Saturday, July 23, 2005

Thank you...

This bracelet, WWJD? for the yoga-set, says "Changing the world one downward dog at a time."

I built it!

Training Sail #3

Today's sail was magnificent. I was not excited about waking up at 7 am to get there, but it was completely worth it. We had a lot of wind, which is apparently unusual for Saturday morning in the harbor. Jonathan Kabak, the captain of the Lettie G. Howard, captained the Pioneer and led the training sail, and he is quite a teacher. The rest of the crew on this sail were also good teachers, very patient, showing you how to do something and then letting you try it for yourself. For once, it felt like we had some context or "big picture" on what we were doing, and we raised and lowered the headsails several times so that each of us could practice the particular skills needed. We docked a little early and practiced tossing lines from the deck of the Pioneer to the float where we dock. You basically coil the rope in two hands, divide it so that your strong hand is holding the first few coils and your weak hand is holding a few more, and then you use your whole upper body, turning from the waist, to throw the coils, letting the weight of those coils pull the rest of the rope along. Jonathan walked us through the steps, demonstrated in "slo-mo" and then demonstrated for real. And then we each took a couple of turns with assistance from more experienced crew, and we watched and learned from each other. Any NYC teachers out there recognize this model of teaching....? To, with, by... yup, it's the workshop model, not called that ouside of schools but practiced nonetheless.

I feel like it's all starting to come together. I make a million mistakes, think I know something and then do it wrong anyway, but it feels more natural now. I hope I'm not too rusty after two weeks away!

I have also ordered a book recommended by a crew member for understanding the physics of sailing.

Friday, July 22, 2005

It takes all flavors...

You Are Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
You are kind, popular, and generous.
You tend to be successful at anything you try.
A social butterfly, you are great at entertaining a crowd.
You are most compatible with strawberry ice cream.

I found this at Liberry Air when I was googling for other bloggers writing about Confratute. She really doesn't describe Confratute, unfortunately. This woman also went, but didn't write anything about her experience.

Confratute changed at least one life.

With 1000-something participants, I knew I wasn't alone in blogging.


Sometimes it seems like one of the main functions of the field of psychology is to give you a language or framework to perfectly describe something that you kind of already knew in your gut. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In the car on the way to Confratute, I was talking to my colleagues about my experience with learning to sail on the Pioneer.

My roommate has done various kinds of manual labor throughout her life - construction, working in barns, etc. - and possesses a kind of intuition for learning new manual skills, such as what to do with that rope to make the sail go up. And she isn't often in the way by mistake. I don't have this intuition. I feel like I'm constantly in the way, and it takes me a lot longer to learn a new skill on the boat. We are the opposite when it comes to teaching. When I volunteered on an ed sail a week ago, I realized that I will only have to watch the various workshops once or twice in order to learn how to do them myself. My roommate finds the idea of teaching, even in an informal, outdoor, hands-on setting, rather terrifying. I've developed a certain instinct for it; she has not.

Nevertheless, we both know that if we really want to know or be able to do something, we can learn to do it well. It's just that some things will take longer for us to learn, and will require more embarrassing mistakes, than others.

In my strand on reversing underachievement, the presenter, Del Siegle,* described some research into learning. The researcher found that some people approach learning a new skill with a performance orientation. They want to do well, to appear successful or smart. They are anxious about making mistakes in front of peers or the teacher, and may even avoid trying the new skill if they feel that they will not perform well. Others approach learning a new skill with a mastery orientation. They want to learn the skill well, to eventually become successful. They aren't afraid to mess up if it means getting better in the end. Mastery-oriented learners will try hard tasks if they want to learn how to do them, because they know that through trying, they will learn.

You already knew all of that, didn't you? It's one of those frameworks for thinking about learning that just makes sense. We can all probably identify disciplines in which we are mastery-oriented and disciplines in which we are performance-oriented. I have a mastery orientation towards learning to sail, to teach better, to do yoga, and in most academic subjects. I am performance-oriented about music; you should have seen me a year ago when my then-boyfriend generously tried to teach me to play the guitar - I was a quivering blob of musical inability and got myself out of the situation as quickly as humanly possible!

So back to the research. The researchers surveyed and then divided a group of kids into two groups - one group had a performance orientation towards math, the other a mastery orientation. When given a series of really tough math tasks to do, the performance-oriented kids tended to avoid trying the tasks they thought they couldn't do, while the mastery-oriented kids gave it a shot and struggled with the problems. Who do you think learned?

But this was reversible!

They gave all the kids some biographies of successful people to read. The performance-oriented kids read biographies that had been written to emphasize that these people struggled and even failed on their way to success. The mastery-oriented kids read biographies of the same people, but this time written as though they had just used innate talent to achieve almost instantaneous success.

Guess what? When given math tasks after reading the biographies, the behaviors reversed - the formerly performance-oriented kids showed more of a mastery orientation, trying difficult problems and struggling with them, while the formerly mastery-oriented kids showed more a performance orientation, avoiding problems if they thought they'd fail.

Interesting, and obviously relevant to the classroom.

I think that I was somewhat performance-oriented during high school, but have been growing more and more mastery-oriented since then. I'm taking more risks, trying things that I might have avoided in the past. Sailing is one example; iMovie is another; and robotics is the third!

I did an early morning special topics strand on robotics. I'm not very confident about mechanical stuff and have little background knowledge or vocabulary for it. As a feminist and a teacher, I am sure as heck not going to model timidity around engineering to my students! So, I'm learning how to play. On the first day, I got a motor and tried attaching different stuff to it. "What will happen if..." is a question with no wrong answers (assuming you're not playing with explosives!). I made a pair of legs that would sort of leap up and down. Not very useful, but I got a feel for how it all works. On the second day, I designed a car that I could drive forwards and backwards. I had it working in under 15 minutes! I spent the rest of the hour and a half trying to get it to turn. The teacher told me one solution, but because he told me, I made myself find a different one, one that he said he'd never seen anyone do with Legos. I split the car into a front half and back half, and linked the halves with a sort of turntable. Then I tried to attach the motor to the front half pointing down so that when it was on, the car would turn right, and when it was in reverse the car would turn left. I got stuck because I couldn't find a good way to keep the motor attached - it kept falling off - and as a result, I needed to develop a gear mechanism that would translate motion from the vertical to the horizontal plane. I hoped to solve the problem on the third day, but instead we played with the (completely non-intuitive) program RoboLab, which you can use to write little programs for your Lego creations.

I'm rather proud of myself! Partly for my successes, but more so for my attempts.

*Believe it or not, this guy's last name is pronounced "SIH-glee" - not "SEE-gul"

I'm home...

but only for 24 hours. I'm tired like I'd been in a foreign country for a week! And I leave for California (volcanoes, vacation) early Sunday morning.

Despite my whiny posts, I learned a lot this past week. I listened, thought, and talked a lot. I thought about psychological and educational theories, and played with applying them to my teaching and my school setting. I thought about which children in my school might have undiscovered talents or talents that we have only begun to discover, that might, like icebergs, float mostly below the surface. I thought about which children in my school might be underachieving, and why, and what to do about it. I talked for hours with my two colleagues, bouncing ideas off of each other, testing theories, arguing, playing devil's advocate, alternately wanting to throw out the whole thing and wanting to embrace it all. We talked about leadership, change, what is possible, the best ways to go about sharing what we've thought about with our colleagues. We talked incessantly about ourselves, our learning styles, our Myers-Briggs profiles (two INFJs including me and one INFP), classes where we underachieved, our experiences with gifted programs and regular classes as children, and on and on. We talked about what makes a program like Confratute successful and valuable, and what makes it frustrating.

I will do my best to share some of this with you today and over the next few weeks. I'm not sure how much I'll get to write during my visit to CA. I don't think I'm going to have much internet access during the volcanoes class, and after that I'll be camping and hiking and will not have any internet access at all. I'm kind of looking forward to being off the grid for a while, to tell the truth. But I will miss this writing space. I'm not very good at paper journals.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

My new passion...

is making movies.

One of my colleagues and I are taking a short strand on iMovie. We joined a group with two other teachers, one from Connecticut and one from Delaware. I actually joined the class a day late, inspired by the work I saw their group doing. It looked really fun! We spent a day carrying around a DV camera, bothering people to do crazy things, staging scenes from "When Harry Met Sally," trailing people to get candid footage, etc. During class, we've been learning to edit in iMovie (it's quite easy). We've extracted the sound from our clips and added a track from Portishead. We've sped up and slowed down clips, we've cut and reversed and re-copied clips to create a "sampling" effect, we've created a storyboard... it's a silly little film, a trailer for a movie similar to "War of the Worlds" called "Teacher Invaders from Planet Confratute."

I have found my calling.

A pervasive problem...

in education classes and workshops is that teachers of education often do not use the very same strategies that they are instructing you to use in your classroom.

For example, I am currently sitting in a workshop on differentiation which is not differentiated.

(It's in a computer lab where she can't really tell what you're doing on your computer, so I can listen with one ear and do other stuff at the same time... this is not super-respectful, but I already know most of the material she is showing us, and this is day 4... I'm a little frustrated, to say the least, and I'm not the only one).

Some people in the room are new to webquests and have never seen Bernie Dodge's WebQuest Page. But some of us are NOT new to webquests, and I simply cannot understand why we are sitting here listening to a lecture about it in a class that is all about finding ways to tailor instruction to your students' individual needs.

And I don't know how many times I have sat through hours of lecture from people who would be horrified by the idea of a teacher lecturing constantly.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Now that I'm done whining...

let me talk about the work we're doing here.

Confratute is a 5-day professional development workshop about the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which was developed by Joe Renzulli on the theory that a lot of what has traditionally been offered to identified gifted kids could really benefit most or all kids. There are a lot of pieces to it, but you basically collect a lot of information about what gets each child fired up, how they like to learn, how they like to show what they've learned, etc. Then you find ways to provide enrichment experiences for all kids (guest speakers, field trips, etc.), and then build on those with the kids who are particularly interested. Kids who already know all or most of the material in a given unit can be "compacted out" of that material - provided with accelerated materials to learn the parts they don't know, and then helped to develop in-depth independent interest-based projects that they can complete during the time that the rest of the class is spending on that unit. Teachers can do in-class differentiation to keep each child moving ahead from what they already know about a topic, and to create challenging assignments that take into account each child's interests and strengths. And so on.

Throughout the week, we attend several "strands," which are basically mini-courses. The strands meet every day for a few hours. There are also shorter, sometimes single-day, special topics. In the mornings, I'm taking a three-day special topics class on robotics. Then, I spend a couple of hours with my two colleagues in a strand about differentiation. We have a lunch break, and then I go to an afternoon strand on motivating underachievers. After another short break (long enough to walk to Starbucks and back, thank goodness), I'm taking a mini-strand on iMovie. And then there's dinner, followed by arts presentations, keynote speakers, and social events. Each day is a full day.

I have a lot to share about what I am learning, but I'm working at a public computer with a "carnival" event going on behind me and my materials upstairs in my dorm room. Another day.

We take our realities for granted...

I'm spending the week with two colleagues at Confratute, a week-long intensive professional development program at the University of Connecticut. It's like summer camp for teachers - structured activities all day, cheesy social events all night. And a glossary of "confra-this" and "confra-that."

New York has ruined me. I miss irony. I miss the pace of life in the city. I hate the lack of sensory stimulation here at UConn, staying in dorms, eating too much food that I don't really like in the cafeteria, walking down 195 to Starbucks to avoid the watery cafeteria coffee.


In talking to teachers from outside of NYC about what they do, about what their schools are like, I am realizing how much we take our own realities for granted. "I think that would be illegal in Connecticut!" in response to me talking about how teachers at my school have to do extra stuff like teaching PE or art even though we are not certified in those areas. I ask what that means, what the state would DO if your school was so small that you couldn't afford to hire a full time language teacher or art teacher to teach only a few classes, and couldn't find anyone interested in a part-time position. Turns out the schools in CT are turning away teachers in most certification areas. People take part-time positions hoping that will help them get their foot in the door for a full-time position in a year or two. People have never even heard of Teach For America, because the idea that an uncertified, inexperienced, fresh-out-of-college kid could possibly get a job in a real school.

And it goes on. I am surprised, they are surprised. A lot of people here work in gifted education, have gifted certification, run enrichment programs. They speak a whole other language about teaching. Doubly-exceptional, triarchic model, etc., etc. We catch up as quickly as we can, at least on the pieces that feel important. We try to focus on what we can bring back that will help all of our children go farther and deeper. And we wonder about children we know who might have exceptional gifts, and what we could reasonably offer them.

In the Region where I work in NYC, basic academics are a crisis. Kids get three periods of math per day in some middle schools, and only a few periods a week of science and social studies. So many people fight just to keep the schools off of SURR lists and free from special sanctions or extra attention from the state. Elevators? Gifted programs? Push-in enrichment specialists? Responsive Classroom? Civil War simulations? My school doesn't quite fit in this context. We know about some of these things, wish we knew about others, try to do as much as we humanly can. We know that it's absurd that a child with a broken leg or a person in a wheelchair would be unable to enter our school. We try to think past the crisis, to see how long-term strategies can help us win the war and win a lot of the battles along the way. But we don't quite fit in the Confratute context, either.

Obviously, it's not news to me that I am a brand new teacher with a lot to learn, that I work at a brand-new school with a lot to learn, that I work in a system where the challenges and day-to-day realities would boggle the minds of most people. Nevertheless, surrounded by (well-meaning) teachers who take so much for granted, I feel slapped in the face by the level of inequity in United States schools.

Saturday, July 16, 2005


My goals for teaching next year are as follows:

1. Work on differentiating instruction. To do this effectively, I need to collect more accurate and detailed information about exactly where each student stands in terms of understanding a particular concept. I also need to know a bit more about my students' preferences in terms of presentation formats - while it may be true that all children can benefit from a mix of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching styles, it is also true that some children do a really good job showing that they learned by writing an essay, while others may do better by drawing a cartoon strip or making a poster. I would like to balancne assignments where everyone creates the same type of product with assignments where the students have some choice in the type of product they create.

2. Be calmer and more patient. I think this one's pretty self-explanatory!

3. Create better systems for helping students get organized and for keeping track of things such as make-up work for absentees. My grade level team decided that each teacher will have a manila folder for each child in his or her homeroom. Anytime a child is absent, his or her folder will travel from class to class that day in the hands of a student monitor. That student will put a copy of every hand out into the folder, so that at the end of the day, the homeroom teacher has a folder with all the missed work in it. If we get really ambitious, we may have a student who is really good at taking notes photocopy his or her notes at the end of each day, and add those to the absentee folders as well. We are also developing a regular notebook checking policy. As for helping the students get organized, I am consciously building in one period at the end of each unit for the student to look through his or her folder, throw out stuff that is not needed anymore, select his or her best work (and all quizzes) to go in a portfolio, and choose any reference hand-outs to keep for the next unit.

4. Finally, in order to make #1 happen, I need to change the type of assessment data that I collect and the method I use to record it. This is where Transforming Classroom Grading by Robert J. Marzano, comes in.

I wish that schools of education included at least one really comprehensive, rigorous, and hands-on class on assessment for all teachers. (Are you listening, Jenny?). Think about it. It could include a couple of classes on the history of assessment - how did our current grading systems come to be? What about standardized tests? It could include enough statistics for teachers to understand the advantages and pitfalls of different kinds of grading systems (for example, what does it really mean to "curve" a grade?). And then it could take a close look at different methods of grading student work, from day-to-day classwork to final exams and standardized tests. Teachers could practice developing high-quality tests, useful rubrics, etc., and perhaps even look at examples of student work brought in by in-service teachers and practice grading them using different systems.

Marzano's book could be one of the texts.

He argues that the traditional A-F or percent systems don't really tell students, parents, or teachers much about the student's strengths and weaknesses. He argues for and demonstrates a grading system using a 0-4 rubric that is designed to give useful feedback to both students and teachers about what skills the student has mastered and how they are doing on other skills. New York State uses a 0-4 rubric on standardized tests, so the book is particularly useful to teachers here. My school is in the process of changing all of our grading to that same rubric, so that information is presented in a consistent format at all levels. We then convert the rubric score to a percentage and report both in order to keep high schools happy.

Last year, I began discovering my own ways of making my assessment fit within the rubric system. If I gave a quiz, I graded each question on the 0-4 rubric, and if the quiz had matching or multiple choice sections, I graded those as a whole by deciding what number correct would equal what rubric score. Then I averaged the rubric scores to get a final rubric score for the quiz. In the end I found that this slightly raised students' grades, but not in a way that I found unreasonable. Projects are not too hard to score on a rubric, and it is in fact faster and feels more fair than trying to figure out a percentage grade for a poster or presentation. I make a little grading slip with all the rubric criteria and the possible scores, and then just check off the score for each aspect of the project; I think this very clearly shows the student where he or she lost points.

Marzano would take this further. Instead of computing a total score for the project or quiz, he suggests that you find a rubric score for each important topic that you are assessing using this assignment. For example, a lab report grade might include experiment design, prediction, data collection, analysis, and professional presentation. The teacher would give a separate rubric score for each of these, and record them in her grade book as such. What makes the book so helpful is that he gives examples of how this works on a quiz, including a copy of the quiz and two students' answers and grades assigned by teachers along with their rationale for each grade.

He also includes an example of what a gradebook looks like if it is set up to accomodate topic-based rubric scores in this way. Essentially, you have a larger section for each student. You list the topics that you are assessing across the top (columns) and the assignments along the side (rows). One assignment might have scores for several topics, so you enter the scores in the appropriate sections of the grid. You have a section like this for each student. It's easier to follow if you see it.

Okay, up to that point I am with him completely. As the marking period progresses, you collect really specific data about which topics that student is strong in, and where they are struggling. SO USEFUL!!! If a kid isn't doing well because they understand the topics but they don't present their ideas well, you see that. If they did great at understanding simple machines but their mathematical skills are week, you see that. Awesome. But what do you do at the end of the term?

This is where Marzano gets a little controversial. Actually, his argument might not be controversial at all to statisticians (I don't know) and isn't controversial among teachers ('cause we've mostly never heard of it before), but I predict that it WOULD BE controversial if proposed on a widespread basis to educators. He suggests using the Power Law to compute final grades. That means, instead of taking an average of the student's rubric scores for each topic, you apply a formula which fits their grades to a curve. He argues that many experiments have shown that learning closely approximate a power law curve over time, and this reduces small errors in assessment made by teachers or due to various kinds of (statistical) bias. Hmmmm. I don't exactly disagree, I mean, I've heard of the Power Law before and have even read Linked, which is ALL ABOUT that curve and how it applies in an astonishing variety of situations.... but it feels a little nebulous to me.

I guess this is the same discomfort people felt when the Census Bureau tried to use sampling rather than actually counting every darn person. The census people probably had the math right, but it's a hard one to explain to the average person.

I mean, how the heck would I explain this computation to parents? I guess if the grades seem about right, most parents will not question them at least on a mathematical level, but I have had one family compute all their son's grades and challenge me on an issue of rounding, so you can't rule that out entirely.

Marzano does include examples of a student's grades, what the average score would be, and what a power curve would look like for those grades. And guess what? The power curve does approximate the scores more closely than the average! That is, the curve really closely tracks the trend in the student's scores over time, while the average is just a line drawn straight across. So, the curve seems to do a better job taking into account learning over time, compared to the more static average.

I am definitely adopting the new gradebook design, and when it comes time to compute grades, I will experiment with both the power law and the average and see which ones feel more accurate and fair. I need more empirical evidence, I guess.

I'm really curious what YOU think about this one.


Here's some on-line reading if you want to know more (or if my explanation made absolutely no sense).

Power Law of Practice - states it simply along with some of the areas of learning in which it has been found to apply.

Serial Learning (and Savings) - provides two easy try-this-at-home lab activities to test statistical models of learning. I wish this guy had taught my stats class!

Distinguishing Qualitatively Different Kinds of Learning Using Log Files and Learning Curves - An academic but readable paper looking at learning curves as applied to students using tutoring software (LISP) to learn to use a spreadsheet program. Here's an excerpt:

Anderson, Conrad, and Corbett have demonstrated that the power law relationship between practice and
performance may not always be readily evident in the practice of complex skills. For instance student
performance over the course of individual steps in each practice problem in the LISP tutor showed a rather
chaotic pattern. However, by decomposing the skill required to program in LISP in terms of production
rules, and examining performance as a function of the opportunity to practice each of the underlying rules
Anderson and colleagues observed a clear power law relationship between practice and performance.

I think the quote above sums up why more people - particularly teachers - have never noticed or heard of the power law of learning: it shows up when you look at learning of one particular skill compared to time spent practicing that particular skill. Traditional grades where scores for different topics and skills are all mixed up together wouldn't necessarily show this kind of trend. That's why I'm going to wait until I've collected data by topic and then test this theory.

A little experiment... please participate!

Okay, I realized we can test at least one aspect of Marzano's power law method. He suggests that teachers come up with surprisingly consistent and accurate final grades just by looking at a student's grades for one topic over time, looking for a trend, and estimating a final score based on what level of achievement s/he thinks the student reached by the end of the grading period! He presents this estimation method as an alternative for those who do not have access to technology to use the power law precisely.

Here's what you do to participate in this experiment:

1. Look at the three lists of scores below. Each list represents a student's grades for just one learning objective over time - the earliest grades for the objective at the top of the list, the last grades for that objective at the bottom.

2. For each list, look for a trend, then decide on a final grade between 0-4, in 0.25 increments. For example, 2.75, 4.0, 1.5, whatever you think best represents where that student stands on that objective at this point.

3. Report your scores in the comments along with any thoughts.

4. If you're curious, go ahead and compute the average and/or apply the power law AFTER you have used the "blink" method.

5. Check back to see how your estimates compare with those of other readers and with the average and power score.





Friday, July 15, 2005

So many things to write, so little time...

I'd rather be outside.

But I have lots of stuff to post.

We are in the process of hiring a new science teacher. Mr. Kelvin will, in all likelihood, be placed in another school by TFA. I can't go into all the drama here, but basically, in order to create more balanced teams of experienced/inexperienced teachers, we decided to move two of our newer teachers to different grade levels next year, though obviously keeping them within their subject areas. This was unpopular, as they want a second year teaching the same thing. Understandable, but it makes NO SENSE to put all your experienced teachers on one team and all your new teachers on another. The problem is, technically the move is outside their licenses due to grade level. So, one of them complained to TFA, and although he qualifies for an extension to teach more grade levels, the other teacher doesn't. Basically, the teacher who complained is still going to be moved to a new grade but he will take the CST and get his extension, while the other teacher, Mr. Kelvin, will be placed elsewhere by TFA, because they refuse to allow him to teach outside his license. TFA probably would not have known until it was too late for them to object, had his friend not brought it up... anyway, they made that bed, now they are going to have to sleep in it. I feel kind of crappy about how it all went down, although I also think this is best for our school and our children in the long run.

As of today, we had to fill that spot, and quickly. Luckily, one of our other new teachers knew of a good science teacher from her old school who was looking for a new job. We called her, she came for an interview, she seems like an incredibly good fit, and now it's just a question of her principal releasing her. That could be politically tricky, as we already hired two teachers from that school, but each of those teachers found us on their own. Still, it's not for certain until the principal signs the paper.


In other news, our colleague who was in the hospital is doing much better, and will be leaving for Texas for out-patient rehab in a week or so. He can walk, talk, remember everything, and is nearly back to normal (except for the missing pieces of his skull, which they will eventually put back).


Check out these two articles from the AFT's magazine, American Educator

Ask The Cognitive Scientist Okay, so we all know that some kids are visual learners, others are kinesthetic learners, and others are auditory learners. Right? Well, kind of. This article says that while differences in learning style do exist, they aren't necessarily that important for learning most kinds of information. Furthermore, material should be taught in the format most appropriate for that type of content, not in the format geared for the type of learner. What does this mean? Well, teachers can stop including contrived ways of hitting all the learning styles in their lesson plans, and can focus on developing the best possible way of teaching a particular topic.

We have seen that the mind uses different representations to store different types of information and that these representations are poor substitutes for one another. That indicates that teachers should indeed think about the modality in which they present material, but their goal should be to find the content’s best modality, not to search (in vain) for the students’ best modality. If the teacher wants students to learn and remember what something looks like, then the presentation should be visual. For example, if students are to appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid, it would be much more effective to view a picture than to hear a verbal description.

I think this article is a breath of fresh air. I have long suspected that just because you touch something or move doesn't mean that (a) you've learned the actual material or (b) a kinesthetic learner will learn that material better. Kinesthetic learning is the creation of muscle memory - great for learning to ride a bike or maybe use a new piece of equipment efficiently. I also find many of the activities included in lesson plans to target each type of learner are really forced and seem to have minimal value in actually conveying new information or ideas. I'd be curious to know what YOU think, so go check out the article.

Exploring the Summer Activity Gap A disheartening article about the ways that kids from different income brackets spend their summers, and how that affects their achievement.


I read a terrific book about grading; will post on that later tonight or tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Submitted a grant proposal to pay for Bent On Learning to come to our school. Keep your fingers crossed that we get it.

The Education Wonks were nice enough to include my post about bringing ballroom dance to our school as a part of this week's Carnival of Education.

Found a fantastic - truly - site for science teachers: The Science Spot. A science teacher has posted PDF files of dozens(hundreds?) of her lesson plans, including worksheets for students. Even better, most of them look like they can be used as is, instead of revised or adapted as I usually do with materials found on-line and made by other teachers. I printed out probably 100 pages of lessons and put them in the binder I am creating for next year. Here's one of my favorites: try it at home.

From there, I discovered Junk Box Wars, which I am planning to use in an after school program next year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Summer jobs...

are a good thing for kids. I am writing this now so I don't forget to write about it some other time when it is not almost midnight.

Monday, July 11, 2005


Shelving has its quiet joys, and the constant possibility of discovering a really interesting book. But the real reason to volunteer at HousingWorks is (whispering) to flirt with all the cute guys who check their bags and then go off to browse, study, and read poetry.

I think I've found my niche.

Sunny Days & Mondays...

Everyone returned to school exhausted by fun weekend activities, myself included. Sunday, a friend, my roommate, her sister, and I took the train out to Brighton Beach for a few hours of suntanning and trashy magazines. My guilty pleasure is a subscription to Glamour, but I didn't get the new issue yet, so we bought Cosmo instead. I assure you, there IS a difference. Glamour is much smarter and more classy. Brighton Beach is quieter, cleaner, less of a scene than Coney Island (which is really fun when you want a carnival, but the water is often full of trash... not as great, in my opinion, for sunbathing and swimming).

And then I spent the evening at March of the Penguins with another friend. The movie will slay you with cuteness and pathos. And don't underestimate the toughness of emperor penguins. I read in a book about Antarctica that there are fossils of six foot tall penguins! Anyway, the movie also raised a lot of questions for me about how penguins, who must depend on each other for warmth and survival while protecting their eggs, communicate and organize their vast huddle against winter. I think my kids will like this movie better than Winged Migration; anthropomorphism, nearly inevitable with penguins, is probably just right for middle school kids.

After the movie, we spent a few hours hanging out on his roof deck... it was a beautiful night. I must admit, I kind of forgot that the weekend was ending and I'd need to wake up early this morning, and stayed out much too late. Plus the evening was so beautiful - a light breeze but warm enough to jettison any kind of jacket, very clear skies - that it still seemed early even as midnight passed by.

So we were all, well, toast this morning. Others had gone to weddings, thrown parties, spent too much time outside...

I printed out a few more grant applications for the binder, and discovered that Balance Bar gives medium-sized grants to organizations promoting physical fitness in the community. I'm hoping this will fund a collaboration with Bent On Learning, which offers yoga classes in the schools. Yet another opportunity I am pursuing so that we can still provide PE classes next year while our "gym" is being renovated. Not to mention the potential for helping students chill out, handle stress, and increase their ability to focus. I wrote a first draft of our statement of purpose and tentative budget; once I get a few more details, I'll be ready to send it.

Other good news: my principal is really enthusiastic about the ballroom dance program and told me to go ahead and schedule a meeting with them, we'll find the money. I'm so excited!

And now, to the Post Office and then HousingWorks. I wish there were time for a nap.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Oh, and one more thing...

My roommate, who got me into the sailing in the first place, said that when you come back from a sail, the world seems to rock gently back and forth for a while (sometimes even hours!). It's true. I feel like my futon is at sea. I'm not sure I'd list this among the "pros" of becoming a sailor, but I guess I'll get my land legs back soon enough.

Here she is on watch.


It's hard rolling out of bed before seven on a Saturday morning, but once in a while, it is worth it.

I was certain last night it would be raining this morning, that I would wake up, hit the alarm, look out at the rain on the fire escape, and slide back into sleep, but instead, glittering sunshine woke me before the alarm. I got up, made coffee, gathered my sunscreen, water, snacks, and a sweatshirt, and walked down to South Street Seaport for a training sail on the Pioneer.

It was my second training sail. I didn't write about last week's because it wasn't that much fun; there were "too many cooks" giving contradictory instructions, and I was the only brand new volunteer.

Today was perfect: a good breeze, sunshine, a whole lot of new volunteers, and the crew and experienced volunteers were very friendly. Communication was good.

We started by getting the boat ready - I helped raise the flags (including the "Don't Tread on Me" flag) and washed down the decks with a huge hose (very fun to play with - everyone expects to get at least a little wet, so I got to soak their feet - I tried to warn them before soaking their butts, but a few got sprayed!). We left the dock and then came straight back in so that one of the crewmembers could practice docking. Imagine parallel parking a vintage auto from 125 years ago with a vintage mac truck only yards away... that's what docking feels like to me.

The captain divided us into three "watches" of about 5-6 people, a mix of new and experienced volunteers and crewmembers. My watch started at the bow. You have a few jobs on bow watch: handle the bow spring and bow stern lines,* which tie up the boat when she's docked, handle the headsails (jib and staysail), and keep watch. I like this part of the boat best, because you've got a fantastic view of the harbor, and keeping watch is both important and relaxing. If you're really lucky, you get to climb out into the headrig, which is a sort of netting dangling over the water. You walk out on the headrig to untie or tie up the headsails. Looking down through the headrig, you see the water below. It's fabulous. We didn't get to do this today, sadly, but I did it last week. Now, my least favorite part of the Pioneer is also in the bow. I forget what it's called, but it's a block (like a pulley) that slides back and forth along a metal bar about a foot off the deck. It's evil. When working in the bow, I feel like it is always about to come careening towards me and take out my shin: and it is. Most of the time, tension holds it in more or less one place, but if the wind changes or if we tack, away it goes, sliding down the bar.

That was pretty much the only watch we did, because the sail went incredibly quickly, and we did some whole-crew drills. First, the captain showed us how to raise the topsail, a little one that (I think) only goes up in good wind, on top of the mainsail. Then, we did a man-overboard drill. If someone goes overboard, you have to do three things: call out "man overboard" until someone responds so that you know they heard, keep your eyes on the person and point to them, and throw something that floats in the water. Beyond that, you follow the captain and mate's instructions. Most of us pretended to be passengers while a few of the more experienced volunteers helped the crew do the drill. In the middle of the drill, the engine would not start - an unplanned difficulty - so we had to rescue the "person" (a buoy) under sail only. To my mind, it took a long time, but that's why you do the drills, to get better at these things. It was funny to see the buoy wrapped in a blanket for warmth when we finally pulled it on deck. After the man overboard drill, we did a fire drill, and again most of us got to pretend we were passengers. It is the job of the volunteers during real sails (with passengers) to do crowd control with the passengers, keep them out of the way and safe, prevent parents from jumping overboard to rescue their drowning child, etc. No passengers - and no children - have ever gone overboard from the Pioneer, but you still have to be ready.

I am learning vocabulary faster than I am learning how to do things. I know that halyard is a line (rope) used to raise a sail, while a sheet is a rope used to control the sail. I know how to make (tie off) a halyard or sheet, and I know that you use a hitch to make a halyard, thus securing the line tightly, while you do not use a hitch for a sheet because you need to be able to make fine adjustments using the sheet at any time. I know the names of the sail and the directions on a boat. I am learning to raise and lower sails. I'm not very good (nay, useless) at "sweating" a line, which is a kind of rocking back and forth with the line that you do to stretch it and increase tension on it. I am learning to coil rope in different ways - a balentine is a circle with three small, overlapping circles inside it, which allows the line to stay free of kinks so it feeds quickly and without fouling (getting knotted). On the first sail, we practiced knots, though I think I've forgotten most of that, although my hands may remember it better than my head.

I see how much fun this could be. It's also interesting because some of the captains, mates, and deckhands - real crew positions - started out as volunteers. Some have been sailing at the seaport for 10 years or more. If you just want to volunteer and sail every so often, you can do that, but you can also get checked off on a list of skills and move up in a hierarchy to positions of more authority or responsibility on board. And once you move up, you are eligible to sail on other ships and go on longer trips. For at least a few people, what started as a volunteer job became a career! And I am intrigued to discover that the Seaport Museum runs two small high schools as part of the NYC system.

*I am doing my best to remember the names of everything, but please forgive me if you know more about sailing than I do and I get something wrong. I'm hoping that writing it all down here will help me remember and won't be too boring for anyone reading.

Friday, July 08, 2005

To Lectrice and her students...

I couldn't find an email address on your blog, so I'll post this here instead.

We here in NY know a bit of what life must be like for you right now - the shock, the need to get on with it even though you can't think about anything except the bombings, the jittery feeling that can be set off so easily, the helplessness. The grief.

Hang in there.

Mad Expensive Ballroom

I called the good people at American Ballroom Theater today, to ask if they would bring their ballroom dance program to my school next year. It seems like a good fit - structured yet fun, integrates the arts, promotes respectful social interactions, and will help us solve our PE problem.

What PE problem? Oh, the one where they decide to renovate the gym space and make some of it a cafeteria and some of it a better gym, good goals but unfortunately not goals they can complete during a single summer. So lord only knows where we will be holding PE classes next year. Luckily, the dance program can be held in smaller spaces and without the presence of basketball hoops.

Let me emphasize that these are good people, friendly, prompt in returning my call, extremely enthusiastic about their program - I got a good feeling about them in every way.

And best of all, they are starting a program for 8th graders next year! It's 20 sessions for $2200 - which works out to $110 per session, which is about $4 per child. The bottom line is that to have all our 8th graders participate would cost $6600.

So the other (dancing) shoe drops.

Our budget has been generous for the last three years, because we were a new school, receiving start up funds. I don't know the details yet, but the word from my principal and our dean is that it's not pretty.

Anyone have $6000? For that matter, anyone have $3000?

Looks like I'll be searching for small arts grants on Monday.

Something to think about...

The class looked fearful and amazed--freedom in school, do what you want? For a few minutes they sat quietly and then slowly began to talk. Two children walked to the piano and asked me if they could try. I said of course, and three more children joined them. It seemed so easy; the children relaxed. I watched closely and suspiciously, realizing that the tightness with time that exists in the elementary school has nothing to do with the quantity that must be learned or the children's needs. It represents the teacher's fear of loss of control and is nothing but a weapon used to weaken the solidarity and opposition of the children that too many teachers unconsciously dread.

After the ten minutes I tried to bring the children back to work. They resisted, tested my determination. I am convinced that a failure of will at that moment would have been disastrous. It was necessary to compel the children to return to work, not due to my "authority" or "control" but because they were expected to honor the bargain. They listened, and at that moment I learned something of the toughness, consistency, and ability to demand and give respect that enables children to listen to adults without feeling abused or brutalized and, therefore, becoming defiant.

-From 36 Children by Herbert Kohl

Thursday, July 07, 2005

What we do all day, summer edition

I, for one, am not a big kick-back-and-watch-cartoons type. That has its place, for sure, but I like to be busy. Summer can present unique challenges for teachers surprised by how much you have to like yourself if you are to be successful at hanging out with and entertaining yourself all day while your friends are at work.

You have to like yourself a LOT.

Then again, most of us have things to keep us busy: classes we are required/desire to take, second jobs, children to care for, family reunions, travel plans, planning for next year's teaching. I do my best to fill my summer with lots of these things, but there's still a lot of free time, which can be used for reading, exercise, renting movies, cleaning the house, cooking, re-designing one's blog... solitary endeavors, by and large.

This year, my school scheduled nine days of planning time. And boy, was I ready for it by the end of last week! Since I knew I would be thinking about school now, I did my best not to think about school then. Turns out, thinking about school is what I do something like, um, 90% of the time.

My thoughts, freed of this activity, wandered and rambled. I dreamed my principal's house burned down (she didn't mind; her clothes and appliances were not damaged; I didn't mind either, 'cause I got to hang out with a cute firefighter... in my dream). I dreamed that I was showing "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" at a retreat center, and my mom was there, and I kept having this conversation with two strangers (talking over a picket fence!) outside the center, and they were encouraging me to get pregnant, and were under the impression that I was a recent divorcee, and then my mom and I left together and she told me she didn't approve of my choice of movies, and she was driving with one car door open. Yeah. Dreams. Really vivid dreams.

My thoughts also wandered, with some regularity, into oh-my-god-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-myself-for-the-rest-of-the-day territory, usually followed immediately by a visit to why-aren't-you-doing-something-interesting-summer's-practically-already-over territory. If you have any doubt that time is elastic, talk to me during a week off.

I read the better part of four books, saw one circus, watched several movies, walked around a lot, bought a computer, cleaned the house, started volunteering in two different places, took yoga classes... but I tell you, it was a relief to go to work on Tuesday.

It's fun, sitting around with other teachers in quiet classrooms, working on curriculum. It's work I'd do anyway, but this summer I'm getting paid extra for it. I helped the other two science teachers set goals for this work period and for their teaching next year. Since then, we've pretty much just been planning independently. The beauty of it is that I can get a lot of quiet work done, then turn to the math teachers, sitting just a few feet away, show them my unit plan, and ask them if they see ways for us to collaborate or if they have any resources on measuring in centimeters that I could borrow. I can turn to the English teachers and ask if we can plan a meeting to really work on content-area literacy. I can pass along my unit planning template so that other teachers don't have to invent their own. The room is quiet and full of thought and work.

Today I also started reading through a webpage of education-related grants and gathering out and printing those that it seems like we might want to explore further; I'm making a binder, organized by subject area, with a section for teachers to put copies of completed grant applications so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time we write a grant.

Now I'm going to surf blogs for a while, eat lunch, clean the kitchen, set up my printer, and then head over to HousingWorks for my volunteer shift.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

It doesn't get much better than this...

Watching the fireworks on the East River from a ship built more than 100 years ago, with three really good friends, on a breezy summer night. Wow.

Independence Day

Spinach salad with yoghurt dressing...

When life gives you lemons, make old fashioned lemonade!

I don't have any pictures of the finished product, but it's basically a thick lemony syrup that you pour water and ice over... lusciously refreshing.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Independence Day!

I'm off to this and this. It's a bit hair-raising when the best free concert on a major holiday happens to be your ex's favorite band, but what can you do? Make a spinach salad, bring friends and a towel (always pack a towel) and go.

I started the day with chocolate chip pancakes (we added tiny bits of serrano peppers to some of them - you'd be surprised how good that is!) and Shark Tale.

Aaaahhhhh, vacation.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


Last night, I used TDF Vouchers to see Rain, a performance by the Cirque Eloize from Montreal.

They are only performing in New York until July 10, but if you get the chance, definitely go.

I'm sure they get compared to Cirque du Soleil a lot, being from Montreal and combining circus skills with mysterious lighting and modern dance and theater elements, but while Cirque du Soleil is beautifully over-the-top, this was more understated. The acts themselves are incredible: I swear I saw a man levitate last night, holding his entire body weight several feet off the ground just by holding another performer's hand. The aerial acts are spectacular. They truly make it look easy, while at the same time you never forget the risks of what they are doing because you can see the other performers spotting from below, and because the set is very minimal.

The introduction to the piece sets it up as a series of memories of childhood. I found the acts surprisingly evocative of different elements of consciousness - playfulness, loneliness, jealousy, nostalgia - without being overly conceptual. It's also quite often funny, playing with the feelings many of us have but don't easily admit to. And by the end, you truly like the charming characters and don't want them to leave.

Well, anyway, it's a good show.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Guess what?!

I am blogging from a new toy... I'll give you a hint... it's name starts with i and ends with k.

It automatically connected me to the internet using an available network. Can someone with a little more Apple experience fill me in: is that dangerous? Should I turn it off? Could I get viruses this way?

Another question: If you had an old PC with a broken CD-RW drive, and possibly a bunch of viruses & spyware, how would you go about transfering your files to your new Apple laptop? Would you email them to yourself? Would you attempt the small local area network thing described in the manual?

Well, back to setting all my preferences...

Awesome blog for teachers!

Check this out: Great Solutions. It's a collection of challenges for teams to work on cooperatively. I am tempted to spend the rest of the day (week?) surfing this site. Take a look at the pictures of successfully completed challenges.

Shelving Meditation

I did my first shift at HousingWorks Used Bookstore/Cafe last night. HousingWorks is mostly volunteer-staffed, and benefits people living with HIV/AIDS by providing them with a range of services designed to fill their needs but also empower them to live a full life and be empowered about their healthcare, etc.

The bookstore/cafe is a large yet cozy space in a beautiful old building in SoHo. The first floor houses everything from rare books, to art, to film and music, to gardening, cooking, and crafts, to literary criticism, to mysteries and thrillers, to a collection of records and CDs. There's also the cafe counter and a lot of tables. Upstairs is a balcony stretching around the perimeter of the store, where history and social science, science, medicine, sports, humor, health, new age, and other books are shelved. They have a map of the store but I think I got a pretty good feel for it after just one shift.

I like learning the systems for things. For example, the books are tagged with two code numbers - one is the month and year they arrived at HousingWorks, the other is a shelving category. 567 is Science. 422 is Literary Criticism. I think they are Dewey or Library of Congress numbers or something. Some books pose a challenge to categorize. For example, where would you put books about people's mountain climbing expeditions? Sports? Wildlife/Environment? Travel? And what about a book about female mountain climbers and their expeditions? Women's Studies? And for some reason, they have a literary biography section, but no general biography section. The books within each category are shelved alphabetically by author. But in the Science section, I found a biography of Heidegger shelved under "H" - you can see why someone would take a look at it and then put it back in the H section rather than using the author's last name. Yet there aren't enough biographies to shelve them differently from the other books.

You are probably bored out of your mind by now, but I find these questions interesting. The way the bookstore is set up right now is good for aimless browsing. You choose a section that interests you, then see what you can find. Finding a book about astronomy, for example, you would have to go to Science and just skim the shelves. You would find plenty of books, but might miss the one most interesting to you because they are all mixed in with other books. This shelving system maximizes the chances that you pick up something completely unexpected, but it's not very good for targeted searches by subject area. If you know the author's name, you're golden.

So let's say we reorganized it so books were sorted by topic on a much finer scale, then by author's last name. This would result in all the mountain climbing books being together, all the astronomy books being together, and so on. But there are a whole lot of books that still would be very hard to place. This would probably make life more difficult for the volunteers who price the books and decide what category to put them in. It would help the customer looking for a specific topic - another volunteer told me that no matter how often she alphabetizes the Health section by author, when she goes back a week later, all the Alzheimer's books are together, Cancer, Depression, Diabetes, etc. I think it would decrease the number of chance discoveries - books that you would not have sought out but happen across in your browsing.

I spent about 3 1/2 hours going through the Science, Math, and Wildlife/Environment sections and "weeding" - taking out books that had been there for more than 6 months, taking out miscategorized or mis-shelved books, putting the others back in "ABC order" (as we used to say in 3rd grade). Was it fun? Not particularly. Was it not fun? No. It was mesmerizing. It was the kind of repetitive yet engaging task that requires that I stay almost completely in the present, focused on what I'm doing, yet relaxed. Hence, shelving meditation. This is the stuff that voluntary simplicity books are made of.

I love bookstores. I have about 50 new books that I want to read, and I was only there for one shift! And I have finished two whole books already just this week!