Sunday, February 24, 2008

thinking out loud on paper

I am feeling a little apprehension about Monday's class, when we will start working on our curriculum guides, because I don't feel that I have a clear idea of what a curriculum guide looks like. I found an example of a course outline on the MNPS website that I think may be similar to a curriculum guide, but I don't think it's as in-depth as this assignment is calling for. From my understanding, I'm supposed to take the state standards and put them into some sort of appropriate sequence for the year, then give suggestions for instructional activities and assessments that can be used with each objective. Is that it? If so, that seems intense because there are a LOT of standards. And I'm also concerned with the sequencing part, because I think that with English, the skills should be taught holistically, not in isolation. Students should be improving skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening concurrently, since these skills build on and complement each other. So I'm not sure what an appropriate sequence would look like or how many objectives should be covered in each lesson or unit. I think this was my problem as a teacher as well. I didn't think in terms of the standards and skills that I needed to cover. I thought about a topic that would be interesting or something I wanted to read with the class, and then I thought of activities that would improve reading, writing, and thinking skills through that particular topic or text. So I never had an overall idea of what skills students should have achieved by the end of the year, what these skills looked like, or how to measure them. Obviously, the purpose of having to create a curriculum guide now is to learn how to do it, but at the same time, I feel like I'm being asked to do something that I don't know how to do! I don't really know where to start or what steps to take. Hopefully this will be clarified on Monday....

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

like a fly in a glass of milk

Driving home from a Diversity in Dialogue meeting that I participate in, I began to think again about racism as a curricular issue. Racism and discrimination have always been issues that I have fought against, but it was only during this past semester that I really came to realize the depth and strength of institutionalized racism in public schools. I see curriculum as playing a large role in perpetuating or changing social inequalities. The traditional school curriculum is inherently racist because the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are valued come from the dominant white male section of society. The instructional methods used and the assessments used favor those who come from the dominant culture. The valuing and devaluing has become so ingrained in so many teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

A perfect example is a conversation I had with a Vanderbilt classmate the other day about cultural responsiveness. This person did not feel that she was being insensitive to cultural differences by teaching standard English, or as she put it, "correct grammar" and "the right way to speak." While I wholeheartedly agree that students of all ethnic or cultural backgrounds need fluent command of standard English in order to broaden their opportunities for success, I think the value my classmate was placing on other dialects shows how so many of us have been trained to be racist. The only reason "white" English is standard English is because white people are the dominant group in society. If black people were the dominant group in society, maybe Black English would be the standard. If Mexican-Americans were the dominant group, maybe the standard would be Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English. In my Second Language Acquisition course, we read several articles that talked about "additive" vs. "subtractive" bilingualism...that many bilingual students lose their native language because that type of bilingualism is not valued by society the way a native English-speaking student learning Spanish or French would be valued.

I am very encouraged, though, by the attention that equity and multicultural education are receiving now. For instance, I've been impressed that everything I've read by Linda Darling-Hammond mentioned educational equity as an important point. As a teacher and curriculum designer, educational equity is my main focus. I want the curriculum that I design to be culturally responsive, multicultural, and to enable students to become agents of change. As part of the curriculum, I want my instructional methods and assessments to be culturally responsive as well. Now the key is to figure out how to do this....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

authentic teaching and assessing

In reading Wiggins' chapters on educative assessment, I remembered things that I supposedly learned in undergrad about the purpose of assessment and the use of formative assessments. Unfortunately, my limited learning did not translate into practice during my two years of teaching experience. Instead I simply covered material, tested students, and then moved on. This is how I was taught as a student, this is what is expected of teachers, and so I was brainwashed into doing it. I did not internalize the fact that the purpose of an assessment is (or should be) to educate and improve student performance. If a student needs more time, you give him more time. If a student needs to be challenged, you challenge him. You don't just have students memorize vocabulary, read a couple chapters, take a test, and move on. Very few students will be able to succeed and achieve their full potential in that kind of environment. Instead, students need frequent feedback to let them know how they are doing and allow them to adjust, improve, and be assessed again. If students are just given a test at the end of a unit, and afterwards move on to another topic, they don't actually have the opportunity to improve. If the purpose of schools is to TEACH and not just cover material, students should have numerous opportunities for revision and improvement of their work. Why should any student ever fail? Shouldn't they instead be guided until they achieve mastery? Perhaps this is another argument in support of nongraded schools -- students would have more time to move at their own pace instead of being pulled along by teachers who are set on covering a certain amount of material.

The type of assessment also needs to change to become more authentic and meaningful, to the student but also in the context of the real world and skills that will be needed in college or in the work force. I don't know of any profession or job in which answering multiple choice questions is a required skill. I find it very sad that many students leave high school (and I dare say even college) and never again use anything that they learned, or worse yet, not remember anything that they supposedly learned. The reality is that we only remember things that we use and things that are valuable to us. Content covered in schools should be content that is valuable for students to know and understand, and assessments should reflect this as well by asking students to complete authentic tasks rather than decontextualized superficial tests.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

First of all, I'd just like to say, how the heck did Conant get to be so influential? The majority of his proposals made in the 40s are with schools today: general education for all, electives, ability grouping, vocational education, remedial courses, gifted courses, the day divided into periods, an exit exam for graduation, etc. Now I'm sure that the relative standardization of these ideas was caused by more than just one man's opinion - he had a whole committee. And I'm sure most of these ideas were probably already being put into use and seemed to be successful. And this model of education is a "factory" model of sorts, so it's easily accepted by the public, who can be persuaded that you can churn out good citizens just like good cars, on an assembly line. But still. What steps do I need to take in life so that I can become president of Harvard and decide what schools will look like for the next 50 years?

So that I'll be prepared when I get there, here are my proposals:

1. Schools should implement a multicultural curriculum that gives all cultures equal status and validity in the classroom, utilizes the discourse and learning strategies of different cultures, promotes a positive attitude towards people of all cultural/ethnic/racial backgrounds, and enables students to recognize the need for and enact positive social change.

2. Schools should promote moral development of all students.

3. Schools should equally value multiple definitions of success by providing a wide range of electives and areas of specialization that students can choose based on their interests.

4. Subjects should be integrated, and students should be taught to see connections and relationships among different disciplines.

5. Elements of an activity curriculum should be implemented to allow students authentic opportunities to practice skills, use knowledge, and problem-solve.

6. Knowledge depth should be emphasized over coverage, providing students the opportunity to develop thinking skills and the ability to gather and evaluate new information rather than only memorizing facts.

7. Teachers should make use of team teaching, collaborating to work more effectively and utilizing each other's knowledge and skills.

8. Classes should be a heterogeneous mixture of 15-20 students, of various ages and abilities (as well as gender and ethnicity).

9. Schools should be nongraded, allowing students to learn and develop at their own pace, eliminating the stigma of failure or the promotion of students who have not mastered needed skills.

10. Schools should utilize flexible scheduling to allow more time for some subjects than others, more time for special projects and labs, more time for mastery of difficult skills, and more time for subjects of special interest.

Other items of interest:

~ neighborhood needs when constructing curriculum: I was very pleased by the intimate way I think this would look. What does the surrounding community look like? What do they value? What do students from this community need? What does the community need from its students?

~ unifying concepts of each discipline: what are they? how can we teach students to develop a conceptual framework for a discipline if we were not taught this way ourselves?

~ (from last week, with Ch. 8) how do curriculum goals and objectives relate to standards? how do they relate to instructional goals and objectives?

~ Conant's standards for pass and fail: for electives, have high standards, students fail if they don't meet them; for required courses, students pass if they have worked to their highest capacity. I think this is an interesting idea, and in some ways, I like the idea of measuring students against their own capacity, rather than on some arbitrary standards that are set that maybe not everyone is capable of meeting. But how do you know what someone's capacity is? How do you know when they reach it? In practice, I think this would be very subjective and end up becoming detrimental for some students if teachers don't have high expectations for them.

Monday, February 4, 2008

history and the present

In reading through the time-lines of educational events this week, I was struck by my lack of historical knowledge. Not just about education, but about everything. I have a very loose historical framework in my mind, and the events on the time-lines reminded me of things I had once learned. I realized (or remembered, reaffirmed) how important it is to know where we have been in order to decide where we want to go. How can I (or anyone) try to make changes in the field of education (or any field) without knowing what changes have been tried in the past? I was really surprised by how long ago seemingly modern developments occurred, such as Carnegie units in high school and female superintendents (both in 1909), and how recently ridiculous things continue to happen, like segregation, discrimination, and arguments over evolution and school prayer. I was also struck by the different interpretations that can be made of history, even something as simple as the French and Indian War. I'm sure the French and the variety of Native American tribes involved did not call the war by this name. I'm now motivated to deepen my knowledge of history, especially in the field of education. Since my primary goal as an educator is to address social inequalities within the school system, I think it is very important for me to become familiar with the numerous court cases and laws passed regarding segregation, bilingual education, intelligence testing, and the like.

Which leads me to the Villegas article. I whole-heartedly agree with the assertion that teacher education needs to move beyond a superficial treatment of diversity. Teachers need to be adequately prepared to teach in a way that is multicultural and culturally responsive. In my undergraduate teacher education program, I was very happy with the emphasis that issues of diversity were given in the curriculum. But the fact is, it WAS superficial. My knowledge of diversity (especially in the context of teaching) was incredibly limited, so I did not recognize the superficiality until...well, now. We had to include in every lesson plan we created some element that could be counted as "multicultural." Most of the time, this was as simple as providing students with the opportunity to talk about their cultural backgrounds, or using literature written by an ethnic minority. And while these are both nice ideas, they in no way meet the criteria for a multicultural education.

The crazy thing is, I wrote my honors thesis on multicultural education. I surveyed literature on the topic and interviewed local teachers to find out their views and find out what was actually being taught. And yet even after writing 50+ pages on the topic, I didn't come away with an adequate understand of how to actually IMPLEMENT multicultural education. I've heard many times that teachers often teach the way they were taught, and I think this is true. If teachers are not taught in a way that is multicultural and culturally responsive, how will they be able to teach this way? How can I teach this way? That's what I want to know. I know why it's important -- crucial, really. I know what it is now, finally, in all its forms. But what does multicultural education look like? What do I actually DO in the classroom? What do I actually WRITE in my curriculum? This is what I need to know.

In the Villegas article, it stated that, "social inequalities are produced and perpetuated through systemic discrimination and justified through a societal ideology of merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility." I think this statement really addresses why it is so hard for teachers especially to recognize the discrimination within the school system. We get these "bad" kids who don't try, act up in class, and fail or barely pass, and it's natural to think that it's their fault. This child is in control of his own actions. He decides whether he will behave or not. He decides whether he will study or not. So if he gets detention, if he fails a test or fails a class, it's his fault for not trying, or maybe he just doesn't have what it takes. Because ANYONE can succeed if they just TRY! These are the biggest lies that teachers believe, and the easiest to believe because individual responsibility and social mobility make sense, fit in with our world view. But even if I recognize these inequalities, how do I circumvent them? How do I get through to these kids who have spent 9 years or more facing these inequalities? What do I do with the bad kid who doesn't try?

This is turning into too much of a rant, so I think I'll stop now!