Category Archives: Teaching

Researching Drug Policy and the Problem of Dumb College Writing Assignments

Last week I gave my writing students the assignment to research Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s drug policies just for kicks and to do some compare and contrast. We’re writing about the subject with Global Commission on Drug Policy’s Report as a base text. I knew what I was getting myself into on this assignment, but I threw it out there anyway (with some need to explain to some students who Mitt Romney was).

When the time came, I asked, “So, tell me what you found?”

They had all kinds of material from Obama. There’s lots of substance on the website and elsewhere. Most of the students (some of the students didn’t bother) claimed they could find nothing on a Romney position, other than a general “against legalization for medical purposes.” You know, of “pot.”

In our media age, readers and researchers would think that positions would be fairly well drafted out and easy to find. The Romney official website is general on most topics. It’s difficult to do fact-based analysis without clarity and specifics. That’s one of the elements I’m trying to teach.

On Learning Curves, Education, and Creativity

I’ve been troubling over a couple of picking patterns from The Painter and a few items by John Denver, little intricate patterns that are somewhat mind bending.

I also live In West Simsbury, which, in Census parlance, is a CPD (a census designated place) of the town of Simsbury, Connecticut (median income over 100k). We have the good fortune in this town of having a high quality of life. It’s a town loaded with professionals, a high ratio of people with higher education degrees, marvelous trees, and a decent school system.

Today, we attended my son’s Rock Camp concert at Martocchio’s Music, an outfit that runs music lessons year round and offers camps in rock and jazz music. The musicians are all kids of various levels, mostly who take lessons throughout the year, like my son. And they’re all fantastic, from the drummers to the guitar players. They’re also surpassingly creative, belting out tunes and inventing their own within a week. These camps are the result of lots of human commitment.

A few years ago we also attended a musical at the local high school and the performance values pretty much blew me away. I remember having conversations with my wife about this show: “They could take that on the road,” I said, or something pretty close. This was not the tones of a novice at the violin or clarinet.

Now to some conceptual arithmetic. In life across the country, we typically parse out the year by the school schedule. In our incrementalism, we lose sight of the fact that a lost year can never be recovered, no matter what a standardized test may say.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play guitar, but the fact of the matter is that learning difficult things becomes more difficult with age. I noted the degree to which students at Rock Camp have developed their skills early. My own friend at the guitar, Timmons, told me, yes, it’s hard, that’s why you start early.

We often forget in our decision making about school and culture the very lives were dealing with. Watching Moonlight Empire tonight brought back to my mind the often mysterious glances we give to children whom we often neglect in our credits and in our obsession with mass performance data.

Patterns on the Subject of the Guitar

I’ve finally have a handle on a few things guitar related. Again, I’ve teaching myself the instrument. The result: I can play a few classical pieces at the level of a third grade Spanish language lesson, like programming a hello world set of commands or a simple calculator with basic operators. I can play the notes but not the music, which is the goal. I also have a handle on some Celtic rhythms and styles, like reels.

The handles are specific to 1) Travis picking and 2) strumming, all of which demand not just the fingering and wristing of patterns but learning to hear them in relation to the body parts.

I’m pressing on the notion of 8 beats per bar as a common grammar. In strumming, certain beats of the eight beat bar are simply silenced, while in Travis picking, the same thing can happen, but syncopated. Over and over and over again until things start to hurt.

The common grammar can explain different styles of music and the role of the instrument in music: in classical guitar and modern rock, the guitar is central, and the player is a “guitar hero.” In strumming, generally speaking, we have the guitar player as “role player.” The classic guitar player as Romantic hero.

Do Surveys Make for Good Evaluation Schemes?

In my opinion, no, given what we know about bias. Typically, surveys of performance are pretty predictable. Students who do well in school give better reviews to teachers than students who do poorly. Often, attitudes are shaped by a hole host of variables unrelated to teachers. These kinds of things don’t tell us a lot about performance because they are difficult to filter. This account from the Connecticut Mirror provides a chart on the make up of teacher evaluations in Connecticut. I’m assuming the 45% Student Performance will come from testing.

I just don’t understand why smart people can’t come at evaluation schema in more practical ways, for example, evaluating teacher performance by the degree to which their students learn over time. After arithmetic, sit on the deck built by students and if it works, the teacher and the students did just fine. And someone got a deck out of the deal, too. But learning by doing is not a priority in testing cultures.

Consider this example of a quote from the Gates Foundation that supplies a high degree of confidence in survey feedback

He [John Lucsak] pointed to a recent report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project, that calls surveys “value-added measures [that] do seem to convey information about a teacher’s impact.”

Kinda, sorta, maybe. The use of the term value-added here is suspect. It would do you well to read the report linked to from the article and read the student survey questions. Note that I went through some of the bios of Education First advocates and was somewhat surprised at the qualifications of the experts.

I would also assume that the unions will be blamed again for getting in the way. They have good reasons to dislike this kind of performance model.

One of the problems all of these advocates, for or against whatever reforms, is they have to work within is the ecology of the current system, which works on a shoe string and goes severely under funded given the system’s size. It’s like a pond full of frogs but there’s not a lot of rain falling out of the heavens.

Success in College? Still Open for Debate

This Q and A from Nick Pandolfo has me scratching what hair I have left after a recent visit with a mirror and trimmers. The subject is a recent study on college success. Dan Chambliss says

The goal of this was to find how colleges or universities could have relatively resource-neutral, reliably effective interventions that really help students in a big way. In other words, how can you do stuff that you know you can do, that you know will make a positive difference, but you don’t have to turn the world upside down or have a big capital campaign and spend a lot of money.

A response to the question of solutions is:

It’s all about people, not programs. Colleges spend a huge amount of time and effort worrying will they have writing-intensive programs or a freshman seminar program or if a major is set up right or if their curriculum is done this way or that – all the kind of stuff about the content and information for kids and students. That’s not where it’s at.

This is where “it’s at” when you are constructing a program. The curricular points are somewhat important and don’t always go to the idea of “success.” The question may be: what’s the best way to teach heart transplants? How people feel about this may not be high on the list.

I agree, however, about the significance of human contact. But this is awfully random to generalize. I can remember those critical conversations I had in school. But these had nothing to do with the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of programs or the decisions people made about teaching methods and goals.

The Free Bible Plan

I like the idea of the free bible plan. Indeed, people’s lack of knowledge about religion is a real hindrance to my teaching in British Literature. Historical and cultural literacy is just as important as science and numerical knowing. Whether people “believe” is not an issue. That should be left to someone’s place of worship or la famalia.

The issue should be about free and open inquiry into all rationale ideas, not just those the school board thinks are salient.

The Cost of Higher Education

While I agree with the Hartford Courant in this editorial that the cost of a Community College education is a reasonable alternative, its other points are naive. The editors could read up on the economics of higher ed and find that even expensive colleges are still relatively cheap for the “real” outlay. Housing, technology, physical plants, salaries for people who do actual work, and all the other stuff that goes into the modern college costs a hell of a lot. If everyone sought the reasonable alternative, the reasonable alternative would have to “ask for more money to expand.”

The article also provides no evidence showing that students are “startled” at the price of their loans once they’ve graduated.

The editorial supplies this weird statement: “These debts drain money from the economy because it isn’t spent on goods and services that would help create more jobs.”

We could therefore make the argument that all college debt should be forgiven, as this would benefit the economy and be a boon for jobs. Fine by me.

It would seem from the article that the Hartford Courant would be advocating immediate health care reform as a means of assisting states with their budgets. Fine by me, too. The Courant editorial staff should be well aware that millions of dollars have been subtracted from our budgets and additional responsibilities added to the work load. To, therefore, argue about costs is irresponsible.

The Curious Behavior of People in Institutions

Again, the Connecticut Mirror has a report on the state of new rules in Connecticut education. It has a ring of the Keystone Cops. It’s really about how to do proper division. But as Neruda writes about in his poetry, what is proper is almost never understood

And so I left, keeping my silence.

That quote comes from Neruda’s poem Sobre Mi Mala Educacion. The article also illustration the friction that exists between administrators and teachers, whose aims are different.

Thomas’s piece is an interesting companion to this post by Marie Bjerede at O’Reilly on Do It Yourself culture in education, which, I would argue, is befuddling for lack of concreteness. Most people I know working with the Web are self taught. In the old days of Flash, most people learned Flash on their own. DIY is nothing new. In the absence of a school system, people learned what they needed to to get by. But getting by wasn’t that easy for the shoe maker or black smith. And my son wants to make a go-cart. We have an old lawnmower whose engine beckons. He’ll probably be watching lots of Youtube videos. I’ll be reading up on dangerous things that throw flames. DIY, writes Bjerede,

. . . puts us on the path to personalized learning. It weakens the requirement for students to learn together in lockstep, covering the same material at the same pace at the same time by listening to lectures in the same room and turning in the same homework on the same morning. It invites tinkering with different ways to break apart building blocks and put them back together while creating room for new building blocks to fit into those emerging structures.

This may be true. But a frequent critique of media types is the way people use them. We watch and listen to Sesame Street. We watch and listen to a lecture. Or I can watch and listen to an MIT lecturer at Open Course. I’m not quite seeing the difference yet.

Some subjects are best learned by doing them, practicing their known components. Poetry and programming share this characteristic. People have learned to write poetry for ages. People have learned to program for many years. If I sit in a room and listen to the teacher illustrate compositing, I have to take that info and objectify it myself. I have to do it. It’s another given of learning that “knowing something” is NOT a reference to someone else’s opinion on objects or of affective word order. Inside class Poem somewhere inside my Java interface I can call any number of already determined objects if they’re available, like a new stanza:

Stanza myFirstStanza = new Stanza();

We could change if we don’t like the way Java does it and go to Ruby or Python. The concepts travel, just as they do in poetry. DIY seems to be about assisting people learn what they are inclined to learn.

People will learn things for all kinds of reasons. Some people will learn a subject because they want to (very few people in my college experience wanted to learn Texas history); they enjoy learning and doing the thing they learned, even if it isn’t profitable (some people did want to learn Texas history. I say: GFT). Some people want to learn things that are profitable. People interested in learning will always try and figure out how to make a subject more accessible, to people who want to learn and to those who don’t. Currently, games are fashionable in education because they provide another means of access and on the assumption that games do teach. They can be used to trick people who don’t want to learn a thing into swallowing a superficial serving. Maybe. In my opinion, games teach critical intangibles, like how to lose and how to persist. A problem in any institutionalized program will always be how to learn if someone does indeed know what they should know, like brain surgery. Standardized tests can only approximate this but they can’t indicate motivation or the pull of an incentive. Connecticut’s obsession with these tests is cynical.

Institutions can be defined as big roomy places crowded with people who would rather be somewhere else. They could also be defined as big roomy places filled with people who do want to be there but are there for incredible or false reasons.

I’ll end with more Neruda:

Todos los que me daban consejos
están mas locos cada día.

Semester’s End

Most items for the semester’s end are done. It was a speedy and bizarre term, with a few interesting experiments, especially in World Literature and Digital Narrative.

Now to ready up for the summer session. Currently gathering new articles and updating assessment.

But the real work will be school of my own, digging back into Ruby on Rails and javascript, and breaking my fingers on interesting guitar chords. I will be under the rock, yet again, for several months.