If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Language Evolution

As a Spanish teacher and general word nerd, I love stories about language; so I particularly enjoyed the coming together of a handful of stories related to changing language habits last week. First there was the coverage on both NPR and The New York Times of a new study from The Pew Internet & American Life Project on how the informal habits of writing used for IMing and text messaging are bleeding into students' school work. No one who has received a paper written by a teenager in the last five years or so can be very surprised to hear this news. I spend more time then I care to admit adding capital letters to the beginning of my students' sentences in large, angry, green pen.

As Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project, points out in the NYT article, my efforts at teaching this important aspect of correct writing may be doomed in the long run. Since the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence holds no intrinsic meaning of its own, it could very well fade into extinction. We can imagine it becoming as quaint as words like 'hath' and 'quoth'; or, for that matter, the custom of capitalizing all nouns, proper or otherwise, long since faded from common usage.

My boy Steven Pinker covers the ever changing landscape of language usage, this time in The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.), another fascinating read which I recommend highly:

Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any
level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons
several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. For
as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical
plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century.
(The Language Instinct, p 373)

Needless to say, Pinker uses the expression "language maven" pejoratively.

Teachers on the whole are pretty conservative folks when it comes to language. We place high value on established writing conventions as indications of a quality education. My personal pet peeve is the use of 'myself' in non-reflexive contexts such as, "Please hand in your form to Mrs. Calvert or myself." It makes me cringe. But it's also very much a part of the common usage, and I've even seen it used in this way by some very able and reputable writers, so I try to let it go.

When I'm having trouble letting it go, I try to remember the French and their eternal quest to save and protect the French language. The French have the Académie Française to regulate the language, laws on the books to forbid the use of anglicisms, and a pretty healthy national pride in their language and culture. Which is why it's sort of funny when I turn on NPR and hear stories like this one. If, after all that effort, the French can't hold back the English invasion, what hope do we have against IM English?

For me, the answer to this is not to give up on teaching correct usage or good writing. No one denies that there is still such a thing as good writing and bad writing, or at least effective writing and ineffective writing. But the discussion of what makes good writing is so much richer when we talk about the ways that language evolves and grows, and allow the students to work through the problem of whether those changes are for the better or not. It also opens up the possibility that we might learn something from our students as well. I love it when that happens.

A chance for all the language mavens out there to vent: what are your pet peeves in your students' writing? I know you've got some.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Parent Conferences: A Success Story

Friday was parent conferences here at school. For most teachers, there is always some anxiety when it comes time to meet the parents. Parent meetings are evaluation time, not just for the kids, but for the teachers and parents, too. This is when we all find out how well we've been doing our jobs, and there is always that chance that the evaluation is not going to go well for someone. When the meeting goes badly, it can go very badly, and I think many teachers go into the day with their defenses up against that possibility. All of us have our war stories of one sort or another. In private schools, where the parents often see themselves as the paying customers, the pressure is particularly high to prove that you are delivering the quality product the parents are expecting.

On this occasion, conferences went pretty well for me. My current position is as a long-term substitute for a teacher who had to leave unexpectedly back in November. By the time I started here at the end of January, I was the third Spanish teacher of the year for my students, with who knows how many short-term substitutes in the meantime. Most of the parents I met with on Friday were just happy that there had been a consistent warm body in the class for the last few months.

One of my meetings was with the mother of one of my fifth graders, Bill. Bill is struggling in my class, which always increases the chances that the conversation will be uncomfortable, but in this case it was very productive. I mentioned my concerns, not only for his performance this year, but also going into the more challenging middle school curriculum that starts here in sixth grade. We talked about things we could all be doing to improve things now, and things he might do over the summer to prepare for sixth grade. We finished the meeting with a basic plan to move forward.

My first class today was with the fifth grade. Bill was like a completely different kid this morning. He raised his hand to answer questions, instead of sitting like a lump in his chair, and generally gave the correct answers. He seemed happy, confident, and prepared for class, the first time all year I would have described him as any of those things. He'd also had his hair cut. Maybe it was all just the haircut.

Now I know that it was just one class, and that it's a long road still to June, and an even longer one to get through sixth grade Spanish and beyond; but something positive clearly took place from Friday to today, and whatever it was started with a ten minute conversation with Bill's mom.

So, here's my thought for the day. It takes a team to educate a child, and parents are probably, or at least hopefully, the most important member of that team. The better the communication between school and parents, and the greater the parents' involvement in their children's education, the stronger that education is going to be. As we build our school, we are going to need formal structures to get parents involved in, and knowledgeable about, their children's education. Sometimes they will be able to help their kids in ways we just can't.

What do you do, or would you do, to get parents involved in your school community?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who Are You?

I recently finished reading The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. I love Pinker's books. His explanations of how the human brain works are easily understandable by a layperson without being dumbed down. He doesn't shy away from saying something controversial, but his arguments are so well backed up by clear thinking and an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject that you wish there were a lot more people thinking about things the way he does. Most importantly to me, I always feel like my understanding of the world has expanded by the time I reach the last page.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker goes on the attack against the idea that human beings are born as malleable lumps of clay whose characters are entirely formed by their environment and experiences. This may seem like an unnecessary and obvious argument to make in this modern age in which individuals are getting their whole genome mapped, but Pinker points out in his introduction how much of our cultural values and public policies depend on the idea that we are all really created the same, only differentiated by the fortunate or unfortunate circumstances into which we are born. Like I said, Pinker does not shy from controversial topics.

The bad news for those of us hoping to educate young women and men of good character, is that Pinker makes a pretty good case for the fact that environmental factors have very little influence over the eventual personalities of children:

Decades of studies have shown that, all things being equal, children turn out pretty much the same way whether their mothers work or stay at home, whether they are placed in daycare or not, whether they have siblings or are only children, whether their parents have a conventional or an open marriage, whether they grow up in an Ozzie-and-Harriet home or a hippie commune, whether their conceptions were planned, were accidental, or took place in a test tube, and whether they have two parents of the same sex or one of each. (The Blank Slate, p. 386)

The one place where environment does seem to have some (although still very slight) influence is the peer group:

Even the rare finding of an effect of the shared environment, and the equally elusive finding of an interaction between genes and the environment, emerge only when we substitute peers for parents in the "environment" part of the equation. (The Blank Slate, pp. 391-2)

If Pinker is right, then it might seem that we are doomed in the effort to educate character, and can only hope to collect large enough groups of good kids and hope that they have the desired effect on the not so good ones. I prefer to be a bit more optimistic. I think teachers and schools can have a great deal of influence on how peers interact with one another, and thus on how they learn to be from one another. I've seen it in action in a number of situations that I will describe at length in future posts. I think making character and ethics a part of a schools curricular goals is hugely important. I went to a high school that did a couple of things I think were effective, and I'll touch on those, too, in future posts.

In the meantime, please weigh in: what aspects of character would you hope a school would instill in its students, or at least try to?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What I'm Reading Now

One of my favorite things about being a teacher is hanging out with other teachers. Teachers as a demographic tend to be interesting, engaged and knowledgeable people, and I enjoy learning from them. Teachers also tend to be readers, and I love sitting around the lunch table or in the faculty room talking about what we are all reading and what our favorite books are. If it hasn't come up already here, I love books.

With that in mind, I want to add a little side piece to this blog, not directly related to the project of designing a school, but more with the idea of creating a community for teachers to engage with other teachers about things that interest them. So, over on the side bar, just above the archive, I've got a section called What I'm Reading Now. I'll keep it up to date with whatever book I happen to be reading at the moment. (I tend to savor, so it will usually only change a couple of times a month). I'd love to hear from other people who have read, or are interested in, the same book. I'd also love to hear about what other people are reading. Once I've finished a book, I'll post my thoughts on it, and put up a new one.

First on the list: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I'm about halfway through so far, and am enjoying it immensely. I have to admit a very poor knowledge of the actual events leading up to and following the founding of Plymouth Colony, despite growing up about 50 miles away, and almost annual pilgrimages (so to speak) to Plymouth Plantation for most of my elementary school years. I'll post a fuller commentary when I finish, but so far I really recommend it.

Coming soon on the subject of books:

My Five Favorite Books of All Time


Five Books Every Student Should Read Before Graduating

Friday, April 25, 2008

What Can You Do?

Back in New Jersey, I taught a level 5 Spanish class that we called Spanish Contemporary Culture. It was basically Spanish and Latin American culture and history through film. We would watch a Spanish language movie with some redeeming educational value, learn as much as we could about the country where the movie took place, and usually finish off each segment with the students writing and filming their own movie based on what we had been studying. It was always a small group of students, and we had a lot of fun with it, especially during the periods when we were filming our own movies.

The last time I taught the class, I had a student in it named Adam. (N.B. I expect that I will find myself telling many stories about people I know and students I have taught. It is my intention to protect their privacy by changing their names, especially in the case of my students. In the great tradition of Mathnet: "the names are made up, but the problems are real"). Adam was a bright kid, a junior in high school at the time I taught him, and he had strong opinions about what was and what was not worth his time. My class was worthwhile because speaking Spanish was a skill that he could imagine being useful at some point in his career. English class, on the other hand, struck him as a complete waste of time. Learning to write well was fine; writing was a professional skill that he would need. But why, Adam argued, did they have to read all these novels that had no relevance to his own life?

I'll come back to my arguments in favor of reading fiction in school in a later post. At the moment, I want to connect this story to the question of what skills students should have when they graduate from school. My main point is that while I may disagree with Adam's conclusions when it came to English class (mostly because I disagree with the purely economic model he was using to judge value), the fundamental question he was asking was an important one: why do I need to do this?

As a teacher, I feel that it is my responsibility to always have an answer to this question. Whatever I am teaching, I should have a clear and well thought out reason why I am teaching it. In the world of independent high schools, our answers are often related to skills that are necessary for getting into, and being successful at, a good college. While that fits the goals of many students, it is certainly does not offer a complete list--or even an appropriate list--for all students. Just off the top of my head, I would mention the ability to work well with a group as a skill that does not necessarily have much value for getting into college, but which will be hugely useful to students in most of the rest of their lives.

So, this time I'll finish with a two part question--as always, my own answers to follow. What skills should students have when they graduate from high school, and why should they have them?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Do You Know?

In my first post, I proposed starting to design a school by imagining what an ideal graduate of that school would be like in terms of knowledge, skills and character. In the next few posts, I want to take each area individually, and discuss it in general terms, saving more specific ideas for later posts. Let's start with knowledge.

There is at the moment what politicians might call a 'national dialogue' taking place on the value of teaching specific knowledge at a time when information is so readily accessible. If the Internet knows the melting point of mercury, why do I need to keep that information in my head? If my cell phone knows my brother's phone number, why should I bother memorizing it? Instead of teaching facts that can be acquired quickly and easily at almost any time, school should focus on teaching how to use those facts in productive and interesting ways.

In general, I agree with this philosophy. If we have limited classroom time, we should be more focused on teaching how to find and use good information than on forcing the students to memorize it. The knowledge can be attained as needed. But then again, check out this video that my friend Eric passed on to me the other day.

Clearly there is some knowledge that we expect educated members of our society to have. That France is indeed a country, and that there are other languages besides French spoken on the continent of Europe being among the things that, as a Spanish teacher, I would like my students to know before I send them off into the world. See also this post at The Education Optimists about American Idol helping the people of 'Africa'.

So, if that is true, if we have certain cultural expectations about what one ought to know, what are those things? That's the question I leave you with for now, and I'll come back with my own answers as we move on through this project. What should students know when they graduate from high school?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Great Minds Think Alike

I will come right back to my ideas about what should go in the three categories for an educated student (knowledge, skills, and character). But first, check out this commentary by Howard Gardner at Education Week. He starts his discussion from a very similar premise: imagine what your students will be like when they finish school. He also suggests three categories that we should be looking at when we answer that question, which he calls the three E's: excellence, engagement, ethics. Gardner's thoughts on how the nation's different school systems--the inner city, the working class heartland, and the suburban elite--all fall short in one of these categories is an interesting way to frame the problem. As a teacher in the third kind of school, I will be coming back to the question of teaching ethical behavior frequently in this blog.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An Ideal Student

A number of years ago, as part of the end of summer faculty meetings at my former school in New Jersey, we had a guest speaker. I have since forgotten not only his name, but most of what he talked about that day; but one activity we did has stuck in my mind ever since. We broke up into groups and were given a sheet of paper. We divided the paper into three columns labeled knowledge, skills, and character. He then asked us to picture our students as they were graduating from our school and heading off to college, and then to fill the columns with the things we hoped they had learned from their time in our school.

As the presenter had planned, most of our entries were pretty evenly divided in the last two columns. His message was clear. We are much more interested in who our students are, and what they know how to do when they graduate, than any specific things that they know.

Whether or not you agree with that overall message, the exercise itself seems like a good place to start when going about the project of building a new school. If our goal is the education of a student, starting from an image of what that student looks like when he is fully educated seems logical. So, over the next several posts, I will be presenting my own thoughts on what should go into those three columns, and I'm sure I will be constantly coming back to them as this project grows.

In the meantime, it is my hope that this blog will become not only a place for me to refine my own thoughts on what a school should do, but also a place of conversation between interested people. So please, contribute your own answers to the question. What does the ideal high school graduate look like?