A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Next Step

On Monday, I will take over some 6th grade math classes in a middle school, some advanced, and some regular. From a professional standpoint, the ability to focus on one curricular area is highly appealing.

One of my great frustrations about typical elementary classrooms has been the pressure of being held accountable for test scores in four subject areas, Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies, when so many factors have been outside of my control. Many students of low socio-economic status, a population segment that has seemed to expand dramatically over the past 10 years, have shaky foundations in Language and Mathematics, rooted in impoverished language opportunities. Try asking a student to write about her weekend when nobody in the family ate dinner at the same time, when all were watching television in different rooms.

Student deficits with decoding and number sense, e.g., reading to learn and applying decimal place value skills, might account for "Swiss Cheese" understandings of Science Experiments, or more broadly, what Jim Cummins described as deficits in "Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency" or CALP, which Cummins found in second language learners. How can the ability to construct abstract thoughts, i.e., the ability to generalize, develop at an appropriate rate when everyday cognitive inputs are choppy, with everyday direct instruction processed as a Cloze Exercise, which one of my former co-teachers, Sonja, demonstrated to me one day by speaking Japanese:


The research is fairly conclusive that developmental differences in vocabulary exposure lead to exponentially different outcomes. On one end of the spectrum, we have students exposed to nuances such as Smoked Spanish Paprika. On the other hand of the language exposure spectrum, we have those whose experiences have been limited to Kraft Mac and Cheese. If Johnny has a limited vocabulary and cannot decode, how can Johnny comprehend a science experiment? If Jane has not been conditioned to recognize sequence in the early primary grades, how can Jane understand history in middle school? Linear experiences correspond to linear understandings, which does not translate to advanced pattern recognition, something which computers are being programmed and are programming themselves do at an accelerating rate.  According to V.S. Ramachandran, the ability to automatically recognize patterns is, perhaps, the key differentiator between homo sapiens and other primates.

A key thrust in Mathematics instruction has been the push for increased rigor, particularly algebraic thinking, or what Van de Walle described as "relational understandings." Multisensory approaches to teaching Mathematics, which are critical for preparing students for relational understandings, require knowledge of and access to resource kits aligned to instructional objectives, with clear procedures, with activities that include manipulatives, visual components, historical connections, and an evaluative rubric. Dr. Rajdev, who teaches math and science teaching methods at Marymount University, prepares her students with a system for purposively constructing their own math kits, since these kits are typically not already awaiting new teachers.

To begin preparing a few kits, I pulled out my copy of Helping Children Learn Mathematics, and have been focusing on the chapters on Geometry and Data. Time to get busy.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Die virus!

I backed up all photos and music to Skydrive and backed up my other files to Google Drive and just hit the button for a clean installation of Windows 8. Drastic but necessary. Kurzweil's insight that the Cloud is becoming a prosthetic, i.e.,  that we are outsourcing neocortical functions at an accelerating rate, gives me a deeper appreciation of the computing power of my 3G Samsung Smartphone.

Argh! The anti-malware detector blocked Windows so I uninstalled it. Up to 37%. What a time killer. Instead of lesson planning or making a dump run,  I'm fighting a virus over Spring Break.
On the bright side, I've been forced to develop a plan to protect my precious files. 53%. From now on, no more surfing from an Administrative Account. Greater redundancy. 58%. I will still need to reinstall all programs. 67%
Skydrive, Google Drive,  and BitCasa will image my drive when I'm done. I will back up to my external drive. My files will be protected and I'll be able to access them from any Android or Windows device.

If Kurzweil is right, and inexpensive computers will be able to think and make decisions for themselves within the next 15 years,  will computers serve people as Kurzweil hopes?
Over the next 5 years, on the other hand, how many people will come to the conclusion that technology represents a mortal threat, and make a concerted effort to pull the plug? If the accelerating power of robots relative to humans continues, what economic roles will be left for ordinary people?

If Louis Kelso's 3 principles of economic justice continue to be ignored by current policy makers, despite overwhelming evidence of the diminishing contributions of people relative to machines, will a 21st century Robespiere emerge over the next 10 years as a result of the growing imbalance in the social order?

Round 1 goes to me. Virus terminated!  Windows 8,  Skydrive, Google Drive represent a taste of all that is great about what computers allow me to do today,  but as Francis Bacon warned, the tools need to be used "for the purposes of life," or we end up with Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey, or the Terminator.

Kurzweil offers no such guarantee. If social and economic justice remain moral omissions, the next 10 years will be interesting.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Red Kimono by Jan Morrill: ready to climb the charts!

Although The Red Kimono is the first novel by the author, Jan Morrill, I expect this eminently readable novel to quickly climb the charts. When Jan is sitting across from Conan, Leno, and Letterman, don't be shocked. Even the Sports.Junkies from 106.7 The Fan, in their new television show Table Manners, might get ahead of the curve on this one, before Jan gets her movie deal, since this story is made for the silver screen, and since it won't be a "chick movie," thankfully, but one for the whole family. Tough guys will relate to the bitter anger, the toughness, the grace in the face of gross unfairness and utter stupidity, plus themes of shame and forgiveness, so common now in a nation that has been at war continuously since 9-11.

The Red Kimono is the first novel I have read for pleasure in a long time, which is normal for men. Anything that falls outside of neuroscience or education, in my situation, I have considered secondary to my survival as a husband, father, and educator. Having dived into the first few chapters of The Red Kimono while riding the exercise bike, I am hooked. Spring break cannot come soon enough, for I cannot wait to polish this book off in a sitting, once my schedule opens up a little.

On a scale from Updike to Hemingway, Jan's style falls on the Hemingway end of the spectrum, economical, unobtrusive, just the way I like it. Confidently, the author steps aside, leaving space for the action and the characters to speak for themselves, as opposed to being a thinly veiled advertisement for just how clever the author is, which is exactly what I dislike about Updike.

Grown men will shed tears for the main characters when nobody is looking, just like we all secretly did when watching the movie Brian's Song -- a reference which decidely dates me, having just hit the big 5-0! When dogs die, such as in Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, tough guys blame it on their allergies. We all do it.

Children will relate to this movie, as the bitter reality and coming to understanding is developed through the eyes of a child. The Red Kimono kicks a**.

Haiku Summary: Ray Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind

Kurzweil's Solution:

Evolution's prize,
Generational learning,
Processed in the Cloud.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Two classrooms, widely different results

Rick Smith's Conscious Classroom Management dramatizes well-intentioned, but ineffective teachers with a character named Miss Meanswell. I forget the name that Smith uses to dramatize the effective teacher, but as a sub, I step into strong or weak classrooms every day. Thus, I see examples of Miss Meanswell and her antithesis every day. In a Miss Meanswell classroom, my signals for attention might consistently go unheeded, despite the almost their almost universal effectiveness everywhere else I work, K-8. The amount of time lost during transitions in a Miss Meanswell classroom can be staggering. When I enter a Miss Meanswell classroom, I am reminded of my first year in teaching, and how draining it was, which causes my blood to boil.

Based on my experience, I highly suspect that inefficient transitions are a common factor and root cause of the achievement gap. Inefficient transitions, which in the worst classrooms, I have seen can add up to three to five minutes per every transition, create friction, which causes instruction to lose momentum, students to become increasingly disengaged, and everyone involved to become increasingly frustrated. They create a vortex, so I combat the phenomenon whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Recently, a co-teacher supported my efforts to help students in a class how to be more efficient in their transitions. When I started timing an early transition, making it to 25 seconds before students responded to my signal to launch the morning meeting, which in this case was a chime, the co-teacher wrote down the amount of time wasted. We started tracking transition times and asked students if they thought they could get it to 10 seconds? They all thought they could settle within 10 seconds, but the goal was not achieved until about the 4th or 5th transition. That transition took about three seconds, or about how long most transitions should take. With crisp transitions, students were ready for learning. Having worked in a Ms. Meanswell class the day before, with a different co-teaching arrangement, it felt great to be on the same page with the co-teacher, and felt good to be appreciated for taking a leadership stance on the issue, despite my lowly place as "just a sub."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hope For Education in the Primary Grades

I recently had the great privilege of working in a kindergarten classroom that reminded me, once again, of my conviction that most of what remains best about education often occurs in the primary grades. I often wonder what happens between 1st and 4th grades, a period which has been receiving increasing scrutiny nationally, with an achievement gap that remains a continued source of backbiting and recrimination, leaving some environments toxic wastelands.

During these transitional grades, students are often shifted away from learning to read in a multi-dimensional fashion, as they were in Christine's and Mrs. N's kindergarten classroom, where I saw consistent evidence of students developing phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension within a balanced literacy program. Students in this classroom are read high quality children's books, such as The Three Silly Billies, and related books within the Fairy Tale genre, plus nursery rhymes, as well as non-fiction genres. Here, the emphasis seems to be more on concepts developed broadly rather than overwhelming learners with boring and unrelated details. I suspect that since students remain fully engaged throughout the entire day, and since the learning is so connected by design, I suspect that her students have a far better recall of the details than the norm even in her hallway. I would love to do a longitudinal study of comparing students in Christine's and Mrs. N's classroom versus other students in the same hall.

A somewhat arbitrary shift to reading to learn occurs, supposedly, in 3rd grade, when students, teachers,  principals, and entire school districts are held accountable for every student's ability to recall nitty-gritty content on high stakes tests, without any regard for socio-economic factors, vast differences in the amount of time parents spend talking with their children from birth, not to mention the number of students who speak a second language at home. Vast differences in background knowledge that are not easily glossed over by those with a political agenda, as opposed to those who have studied the research and and have invested real time in the classroom. During the transitional phase, the preparation seems to begin in earnest to prepare students for "jobs," jobs that may not even exist when these young children graduate from high schools. For the 30 % who become disengaged entirely, those who become high school dropouts, I am not alone in suspecting that many of these are being lost during the transitional years.

It take me an instant to size up a classroom, consistent with Ray Kurzweil's great insight that our minds are built for anticipation. From the moment I entered Christine's room, I knew I would be enjoying an amazing day (and leave chock full of great classroom management ideas that I will apply once I get a classroom of my own). Christine and Mrs. N's classroom is a print rich environment, where concepts are developed broadly, multi-dimensionally, in a totally connected fashion. Manners, too, such as how to say "please" and "thank you" are explicitly modeled, practiced, and reinforced at every opportunity, even in the cafeteria. Every thing done in the classroom has a clear purpose. Even the game Candy Land has been adapted to become a game for practicing sight words, along with Sight Word Bingo. Similarly, environmental print is incorporated into the class "store," where students practice using money to purchase "real" items.

A standard component of Responsive Classroom is the interactive morning message, (I love Responsive Classroom Schools, not so much Positive Behavior Intervention Schools). One element that I had difficulty with as a rookie teacher with no prior knowledge of Responsive Classroom was the daily choice; I struggled with knowing how to integrate the daily choice within the interactive whiteboard message format. Christine does it differently than I was taught. She separates the daily choice from the daily message, and places a journal outside her classroom door; students respond to simple questions, often yes / no, sometimes with a preference of one or another, and other times with how they might feel in general, or how they might feel about something specific. The questions are not particularly profound, but they are easy to manage, and do send the message that student response is important.

I play close attention to book choices. What the teacher stresses is critically important for children, i.e., what they want for students to "walk away with" from the experience, speaks volumes about the teacher's philosophy of education. Christine wanted me to engage in a little comparative literature, so I compared the original with the updated version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Before reading, therefore, I encouraged students to share what they remembered about the original version and to make some predictions. At the climax, once again, I left the students hanging, wondering what would happen next, before I sent them off to do their independent reading, and only returned to read the conclusion to launch writer's workshop. The ending was surprising, with a modern twist.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Emotional Machines?

Will there come a day
When machines weep for humans,
Orphaned, all alone?

Will our seeds take root,
Space wind blown, time defiant
Intelligent code?

Will we become them,
Non-biological code?
Is that the end game?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ray Kurzweil and Young Readers

When Ray Kurzweil speaks, I listen. Considering the secret that Kurzweil has revealed in his newest book, I worry that not enough other people seem to be listening. Wake up people! Drink some coffee. Can there be any more disruptive technology than computers with their own minds? Remember Hal, from 2001 Space Odyssey?

Kurzweil, inventor of the first synthesizer to emulate a grand piano, who pioneered optical character recognition (OCR), whose methods have been integrated into voice recognition used in Google's GPS navigation and translation services, speech to text, and text to speech, speech patterns to practical applications. whose inventions have been integrated into SIRI many of us use on our IPhones, knows a little something about the direction, the rate of growth, the unstoppable rise of artificial intelligence. He has tended to be right whenever he has made predictions. If Kurzweil's predictions are correct, computers will have minds of their own within the next 15 years.

Virtually every night, I can be found at the gym riding various cardio machines.  When I ride, I read. I have been reading How To Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by Ray Kurzweil, along with The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientists Quest for What Makes us Human, by V.S. Ramachandran. In his latest book, Kurzweill describes how lessons learned from training computers to recognize voice and text have converged with revolutions in neuroscience. Kurzweil discovery of what Ramachandran has described as the "holy grail" of neuroscience: the essence of minds, the essence of thought, the nature of intelligence, whether on a biological or artificial substrate. IBM's Watson, a supercomputer which recently defeated two champions in the game show Jeopardy, according to Kurzweil, will be on your iPhone within a few years. Essentially, Kurzweill describes the cracking of the code, the secret of how human thought works, and Watson, according to Kurzweill, is closer to emulating human thought than most people realize.

While the limits of the capacity of cloud computing are unknown, the limits to biological evolution, which precedes at a glacial pace, are well known. The advantage of human minds, which recognize every object or sensation through "massively parallel" processing of millions of pattern simultaneously, has been modeled, quantified, and emulated with remarkable precision.

Recently, I worked with 4th grade students in a resource room. After students finished their vocabulary study work in Worldly Wise, probably the best vocabulary program I have come across, we had an extra 20 minutes for independent reading, so I pulled out my Kurzweil book, hoping I would be able to enjoy a little uninterrupted reading. The students were genuinely fascinated with the cover, so I explained to them who Ray Kurzweil is and why he is important. My group of struggling readers immediately recognized SIRI. They enjoyed the discussion about robots that will be able to think for themselves -- not much independent reading got done during independent reading time. These 4th graders were all ears. Perhaps because I had gotten their attention, they remained engaged learners throughout the day.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Culture of Disrespect


Negative opinions of non-educators directed towards the hired help, i.e., professional educators, have reached yet another low point. The rule, watch what I do, not what I say can be broadly applied when it concerns the agenda of educational policy makers, who in all fairness are wrestling with staggering budgetary constraints going forward, who never seem to fail to express an a sentiment that the business of education is child's play. A battle with broad implications for the future of public education, i.e., the mission, scope, and nuts and bolts operations of public institutions of learning, is shaping up in Charlottesville, at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Somebody recently leaked a memo fired off by University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan to her governing board regarding a "lengthy and detailed list of goals to meet this year," sent to her by Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas:
Sullivan, apparently incensed, responded by sending the entire board an e-mail arguing that the 65 goals constitute, among other things, "micromanagement." (Johnson, J., 2013)
Regarding an appropriate number and scope of evaluation criteria, the norm, for a University President, according to  the article, is about "6-7 high level strategic goals," not 65 goals, i.e., triggers that Dragas could apply to Sullivan's evaluation as grounds for termination. In an offhand comment, Dragas revealed her thinly veiled disrespect for professional educators, remarking smugly:
U-Va. is a public institution. It's not an academic playground.
Many of the worst aspects of public education have stemmed from well-intentioned, but misguided, efforts to improve the quality of schools by making them operate less like a "playground," and more like little business. If Dr. Sullivan chafes at 65 goals, imagine how the average educator feels when subjected to a normal level of state and county mandated nitpicking from school administrators.

I am reminded of the way Daniel Snyder, owner of Washington's football team, famously placed a melted ice cream cone on his Defensive Coordinator's desk to criticize Coach Nolan's "vanilla" defense. Snyder, along with his fawning General Manager, Vinnie Cerrato was famous for his micro management, and only backed away from daily operations after nearly 20 years of ineptitude, when the franchise started to lose season ticket holders. Exactly what are Helen Dragas's qualifications for running operations at the University of Virginia?

While school cultures vary widely within districts, and school to school, the trend towards a culture of disrespect in education, reflected in negative opinions of non-educators, such as Dragas, towards professional educators, such as Dr. Sullivan, seems unmistakable. In worst cases, the culture of disrespect flows downhill, ultimately impacting energetic 5 year old boys who are learning self-control, such as one little African American child who I worked with recently, whose desk seemed permanently segregated, placed next to the Instructional Assistant's desk, where he could be easily controlled, a bright child who, from my perspective, seemed to get a disproportionate number of warnings for calling out, considering his developing level of self control, which seemed to me to be quite normal. When I conversed with the little boy, he had no trouble conceptualized what it was he was doing and what it was he should be doing -- I had no trouble respectfully redirecting the child without threats, without insulting his intelligence, using nothing but well-constructed, open-ended questions.

On the other hand, I have rarely encountered anyone in education who made me feel so totally unappreciated from the minute I entered the room in the morning, where I stood in front of the young Instructional Assistant, while  she talked to a friend, colleague, for what seemed like five minutes before the young lady ever acknowledged my presence. Since this is the second time I have worked as a sub at this particular school, which happens to be a magnet school for the so-called gifted and talented, and was left with precisely the same impression that I was being viewed by the staff as nothing but a warm body, a piece of meat, unworthy of a genuine teaching role, or even a co-teaching role, guess where I will never pick up a job again? Once again, I was left with a negative impression of schools that adopt the philosophy of Positive Behavior, where classes and students compete for brownie points, and are consistently ranked and pitted against each other for school-wide, and regional recognition.

In an industry that likes to celebrate its cultural diversity, cultural bias is alive and well.