Wednesday, February 24, 2010


You can observe a lot just by watching. ~Yogi Berra

I've just begun my field experience for this semester. I'm lucky enough to have the chance to observe a Kindergarten class. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but the most interesting part of this student teaching observation is that I have the chance to observe. Mindfully so. How much does this come up in life, that you can just sit quietly and watch it all happen?

Even in these usual circumstances, I don't sit much. I'm constitutionally unable to sit while others are working, so I figure out something useful to do in the classroom I'm visiting and I do it. Even so, there are moments when I really don't have a job, and all I can do is watch.

When I'm simply watching in a classroom, instead of being either a teacher or a student, I see things I wouldn't otherwise see. For example, I used to know a teacher (not the current teacher I'm observing, who is absolutely lovely, by the way) who didn't like to be kept waiting when she called on a child whose hand was raised. She would say the child's name, and if he or she took a long pause before speaking, she was say, "Too long!" and move on to another raised hand. This teacher had a lot of great qualities, and no doubt she picked up this technique somewhere as a means to teach children to think through their responses before they raised their hands.

But I wonder if she would have kept using this technique if she saw what I saw. She was busy, thinking about several things and trying to deliver content at the same time. But I was just observing, so my eye could linger on one little boy who had just received a "Too long!" His face sagged inward, he slumped his small shoulders, and he looked down at the carpet. Did he learn the intended lesson, that he needed to think through his responses before he raised his hand? I don't know. But through watching him, I could gather that he learned that raising his hand is not something he planned to do again anytime soon.

What else would I learn if I had the chance to sit and observe my own classroom? It's a great argument for videotaping class sessions, and going back over them later, to pick up the small cues that I missed in the moment. Does anyone do this? What did you find out?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My new friend TED

So, I've just crawled out of my cave, where I've clearly been living, to learn about TED. I'm pretty amazed it's been around for so long without my notice.

You've heard about it, no doubt. But just in case, you, too, are a cave-dweller, here's the story in brief:

At the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, speakers are asked to speak about one big idea for 18 minutes. No more, no less. (I haven't yet found the reason for this specific number, so if you know, fill me in.) It started in the 80s with people who were connected to the Silicon Valley, so the ideas shared were largely about technology and design. But the concept has evolved to encompass the scope of human thought and endeavor, so the speakers now come from a huge variety of disciplines. They speak before a live audience, and then their talks are disseminated on the web. Because, as the tag line goes, they are "ideas worth spreading."

You know how once you know about something, you suddenly see it absolutely everywhere? This has been my experience with TED. They just had their 2010 conference, so it makes sense that there is an up-tick in internet traffic about it.

For example, I read about Jamie Oliver's 18 minutes on educating children about healthy food on a couple of Blogs I Love, Teacher Tom and Bakers and Astronauts. Then, a friend forwarded to me a link to Aimee Mullins stunningly great 18 minutes on making use of adversity. And then, someone on Facebook posted Sir Ken Robinson's compelling 18 minutes, in which he asks if schools kill creativity. Intrigued, I dug into the TED archives on their website, and found another education-related 18 minutes from Dave Eggers that I'd love for you to see.

18 minutes is just long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to feel like you can just sit and watch one (or two) without clearing your schedule. (By the way, the TED site seems to offer some 6-minute and even 3-minute presentations, too.)

I can tell my beautiful new relationship with TED is just getting started. What are your favorite TED talks?

A side note: the Sir Ken Robinson talk was posted by a very socially conservative Facebook friend of mine. I wasn't sure that I'd relate to a view of education that this friend agreed with enough to post in his status. As it turned out, I loved what Sir Robinson had to say, which reminded me that my sources for inspiration and growth can surprise me, and it's best for me to keep an open mind. This, I would venture to say, is what the spirit of TED is all about.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heavy lifting for your book list

A couple of months ago, I read Johnathon Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher, and I promised myself I would read more of his sobering work.

So, I read Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. (It came out in 2005, so I bet many of you have read this.) I thought while reading, why haven't I heard this perspective more frequently, from more quarters? Why aren't we talking about this? Indeed, it's a question that Kozol poses himself toward the end of the book. "It's hidden in plain view," he says.

In brief, his point is this: too many black schoolchildren go to schools that are nearly 100% African American, with very high rates of poverty, with extremely low graduation rates and even lower college admission rates, with over-crowded classrooms and decrepit facilities. This has the effect of cutting them off from the mainstream of American society, which carries over from their school days into limited opportunities in their adult lives.

While I was reading this book, someone saw the cover and said to me, "Apartheid? Well, that's overstating it a little, isn't it?" I didn't say anything at the time, as I had just begun, and I honestly wasn't yet sure if I thought Kozol was overstating his case or not.

Now that I have read it, I do not think Kozol is overstating the separation of the races in American public schools today, nor the negative impact of that separation. "Apartheid" is a razor-sharp word, and makes readers extremely uncomfortable--a reaction, no doubt, that Kozol and his editors were specifically going for when they chose the title and stark cover design for this book.

Interestingly, though, the prose within doesn't match the cover. Kozol is an excellent writer and debater, highly skilled at probing points and dismantling opposing viewpoints, but he is not shrill or coarse as this cover might lead you to expect. Instead of being hammered with angry discourse, I found passionate but polite discussion. It's a really good read, and vitally important to anyone interested in a macro view of the American public education system.

Which should be every American citizen, you know what I mean?

I am really interested in how much Kozol's position on how to intercede for black schoolchildren is in direct contrast to the ideas laid out by Mike Feinburg and Dave Levin (founders of KIPP schools), and other educators who have created highly structured curricula for inner-city children living in poverty. I also recently read Jay Matthews' book Work Hard, Be Nice, which chronicles the development of the KIPP system of schools. I thought that was a fascinating must-read, too. I love the accomplishments of the KIPP schools, and I admire the work and determination of the KIPP educators. But how excited can I get about a program in which I would not want my own two children to enroll? I want nurturing education for my kids. I want open-ended exploration of ideas, and I don't get that impression from KIPP or other programs that are similar to it. Do I think that the needs of inner city children in poverty are really so different from my suburban kids?

Kozol is emphatic that their needs are not different, and that poor black children should get the same forward-thinking education that administrators and teachers tend to arrange for their own children.

I'm thinking this over. I know I have much to learn. I feel a heady level of discomfort talking about the educational needs of inner city children, as I have just a little direct experience (I used to teach a parenting class for teen mothers in an alternative high school in west Dayton). But I also feel that my discomfort is a pretty good indicator that I should read and think more about race, poverty, education, social justice, where they intersect and where they don't and what is our next step.

Read it and let's talk!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The classic roots and wings debate

As I learn about and think about emergent curriculum and the project approach, I wonder about that boundary.

You know the one? The dividing line between how much to direct an activity, and how much to stay quiet and see what develops. When to step in and when to step back. What to limit, and what to purposefully free from limitations.

I'm reminded of the swallows that used to annually built their nest just outside my parents' bedroom window. My parents would lay on their bed and watch the swallows busily craft their new home. Every year they followed a certain pattern somehow passed down to them in bird lore. But the new nest was also a distinct creation, suited to the materials they had at hand, and possibly (may I anthropomorphize?) suited to their own sense of beauty.

Except one year, the swallows got disorganized. They didn't seem to know what to do, my parents reported, and while they worked and worked, they never did come up with a nest that hung together.

I think about balancing this dual need for pattern and no pattern constantly during our Odyssey of the Mind meetings, and it's in the back of my mind as I study early childhood education.

Children need something to start with. A framework. A template. A paradigm. But it must be structured just enough to stimulate creativity without clipping it.

I've recently found Marla McLean's teaching blog, and her long-term dream house project helped me a great deal in thinking about this boundary. She gave very specific rules to follow at some steps along the journey, and then some steps were as wide open as the ocean. She also started with a story, so that the children were all working from a shared frame of reference.

The results are breathtaking, but it's really the process that is so beautiful. Have a look here, here, here, and here to follow the evolution of their dream houses. Oh, heck, just read the whole blog. And if it's taking a moment longer than usual to load, it's because of the gorgeous photos she posts, and they are worth waiting for.

AND, they are not done yet. Now they are writing about their dream houses.

Thanks, Marla!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In the key of snow

The snow fairies came for a picnic.

More snow, another foot or so, is due any time now. The refrigerator, the book basket, and the craft supplies are all well stocked. My own little family is doing just fine in the biggest snow in DC in 90 years, but I worry about the people in my town who are out of power, or who are sick, or who must go to work. I know how fortunate we are.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Emu teeth and other internet lies

This is a real emu. See his beak?

This is fake.

You probably knew that, but allow me to share a little story.

My daughter is doing a report on an animal in her 2nd grade class, and she chose an emu. She wanted an animal 1, with a funny-sounding name, and 2, that she knew nothing about before doing the report. I admired both those reasons.

So we sat down at my laptop together and went to a few reputable sites on animals, and she wrote down some facts on emus.

Then she decided to print out a couple of pictures. We went to google images, she typed in "emu," and picture #2 above was the first one that popped up.

Wow! We said. That's astonishing, I said. I explained to her how surprised I was, because I'd never heard of a bird with teeth before, let alone canine teeth, and we talked about how the kind of teeth you have shows what kind of food you eat. I said I was surprised that what we'd read so far hadn't mentioned anything about teeth, and we needed to do some more research. I was thinking of the platypus which is only one of two mammals on the planet that lays eggs, and the platypus is also from Australia, so could the emu be another example of species blending that I'd never heard of? The sad truth, gentle reader, is that I bought it. Of course this emu with teeth is just someone online having a bit of fun and doctoring photos.

So we did further research and found out we'd been had.

I was embarrassed, but this was a teachable moment if I'd ever seen one, so I called to my 4th grade son, and we all studied this photo carefully and talked about how real it looks. Never, I said, think that just because it's online, it's true. Especially stuff drawn randomly in a google search. There is a wealth of wonderful and useful information, but there is also a whole flotilla of silly jokes and downright lies, and it's up to us to check and double check any information gleaned from the internet.

And other sources of information too, for that matter.

I hope they remember this. Ha! I hope I do, too!