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.