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I decided to mess around with making a video for my students as I begin to teach research methods to graduate students. In this course I push ideas such as clarity of thinking, accuracy in both thinking and in how one relies on source material, precision in thought processes, relevance of information to one’s argument, the depth and breadth of one’s investigation of both the relevant literature and the methodological approach one takes as a researcher, the logical development of the argument, the significance of the argument and, finally, whether or not one has been fair to all sides of a given position–this last point is not to argue that one cannot take a stand, rather that one must at the very least acknowledge alternative stances and, if one wishes, pick them apart.

This YouTube video will serve as an introduction to the class in which we discuss issues related to the difference between belief and rigorous research. I sort of like what I made here. I think it serves as a good introduction to the topic, but, then, I am the creator and am a bit biased.

My university is insisting that we all teach using technology to a greater extent in order to look good for an accreditation review upcoming in 2010. So there you have it.

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A number of issues jump out as Chicago Public Schools fire 775 teachers, not the least of which is the simple fact that when coupled with a larger than normal retirement pool due to a program called Pension Enhancement, CPS will have thousands of openings in all grades and subject areas this year. As a teacher educator my students are pleased because their chances of landing a job are increased. I am worried, however, that the removal of experience from the classroom exacerbates an already difficult problem for new teachers–who will mentor the new teacher in the classroom. If experience is removed from the schoolhouse then who will be most effected–that’s right, the students.Another problem I see is that the the mass layoff of 11% of the non-tenured staff wreaks of intimidation along with a failure to properly mentor new, inexperienced teachers. The claim of incompetence is belied by the fact that last year, when over 1000 teachers were fired under the provisions of the union contract that provide the principal with absolute power to hire and fire, 11% of those let go were rehired at the school from which they were let go. Politics, not competence, seems to play a role in who goes and who stays.

While teachers suffer, the fact is that students are the ones who are left out in the cold. Building a stable, independent teaching staff is crucial to educating children. Continuity builds safe expectations for children and parents. Failure of the schools to provide proper induction for teachers does not, as School Chief Arne Duncan says, “allow principals to build the best teams for their schools.” The effect it does have is quite the contrary…arbitrary power to hire and fire builds fear and compliance rather that independence and creativity in teachers. Students suffer when their teachers are mere robots delivering compliant scripted lessons in their classrooms.

clipped from www.chicagotribune.com
About 775 probationary teachers in Chicago public schools learned Friday
they are losing their jobs in a purge that district leaders say could improve
the quality of instruction in the system’s most challenged schools.
More teachers were let go last year, when a budget crunch forced schools to
cut hundreds of teaching jobs. This year’s dismissals were triggered largely
by performance issues.
Schools Chief Arne Duncan said the cuts allow principals to build the best
teams for their schools, and they are not to solve budget problems or get rid
of outspoken teachers, as some critics have alleged. He said the quality and
quantity of the teaching recruits this year gives him confidence that these
vacancies will be filled by educators who can better reach students in
hard-to-staff schools.

The cuts represent about 11 percent of the district’s estimated 7,000
non-tenured teachers.

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For the purposes of this post, I define ethics as representing that branch of rigorous thinking that asks questions about human practice and behavior as that practice relates to the good. On this definition, two positions stand out as being at opposite ends of the same continuum. Bakhtin thinks of ethical interactions as being the state in which one is responsible to the Other. Levinas, on the other hand, thinks of ethical in terms of the face-to-face encounter in which one accepts responsibility for the other. The to/for distinction is found in the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Three characters help me to think in terms of this distinction. Charlotte, Templeton and Wilbur, each for different reasons, are characters with whom one can draw on the to/for distinction.

Templeton, the rat, represents the to of Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s sense, one is responsible to the Other, however, as one accepts this responsibility one is acting in one’s own self-interest. For Bakhtin, a personal reward, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is always attached to the act of being responsible to the Other. In the case of Templeton, usually at Charlotte’s urging, he accepts responsibility to Wilbur only when he is convinced that there is something in it for him. Charlotte, on the other hand, is purely Levinasian. She is responsible (better written as Response-Able) for Wilbur. On this stance, Charlotte accepts the idea that she is response-able even before the existence of the Other is known. Response-ability is a selfless act, pointing to the absolute imperative of action for the Other–even at the risk of one’s own existence.Ethical Space

Then there is Wilbur himself. In the story Wilbur is the one who waits. Wilbur is the recipient of Charlotte’s for and Templeton’s to. In a sense, Wilbur’s character provides the mediating tool allowing both Charlotte and Templeton to act to his benefit but Wilbur is not the agent of the to/for. He merely waits, anticipates what is to come. He prays without prayer while he lives his life within the boundary of (not)knowing. In a very real sense, Wilbur is us!

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This week the American Educational Research Association is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. This important conference brings together researchers and teachers from all areas of the spectrum of education and, as such, is one of the more exciting places to be as a professional educator. In this post I am going to summarize some of the more important points I heard today.

David Berliner spoke about the state of education in the United States today as a political space in which the ENDS of education have been taken away from professional educators and the MEANS of education have been corrupted by the reduction of knowing to a single test-score number. As test scores become the ENDS of education, primarily due to NCLB, then the MEANS of education become teaching to the test. When knowledge as an END is replaced by test scores then the only thing worth knowing is “is that going to be on the test?”

Another speaker argued that there is simply too much policy, policy layered upon policy upon policy. Fossilized reforms are something like geological layers as legislators fail to review either old policy prior to passage of new policy or evidence in support of policy legislation in the first place. The result is a web (more like a rabbit warren) of overlapping policies and legislation that boggles even the least capable minds.

Perhaps my favorite speaker argued that we do not live in an age of educational uncertainty. Quite the contrary, NCLB has placed a strangle hold on certainty. Schools are certain as to what programs count and what to teach in order to avoid the degradation of being labeled low performing. The problem is not certainty but faulty logic. NCLB is based on a confused logical structure where knowledge is reduced to test scores, schools are expected to solve social problems, and reading and math instruction are scripted and uniform across irregular contexts. This speaker called not for evidence based teaching as NCLB does, rather he argued that there ought to be EVIDENCE BASED LEGISLATION. I suggested to a colleague sitting next to me that perhaps those that pass the laws ought to be subject to the consequences of their own legislation. Congress ought to be forced to sit for say the 12th grade test. It was also suggested that no legislation be passed that does harm to anyone.

Finally, a speaker argued that education cannot be reduced to a model that corresponds in any way to producing widgets in a factory. By that logic FedX Delivers–Teachers Teach holds supreme. The fact is, however, that teachers do not exist, only teachers in a context exist and only in that context can teachers navigate through the murky waters that make up the classroom. Teaching is not something that can be planned except in broad brush terms if only because the unexpected is bound to happen at any moment of the day. Teachers are not tutor technicians preparing their students for tests. In the end, high stakes testing is blocking effective implementation of curriculum that encourages students to solve problems, to think about difficult problems, to rigorously reflect on ideas and concepts, and to remain curious about the world in which we all live. American educators for years have been critical of the centralization of European and Asian educational systems. The irony is that Europe and Asian nations are becoming decentralized as the United States moves toward a centralized national system of education.

I expect to be NCLB’d out by the end of the week. More to come later.

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Study gives teachers barely passing grade in classroom


The findings, published today in the weekly magazine Science, take teachers to task for spending too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies. They also suggest that U.S. education focuses too much on teacher qualifications and not enough on teachers being engaging and supportive. (emphasis added)

Why would such a conclusion surprise anyone? Given the constraints of NCLB and the emphasis on basic skills as the fundamental outcome of the entire process of education, is it any wonder that teachers spend far too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough time on the stuff that actually matters to educated people? I am not surprised at all. What I am scandalized about, however, is that the research team led by Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia doesn’t address the core of the problem–NCLB as bad school policy. Rather, the research team lead by Pianta choose to engage in teacher bashing because teachers are an easy target. Better the National Institutes of Health, the funders of the study, should look at the underlying cause for schools reducing curriculum to only the basic skills that are tested. But, why kid myself. The NIH is a federal agency under the ultimate control of the Bush Administration; heaven only knows this group couldn’t stand for NCLB to look bad. Denial, Mr. President, ain’t just a river in Africa. Time to come out of the shadows and into the light and see that the emperor really has no clothes.

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In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2006) offer a well reasoned critique of NCLB. They analyze both the language of the act itself as well as the language of the tools used to implement the act published by the U.S. Department of Education. Cochran-Smith & Lytle explore in depth what they refer to as three images of teaching or, even more specifically, the “central common conceptions symbolic of basic attitudes and orientations about teachers and teaching that are explicit or implicit in NCLB (p. 668).” This article argues that NCLB is disingenuous toward teachers leaving them void of active agency as contributors to their own professional practice. The argument is further supported as they point to multiple instances where NCLB oversimplifies the processes of teacher learning and teacher practice because the act relies on a reductionist view of teaching and learning. NCLB focuses on a transmission model of teaching and learning at the expense of all other methods and models, this in spite of the fact that the past 30 years have pointed us in more constructivist approaches to classroom practice.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also argue that NCLB has multiple detrimental effects on schools, students, teachers, administrators, the communities served by schools, and the nation as a whole. They argue that NCLB undermines the broad democratic purpose of education in our nation. Public schooling, since the late 19th century, has been, at least in part, dedicated to the development of a productive, contributing citizen; active members of the body politic. They argue that NCLB, by removing democratic initiative and decision making from local and state authorities, effectively removes decision making from the classroom. The imposition of a top-down system of regulations for public schooling flies in the face of democratic principles, hence NCLB undermines democratic principles by teaching teachers and their students that following orders is more important than thinking about the source or legitimacy of those orders.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also remark on the effect NCLB has had on narrowing the curriculum by privileging reading and math at the expense of social studies, science and the arts. What is more disturbing is that when considering reading NCLB only considers the technical aspects of the reading process and then only follows a single model for the transmission of reading skills to students. There is no effort to address competing models, for reading for aesthetic pleasure, or for reading for content and information. Some studies have found that better than 71% of American schools have dropped social studies, science, and the arts from their curriculum and that the majority of these schools are those that are historically under-served in terms of both money and staff.

I am appalled by the problems that NCLB has created. I suspect that they are far more serious in both the short and long term than the problems the act purports to correct. I will be spending some time over the next few weeks thinking deeply about the issues presented by NCLB. I will address questions such as whose interests are really being served by NCLB. I will deconstruct the language of the act and the supporting documents that are designed to support the implementation of the act. As I do this I will be looking seriously at work by David Berliner (1985, 2002) and his colleagues and Walt Haney (2000) as well as a number of other researchers. I believe this is an important debate and invite broad discussion.

References

Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Retrieved July 19, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2006). Troubling images of teaching in No Child Left Behind. Harvard Educational Review, 76(4), 668-697.

Haney, W. (2000, Aug 19). The myth of the Texas miracle in Education. Retrieved July 22, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/

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Over the next few weeks I want to explore some of the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) especially as NCLB impacts attitudes directly engaged with teaching and the image of teachers in general. NCLB is deeply problematic at many levels, not the least of which are the many tensions that are explicit within the language of the act itself. In this post, I want to explore the notion that highly qualified teachers, as defined by language in NCLB, are those with content area knowledge that can give their knowledge to their students.

The notion that content knowledge can be transmitted from teacher to student is one that professionals from many disciplines over the past 30 years have dismissed as being far too narrow and simplistic to be of any significant value for serious classroom consideration. Both teaching and learning are socially constructed, dependent on local knowledge, customs, and ideas, and deeply embedded in class, status and other cultural issues. Learning is not a matter of absorbing what another tells us, rather it is a complex pattern of acquisition of new and important ideas, finding parallels to one’s own prior knowledge, experimenting with ways of integrating that knowledge into new and meaningful constructions, and finally making the newly integrated knowledge public—only to repeat the entire process over and over again. In this sense, learning is a messy, contextualized process that is dependent on well informed and well educated teachers.

NCLB, however, defines highly qualified teachers as those that have content knowledge they can give to their students—to transmit their wealth of knowledge and experience to their students regardless of context, culture or other mitigating factors. This can and will be done by applying scientifically based methods (SBM) to the classroom because SBM is what works. In short, NCLB takes the position that just about anyone with adequate content knowledge can teach what they know to others if they are provided with the appropriate SBM to apply, sort of like a salve to an itch, in the classroom. This view understands students as a disease for which the cure is the SBM applied to them by content savvy teachers. The problem is that there is no SBM, no unbiased research to support this position. What little research there is that supports the NCLB position comes from think tanks that support NCLB. Relying on these results is a bit like parents relying on a study that points to benefits of delayed toilet training funded by the manufacturer of Pampers! Biased funders of what passes for research do not present reliable, trustworthy findings.

Classroom teaching is a complex, fluid experience as any experienced teacher will relate. The act of teaching is not guided by a single size fits all approach anymore than it is fair to assume that everyone would be pleased to sit down to a meal of fried grasshoppers. Teachers are adept at making quick and necessary adjustments to their teaching because they are constantly making informal judgments about the progress of their students in the classroom. Teachers gain this expertise in two ways. First, through professional training in schools that emphasize pedagogy, lead to effective practicum, clinical and student teaching experiences and finally to on the job experience. Secondly, teachers seek advanced degrees to improve their understanding of teaching and learning so as to be more effective in the classroom. Experienced teachers know, both practically and instinctively to be wary of those that introduce the absolutely perfect program, the one guaranteed to fix everything. They have seen it all before. They know that what works varies from day to day, class to class, year to year. What I did in my 1st period English class may or may not work in my 4th period repeat of the same content material. If I am not aware of that then I will fail my students in both the short and long terms. NCLB makes no room for this kind of reflection.

Just as an aside, I have been wondering lately why those who most ardently support NCLB and SBM tend to reject science when it comes to evidence supporting evolution? It seems curious that science is such a fickle partner!

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This was posted by Educating Alice. I found it so intriguing that I simply had to place this link here.

Teaching with Blogs: Podcasting Literary Salons

I made the following comment to this post:

What a wonderful idea. I really love your mention of the weaker reader preparing so that they perform well. This is a fine example of the aspect of authenticity that suggests that there be an audience beyond the teacher for the product of work produced by students. Responsibility for learning shifts from belonging only to the teacher to belonging mainly to the student. I want to share this idea with my English Language Arts methods students. Bravo!!!

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Writing is a unique way of thinking.
Janet Emig (1977)

This (therefore) will not have been a book.
Jacques Derrida (1983)

 

 

Writing is often described as communication; the text represents a tool of description, persuasion, argumentation, and or narration, among other things. To this end, writing is often taught as a rhetorical exercise, pitting the writer’s skills against the diaphanous vagaries often associated with the notion of writing. Writing classes are often disarming places for both students and teachers alike. When audience is privileged over self-awareness, and the construction of knowledge through the act of writing and rhetorical skills are emphasize to expend expensive content a disconnect between form and function created. This leads to disengaged failures on the part of learners. I have no intention of arguing and rhetorical form is not important. That will not be my point. In fact, strongly supported ground inappropriate use of discourse models. Rather, much in the language of Bauhaus architecture, I will argue that form follows from function, not the other way around.

My argument rests, in part, on the two quotes at the beginning of this entry. Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983), it seems to me, share an important characteristic when it comes to and understanding of how the act of writing functions for the writer him or herself. The creation text is not focused on transaction with an audience, rather, the act of creation is an effort at the construction of knowledge — of making meaning on the part of the author.

As an autonomous transaction, writing may be considered through the lens of the reader or that writer. When considered through the reader’s lens construction of meaning is derived through transactions with text (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1994). When the creation text is understood through the author’s lens quite a different picture emerges. The author to it has transactions with text in which meaning is constructed. However, the meaning constructed by the author is centered on the process of creation rather than on the transactions with creative thinking or creation.

Both Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983) help us to understand ways of looking at the author’s purpose in writing text. Derrida’s contribution is to privilege formation of text as an internal process of constructing meaning; of lending permanence, however fleeting, to the construction of textual ideas resulting in publication (at any potential level) of the text prior to authorial abandonment. In short, from the author’s point of view writing functions as a means of coming to know; it is an internally motivated project, allowing authors to construct personal meaning from otherwise disconnected tidbits of thought, nothing more. In this sense, writing is a transaction between the author and the author’s experience.

Emig (1977) suggests the interiority of the writing process itself. When she writes, “Writing is a unique way of thinking,” two words focus on her main point: unique and thinking. I want to explore these two terms, and how they contribute to an understanding of how writing informs the writer without regard to the reader or audience. On this view, audience is turned inward, rather than functioning as an external ideal — something to be satisfied through the absorption of text.

 

References

Derrida, J. (1983). Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, May.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International reading Association.

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Standards in American education are the current driving force of policy discourse. Standards based education, data driven practice, research driven pedagogy and the like all spill out of the same well of mediocrity. While mediocre results are certainly not intended by those that foster standards as a solution to perceived failures in American public schools, the results of institutionalizing rather good ideas has the result of lowering the bar of expectation and forcing teaching into a routinized rut of compliance with external ideals that accompany standards, often in the form of performance rubrics.

I believe there are lessons to be learned from the work of Bakhtin and Levinas as the idea of standards are (re)examined as No Child Left Behind legislation is reviewed in Congress. While I am not optomistic that political solutions provide important insights into professional problems, I am hopeful that discussions about educational practice and an honest political discourse may have some influence on decision making.

Bakhtin (1993) argued that as an independent self, I am answerable to the other for my actions. Answerability is similar to the idea of responsibility for the other (Levinas, 1969; 1987; 1991; 1997). The difference between Bakhtin and Levinas turns on the to and the for where the to is a guilt driven obligation to act responsibly where the for is a pre-existing obligation to respond, to be response-able when the other is in need. The former is a more-or-less self-centered obligation where the latter is more-or-less self-less in its orientation. The fact, however, is that the distinction does not blur the ethical responsibility of the self to/for the other.

In terms of classroom practice this translates into an obligation of the teacher in the classroom to create authentic and engaging lessons, lessons not driven by theoretical constructs or outside/imposed criteria. To be authentic the classroom approach must have three essential components:

  1. The lesson must have value to the student beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  2. The lesson must be academically rigorous so as to challenge but not frustrate the student.
  3. The product of student work must have an audience beyond the teacher (Newmann, Byrk & Nagoaka, 2001).

By developing authentic lessons, teachers will create engaging classrooms, ones in which rigorous engagement is not replaced by the application of irrelevant standards and obscure theory. The engaged classroom is one that is alive and ethical and one in which there is no alibi (Derrida, 2002). It is only “without guarantees [that] one must directly engage with others and expose oneself to perspectives and feelings different from one’s own” (Morison, 2007).

As standards are currently applied, students are responsible to teachers who are, in turn, responsible to administrators who are, in turn, responsible to school boards who are, in turn, responsible to political agencies or legislative bodies or both who, in the end, are theoretically responsible to those that elect them to office or, through taxes, pay their salaries or both. In the final analysis, there is nobody that takes on the responsibility, in a Levinasian sense, for the students, the ultimate learner. Standards are imposed upon the system of public education from the top as they filter downward toward the ultimate consumer. By the time standards reach the classroom they have undergone an ethical change in the sense that they are now mandates rather than a part of an ethical conversation. Standards in the classroom become dogma not ideas to be subject to critical analysis. I agree with the concept urged by Applebee (1996), that standards guide curriculum only as far as they become conversation starters. Once they become absolute dogma they lose the ability to guide an inspired and engaged classroom practice.

References

Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1993). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Derrida, J. (2002). Without alibi (P. Kamuf, Trans.). Stanford,CA: Stanford University Press.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1987). Time and the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1991). Wholly otherwise. In R. Bernasconi & S. Critchley (Eds.), Re-readingLevinas (pp. 3-10). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, E. (1997). Otherwise than being or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Morson, G. S. (2007). Bakhtin and the teaching of literature. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 350-357.

Newmann, F. M., Byrk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence (Special Report Series). Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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Teachers are expected to teach the content of various ‘subjects’ or disciplines to students. In the upper grades teachers are generally responsible for teaching specific content (math, history, science, languages, English and so on) but in the lower grades teachers are expected to teach across all disciplines and subjects. In either case, teachers must ‘know’ their subject in order to teach it well, to not leave children with mistaken or faulty information about the goings-on of a discipline. To a large extent this falls under the umbrella of ‘responsibility-for-the-other’ that Levinas addresses in his work on the ethics of alterity. It is critical, it seems to me, to take the imperitave of responsibility FOR the other seriously when one teaches–especially when one teaches–for that is where the rubber meets the road. Without this notion of response-ability, this absolute requirement to be responsible for the other, there is no reason for anyone to take the work of teaching seriously.

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