Friday, December 18, 2009

Finding Purpose

It's important that in whatever work we do, we find purpose. If your work is running a business, your purpose is to grow the business - but you have the choice of steady growth or fast growth, and of course how to grow. If your work is running a school, your purpose is to manage your faculty, staff, and students - but you have the choice to manage top-down or bottom-up. If your work is teaching or tutoring, your purpose is to instill knowledge and cultivate relationships - but you have the choice to deliver facts and content, or teach life skills and habits of mind.

If your work is being a student, your purpose is to do well in school and class - and you, too, have a choice as to what that means: Get good grades? Turn in all your homework? Learn effective study habits and critical thinking skills? Be a creative problem-solver?

In our daily work, we have purpose, and we also have choice. It's usually not so black-and-white, but rather a blend of our various options. It is important to find and recognize both, as one gives us direction, the other holds our values in check.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Whatever it Takes

In a recent blog post, Joanne Jacobs credited success in closing the achievement gap to the "do whatever it takes" attitude. If teachers are willing to do whatever it takes, then this is certainly a potent solution to education's ills. But how many teachers are actually willing to do whatever it takes? And given that far fewer than 100% of teachers are willing to do whatever it takes, how can we close the achievement gap anyway?

It is unrealistic to think that every, or even most, teachers will do whatever it takes for their students. Some teachers might do a lot (I was once asked to run a concession stand to raise money for my students' sports teams on Friday nights), and some schools might ask a lot (teachers at KIPP schools work an extended school day, are often on-call until 9pm, and are asked to work on Saturdays and during the summer), but this is the exception, not the rule. And it shouldn't be the rule - asking teachers to put in extra hours or work Friday nights or Saturdays is not sustainable in the long run.

So, then, what is to be done? The ultimate solution to closing the achievement gap isn't more of the same old strategy. We don't need more programs, we need a new vision. We don't need to keep doing the same thing more, we need to do something differently. What that is, exactly, is up for heated debate. One thing is for sure, though: we can not assume that every teacher will be as committed to their jobs as Rafe Esquith, and pointing to this as a solution will not solve anything.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Education in the 21st Century

I first saw this video late last year. We watched it again at one of our curriculum development days back in September. It has been a part of the internet for a few years now and the facts it presents never ceases to amaze me. I have to constantly remind myself to try and teach lessons that my students will be able to connect with in the real world. I've written in the past about integrating technology in my lessons because I know that my students are either watching television, using the internet or playing videogames when they're not focusing on their other myriad activities. As the video states:

"Today's 21-year-olds have: Watched of TV 20,000 hours Played 10,000 hours of video games Talked 10,000 hours on the phone And they've sent/received 250,000 e-mails or instant messages." Just think what the numbers will be when my students are that age.

I started the year by writing my warm up activities on the board and waiting a few minutes at the beginning of class for my students to complete them. However, at the suggestion of one of the homeroom teachers, I've decided to incorporate the activities in Power Point form. It saves me the time of writing the information on the board and I also know that my students should get used to learning in this format because many of their future teachers in high school and college will lecture in slide show form. It's good note-taking practice for them as well.

This past week, I used Power Point for another activity. I was teaching my students different directions in Spanish such as izquierda (left) and derecha (right) and I recalled a rhyme that I learned when I was a sophomore in high school. I taught them this same rhyme except that this time I had the words up on the ActivBoard the whole time so they could see them when they acted out the skits I had them prepare with the directions. It may seem like an insignificant detail, but I knew they appreciated the presentation, especially since they only had about 10 minutes to prepare the skit. Many of them still needed to look at the words while they recited them.

I know that in order to prepare my students for the 21st century environment, I'll have to use the technological devices given to me by the school, but I'll also have to prepare them for real life situations like how to get from Point A to Point B in a Spanish speaking country. Having them choreograph a routine with the directions they learned from the presentation was a great way to actually get them to REMEMBER the words I taught them. As long as I can engage them, I can teach them.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Teaching in Tandem

Two teachers are better than one. This past week, my eighth grade students were at a class retreat called Caritas so I had the great opportunity of sharing the lower grade classes with Sra. Zapata, who usually teaches the grades by herself. I had covered a few of her classes for her in the past and the only thing I remember about that day is that when combined with my regular two classes, the extra work barely gave me enough time to eat lunch. This week, however was different.

We started off giving lessons to the 3rd, 4th and 6th graders. I was especially grateful to get to see the 6th graders because I'd never had the chance to interact with them before. My schedule is such that I always teach the 8th grade when Mrs. Zapata is with the 6th graders. During our time with them, I showed them pictures of my trip to Spain to try and entice them into traveling. They were quite and attentive and asked great questions. I'm looking forward to teaching them next year.

While I was sharing her classes, Sra. Zapata gave me many ideas that I'm now thinking of implementing in my own classes. For example, she begins each class by asking two students to come up to the front and lead the class in an "Our Father" prayer in Spanish. I confess that I still haven't memorized the Spanish version of the prayer so reciting it with the lower grades helped me learn it better. After the prayer, Sra. Zapata and I took turns teaching Christmas vocabulary to the 3rd and 4th grade classes. We went over some words like "arbol," "estrella" and "la chimenea" and then passed out a worksheet for the students to label and color.

While the students were working on the vocabulary sheet, Sra. Zapata re-introduced an assignment that they'd done in the past. Her students were to watch or listen to 2 hours of Spanish and log their hours on a Spanish log that we handed out. We brainstormed together the different media the kids could use and came up with 1010 AM radio, On Demand en espanol, listening to conversations with family members who speak Spanish, and watching an English movie in Spanish. I made sure that the students copies all of our collective ideas on to their papers because I wanted to teach them the importance of note-taking. Having two teachers definitely helped because while the students were working, Sra. Zapata and I could both go around and offer our help. She only gets thirty minutes with each class and has to use each minute wisely.

The most important thing I learned from her this past week was the concept of providing an incentive. In the lower grades, she had a policy that if the students were quite and on task, they earned points. If the students reach 50 points, they get to play Spanish bingo. The 3rd and 4th graders were especially excited about this and I'm sure that if I made this my policy in 7th and 8th grade, the students would be just as pumped to try and accomplish this goal. I understand more and more now how important incentives are.

On Friday, Sra. Zapata was sick so I covered all of her nine classes. I had never dealt with first graders, second graders and kindergarteners by myself before so it was indeed a new experience. I never expected so many questions and quickly learned to never say that I might know their brother or sister because then the class would rapidly continue to ask who else I might know in the upper grades and we'd never get any work done. I learned that although the kids in the younger grades were energetic and cute beyond all belief, I'm right where I belong teaching the older kids. Hopefully this week, I'll be able to memorize the "Our Father" prayer and implement a Spanish bingo policy with my 8th graders. Everybody loves bingo, right?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

School, The Mind, and Multiple Intelligences

Many of us have heard of Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Just as many of us think of MI as a justification for classrooms that accommodate many sensory modalities and provide multiple entry points for learning to take place. And why not? Multimodal learning and providing multiple entry points for learners are considered to be best practices in pedagogy these days. Dr. Gardner would certainly be behind such efforts, but he would also be the first to say that his theory of Multiple Intelligences was never intended to justify these pedagogical practices. This comes from one of Gardner's students, now a Professor in his own right:

...neither Gardner nor MI theory has ever argued that educators should spend equal amounts of time teaching to the eight intelligences, or that every lesson should provide students with eight options for demonstrating their learning. In fact, MI theory offers neither a curriculum nor a goal toward which educators are expected to strive. Rather, MI theory is an idea about the concept of intelligence. A psychologist by training, Gardner left it to educators to decide how MI theory can be useful in the particular community and context in which they teach.

Or, if you'd rather, from Gardner himself:

“Multiple intelligences” should not in and of itself be an educational goal. Educational goals need to reflect one’s own values, and these can never come simply or directly from a scientific theory. Once one reflects on one’s educational values and states one’s educational goals, however, then the putative existence of our multiple intelligences can prove very helpful. And, in particular, if one’s educational goals encompass disciplinary understanding, then it is possible to mobilize our
several intelligences to help achieve that lofty goal.

We look to research and theory in psychology for answers to educational problems. Multiple Intelligences, for many, has been incorrectly touted as that answer. But rather than being pointers on how to organize one's classroom, MI theory is Dr. Gardner's contribution to the academic dialogue. It is an extension of one school of thought in cognitive psychology called modularity, which was originally championed by Jerry Fodor in 1983. Modularity describes each of our minds as an assembly of independently functioning basic abilities. Fodor believes that we have separate parts of our brains (that probably map onto separate parts of our minds) that are equipped to different tasks: process language, perceive and interpret the movement of things in space, interpret information from our senses, intuitively understand others' minds, and so on. Part of MI's theory as an offshoot of Fodor's modularity is that the different intelligence domains that Gardner suggests (kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and so on) function independently. That is, according to the theory, if a person has a very keen sense of numbers and logic, that has nothing to do with their ability to throw a ball accurately (kinesthetic intelligence) or be empathic (interpersonal intelligence).

Recent research in cognitive science and neuroscience, however, reveal that there are more connections between these alleged intelligences or abilities than was originally thought. Annette Karmiloff Smith, in 1992, argued that these separate silos of intelligence are not innate, but actually are cultivated as the mind develops. Our many intelligences, then, are malleable and subject to change. That is, every person's life experience shapes their "intelligence."

More importantly, it's more correctly thought that our many "intelligences" are constantly interacting with one another. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, in a recent Lecture at Sacred Heart Prepatory, pointed out all the different things that happen in our brains when it gets hit with one piece of information. For example, as you read the word BABY, several associations are probably conjured: an image of an infant sleeping or crying, a specific memory that we might have had with a baby, the lyrics to a recent pop song, our college course on human development, and so on. Beneath the surface, several mental faculties are at work: your visual system, a system that recognizes written language, certain systems that direct your attention, and so on. Some associations are sprung from the well of long-term memory, others are images, still others are associated with words or sounds. Some associations are made possible by brain processes that happen below the conscious level. In short, there is an incredible cascade of mental events put into action by the simplest piece of information we take in. Each association is a special combination of our intelligences, and often uses more than one. Two things are illuminating here: 1) every individual conjures different associations in different parts of their mind from the same stimulus, and 2) those associations are learned, shaped by our development and our experience.

This last version of our minds is much more informative and useful to educators. We do not learn with one intelligence, even if information is presented in one way. We learn, and learn best, by incorporating all the mind's faculties in concert. A la Immordino-Yang, The more associations and connections we can mentally make with a new piece of information, the more deeply we will have "learned" it. And, a la Karmiloff-Smith, the more we are engaged in this sort of thing, and the more experience we have developing our minds, the better we will have learned. Conveniently, these lessons lead educators to similar conclusions as they have reached with MI theory: differentiated instruction, multimodal learning, and forging a personal connection to the material.