Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Future of Unions (part 1)

Ok. One of the touchiest subjects in education. Here's my perspective, and being a charter school teacher I threw away my union membership 16 months ago, which may say more than anything else about what follows. In my view, unions are not the solution or the problem. The way the unions operate in our system today undeniably makes it hard to institute change. The most challenging aspect of the unions' influence comes down to tenure, and the way that tenure discourages teachers from innovating and improving upon their craft. Without any sense of being challenged when displaying laziness, a tenured teacher will only have intrinsic motivation to propel them. Given the emotional burdens teaching frequently causes, teachers need every form of motivation to ensure sustained commitment and effectiveness, and schools need to have more flexibility to remove teachers when they prove to lack in this area.

Thus, we begin this conversation about unions on the question of accountability. Teachers need to be held accountable for what they are asked to do, and more than anything else, having a demonstrable impact on student learning ought to be paramount in the way teachers are reviewed. Some combination of standardized tests, student portfolios, observations, and student/parent surveys could make up the bulk of teacher evaluations. However, the union routinely resists adopting such measures. The argument tends to revolve around what the exact measures should be, but in effect there is no system of fair evaluation in place. Unions should do more to welcome a system of accountability based on fair and transparent evaluations, with at least 50% of that evaluation centering on demonstrable and measurable student learning.

A system of accountability as just described makes up part of the incentive structure in which teachers work (or ought to). The incentives for teachers to perform well also include (a) teacher pay, (b) opportunities for professional growth and advancement, (c) opportunities for acknowledgement, recognition and praise, and (d) satisfaction related to the service of teaching itself. On points (b) and (c), the unions play a constructive role, offering courses for teacher development, protecting teacher time so they can learn, rest, and explore, and granting awards and presenting acknowledgements in union newspapers. The union has little to do with point (d) directly, and as it is now well known, the union plays a major role in the structuring of teacher pay (a). Let us look briefly at unions and pay.

The issue of merit pay has recently gotten a lot of press, and in a nutshell here's my view on pay and unions: (1) if it weren't for unions, average teacher pay would be lower, attracting, as a whole, less well qualified candidates (due to a higher degree of risk and cost associated with the profession). At the same time,  (2) so called "merit pay," which unions currently oppose, could definitely make a big difference in the field of education by increasing the reward for hard work and effectiveness. In essence, unions have both a negative and positive influence on one of the most important incentives--pay--for teachers. What then should be done? In my view, we should look very closely at what Washington DC attempted this year, in which teachers had the ability to vote to be on a salary scale or a merit pay system. This compromise could be the best solution yet considered.

The role of unions in education goes beyond accountability and incentives. In two early 2011 posts, I will look at other aspects of the union factor in education, in particular:

-support for teachers
-flexibility with school day, structure and management approaches
-areas of education relatively unaffected by unions
-Overall value of unions

Happy New Year!

Finally, a book I'd recommend looking at that considers many of these questions in the context of higher education:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Explaining my Hiatus

Wow, time flies. As we approach December I look back on November as a whirlwind: starting with the election, I had my grades due in on Nov 9th and had a lot of catching up to do since so much of October was focused on Spain. Then my birthday came and I took the weekend to really devote to my family, friends, and fiancee (and playing the new "Black Ops" for PS3) and then before you know it, its Thanksgiving.

Over the years I've learned the importance of consistency. Nevertheless, consistency is often seen, particularly in the blogosphere (especially post-Twitter) as posting/writing/producing/creating according to a schedule that is more hourly/daily as opposed to weekly/monthly. As I maintain a commitment to blogging here about education my motivations, as well as my inclinations, remain aligned to my original purpose as outlined 1 year and 2 days ago, when I first launched this blog.

As a professional, I have an obligation to manage my time, tasks, and energy well. As a crusader for educational reform and advancement, I have the responsibility to devote myself to this mission, and blogging is a small part of my strategy.

At the one year mark, I am committing to myself and my fledging readership that this blog will continue for perpetuity, and that consistency in writing will be considered anytime that I can produce a quality reflection, analysis or news alert that will advance the interest of educational efficacy, and I will accomplish this a minimum of once a month. 

To another year, growth and development.

PS. I am working on a piece on unions that I plan to post very soon. :)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fundraising and Budget Control

Essential school programs should not need to fundraise to meet core costs, and budgeting needs to be decentralized from the main administrative office.

Ok, some background: I spent over 10 hours last weekend (following 10-20 hours of planning) running two fundraisers to help get my students to Spain in February. We netted less than $800. While I'm confident we will eventually raise the $25,000 we need to substantially reduce costs for our travelers, the burden on me as the group leader is grueling, and attending to my teaching duties as well as our travel management agenda makes the phrase "work-life balance" sound like a sick joke. We have two students who are especially struggling to make payments. A firmer commitment from my school at the outset would make our fundraising stakes less dramatic and would signal a willingness to build the program for the benefit of future student travel. However, this type of commitment would place our school in an over-extended financial position, and since we depend on undependable state government and foundation grants, the launching of innovative programs require a sisyphean effort.

In the 21st century and our globalized world, international travel programming is a fundamental need, yet schools seldom treat this aspect of education as anything other than a teacher's pet project, approved of by the administration but not underwritten financially. Whether it is travel, athletics, arts or engineering, "extra-curricular" activities are frequently the glue that bind kids to school and the inspiration that leads kids to their careers, yet they are treated as peripheral window-dressing by bureaucrats and administrators.

In order to improve our schools, departments and programs need to have independent budgets much like departments within local, state and federal government. Staff should be held accountable for how that money is spent as they exercise this unusual autonomy. School administrators are often overwhelmed with approval requests for purchasing everything from class sets of books to dry erase markers and projector light bulbs. This is inefficient for management and employees, as teacher and program leaders wait needlessly for supplies and management drowns in emails and paperwork.

The move to bring business leaders into education has not shown clear evidence of improved student achievement; however, there is no doubt that some expertise in organizational and financial management is sorely needed. Our kids need cleats, costumes and plane tickets; and school leaders need better ways to focus on strategy as opposed to micro-management.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Finland, Big Schools, and The College Dream

As our nation today struggles though divisive debates about education reform, Linda Darling Hammond would have us look at the recent accomplishments of Finland, the world's number 1 school system based on the PISA scores, "an international test for 15-year-olds in language, math, and science literacy" (Rethinking Schools, Vol 24.4). In discussing the high performance of students in Finland, Hammond argues that Finland's "teaching and learning system" achieves results because of decentralized curriculum design and assessment, emphasis on qualified teachers, and thoughtfully supportive school environments. 

Hammond's account makes important claims about what a good educational system needs. Placing this in context of another recent development, we get an interesting picture of what makes good education and where it is happening. A September 27th NYT article called "4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong” discusses the turn-around of large Massachusetts high school that now outperforms 90% of the schools in the state. The reason was almost simple: according to Mr. Driscoll, who since 2007 has headed the National Assessment Governing Board, “In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.”

Yet not all the reforms in this school, particularly cultural ones, correspond with the finding in another recent piece of scholarship, this one called “College for All? Exaggerated Claims and Overlooked Options Prevent Some Students From Finding Their Way” (Rosenbaum et al. American Educator Vol 34.3). This lengthy treatment of the misperceptions and realities of the college experience and outcomes demonstrates how the one-size-fits-all mentality that we often recognize as problematic in pedagogy is also flawed when it comes to counseling for higher education. The statistics are staggering. While 89% of high school students in 2004 planned to earn a BA, the reality is that most of these students never will, and probably shouldn’t. High school students and Americans at large are misinformed about the benefits of other forms of post-high school education besides the BA, such as certificate programs and Associates degrees, credentials that are cheaper, attained more quickly, and often yield satisfying and lucrative career opportunities. In fact, students in the bottom quartile in their high school class who go on to earn an BA earn less than their top quartile high school peers who never earn a post-secondary degree (Baum, et al. Education Pays 2010, NY: College Board, 2010). The critiques from Rosenbaum, Stephan, and Rosenbaum provide a clear picture of how our educational system and expectations are flawed in their narrowness. All too often we prescribe BAs to students without giving them the information and preparation to earn them, or to consider alternatives that are both rewarding and utilitarian.

Just to look at these three articles in the same posting, especially with such a brief treatment, may seem transitory or shallow, but the purpose of this discussion is to reveal a pattern of efficacy even in these articles’ contradictions.  Teachers, schools and school systems that are successful hold students to high expectations, but more importantly differentiate their instruction and support to help students achieve ownership of their education. They leverage all available resources, emphasize the provision of accurate information to students, and use assessments strategically, whether they are locally produced or standardized. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What to write about? How about Peace and Global Citizenship?

So much in education this past week! Sorry I missed posting all last week, I've been running myself ragged--last Sunday I was at an event with some big Democratic party power players (I won't name names, but I will mention that I rubbed shoulders with a man that with a pretty important job in the White House), on Tuesday I attended an event hosted by the Open Center where the illustrious Deepak Chopra spoke on his new book Muhammad, and then on Thursday I met with representatives from my alma mater Haverford College, who came to NYC to speak about the incredible center there called the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship or "CPGC". All this, plus I came down with a nasty cold, and well, blogging had to take a backseat.

While I'm inclined to jump into the fray of the vociferous debates about charter schools or Waiting for Superman, two topics heavily covered in the media, these are debates that will still require discussion when the news networks have turned their short attention spans to other topics. Therefore, I will visit those topics another day, and let me take a moment to instead shine the spotlight on a truly incredible program at Haverford that I was lucky enough to benefit from when I was a student there in 2005-2006.

Haverford College has long distinguished itself as a school with a social conscience. We have the oldest and most robust honor code that exists at any college or university, extending from the academic realm into the social, such that the student body is largely self-governed. We also have fostered a serious concern for social justice, both as a function of our Quaker traditions and of the way we conceive of a rich, rigorous, and worldly education. However, about eight years ago, Haverford College established a new center that would be called the CPGC that would enhance and amplify these core values.

I won't list all the rhetoric and data about the CPGC that you can easily find on the website. Instead, let me quickly tell you about how the CPGC affected me so that you might have a picture of how powerful this program is and its transformative potential if brought to other educational institutions.

In the fall of 2005 I was in my senior year of college and, having studied abroad and backpacked around Europe the previous spring I still had a serious itch to travel. On top of that, being immersed in the study of politics I had a come to feel that I needed to be learning and leading not in the classroom or the library, but out in the world. These feelings had grown so intense that I seriously considered leaving Haverford before graduating to engage the world, to graduate at some undetermined point in the future.

Luckily, I did not have to make such a difficult decision. As my studies of international law and economic development pushed me towards the study of Hugo Chavez's policies in Venezuela, the CPGC presented itself as a resource for designing and funding a trip to Venezuela so that I could conduct my own research in a field typically elusive for undergraduates. Thus, after interviews, several drafts of proposals, and an intense week of final exams, right before Christmas of 2005 I took off for six weeks in Venezuela that would forever clarify my self-perception as a global citizen.

My stories from Venezuela could fill a chapter in a book, and the travels and experiences I have had since would fill many more pages to form a very large volume. From NGO corruption, environmental destruction, South American populism and mass democratic activism, I witnessed and studied up close, at the age of 21, issues that shape and define our age. These lessons have been infused in my teaching practice and have continually motivated my hard work and engagement and analysis of relevant contemporary issues. This is my testimony.

While I can testify to the value of the CPGC for my own education and maturation process, I can write with confidence that hundreds of other students and alumni from Haverford would speak with a similar level of passion about the CPGC. If this is then all true, then why aren't there other CPGCs popping up all over the map? In all the public debate about education in the United States--test scores, drop-out rates, etc--do we have the awareness of the programs that will truly serve the students and at the same time move us towards a more connected and just world? Perhaps this post can help advance another possibility.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Tonight I spend almost three hours at the board meeting for my charter school, and was able to make a 2 minute pitch about the service learning program that I have launched and through which I am taking 30+ people to Spain. It was informative and inspiring to sit in a room with dozens of people who share the common goal of building an excellent school, and I was more energized after the meeting than when I went in.

To say that teachers should be scholars and researchers as well as educators would be to state the obvious; to say that they should be activists and entrepreneurs is to open up a more intriguing conversation. Having spent a considerable amount of time just today on an entrepreneurial project, and having watched a series of primary elections that teachers have influenced (especially in the Washington DC mayoral race), it is worth contemplating this identity of teachers.

One program that has come to my attention, and whose weekly emails I value, is called Educators 4 Excellence. Founded by a fellow Teach for America alum, here is an example of the educator-activist doing work that connects people and inspires actions. Kudos Evan!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fostering Study Skills

In January I posted about brain science and how we should take it more seriously within the education industry. I was thus pleased to see a new NY Times piece called Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. This articles uses current science to re-present what is involved in effective studying. A few highlights:
  • It's better NOT to study in one place. Why? "The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding."
  • Vary study methods and switch between them regularly. 
  • Test frequently--the recall is good practice.
I intend to share and reinforce these methods in my classes. I also may try to teach material in new settings more often.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Value Added Teacher Evaluation

In Tuesday's NYTimes, and article called "Formula to Grade Teachers' Skills Gains Acceptance, and Critics" calls attention to a new trend for teacher accountability that is taking place in various school districts across the US. This new trend involves using test data to determine how much a group of students has grown or improved between two standardized tests, and attributing a portion of these or all of this change to the teacher who taught them that year. This data can enable supervisors, districts and parents to get a new perspective on teacher effectiveness.

The biggest improvement this trend makes comes down to the fact that this "method can be more accurate for rating schools than the system now required by federal law, which compares test scores of succeeding classes, for instance this year’s fifth graders with last year’s fifth graders." This certainly seems like a more thoughtful approach to using test data to evaluate teachers, but there are still variables that are difficult to control, as the article describes:

"Millions of students change classes or schools each year, so teachers can be evaluated on the performance of students they have taught only briefly, after students’ records were linked to them in the fall.
In many schools, students receive instruction from multiple teachers, or from after-school tutors, making it difficult to attribute learning gains to a specific instructor. Another problem is known as the ceiling effect. Advanced students can score so highly one year that standardized state tests are not sensitive enough to measure their learning gains a year later."

Nevertheless, these difficulties should not blind us to the fact that value-added teacher evaluation makes a great deal of sense--we just need to control these variables, and make sure that evaluation involves a few other measures besides simply standardized test score data. What if we apply the value-added approach to student portfolios and school designed interim assessments, two of the student centered, results-oriented pieces of teacher evaluation that anti-data types lobby to be part of teacher evaluation?

Perhaps this calls up the bigger question of "How should teachers be evaluated?" Almost without question, teachers should have a transparent set of criteria they need to meet to be seen as "successful." What should the criteria include? Perhaps it ought to look something like this:

-Value added student scores: 20%

-Value added student portfolios: 20%

-Absolute student scores: 10%

-Student and parent survey data: 10%

-Teacher professionalism: 10%

-Teacher curriculum, unit, and lesson plan development: 10%

-Other contributions to school community, environment and programs: 20%

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Co-Planning with Google Calendar

This year I have one of the best and worst assignments you can get as a teacher: being the only teacher assigned to teach a given subject. This is great because I have less people to argue with about what is the best manner of teaching, but the worst because nobody else is teaching at the same subject at the same time, and therefore is not producing materials and ideas to share. 

In order to allow myself the space to plan I had to look at all my obligations and seek opportunities for ramping up efficiency. Low and behold, I am also assigned to teach one section of global history 1, meaning that the other 4 sections are the responsibility of another teacher. Ah ha! If this teacher and I can figure out a reliable schedule for sharing materials and ideas, perhaps I won't need to develop 10 lesson plans a week! 

That's exactly what we did. Using Google calendar we set up several recurring "events" Thursday to Monday, with email reminders set up and shared ability to edit the events. The schedule looks like this:
  1. By 5PM every Thursday, I will send Jon objectives for each day's lessons for the upcoming week. Since I've taught the course before, if I have materials that might relate to various objectives (past lesson plans, worksheets, PowerPoints, etc) I will send these as well.
  2. At 12:30PM on Friday we will meet for a brief brainstorming session, where we reflect on the past week and determine if we will change or tweak objectives sent out the previous day.
  3. By 11AM Sunday morning, Jon will send me a draft of Monday's LP for review. 
  4. By 11:30 PM I will return Monday's LP with modification, additions, and/or suggestions. 
  5. By 8AM Monday, I will send Jon the draft of Tues LP, and he will send me drafts for Wed-Fri. He has heavier responsibilities on drafting because a) he teaching more sections of Global 1, b) I have to plan another course and he doesn't and c) I am contributing in other ways that play off of my experience teaching Global 1. 
  6. Finally, by 9PM Monday we exchange feedback/modifications on lessons. Once we get to this point, we can work relatively independently in our classes until we meet again on Friday.
This strategy for co-planning using the Google calendar tool offers so much promise for us avoiding burn-out and achieving great results in our classes. We both have clarity about our respective commitments to each other, moreover we see the mutual benefit of working this way. 

I'll report back on this in a few months and let you know how it goes. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brain Pop

Short videos are great ways to engage students, and when the videos are specifically designed to describe and explain key topics, even better. I just gained access to what seems to be an amazing tool: This website has over 50 videos for World History and I intend on using many of them in my class this year; there are similar numbers for math, science, English and other topics.

Now, if only we could get access for our students so they could watch at home as enrichment? That would be ideal.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Question of National Standards

Should the United States move towards national standards? A few weeks ago the NY Times reported that nearly every state in the nation had declared intentions to participate in the crafting and adoption of national standards, and many voices, from Arne Duncan to Randi Wiengarten, have expressed their support for the move. While some supporters qualify their support, including the aforementioned union leader (Wiengarten), over the past several years playmakers from all different dimensions of education have come to acknowledge the sense the US developing and adopting national standards. If the Europeans and Japanese do it, and they get better test scores, shouldn't we?

I support the development and adoption of national standards for most of the reasons commonly cited: uniform measures of accountability for students, teachers, and schools across the country; coherence of basic core skills and knowledge for all Americans; "economies of scale" in terms of developing instructional materials and curricula that can be transferable across state-lines; and feasibility of teachers to move without their experience loosing a its value due to considerable changes in content.

And then, the other shoe drops, the long expected "but." In our conversations about national standards, I sometimes hear opponents mention the loss of autonomy for schools and teachers (and states), and the related limitations national standards might place on local communities as they try to accommodate local challenges. These are valid concerns, and actually point to a larger issue, which could be converted to an opportunity: as we move toward national standards, we ought have a national conversation. If we as a nation are to adopt national standards, now is the time for people at all levels of society to speak up about what is important for the next generation to learn. How should schools look in the 21st century? What are the challenges that the next generation will have to solve? How can we impart them with the skills and knowledge to face these challenges and prevail?

I'm not hearing this conversation, and the fault for that is widespread. We should adopt national standards, but that should occur as we as a nation come to some kind of agreement about the manner and priorities our education system should embody. Inevitably, Americans will agree that some level of autonomy for schools and teachers should be maintained. Where we draw this line, however, (as well as many others), should emerge out of a vigor debate. So far, I'm still waiting to hear.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

East Africa and the News

African history, politics and economics has had a long, slow introduction into the core curriculum of American education, and it couldn't be too soon. As our world increasingly globalizes, the significance of Africa's problems and successes will have ever closer links to our lives, and the next generation will need to be prepared to face the realities coming out of Africa head on.

But herein lies the problem: too often all we do is talk about "Africa," as if everything there is the same. Our modern understanding of Africa is a mosaic of images and headlines, from famine in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda, and the the World Cup in South Africa, yet somehow Americans still confuse Africa for a single country. Therefore, when the headline "The threat from East Africa" crop ups in the Washington Post last week, the reader needs to have some prior knowledge to digest the treatment of terrorist threats in Uganda and Somalia. How do we insure that that young people in middle school or high school today are getting the education necessary to fend off threats in the coming decades? 

To understand foreign cultures, polities, and economies that shape our world, students need a rigorous education at the secondary level. When it comes to Africa, for instance, students need to know the regional differences between East, West, Sub-saharan and North Africa. They would need to know about the distribution of natural resources, about the patterns of religion and language, about the formations of collective security and pockets of anarchy. Currently, students will only get exposure to these ideas as a unit or part of a unit in a world history class, and maybe will read a book like Things Fall Apart. I think few people would argue that these treatments of Africa are sufficient; the same could be said of our average urban school's current curriculum offerings regarding the Middle East, China, and India; finance; linguistics; health; hands on skills and the arts. 

As we open the "paper" each day, let us run a test in our minds to see what skills and knowledge someone would need to understand a headline article, and more importantly, respond to it. Then, let us reflect on how effectively we build our school curriculums to guarantee that students gain these skills.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New York's Planning in Light of Higher Standards

New York State raised the bar this year on their state tests and the results are discussed last week here in the NYTimes. In schools across the state, test scores dropped dramatically, and the reality that half or more of New York's students are below proficient has been exposed.

In light of these results, little has yet been said about what kind of changes will need to take place so that we can actually see the various achievement gaps close: the absolute gaps between the standards and our kids' performance, and the racial and socio-economic gaps in performance between over and under-privileged kids.

What will we do? New York City has put 27,000 kids who scored lowest on their tests into summer school. However, summer school is usually Monday-Thursday, 8AM-1PM, runs only 4-6 weeks, and is usually taught identically (only faster) than the way subjects are taught in the school year. We are going to need to implement much more change for the gap to close.

Education reform has introduced all kinds of new changes in the past decade, from charter schools to merit pay. At last the most successful movement of "accountability" and testing are forcing to the surface information about our students' true lack of achievement. It is now time to look at some more substantive changes to our system's curriculum and pedagogy. Reforms that focus on interdisciplinary, problem-based learning would be one important area to focus on; providing more support for systematic differentiated instruction (ie, diverse course offerings) would be another.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Be cool, stay in school

As we are now living through the hottest year on record, I wonder how teachers and education leaders across the country are (or aren't) reflecting on what lessons they need to incorporate into their classes. It's all too easy, especially if you don't see the school's electric bill, to just crank on the A/C (assuming you have that option) and just forget about the huge amount of coal burning it requires to power these energy intensive machines.

Stan Cox's recent book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World confronts the fact that the US now spends more money cooling our homes than heating them. I observe this trend of individual acclimatization to cooler indoor temperatures with dismay it seems many people I know can hardly tolerate sitting in a room during summer time that is warmer that 75%; nary a business would fathom turning up the thermostat above 68%; and public transportation, if the devices are working, blast the A/C so high that my sweat from outside evaporates into a chill.

I'd like to see schools take this issue on, as an opportunity to accomplish a number of goals: keep classrooms cooler without A/C, and explicitly teaching students how it is done; reduce energy costs and thus save money; use energy use within the classroom as a teachable moment that connects the earth science, engineering, economics, and ethics.

How do we do this? Well for starters, I'll share an excerpt from an email I got from a company called "Vivaterra" that I once bought a bamboo floor mat from. It's a great list to help with summer living and who knows? Maybe for lesson planning?

"Chill Outside
- Freeze grapes, blueberries or chunks of juicy watermelon and set them out in a bowl for cooling nibbles.
- Drink lots of chilled beverages like lemonade or sun tea.
- Avoid using the oven or stove: think salads, cold soups, or snack food that can be eaten room temperature.
- Dine alfresco or picnic in the backyard for every meal including breakfast—it feels festive, too.
- Camp in your own backyard for fresh air dreams.

Shady Behavior
- Keep windows & window coverings closed during the day.
- In the evening, create a cross current with open windows and doors to catch the breeze.
- Or, as a more extreme measure, hang wet sheets over your open windows at night to create natural air-conditioning.
- Re-visit the lost art of porch sitting in the evening.
- Plant trees around your house: the shade trees offer reduces the amount of energy needed to cool off your home by as much as 50%.
- Replace incandescent lights with CFLs that emit less heat.

Sweet Siestas
- Take afternoon naps on the weekend and stay up late to enjoy the cooler evening air outdoors.
- Take a cool shower and get into bed on a towel without drying off; the moisture evaporates and cools you down as you drift off to sleep.
- Choose breathable bamboo sheets that wick away moisture and are cool to the touch.
- Mist your bed linens and spritz yourself with a spray bottle filled with soothing lavender water; keep it handy for late night tossing and turning.

Keep Your Inner Cool
- Don’t expend a lot of your personal energy.
- Stay cool when you’re stressed with meditation.
- Keep the peace by avoiding needless “hot air” arguments.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Food in Schools

A coworker of mine, Kate Quarfordt, writes a column for the Huffington Post. She just put out a new piece called "The Kids Who Want Kale"  and it's worth a read to see how one urban school, in this case, mine, is confronting issues of food, nutrition, health and the environment.

In this age we have to continually look at our food choices and consider their impact on our minds, bodies, and environment. Research, experience, and plain common sense teach us that when one eats well, it has an enormous impact on performance and well-being. Now that our kids are asking for better food, will the adults, who should know better, help them get it?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Controversy Over the Historian’s View of Collapse

In the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson attempts a maverick posture in his essay “Decline and Fall: When the American Empire Goes, It is Likely to Go Quickly.” In it, he argues that historians take the “fat tail” view of events, confusing sudden events for cyclical ones particularly when discussing the fall of empires. While accusing many members of social science community of committing the “narrative fallacy,” Ferguson’s essay is riddled with fallacies of its own.

As a teacher of global history at the high school level, I have a keen awareness that the problem of history is not that people tend to overestimate the importance of remote causes of events, rather people tend not to understand the complexity and diversity of the causes of events, and in effect, the interconnectedness of the world. I have found it much more common, not to mention dangerous, that people will oversimplify or overlook causal factors that bring about collapse. With such a limited view of the real complexity and interconnectedness of the world, individuals and groups risk failing to take actions that counter the factors that make likely a future collapse.

From a historian as prominent as Niall Ferguson, it’s shocking to find so many logical fallacies and factual misrepresentations as there are in his Foreign Affairs essay. Ferguson lines up cases that supposedly verify the argument that our current financial crisis is a recent one, and tracing its antecedents to the deregulation of the 1980s is inappropriate. Yet he talks about the fall of Rome occurring in “just 5 decades,” and his causes of the collapse of the Ming dynasty range from “political factionalism, fiscal crisis, famine and epidemic disease” that “opened the door to rebellion from within and incursions from without” (28). His own examples in fact validate the opposite conclusion!

In education, we have to understand the course of history, not just because we need to teach it, but because we also shape it and because it shapes us. Given that our country and world do face so many challenges, our intellectual leaders need to be more responsible about their use of voice and their laying of blame. Based on my study of history, I believe that we could experience another historic “collapse” along the lines of Rome or Copan, but if that is to happen the confluence of factors will be diverse and complex. Our teachers and students should not gloss over these factors, as Ferguson has, for the sake of convenience, gimmickry, or false controversy. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Geography of Learning: A Hybrid Model?

Ever since March 16th I've been slowed down significantly with an ankle injury that I recently learned was a non-displaced fracture to the tibia. Though I only have taken off 4 days of work due to the injury, I'm still in cast and walking with a cane, and feel my teaching has suffered by a degree. As I've looked for solutions to personal mobility and energy issues (pushing myself around on the wheeled desk chair is one), I've begun contemplating distance learning.

For a range of reasons, students and teachers, enabled by technology, have taken up distance (e-)learning as an alternative or supplement to traditional classroom learning. I myself have done some webinars and online courses, that, everything considered, have provided a moderately decent education. I would never replace in-person education entirely, however, my recent injury leaves me wondering what possibilities for e-learning might fit into the traditional K-12 public education system. Even and especially as a hybrid model, I can imagine a system that reduces cost and increases flexibility by taking a given percentage of traditional classtime (say, one day a week) and delivers this instruction electronically and remotely. Implementing the system would raise many questions and probably a good number of protests, but I can't help but think that inevitably our society will demand it.

Better to be proactive than reactive. Sometimes putting your feet up (to reduce swelling or otherwise) can be a perfect occasion to confront a problem that otherwise seems to rest on too distant a horizon.

You've heard it here: let's see some experimental programs in public, K-12 schools that incorporate remote e-learning into the standard curriculum. What do you think?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Teacher websites

In the digital/information age, it increasingly makes sense that EVERYTHING has its own website. In my estimation, good teaching and learning will make efficacious use of the internet.

I recently launched a website for my own history classes. You can find it at Please check it out and examine it's different capabilities and short-comings. What does it do well? What do you think could be improved? How can this website be used a tool for learning with my students in the classroom?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting Things Done: Students

I wrote last time about teacher productivity and efficiency, and while that obviously deserves attention, students have a much greater deficit of these skills (big surprise, they’re students) yet what methods do schools put in place to amplify and revamp student working methods?

Surely individual teachers guide students to be more effective thinkers, note-takers, planners, etc. And some schools have advisory programs, “life skills” classes, and yes, a culture itself which breeds productivity and efficacy for students. When these initiatives succeed they ought be lauded, and ideally, replicated. Unfortunately, we have not arrived at a stage—perhaps due to our lack of national standards—where best practices for increasing general student effectiveness are widely known and practiced. Whether through the use of student agendas, advisory meetings, technology solutions or something else, school systems need to get serious about evaluating the effectiveness of student effectiveness training. That’s right, lets state that again to let that phrase soak in: evaluating the effectiveness of student effectiveness training.

Here are a couple ideas I’ve tried in the classroom, but have yet to fully put them to the test for effectiveness (and would obviously need to implement a large scale study to determine statistical validity… nevertheless…)

  1. Global History to do checklist: Students are given a template with columns for tasks (assignments, organizational goals, mastery of standards), priority rating (high, medium, low), and time estimates for completion. These lists would need to have prominent usage, and some class time would need to be devoted to coach students through the execution of their action items. It surprised me how few of my students had experience making to do lists, let alone using them. I would posit that this skill ought to be given much great emphasis in middle and high school curriculums.
  2. Emailing: We’re in an age when email is ubiquitous and teachers and students need to take advantage of it. Students need to learn how to write a formal email, need to be held accountable to checking their email on a regular (but not obsessive) basis, and need to learn the email organizational skills of the professional (see my last post). My students are required to use email for certain assignments, and with the advantage of time stamps, it really helps in time management training.

Of course there are many other strategies and tools to instruct students in personal task, time, energy, information and relationship management. What do you use?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Getting Things Done as a Teacher

A teacher is basically an acrobat, performing for a crowd while trying to juggle a dozen things at once. Unlike an acrobat, most of the things a teacher juggles are not visible but abstract and thus, much harder to keep track of.

How do schools ensure that their teachers don’t “drop the ball”? How can teachers keep track themselves? Like any professional, many teachers use agendas, to-do lists, and calendars to keep track of their tasks, appointments, responsibilities and goals. But as far as my experience goes, the industry has a long way to go before “best practices” for productivity and task/time/energy management are established system wide for the principle managers of our children’s education.

A few thoughts, inspired by two books I’ve read in the past year or so:

-David Allen’s Getting Things Done-
Written more for the executive and corporate type, Allen’s procedures for creating and managing inboxes, outboxes, archives and to-do lists are on the money for anyone interested in productivity, including teachers. Since reading the book about a year ago, I have much more effectively managed my workflow/load. I have inboxes and filing systems at work, home, on the computer and in my email accounts. My favorite organizing innovations have to do with the division between action items and archival items.

Action items vs. Archive
Especially with my email, I try to clear my inbox as mail comes in, putting emails that need attention in the “Action items” folder, and everything else in the “Archive.” With my gmail account, I have labels that automatically apply to many items, making it even easier to sort the archive, but the best part is being able to have a clear inbox, and a separate folder clear of clutter, devoted just to action items. I make separate time to clear the inbox and to attend to the action item list. When I visit the action items folder I then attack them right there (if they are below the 2 min threshold) or I move the actions to my to do list.

I also maintain a separate folder titled “upcoming events/appointments” which serves as a reference until items get put in my calendar (and in case the calendar entry needs clarification). Every few days I visit this folder and delete or archive old and irrelevant items. This procedure confirms that I am on top of my commitments.

-Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Workweek-
This book is great for the teacher who is always swamped with work (except in the summer) and needs a glimpse of the big picture, particularly how to be more efficient. Ferris has 4 rules and while a teacher can’t follow them completely, they can guide the teacher to greater effectiveness. The four rules are:


This book is all about putting things in context of what really matters, what really works, and what you really need to do (and what can be done by others/not at all). Ferris encourages putting limits on work, to preserve sanity and balance; for the teacher, this can mean instituting a rule that no work will take place after 9PM, for a 24 hours block on the weekend, or during their lunch break. Email and phone calls too—rather than checking constantly or not at all, check every day at the same time (say, 4PM), and “chunk” it, that is, get them all out of the way at once.

An interesting thing I’ve tried is one of Ferris’ most compelling and controversial suggestions—that of the “virtual assistant.” Throughout last year I experimented with three virtual assistants: a well educated professor of education in the Philippines ($6 per hour), a large outsourcing firm in India ($4.5 per hour) and a stay at home mom in the Midwest who had a Master in Education ($11 an hour). Far and away the best deal was the American woman, who I could talk to on the phone, had a better understanding of American culture and education, and produced more quality given the higher wages. The experience of delegating, especially remotely, was good management experience for me—and that turns out to be the best take away from this experiment. Outcomes on individual assignments were mixed, but a few things are for sure:

-the longer one works with a VA, the better the results over time
-the more work that can take place remotely and which is straightforward to explain and perform (data entry, for example), the more promising the relationship
-hourly wages are hard to negotiate across cultures, ocean and time-zones, so expectations need to be extremely clear from the get go.

I think it would be a great idea for a school to pioneer a program where teachers received a small budget—say, $500 per year—to hire an assistant, virtual or otherwise. Teaching should really be a team based job, and teachers should be able to delegate certain tasks in order to focus more on planning, assessing, guiding, etc.

The last big take away from Ferris’ book worth noting at this time is his application of the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule. Applied to business, the benefits are clear—focus attention on the 20 percent of clients who give you 80 percent of your business, and eliminate the 20 percent of your clients who give you 80 percent of your headaches. Taking a similar approach to education could produce interesting results: intervene with the 20% of students who give you 80% of your challenges; coach students on the 20% of the skills that will give them 80% of a boost in performance, etc. Obviously some real scientific study should go towards investigating the potential of this approach in teaching and learning, but there is definitely a range of intriguing application of the rule to education, which I have rarely, if ever, heard spoken about.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Teaching Revolutions

Uprising, injustice, massacre, anarchy…freedom, hope, revelation, unity…each of these themes, and many more, characterize the study of revolution. Since November, I have been teaching my students about revolution but have failed to discover the key to how the essence of this concept might be transferred. How to convey the hope and despair, the agony and elation, that comes with political revolution? How to convey the shifting in consciousness and lifestyle that comes with economic and scientific revolutions?
I have yet to encounter a comprehensive program that specifically addresses the proper pedagogy. Obviously we ought apply the standard, proven methods to this topic as any other, and we should find success. But isn’t there something special about revolutions?
I would posit that the following aspects of teaching revolution has particular importance if students will apprehend the true, complex and controversial essence of revolution:
1.    Details matter: In teaching global history, by nature a survey course, there is a tendency to gloss over the details in favor of trends. By revolution, in particular, warrants a deeper treatment of individual cases. Why? Because there are no trends! Every revolution is, in reality, so different from the next—from the likelihood that the ousted leaders will return to power, to the depth and breadth of reform—that students will fail to see the importance of a single event (a foreign intervention, a religious belief) on the outcome. Since every revolution has a different context, and since revolution is so transformative, it needs a unique way of approach. Perhaps it should its own course.
2.    Cause and effect relationships matter: As with the details, students need to approach every aspect of revolution with the critical lens of cause-effect. Since the essence of revolution is change, new tools should be developed to map change, and to test whether competing hypotheses for the revolution’s causes and effects are accurate. Revolution offers a rare opportunity for high school students to actually practice history (ie research and analysis), not just regurgitate it.
3.    The enduring understandings matter: Even if you teach with detail and strategies to distill cause and effect, what enduring understandings will the students walk away with? This goal is particularly crucial, as revolution is rife with misunderstanding, which leads to poor application to today’s world. Particularly for this reason, when choosing which trends, outcomes and relationships get emphasis, comparison to the issues of today should guide such a deliberation.
4.    Choice matters: Depending on the course, it matters which revolutions get taught (I’d make the same argument from a systematic point of view: Depending on the grade, school, nation…) What difference does it make if you study the French Revolution but not the Haitian Revolution? The American Revolution but not the Glorious Revolution? Just as significant, which narratives are chosen to teach these revolutions? I think most educators see the messiness of revolution and try to clean it up… “Here’s a document about a peasant, here’s a document about a lord… they hated each other, and BOOM!” It didn’t happen like that. Every revolution had so many factions, alliances, competing interests, and diverse and fluid outcomes, that in reality, students should walk away from studying revolution with many more questions than answers.
Recommended reading: Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Integrating Brain Science and Pedagogy

The foundation of the industry called education involves the essential and sometimes illusive process/outcome called “learning.” Though we can learn all kinds of things from skiing to sewing, geometry to public speaking, the bulk of or K-16 system focuses on the highly cerebral academic subjects of English, Math, social studies and science. Astonishingly, the history of education in America shows a marked lack of interest and awareness of advances in brain science. As an aid to rectify this situation, John Medina’s book Brain Rules is a good starting point.

Physical activity improves cognitive function (while you’re doing it!)
Stress effects brain function.
We are powerful and natural explorers.
The eyes serve as the dominant input to our brains—stimulate vision
Short-term memory becomes long term with repetition.
The human brain evolved to survive… tap into the survival instinct (teamwork, problem-solving, dual representation)
We are multi-sensory creatures—stimulate multiple senses
Long term memory is cumulative and complex (elaborate encoding sticks).
Every brain is wired differently.
Sleep is essential to good brain function.
Male and Female Brains are different.
Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things.

In read Brain Rules in the fall which got me thinking about lots of systematic changes within the education industry that would be revolutionary, but also would take a long time to implement, and this got me frustrated. So I turned my attention local, to my own classroom, to look for ways to apply Medina’s brain rules to improving the educational outcomes in my classroom. Here are few examples of things I’ve tried, or will soon, with outcomes yet to be determined as I don’t have a reliable way to measure the impact. Nevertheless…

Short and Long Term Memory: I had started this before I read the book, but my class is designed to spiral. Every lesson asks for recall of information learned in previous lessons; lessons frequently compare new information to old information; and eventually the course will end with cumulative assignments. However, I’ve added some things: I frequently repeat information that is critical throughout the lesson; I now make sure to end more lessons with a “summary” piece—all important information is reemphasized; and I try every few days to recap the previous few days.

Senses, especially vision: Again, I did this before, but Medina’s work made clear its importance—every lesson has to have a visual component—some pictures, diagrams, written words (not just spoken), etc. To get multi-sensory, for a little why I tried spraying air freshener in the room so students would recall learning every time they smelled it… but that hasn’t really kept up. I think I should start again though—some studies suggest it could increase performance 15% if they smell the same things during testing.

Physical Activity: I kick myself everyday that I don’t get the students out of their seats at least once during the class period. When they’re moving, they’re awake, and that translates to more alertness, and better performance. I get them up to write on the board, work in new groups that a mixed among people from around the room, etc. If only I could get them doing jumping jacks and chanting history instead of counting… maybe I can? 

Check out Medina's website for more ideas: