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

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Day at the Theater

Yesterday was all about the performing arts for me. First, my first and second graders had their Modern Language Assembly, an event we have been preparing for, almost to the exclusion of anything else, since we returned from spring break. Each class had to sing two songs in the language they are learning, either French or Spanish. After spending the better part of two months with the Spanish language equivalent of the Barney Song playing over and over in my head, I was very much looking forward to getting the performance behind us.

The kids were adorable, of course. It's hard to go wrong with 80 or so seven and eight year olds singing songs, especially when most of the audience doesn't understand a word they are saying. Whether it was worth all of the classroom time we put into it (a precious commodity at less than 90 minutes a week) is another question. I'm sure the parents were pleased, and there is a lot of power to the public relations aspect of these things, but the rest of our curriculum was pretty much on hold while we prepared, so I do wonder.

In the evening, my wife and I went with a friend to see the Shakespeare Theater Company's production of Hamlet in Rock Creek Park here in DC. I've been to outdoor summer Shakespeare in a number of cities at this point, one of the benefits of our peripatetic lifestyle, and I have to say that this was the best I've ever seen in that category. The cast was outstanding (although reading their bios in the program I did wonder if there is an actor alive who hasn't appeared in Law and Order SVU). I was particularly amazed by Ophelia; not a strength in most productions of Hamlet, but in this case completely captivating every time she appeared on stage. I could go on and on about the show, but suffice it to say that I loved it.

All in all, a good day of both amateur and professional theater. The catharsis was an added bonus as we approach the end of the school year at full throttle. The kids are a little crazy these days!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Proposal: The Green Olympics

A few weeks ago I put up a post about the new Middle School building at Sidwell Friends here in DC. It was one of my most viewed posts so far, which leads me to believe there is some interest out there in the idea of environmental education, and the ways in which we can teach our students to be better stewards of their environment. Today I came across this New York Times article about what some college students are doing to be more green at school, and it got me to thinking.

The article features a sustainable student house at Oberlin College. Among other green activities, the students competed over who could take the shortest shower, and unplugged one of the two refrigerators in the house to conserve electricity.

The competition aspect of it struck me as something that could translate well to a school situation. In addition to timing showers, you could have students calculate the trash their houses produce, their family fuel consumption, or electric bills. You could create charts by homeroom or grade, keep track of scores in a various categories and award green medals. It would be the environmental olympics. It could be a lot of fun.

On the other side of things, one quote from the article stuck out for me. Discussing the fact that the house does not have a TV, one of the residents says, “You have the rest of your life to watch TV." It's a throw away line, but I think it gets at a fundamental problem in environmental education. A lot of these sustainable activities are perceived as things to do in school before your real life begins. Once faced with the realities of the grown-up world, sustainable living drops a long way down the priority list. That's why we send the kids home with green missions for their family, because the kids are way more likely to follow through than their parents. So that begs the question:

What can we do to teach sustainable habits that will actually carry over into the real world once the students are out of our hands.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Gain 4 Pounds in 3 Days, and Finish Report Cards at the Same Time

The last few days were spent trying to find a balance between enjoying the holiday weekend and writing narrative reports--know around here as comments--on 66 of my students (22 more are due on Friday).

My wife and I took advantage of the long weekend to drive down to South Carolina to visit a friend from my wife's PhD program and her family. We left DC at about 5:00 on Friday with a couple more friends in the back seat. The traffic wasn't too bad (high gas prices have their upside), and we made it into Greenville at around 2:00 AM. The rest of the weekend was spent eating, and finding things to keep us busy until we got to eat again. Our friend is Indian, and apparently it is part of Indian culture to feed your guests until they explode. Fortunately, her mom is an unbelievably good cook, and every stomach stretching bite was delicious. It was also a great education. Despite my above-average familiarity with the American and British restaurant versions of Indian food, almost every dish was new to me. Eating all kinds of different foods is one of may favorite things about traveling. While this wasn't quite as exciting as actually going to India, it was a pretty good subsititue.

When I could escape from the weekend activities, it was comment-writing time. In independent schools, comments serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, they are intended to give feeback to the student on his strengths and weaknesses. They are more descriptive than a simple grade, and therefore ideally more constructive. On the other hand, they are a customer relations tool for communicating with parents. A well-thought-out comment shows parents that you know their child well, and that all the money they spent so that their son or daughter could have small classes and lots of individual attention was worth it. A bonus from the teacher's perspective is that writing comments also give you a chance to stop and think about your own work, and whether you have been getting through to these kids at all over the course of the year.

As important as I know they are, writing comments is one of my least favorite aspects of teaching. They almost always come at the times of year when both you and the students are worn out and are getting really excited about a break. And finding 50 different ways to say either 'keep up the good work,' or 'Johnny would be doing OK in this class if he ever did his homework,' is a mind-numbing chore.

On the other hand, one of our friends who was traveling with us this weekend was telling me about her high school back in Michigan. The way they did report cards was to generate a list of ten possible comments, things like 1: participates in class, 2:does not complete assignments, etc.. The teacher would then just enter the appropriate numbers for the particular student, and be done. It is an efficient system, and would have saved me many hours of work this weekend (hours I could have spent getting a cultural education in Bollywood movies), but I can't help feeling like it robs the students, not only of a thoughtful comment itself, but of the feeling that their teachers are really thinking about them. There is a lot to be gained from knowing that your teachers are really seeing you as an individual.

More on grades, comments and other means of assement on another ocasion, but now it's faculty meeting time.

Does your school do anything especially good or bad when it comes to grades and comments?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Just One More Reason Why Teaching Is Hard

Just a quick post this morning before running out to our school's Field Day to watch little kids run relay races and pour water on each other and generally enjoy a beautiful sunny day here in northern Virginia.

This article from the New York Times is a few weeks old now, but it fits in with the math theme of the last few posts. The article is about a study from Ohio State University that seems to contradict many people's instincts about how to teach math. Most people, myself included, would think that in order to explain math to the widest variety of students, it is best to apply it to real world situations. The NYT article gives the example of the classic two trains leave a station word problem.

The Ohio State study found, on the other hand, that the opposite may be true; that we learn mathmatical concepts better, and can apply them better, when we learn them as exactly that, concepts. In the case of the train problem, students should learn the algebraic formula first, then learn how to apply it to specific real world situations.

If this finding holds up, it would require a major change in perspective from math teachers at all levels. The problem is, this study suffers from the kinds of problems that so many education related studies suffer from, and is a good example of why it is so hard to come up with a scientifically based approach to teaching.

First of all, the subjects of the study, as with most pychological studies, were college students. Applying what works for teaching 18-22 year olds to teaching eight or nine year olds is a big stretch.

Second, the activities invented for the study, in order to find a mathematical concept that would be new to college students, strike me as a little bit artificial. It's not like the experiment was done with quadratic equations, or something else more relevant to teaching school-age children.

To me, this is why teaching is still a mix of an art and a science. There is information out there, but the information is far from perfect. The skilled teacher is able to sift through it, figure out what will work, and put together appropriate lessons for the specific students he has in front of him at the moment. It is always about knowing the kids you have in your class.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Happy One Month Anniversary Build a School

As part of this blog project, I have been reading a number of "How to Write a Successful Blog" blogs. One of the things that comes up over and over is that you should share milestones and successes with your readers. With that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on my first complete month of writing this blog, and share some of the things I have been learning.

It seems appropriate that this would come in the middle of a series of posts on math, because one of the things I have been having the most fun with on this blog has been tracking the numbers. The part of me that has always enjoyed getting up in the morning and checking the Red Sox' box score, now also has Feedburner and Google Analytics to play with. Here are some of my stats so far.

26 posts
Almost one a day, not too shabby.

Top commenter honors go to Eric with two so far. What I've learned about comments is that the best way to get someone to leave a comment is to mention them in the post. It works like a charm. I'm hoping as the blog grows that this number will really take off. I'd love for this blog to become more and more of a conversation.

77 unique visitors from 60 cities in 8 countries on 4 continents
This is the greatest thing about the Internet. Instead of having these conversations in my office with four other language teachers, it is going on all over the world. Just three continents to go.

3-5 subscribers (varies from day to day)
One is me, one is my wife, and it's a safe bet that a third is my mom, so thanks the the other two of you, whoever you are.

The most fun part of Google Analytics is all of the graphs. There's just something about numbers displayed visually that makes me happy. Yes, I'm a nerd.

Here's the graph of visitors per day. The spike at the beginning is when I sent out my first big email announcing the blog to everyone I know. Since then I've been averaging about five visitors a day. In the scheme of things, it's still a baby blog, but I'm proud.

Here's the pie chart of traffic sources. The orange 'searches' piece has been growing steadily as there have been more posts for people to find. So far the post that has received the most search attention was my Five Books Every Student Should Read post. Apparently lots of people out there are looking for book recommendations.

The referrals piece is a bit over-represented, since it counts as a referral every time you click from one page of the blog to another, resulting in build-a-school.blogspot.com being by far my biggest referrer. In second place, though, is my friend Stacy at sassafrasmama.blogspot.com. She put up a link to me on her blog, and the clicks have been flowing in. As soon as I get organized enough to put together my own favorite links list, she'll be right at the top.

In terms of the stated goal of this blog, to refine my own thinking about what an ideal school would be like, I have just scratched the surface. What has surprised me the most in writing this blog is just how much there is to say about doing school right. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the journey and plan to keep working at this for a long time, so please join me in the conversation. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Baby Got What?

What is it about math that inspires creativity in such a wide variety of genres? You've got TV shows from Square One to Numb3rs, movies like Pi, and books like Flatland. Really all that was missing was a strong musical presence.

And then there was this:

Baby Got Stats

Who knew Sir MixaLot was a mathematician?

Thanks to Eduwonkette for posting that one on her blog yesterday.

Wyoming Catholic College School for Ostriches

Yesterday I talked about One Laptop Per Child's effort to get technology to as many children around the world as possible. On the opposite end of the technology spectrum is this NPR story about Wyoming Catholic College. A brand new college, whose inaugural freshman class is just finishing their first year, Wyoming Catholic College does not allow cell phones or television, and the students there have limited Internet access. The school offers a classics oriented curriculum, including an immersion program in Latin.

Anyone who has been following this blog will know that I am all for a solid foundation in the classics. I also believe strongly that immersion is the best (maybe even the only) way to really learn a language. But seriously folks, Latin immersion?

Learning philosophy, especially logic, is good. Learning rhetoric is good. Reading Plato and Aristotle is good. Do those things really have to come in opposition to cell phones and TV? College is already a strange bubble that often keeps us separated from the real world, a bubble that many of us are reluctant to leave when the time comes. Making that bubble all the more insular seems escapist at best.

The young woman being interviewed for the report doesn't do much to sell me on the benefits of the program. She claims she wants to be an emergency room nurse when she grows up. How many nursing schools are going to be excited about a student who has spent more time on Plato than on biology, and more time discussing 2000-year-old political theory than keeping up with the latest technological developments? My guess in not many.

On the other hand, the fact that she and her friends are able to make plans together without the use of a cellphone seems like it will come in handy when Armageddon comes.

Are you looking for an escape from the technological rat race?

Monday, May 19, 2008

One Laptop Per Child Goes Over to the Dark Side

The New York Times reported on Friday that Microsoft and the One Laptop Per Child program have negotiated an agreement to make Windows available on OLPC computers. If you are not familiar with the One Laptop Per Child program, I highly recommend checking them out. It is a great example of ingenuity and problem solving for a great cause.

Their goal, as the name suggests, is to make technology available to children all over the world, regardless of the financial and infrastructure capabilities of their community. Needless to say, there are a lot of obstacles to this goal, and the solutions that OLPC came up with are really fantastic. I'll list just a few of them here, but you should check out the website to see all the cool things they came up with.

Computers are expensive, making it hard for governments and NGOs to buy enough laptops.
Produce a laptop that can be purchased and delivered for around $200.

Laptops break and need replacing on a regular basis.
Build a laptop with thicker more durable casing and a simpler more reliable internal structure so that they last and last.

Many communities around the world do not have reliable electricity.
Build laptops with solar panels and hand cranks that don't need to be plugged into a traditional power source.

Many communities do not have Internet capabilities.
Build laptops that easily and wirelessly network with each other, to create an automatic local network every time multiple laptops are in use within range or each other.

Computer software is expensive.
Create user friendly open-source software that comes included on each laptop.

Ironically, this last solution is where the program has hit its major hurdle. The laptops were designed to run Linux and their own open-source software. Many of the governments who were interested in buying the cheap computers were turned off by the lack of Windows. They wanted the students learning on the computers to get experience with the world's most used operating system.

As a solution to this problem, the agreement with Microsoft is a good thing for OLPC. At an added cost of about $3 per computer, the laptops will now be much more attractive to many organizations and governments. The agreement has not been without a cost, though. OLPC's president in charge of software development resigned over the agreement. For him, and for many others inside and outside the organization, the open-source software was part of the mission, providing the users with the opportunity to learn to program, and to shape the computers to their own needs.

As the ambivalent capitalist that I am (not to mention lifelong Mac guy), I can't help but be a little sad about the agreement. I'm all for anything that will bring these technologies to as many children around the world as possible, and in that sense the Microsoft agreement is a good thing, but it just feels like OLPC had to sell off a little piece of its soul in the bargain.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What Can Math Teach Us About Character?

In case you hadn't noticed, it's election time again. What do elections mean? Lots and lots of numbers. We have poll results, delegate counts, statistics of all different sizes and hues. For the next six months, the air will be unusually full of numbers. It will be left to the American voter to sort through all the numbers and come to a conclusion about what the right thing to do is. But how numbers literate is the American public?

Perhaps the defining moment for numbers in politics came in the first presidential debate in 2000. Al Gore spent much of the debate defending his positions with statistic after statistic, which Bush brushed aside with the phrase "fuzzy math," converting all that information into so many greenhouse gasses. (It turns out that "fuzzy math" and "fuzzy logic" are real things, but I don't think that's what Dubya meant.) This moment was, of course, indicative of the whole campaign in which the intellectual and analytical Gore was regularly stymied by Bush's appeal to people's common sense and values.

Personal opinions about el presidente aside, what Bush was playing on was the general impression that in the wrong hands, numbers can be made to show whatever we want them to. In this particular respect, he is not wrong. Because we expect numbers to be objective, we can be manipulated by themall the more easily, and it is not all that hard to make the numbers appear to show something. Bush's strategy for dealing with the problem (ignoring the numbers completely), is one way to handle this problem. (I leave it to the reader to decide how successful it has been.)

The opposite approach, and the one which I would advocate, is to educate ourselves to be good interpreters of numbers, to recognize when the numbers have been fudged, and when they are really telling us something. If we are going to be good citizens, we must also be good judges of information. We need to be able to figure out when someone is telling us the truth, and when they really are using "fuzzy math".

All you math teachers out there, I encourage you to spend some time with your students analyzing the numbers that are floating around out there these days. Help them decide for themselves what is real or what is not. Their decisions just might make a difference someday.

Have you seen any really bad math recently? I'm sure you have.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What Can You Do With Math?

What do you use math for in your everyday life?

As a teacher, my answer is: "to calculate percentages, lots and lots of percentages." I grade stuff, the student gets x out of a possible y, I write the resulting percentage at the top of the page, I take all those percentages and average them. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Eventually I add weight to some of those percentages with other percentages (20% homework, 25% tests, etc.), and calculate yet another percentage that gets (abracadabra) turned into a letter. That's about the extent of my math life, and I could have done that kind of math back in middle school. So what were all my advanced math studies good for? (I got as far as Statistics and Multi-variable Calculus in college before I hit my math wall.)

I have stated before that in putting together a school, we should be questioning the value of everything in the curriculum. Math strikes me as being in the unusual position of being both of unquestioned value (of course math provides the tools that our students need to succeed in the modern world) and of above average forgetableness (second only to foreign language in the "I haven't used that since high school" rankings).

For people who end up using math in their careers, it is an invaluable skill, highly in demand in the widest variety of fields, from science to engineering to business and beyond. My friends who studied math in college left school with the world at their fingertips, and have gone on to wildly successful careers. For those of us who use only a much simpler set of mathematical skills, the rest of what we learned has often atrophied and begun to fall away. So what does this mean for math education in high school? How do we balance the students who will need a strong math background with those who may never do anything more complicated than basic arithmetic? For me, the answer lies in the larger philosophy of what a high school education should accomplish.

When I was filling out my college applications, checking the boxes about what I might choose to study when I got there, I said I was going to major in economics (math would have been real useful there). By the time I had to declare a major at the end of my Sophomore year, I chose psychology (I hear they use statistics for that) without ever having stepped inside an econ classroom. Six months later, I was adding Spanish as a second major, and headed down the path that would lead me to teaching. I loved my Spanish classes in high school, but never would have guessed that my career would involve Spanish, and certainly not teaching it. My wife, who is currently pursuing a PhD in biology, only took honors biology in high school because her mom made her.

My point is that very few of us have any idea at sixteen or seventeen what our futures have in store for us. In this age of many career changes, this strikes me as even more true. The job of high school should be to prepare us for the widest variety of possibilities and to provide us with as many skills as possible. Later in life we can decide which ones to allow to fade away with disuse. So, kids, go out and practice those derivatives. You never know when you may need them.

Have you used math today?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Five Books Every Student Should Read in High School

This week is shaping up to be very book themed here at Build a School. Since I've been mostly focused on English issues recently anyway, I might as well keep it going.

I've already made the case that there is a certain amount of cultural knowledge that students should acquire during their English studies. For me, this includes having first-hand experience with certain works, so that they feel ownership of the knowledge, not just that they have acquired facts about titles and authors. So here they are, five books every student should read before finishing high school.

The Odyssey

For me, The Odyssey is the prime mover of all of Western literature. The story of Odysseus' long and troubled journey home has directly or indirectly inspired so many great authors (Joyce, Frazier, The Cohen Brothers) that it is impossible to imagine the course of Western literature without it. In addition, it is relatively easy and fun to read, full of all kinds of memorable twists and adventures. It presents students with many literary ideas that will help them understand other works: epic poetry, metaphor and simile, etc.. I think if I had to choose just one book, this would be the one.


Shakespeare gets a pretty bad rap in the world of high school. Students tend to take one look at the old fashioned poetic dialogue and decide that it must be boring, and certainly not worth the hard work of trying to understand it. In the hands of a great teacher, though, one who can break through those initial barriers and get students to see the beauty of the language and the universality of the emotions, reading Shakespeare in school can be a life changing experience. I had a hard time deciding which play to choose for this list. In some ways, Romeo and Juliet is the easier choice, with a lot more that the students are likely to identify with. Fundamentally, though, I just think Hamlet is a better play, and there is still plenty there for teenagers to latch onto.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Probably the biggest hole in my own education was that I didn't read Huck Finn until well after graduating from college. By then, I knew a great deal of the story anyway; it's so much a part of our culture. I include it on the list because I can't think of a more American book. So much of our national identity relates to themes of this book--the legacy of slavery, the pioneer spirit--that it's hard to think about being American without including the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the picture. There are also great opportunities for drawing connections, both within English studies (here comes The Odyssey again), and to history class.

Fahrenheit 451

Within the limit of five books, I was trying to get a variety of genres and time periods. I wanted a Sci-Fi book in the group, because I think they are a great way to see how fiction can help us think through real-world questions. I picked Fahrenheit 451 because it's about the importance of books. There's a lot to talk about related to the power of fiction, the influence of TV, the role of government in society, etc.. I had a couple more possibilities for this spot, but I'm sticking to this one.


I wanted to finish off the list with a contemporary author. For my money, Toni Morrison is the best American writer working today, and Belovedis her masterpiece. I can't begin to do it justice in a couple sentences, so I will just say that it is one of the finest and most powerful books I have ever read. Again, there are all kinds of tie ins to history and to other literary works, and plenty of things to get students talking.

There it is, five books I think every high school student should read. Obviously in a four year career, they are going to read a lot more than five books, so I'd love to hear from everyone else.

What would your top five list be?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Lolita

Latest in the "What I'm Reading Now" feature of this blog.

For the last few weeks I have been reading Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I originally put it on my Amazon wish list back when the New York Times picked it as one of the best books of 2006, and just now finally got around to reading it. I have to admit that when it comes to deciding what to read, I tend to be a bit of a snob. There are so many wonderful books out there, that I don't want to waste the three or four weeks it usually takes me to finish a book on something that I'm not going to love. (Part of the problem is that I feel compelled to finish every book that I start, even if I'm not enjoying it.) So I tend to gravitate towards the classics and the award winners. I like my reading to come pre-vetted.

Mayflower was indeed worthy of its praise. It does what every good non-fiction book should do, educate while telling a great story. Before reading this book, my knowledge of early American history went pretty much like this:

In 1492 Columbus came sailing on his three ships, ended up in the Caribbean instead of in India, and landed on Hispaniola where he proceeded to decimate the Native population. Then in 1620 the Pilgrims came (I'm from Massachusetts, so Jamestown was always less important to us), landed in Plymouth, nearly starved to death, but with the help of the local Indians managed to survive the winter; they had a big meal to celebrate being alive, and lived happily ever after. Then in the 1770's the Colonists got tired of the overbearing British, tossed their tea in the harbor, Paul Revere rode to Lexington and Concord, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and we had ourselves a country.

I am condensing and oversimplifying (I don't want my former teachers or current colleagues to be too horrified), but that is the basic timeline of what I knew about early America. With that as a starting point, Mayflower knocked down my misconceptions on a number of points.

  1. While many of the passengers on the Mayflower were religious Pilgrims seeking escape from Charles I's oppressive rule, about half were businessmen and fortune hunters, hoping to cash in on the natural resources of the Americas.

  2. Far from being the "first contact" situation that I had always imagined, there were a hundred years of interaction between Europeans and the Indians before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, a fact that made their relations with the Indians far more complex, and far more dangerous, than I had previously thought, and made their early diplomatic successes all the more impressive.

  3. The 150 years of history that I was missing between the founding of Plymouth and the American Revolution is mostly about conflict and war between the Indians and the European settlers who kept expanding to take more and more land. When I think of Indian wars, my image is more of The Trail of Tears and Custer's Last Stand: the big westward push of the American states. But before they could do that, they had to conquer the Northeast.

In fact, the real story told in Mayflower--above and beyond the departure of the Pilgrims from Holland, their deadly sea journey, and their even more deadly first winter in Plymouth--is the story a generation later of King Philip's War, in which the English lost 8% of the adult male population (almost twice the percentage of American men killed in the Civil War) and the Indians lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population to war, starvation or disease. It is more than the imagination can fathom.

In the epilogue, which he titles "Conscience", Philbrick cites a 2002 estimate that there were approximately 35 million descendants of the Mayflower passengers living in the United States. If my math is right, that works out to a little less than 10% of the population, a reminder of just how much their story is our story, and how important it is that we learn from the mistakes that were made by our ancestors along the way. I highly recommend reading this book.

Next up: Lolita
I'm the kind of person who likes to create artificial structures to give his life a sense of order. Recently, I have been reading in a specific rotation: one new fiction book, one new non-fiction book, re-reading a book off my shelf (I keep pretty much every book I read, so I have lots to choose from). It's the re-reading spot in the rotation, so I have picked up Lolita. I first read Lolita in college mostly to see what all the fuss was about. My recent post on Reading Lolita in Tehran, brought it back to mind, so I thought I'd give it a more mature read.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The End of an Era (Although Probably Not)

A strange thing happened on Sunday when the New York Times published its Best Seller List. For the first time in almost ten years, there was not a single Harry Potter book on the list anywhere. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone first hit the list on December 27, 1998. In the intervening ten years, the Times has restructured the list twice--first adding a separate list for children's books, then later another list for children's series--in order to make room for other books. Harry was just too popular for anyone else to compete.

The ten year run of Harry Potter coincides pretty closely with the time frame of my teaching career. In that time, I have had more students than I can count tell me how much they hate to read. They would rather watch TV, see a movie, play on their computer, or really just about anything other than sit still with a book in front of them.

On the other hand, I remember the summer that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. I was working at a summer day camp with kids mostly between the ages of eight and twelve. The day after the book came out, camper after camper got out of their cars in the morning, eyes red from staying up too late, giant hardcover books--many of them bookmarked hundreds of pages in--clutched in their hands, determined to spend every free moment finding out what was going to happen to Harry.

Quite simply put, J.K. Rowling got millions of kids to fall in love with books. They may never love another book quite so much as they loved Harry Potter--most of us who love reading have those books, the ones that were so special to us that even the great books we read now don't quite measure up--but they know that loving a book is possible, and so they become readers. How many teachers would love to say that they had turned even a handful of kids on to reading who might not otherwise have been interested? Harry Potter has made J.K. Rowling one of the richest women in the world, and as far as I'm concerned she deserves every galleon, sickle and knut.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Science, Storks and Spaghetti Monsters

I'm not quite finished yet discussing English related topics--I still owe you a couple of reading lists at least--but I wanted to make a brief switch to the world of Science for today. The good old Evolution debate is back in the news these days, coming at us from a couple fronts. First you've got Florida, who in the name of protecting teachers' rights to teach what they believe, is trying to pass a law to make evolution "just a theory" again. Then you've got Ben Stein's new movie about the witch hunt against teachers who want to teach Intelligent Design. I was willing to forgive him for the whole Nixon speechwriter thing, since he gave us such memorable teachers in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Wonder Years, but I think he's on my shit list for good now.

I don't have a lot to add to the debate, except to say that one of the things all schools should manage to get across to their students before they become voters is what the word "theory" really means in the scientific sense. It would save the world a lot of trouble. Instead, I offer you this video rebuttal to Mr. Stein's movie, up there with The Flying Spaghetti Monster as far as parodies of this whole situation go.

Thanks to the good people at Flypaper over at the Fordham Institute for posting this video on their blog.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What English Class Should Teach Students About Character

One of my responsibilities during my last couple years working in New Jersey was as one of the teacher representatives to the school's Judiciary Board. The Judiciary Board consisted of three teachers and three students (the student body president and two specifically elected representatives, one junior and one senior). When a major school rule was broken, it was our responsibility to determine as best as possible the facts of the case, and to recommend consequences to the Head of School and the principals. We saw a little bit of everything you might imagine that teenagers do, from the unending accumulation of minor offenses to bigger things like theft and drinking. More than anything else, though, we saw cases of cheating and plagiarism.

I had a conversation recently with my current colleagues here in northern Virginia. I am the only native born American in the Language Department, and we were discussing what they saw as the peculiarly American obsession with plagiarism. In the schools where they grew up, plagiarism was, if not outright encouraged, certainly openly permitted. It was the students' job to go out and find information from people who knew better than they did, and regurgitate that information. The extent to which you rephrased or processed that information was really beside the point, as far as they were concerned.

My background is pretty much the opposite. Where I went to school for 7th-12th grades, academic dishonesty (plagiarism, cheating, lying to a teacher) was grounds for immediate expulsion, a more severe policy than the two strikes given for drug or alcohol offenses. That environment certainly shaped my sense of the severity of plagiarism, and made it difficult for me to sit on the Judiciary Board as student after student came through for the same dumb things and walked away with a minor slap on the wrist. I felt at the time that if we made it more clear to the students that academic dishonesty was impermissible, and that the penalties were severe, the less it would happen.

Whether or not a one strike policy would have been the solution to the problem, the issue itself is one that schools have to deal with more and more, and need to find appropriate solutions for. The Internet gives students access to an increasing number of ways to avoid doing their own work, as well as teachers more and more resources for catching them. At schools like McLean High School, right here in my own backyard, the resulting conflict is starting to boil over.

It is not just about the increased resources available on the Internet. The Information Age is changing the role of information itself, and we should be discussing with our students just what that means for the morals and ethics of using information. On the one hand you have sites like Wikipedia, where information is open, fluid, and without owners. In many other areas, though, information is an increasingly valuable commodity, and we need to think about it as we would think about anything else with financial worth. This is going to be a difficult situation for students to navigate, since the opportunities to break the rules are growing, even as the rules become more and more important.

In that context, teaching students to do their own work, and to give credit where it is due to the work of others, is a hugely important part of education. I include it here as I am working through my ideas about English class because it comes up so often as students resort to CliffsNotes and SparkNotes to do their reading for them, and downloaded essays to save them hours of writing. Severe and immediate consequences for breaking the rules may not be the best solution in all schools or for all students, although I certainly got the message from my school, but it needs to be an explicit part of the curriculum, so that when students go out into the world they are prepared for the moral questions that lie ahead of them.

How serious an infraction do you think plagiarism is, and what would you do to discourage it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Build a Really Cool Eco-Friendly School

This blog is called "Build a School" so it seems appropriate that I should talk a little bit about what the buildings themselves would be like. A school is, first and foremost, a place; and the characteristics of that place greatly affect what goes on inside it. Every teacher knows instinctively how the classroom interacts with the lessons that take place there. Is it big or small, light or dark, stark or well decorated? We feel all those things, even when we're not thinking about them directly.

In starting a new school, it will be necessary to create--or at least to choose--the building(s) and grounds for the school. Let's allow ourselves, then, as we do for other aspects of this blog, to fantasize about what we would do if there were no limitations. If you had the resources of a school like Sidwell Friends here in DC, you might build something like this for example. I certainly would.

Sidwell has created an amazing opportunity for their students. The building itself is a part of their education, not just a place where school happens. My old elementary school (my sister teachers fifth grade there these days) has solar panels on the roof; not quite enough for a platinum rating, but still a good example for students of environmental stewardship. I find it heartening that schools like these exist, and hope that more and more schools will find opportunities, even if only on a smaller scale, to be a tangible model of the things we want our students to be.

Play architect: what would your ideal school building look like?

What Can You Do With English?

In an earlier post I talked about my former student, Adam, who liked to make the argument that English was a useless class. When we really got to the heart of it, what Adam believed was that reading fiction did not belong in school. He often equated it to having a class about watching movies (not remembering in the moment that he was sitting in a Spanish Culture Through Film class). Books and movies were for entertainment, if you liked that sort of thing (Adam didn't--at least not in the case of books), and didn't belong in an academic classroom. Adam was a pragmatic guy. He wanted to grow up, get a good paying job, and settle down to the task of making lots of money. Reading books just didn't fit into that scheme, although he was willing to admit that the writing skills aspect of English class was probably worth his time.

I had this discussion with Adam more times than I care to admit, hoping in vain that someday I would find just the right argument to convince him of the validity of reading fiction in school, but I never made the breakthrough. As is often the case when we get into a discussion like this, my failure was due to the fact that I didn't have a great answer to the question. I had never questioned the value of reading books. I loved reading in school. English and Spanish were always my favorite classes, and I studied Spanish in college mostly to keep reading all of the wonderful books there were to discover in my second language. Reading the great works of literature was a part of education that I always took for granted.

The goal behind this blog, though, is to not take anything for granted. Everything in our someday school should have a reason, and we should know exactly what it is. I've already argued that there is value to knowing about literature. Today's topic relates to the skills we get from English class.

I'll leave writing aside for the moment. If Adam was willing to admit the usefulness of learning to write well, I will assume for now that most of the readers of this blog are on the same page. What I want to present is an argument to convince my friend Adam, if he ever stumbles across this blog, that all those books he was forced to read were worth the time he may or may not have spent reading them.

Adam and I ended up leaving that school the same year, he to graduate, and me to join my future wife on Long Island, where she was starting graduate school the following fall. My new school on Long Island had a summer reading list for teachers. We were supposed to pick one book from the list and be prepared to discuss it during the before-school faculty meetings. I chose to read Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, and in its pages found the argument I had been looking for. I haven't seen Adam since then, so I haven't had a chance to test it out, but I like to think it would have at least made him think for a second that reading books was good for him.

For those of you who are not familiar with the book, it is a memoir of Nafisi's experiences leading a clandestine course in Western literature for women during the early days of the Islamic Republic. In addition to Lolita, they read a wide variety of books including The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice , and Daisy Miller . The book is both a fascinating view of what it was like to be a woman in Iran during that huge cultural transition, as well as a love letter to great literature. Here is what she says about what we learn from these books:

Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can't experience all that
others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstrous
individuals in works of fiction. A good novel is one that shows the complexity
of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a
voice; in this way a novel is called democratic--not that it advocates democracy
but that by nature it is so. (p. 132)

By reading about the experiences of other people, even (or maybe especially) fictional people, we learn to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. We learn empathy.

Empathy can be a rare skill during our school-age years. Teenagers have enough of their own stuff going on that it is often hard to step outside themselves and think about what it is like to be someone else. Reading fiction gives them a comparatively safe environment to explore that process. When the class discusses why a character behaved in a certain way at a critical moment in the story, or what might have motivated the antagonist to commit a heinous act, they are learning to empathize, to use their imaginations to connect with other people. That is a skill worth developing.

So, Adam, if you're out there, are you convinced?

As always, the names of any students mentioned in this blog are changed to protect their privacy.

Monday, May 5, 2008

It's the Caring Stupid

My friend Stacy is a former colleague of mine from my days in New Jersey. She teaches history and American government, and is one of the best teachers I have ever worked with. She does everything a great teacher should do: inspires and challenges her students; makes them really think about what she's teaching; earns their respect; and gets them to actually learn the material and the skills in her curriculum. Stacy writes a blog at sassafrasmama.blogspot.com where she talks about her life as a teacher, a single mom, and all around great person. I really wish more of my friends did this. Reading her blog has been a great way to feel like I'm more involved in her everyday life, even though I rarely get to see her these days.

Stacy's post from yesterday made me think a bit about my whole approach to my build-a-school project. So far I have been oriented towards the curricular goals of a school: what the school should be teaching. Stacy reminds me that it's much more import how we are teaching. That's the part that really makes a difference in students' lives.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Interesting Commentary on Standardized Tests

Assessment and testing is a topic I have been saving until I get a little further along in developing the things I hope my school will teach. But there was an interesting commentary on NPR this morning on the subject of standardized tests.

Without getting into a major discussion of the topic, I generally come down on the "standardized tests are bad because they force teachers to teach test taking skills instead of other things they should be teaching, don't really measure what they say they do, and cost schools a lot of money that could be better put to other uses" side of the argument. The commentator, a former teacher in a Philadelphia charter school and current ed school student, does a good job of discussing her own issues with standardized tests while recognizing the ways in which they are attractive to parents whose children have been so under-served by their school systems in the past. It's a thought provoking piece.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What Do You Know About English?

Can you identify the authors and works for the following quotes?

THERE lived not long since, in a certain village of the Mancha, the name whereof I purposely omit, a gentleman of their calling that use to pile up in their halls old lances, halberds, morions, and such other armours and weapons.

ON an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.
He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house, and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady, who provided him with garret, dinners, and attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

I AM a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep.

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own;
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

How did you do? (Answers below.) The real question is, is this what we want from our high school graduates, that they be able to identify famous passages from famous works of poetry, prose and drama? It's certainly kind of fun to get them right, and the 40+ year run of Jeopardy indicates an American fascination with trivia. But is this our great aspiration for our students?

The answer ultimately depends on the very basic question: what is school supposed to do for us? It's a question that my whole approach to this blog mostly tiptoes around, hoping that in the process of writing I can form a coherent answer. As I mentioned in my first post on knowledge, though, I do believe that one of the things we should get from school is a shared cultural vocabulary. Included in that vocabulary should be a basic knowledge of major literary figures and works. When a high schooler goes to the movies and sees She's the Man , her teacher should point out that, while soccer wasn't around yet in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare wrote about the whole dressing up as your brother thing first, and even he probably got the idea from someone else.

The stories we tell help us understand who we are. Students will find the modern stories that register with them on their own, whether they are in books, on TV, in movies, or on the Internet. As a teacher, I feel it is my job to help them see where their stories come from; and doing that involves providing them with a background knowledge in the stories that have been important in the world in the past.

So, my answer is yes, students should complete their high school education with some books and authors that they know something about. The next question, then, is what books and authors should they be.

Coming soon: Five Books Every Student Should Read Before Finishing High School

Answers for the quotes:

  1. Cervantes, Don Quixote
  2. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
  3. Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
  4. T.S. Elliot, The Wasteland
  5. Shakespeare, The Tempest

A couple comments on the choices:

As a Spanish teacher, I had to put Cervantes in, and I've already established that the knight errant and his squire are the heroic guides for this blog.

I didn't read Crime and Punishment until I was in my thirties, but was amazed when I finally did how modern the novel felt to me. As I often do when I'm reading a great book, I wished I was an English teacher and could sit down with a group of students to work through the novel.

I included Bartleby as a tribute to the great website where I got all the quotes. www.bartleby.com has dozens, if not hundreds, of complete works online. It's a fantastic resource.

Just past a mostly pleasant April here in DC, Elliot's masterpiece was mostly a free association based on the the calendar.

In the summer of 2006, my wife, my sister and I had the opportunity to see Patrick Stewart play Prospero in Stratford upon Avon as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Celebration. His delivery of the epilogue is the single most powerful theater experience I have ever had in my life. Just reading the text still gives me chills, so I had to include it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Friends Are Even Cooler Than I Am

My blog project is now reaching the end of its second full week, and so far I am enjoying the process immensely. There's nothing like forcing yourself to write every day to help focus your thoughts. But while I am fantasizing about the idea of starting a new school, my friend Kristen has actually gone out and done it. Check out the website for her new preschool:


Montessori and world languages are topics I plan on spending a lot of time on for this blog, so I'm very excited to follow the development of her school. Maybe one of these days when starting a school and being mom to a two year old leave her some extra free time, Kristen will share a guest post or two on her experiences getting a brand new school started up. In the meantime, I wish her the greatest success, and look forward to following the progress of her exciting project.

My friends are so awesome!

Build a Curriculum: Some Structure to Start

I think it's time to give some structure to this whole discussion of creating a new school. So far we have established the general approach of thinking of student development in three categories: knowledge, skills, and character. So let's make a table with those as our three column headings:

Our row headings, then, will be the learning areas where we hope to be teaching the students these things. As a starting point, let's use the traditional departments in a typical school and add them into our table:

As the ideas on this blog develop, I'm sure I will be making many additions and changes to this structure; but for the time being, it gives us a good jumping off point to describe on the most basic level what our school hopes to teach. Once complete, it should paint a picture of our ideal graduate, a student who has acquired all the knowledge, skills and character traits that we decide are desirable and necessary for someone with a high school education.

The majority of the posts that follow will take the boxes of this table one at a time and start filling them up. It will always be a living document; but eventually, we should have the table filled in completely enough to have a good picture of what our new school is trying to do.

What do you think? Anything important missing from the table before we start?