This is Dedication to Service

One volunteer I met, Liz Clegg, was running a center for women and children—it was the most reliable place in the Jungle to find, among other things, diapers and face cream—out of a sky-blue school bus that the actress Juliet Stevenson had bought on eBay and then donated. Clegg, a wiry fifty-one-year-old former firefighter from England, has lived on the road since she was seventeen. In the summer of 2015, she attended the Glastonbury music festival. Appalled by the “fuckload” of stuff that people had left behind, she filled her trailer with cast-off tents and sleeping bags and drove straight to the Jungle, intending to donate them. “I’d seen in a Sunday magazine that they needed camping equipment, and Calais’s, what, three hours away?” she recalled. “You couldn’t not do it.” She ended up staying.

Most volunteers left the Jungle at night for safety, but Clegg was there full time, serving as a nurse, bodyguard, counsellor, and surrogate mother to the camp’s hundreds of unaccompanied children, almost all of them boys. At one point, she lived in a shack with half a dozen kids. “We had to sleep with knives,” she told me.

—Lauren Collins, “The Children’s Odyssey” in The New Yorker

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On Knowledge and Curriculum

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Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

Mental Practice Just as Important as Physical Practice

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There is now compelling evidence that motor imagery promotes motor learning. . . . It turns out that 20 minutes is the optimal amount of time for a mental practice session, according to a meta-analysis of many physical activities.

—Jim Davies, “Just Imagining a Workout Can Make You Stronger,” in Nautil.us

Honnold keeps a detailed climbing journal, in which he revisits his climbs and makes note of what he can do better. For his most challenging solos, he also puts a lot of time into preparation: rehearsing the moves and, later, picturing each movement in perfect execution. To get ready for one 1,200-foot-high ascent at the cutting edge of free soloing, he even visualized everything that could possibly go wrong—including “losing it,” falling off, and bleeding out on the rock below—to come to terms with those possibilities before he left the ground.

. . . “It’s better over time if you can put yourself in a situation where you experience some fear, but you overcome it, and you do it again and again and again,” Monfils says. “It’s hard, and it’s a big investment, but it becomes easier.”

—J.B. Mackinnon, “The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber” in Nautil.us, about free solo rock climber Alex Honnold

Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.

. . . What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields.

—Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

As these various quotes demonstrate, mental practice can be just as critical to performance as physical practice. This type of practice is therefore important to consider in terms of classroom teaching and learning.

This past winter, I was starting to feel set in my ways, so I decided to begin learning a new instrument and began taking tabla lessons. Tabla, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a drum used in classical Indian music.

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Tabla

It has a long tradition and is accompanied with a syllabic language (“bols”) that signify each type of sound. My teacher constantly stresses the importance in rehearsing compositions mentally as a part of daily practice. His advice makes a lot of sense in light of the research.

One of the best classroom teachers I know prepares by mentally and verbally rehearsing the day’s lesson in the morning.

How can we assist our students in developing the skills necessary to engage in this kind of practice? While it’s pretty clear how this type of practice can accompany a performance, such as sports, dance, music, or theater, I wonder how mental rehearsal could accompany practice in specific academic domains, such as writing, math, or science? How could mental rehearsal be beneficial in related service areas for students with Individualized Education Programs, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling?

How Long Does It Take to Shed the Skin of Society?

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“The first six months is like being in a washing machine – everything is painful. Body and mind. You can hear your friends and family in your head. It’s that onion again – peeling away that skin and hardening yourself. You are going through hell in that time. Everything is a challenge. Eventually, the noise stops. Suddenly, you are in harmony with nature. It’s all gone and then it’s not just another day of walking. That is what I am looking for. You live in the present and you are connected. You lose the sense of self. It’s a hard time, but the rewards once you reach that period of harmony, where you understand the immediate terrain around you, are wonderful.”

—Sarah Marquis in an interview with Andrew Mazibrada, “A State of Mind” on Sidetracked

Just need to highlight this: 6 months! And here you were, patting yourself on the back for a 2 day camping trip . . .

This is Not a Real Review

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I’ve been slowly reading Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test* since the end of summer, and though I want to give his book a more thorough and thoughtful analysis and review, I’m going to have to be content with giving briefer and shallower thoughts for the moment, as I’ve been scattered due to the inevitable press of the beginning of the school year workload.

Vilson takes a wholly unique approach to presenting his perspectives on education–he starts from the inside and works his way out, matching the simultaneously strong and introspective voice he’s developed in his writing online. For me, the most compelling aspects of his narrative consists in his personal journey from student to teacher to leader. It’s inspiring to see a fellow NYC district school teacher transforming into the kind of leader that people from very different walks in life and with very different values can listen to and respect. He elevates my profession.

Vilson’s unique independent and consistent online presence and advocacy has tread a pathway for other educators to follow. When he writes about the importance of educators of color teaching children of color, I am deeply appreciative that he is standing up to not only say it, but to live it.

I get the sense that Vilson can do pretty much whatever he sets his mind to. Here’s to hoping that he not only writes another book, but helps to bring about systemic changes that will bring greater diversity and leadership into education.

* The slowness has been due not to any fault on Mr. Vilson’s part, but rather my own, as I made the mistake of purchasing his book in the Kindle format—and I have a Nook. I thought I would be able to convert the Kindle MOBI format into the EPUB format, but Amazon has it’s so-called “ecosystem” (walled garden would be more apt) locked down pretty tight. So I’ve been forced to use Kindle’s app to read the book, and I dislike extended reading on a backlit screen. Moral of the story: I will not be buying Kindle books again any time soon. Sorry, Amazon, but your scheme for world domination will not include me. Except for all non-book items. You’ve got me there.

Stick With It

By Kumon (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

There’s an article on Outside magazine that explains why any diet that you may choose is largely irrelevant as to whether you lose weight or not. The most important factor?

Simple adherence. To any sort of disciplined form of exercise and diet. Sticking with it. Persistence.

I think this advice just as easily applies to education reform. On Saturday’s post, we examined takeaways from David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars on effective school systems, and we noted that there’s nothing particularly flashy about what works: it’s really just a lot of hard work. In other words, adherence and persistence.

We’ve also explored this idea before in a post titled “Coping with Complexity“. In that piece, I synthesized some advice from different fields and came up with two suggestions for making decisions when faced with a complex problem:

  • Try almost anything, because you never know exactly what will be effective. 
  • Demonstrate a willingness to push through even in the face of failure, as this can lead to a breakthrough, an emergence after crossing some unknown threshold.
Pick something. Adhere to it. Learn from your mistakes. Keep on keeping on.
I’m beginning to see that there’s a ripe opportunity here for synthesizing all these lessons on complex decision-making that I’ve been gathering on this blog. To be continued . . .