ideas. Break open my heart, too.

PS. I highly recommend that film, Darius Goes West. It's a powerful story, a marvelous cause, and it manages to still be light-hearted and joyful while it takes on a heavy issue. There is no cure for DMD, a genetic disease. It is 100% fatal to the children, mostly boys, who are born with it, and they normally die in their late teens or very early twenties. I just checked, and it doesn't seem to be on Netflix, but I bet it will be in a good public library in your area. Or, if you choose to buy it for $20, $17 of that will go to Charley's Fund, which is working to find a cure within the current DMD kids' generation. Check it out here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A new semester begins

I went back to school today; it's the first day of Spring semester at George Mason University. My break was long enough that I felt rusty and unsure of myself again. I could handle all my classes last time, but can I this time?

It feels a little like taking in a deep breath, and letting it out in mid-May.

So I went to class with a little of the first-day jitters, but now that I'm on my way again, I'm relieved. Clearly, I'm doing what I should be doing, because I love it. I'm one semester closer to my teaching license. My sense of purpose is very strong as I commute on the Metro, as I find my way to class, as I take my notes and ask my questions.

Welcome, Spring semester.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Odyssey of the Mind

I'm the coach for my 4th grade son's Odyssey of the Mind team. While I mean to mostly discuss EARLY childhood eduation in this space, Odyssey is so eye-opening for me, and such an amazing education journey, that I want to share a little about it here, even though the participants are a few years older.

Have you heard of Odyssey of the Mind? A quick overview: in the 70s, a professor of engineering at a community college in New Jersey wanted to get his students excited about their end of semester projects, so he staged a contest. The students loved it, and stimulated by the friendly and open-ended competition, they created some stunning projects. He did it the next year, and then they competed against another college, then some local high schools got involved...and now it's an international non-profit that organizes regional, state, and a world competition each year for kids from Kindergarten through college.

Each team of 4 to 7 kids is given an open ended problem. They have 8 minutes to perform their solution at the competition. To get there, they must work together, learn through trial and error, and dream big.

The white-hot center of the Odyssey experience is a rule called "no outside assistance." This means coach, parents, teachers, siblings, friends--we must all keep quiet. The team and only the team dreams it, plans it, builds it, and performs it. The kids totally own it, from beginning to end.

As coach, I am there to watch for safety issues, to gently remind them of the passing of time, and to make sure that every team member's voice is being heard. Mostly, I'm there to learn. Sometimes I have to cover my mouth with both hands to keep a suggestion from popping out. But I know from experience (this is my fourth year coaching) that if I resist that urge and see what the kids come up with, they will eventually figure out what I had noticed. Or--and this is the magic--what they figure out far outstrips my conventional, ho-hum, grown-up idea.

In Odyssey, the shy perform, the boisterous focus, the artist calculates, the planner dreams. The kids exceed their own expectations. And the adults pray a lot, because all this magic looks exactly like chaos until impossibly late in the game.

This year my son's team is building aircraft that perform different kinds of flights. I'm so worried, because they've talked so much and build so little and the competition marches nearer every day. And at the same time, I'm not worried at all. Ah, Odyssey.

Read more about the program at

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How young is too young for the SAAM?

Edited to mention that this sublime painting is "The Girl I Left Behind" by Eastman Jackson, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

I don't go back to class for another week, so I've been filling my days with the kinds of stuff that is hard to get done when the semester is in full swing: I took the car in for a tune-up, went to the dentist, deep-cleaned the fridge...that kind of thing.

But I also went on a field trip with my son's 4th grade class to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I am so grateful any chance I get to go on a trip with them. Especially an art museum! Especially THIS art museum! Just to be in that building (the third oldest in DC, home of the first patent office, locale of President Lincoln's inaugural ball, home of the stunning new Kogod Courtyard) is enough reason to go, and then the art collection is jaw-dropping. Check it out here.

These fourth graders are getting pretty sophisticated. They were asked to walk through the museum for 1 1/2 hours, pausing to contemplate about 12 different works of art, and they did it. When they were asked for their input, they said things like, "The colors are vibrant." I don't think I knew the word "vibrant" in the 4th grade, ya know? They were great kids, a pleasure to tour with, and I think most of them gained a lot from the experience.

Since I am studying the education of little guys, they were on my mind as we made our way through the SAAM. Could I bring Kindergarteners here? What would I show them? How long could they last? What could I do in advance to prepare them?

My children's school takes the Kindergarteners to the farm. (And that's a terrific field trip. We all love it. Nothing wrong with going to the farm.) It's not until 4th grade that they take them to the art museum. And that seems reasonable to me.

But I didn't always live in the shadow of the Washington Monument. I'm a relative newcomer here, so I'm keenly aware of what a gift it is to be able to hop on a school bus, gaze at a few American treasures, and be back in time for lunch. You can go to a farm in virtually any corner of the US, but there are unique opportunities available when you live here.

So, how could I prepare a group of really young students to get something out of a resource like the SAAM? Perhaps we could study a particular medium, and try it many times ourselves, and talk about the life of a particular artist....and THEN go on the field trip. And only see two or three things before we regroup in the Courtyard (which is its own artistic achievement) to engage in a portable art project of some kind, and a snack. Then perhaps view one more work, then get back on the bus. And go on a January weekday, as we did, when we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Have you tried taking little ones to a place like this, that requires prepping? How did it go? Does it sound like a good use of time and energy?