Supporting teachers—when they deserve it

Years ago I took a job as Head of a small private school with about 200 students, K-12. It was my first job as an administrator and I wanted the teachers to regard me as their colleague. I soon found out, however, that they wanted a boss, not a colleague. I met with each of them individually and asked what they needed from me. “Support”, they said.

Here’s what I wish I had said in response:

When you put students first, I will support you. When you model integrity, honesty, hard work, and lifelong learning, I will support you. When you do everything in your power to inspire your students, I will support you. When you are a reflective practitioner, a teacher who reads and talks and searches constantly to find better ways to help students learn, I will support you. If you need time off because of illness or family problems, I will support you.

However, if you fail to treat students with compassion, courtesy, and respect; if you are dishonest or lazy; if you make no effort to inspire students, and show no interest in developing your knowledge and skills as a teacher; if you go through the motions, make minimal effort, and repeat the same uninspired lessons year after year; then you will get no support from me—quite the contrary.

It would not have made a great difference, perhaps, but it would have been the right thing to say.

On stories

From the archives . . .

When we tell stories, or read or watch or listen to stories, we are (in part) searching for our own story: the story that will explain to us who we are, where we are going, and why; the story that will make sense of the world we live in, and our place in that world. To put it another way, through stories we both rehearse for the performances ahead (courtship, marriage, career, middle-age, death) and review our past performances, to see whether, with hindsight and the storyteller’s angle of vision, we might understand them better.

Our choice of stories, and the nature of the stories which really move us, can be understood as having something to do with the problems and questions that concern us personally. Fears of all sorts; doubts of our own ability, courage, or moral strength; questions about romance, marriage, parenthood–such elements arise in many different kinds of stories, from fairy tales and nursery rhymes to the most sophisticated novels and plays.

Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic and teacher, once remarked that all stories may derive ultimately from one archetypal story about the loss of identity, and the search to rediscover it. According to other critics, death is the central issue of story-telling: we rehearse our own death endlessly, by reading about the deaths of others. How and when will we die? Will we behave admirably, or shamefully, when death is upon us? And, of course, what is death? According to this view, our compulsion to understand death, prepare for it, or escape from it, fuels our obsession with story-telling.

These generalizations about the nature of story-telling are no substitute for reading a particular text closely, and analyzing it in detail, but they may help you find a “way into” a story: look again at the issues I’ve raised, and see whether any of them are present in the story you’re reading now. These reflections about stories may also help you appreciate better the value of the detailed studies that you are forced to undertake in school: if your own story, your own identity, your own death are really at stake, then perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to look very closely, and think hard about what you find.

—June 9, 1998

Ancient Greece, Modern Readers

A man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, fulfilling a prophecy made years before. When he discovers what he has done, he gouges his eyes out with his mother/wife’s hairpins. A young woman defies the law and risks her life to give her brother’s body a proper burial. The general of an allied army agrees that his eldest daughter should be put to death so that he can lead the army in a war to defend his brother’s honour. A woman, abandoned by her husband, wreaks her revenge by murdering their children.

These are just a few of the more memorable stories from ancient Greek poetry and drama. Written 2500 years ago, they still capture our imagination. Students known to doze in class are suddenly awake and engaged. These Greek stories have amazing power.

Their power is not merely the power of lurid plots, as the brief descriptions given above might suggest. The Greek stories are often lurid, it’s true, depicting unspeakable acts of seemingly primitive ferocity. Some readers—Sigmund Freud, for one—believe that they enthrall us because they conjure our deepest wishes and fears. “Moderation in everything”, said the Greek philosophers, “nothing overmuch.” Reading their stories and their history, one can’t help feeling that they extolled moderation because they could never achieve it themselves.

But the power of ancient Greek literature is not merely sensationalist. As Aristotle pointed out, our experience of these stories as stories—not actual events—gives us the emotional distance we need to reflect on them, and learn from them. (Aristotle also asserted that learning is the highest—not the greatest—pleasure known to humans, which helps explain why we enjoy these sometimes horrific tales.) We are appalled when Orestes murders his mother to avenger his father’s death, yes; but we are also made to think, and that thinking can lead to the most profound reflections concerning law, society, duty, taboos, the relationships between children and parents, and on and on.

Moreover, the culture of ancient Greece, along with that of the ancient Hebrews, lies at the root level of Western civilization. We cannot really understand European culture without knowing the Greeks; we cannot know ourselves without knowing the Greeks; we cannot, in the end, claim to be educated without knowing the Greeks.

Unfortunately, the Greeks have largely disappeared from school curricula. In secondary schools, younger students have a few sanitized Greek myths thrown at them, usually along with a potpourri of Norse, African, Asian, and Amerindian myths, legends, and folktales. Older students rarely return to the Greeks, and if they do, the visit is brief: an excerpt from The Odyssey, perhaps. “Advanced” students may read Oedipus Rex or Antigone. For most, nothing at all. In universities, very few students read any ancient Greek literature.

Why is this a problem? A while back, I saw a television interview with Bill Joy, who was at that time “chief scientist” for Sun Microsystems. He had written a magazine article discussing the ethical problems raised by the prospect of having in the near future a million times the computing power of a typical contemporary computer, on every desktop. His article provoked a small storm of debate about how or whether we should try to control such awesome power, and in the course of that debate someone referred to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Joy was prompted to go back to the Greeks, to see what they had to say. His conclusion? “The Greeks”, he said, “understood all of the issues raised in my article”.

Writing about what he thought was a new problem soon to be caused by an astronomical increase in computing power, Bill Joy discovered that the essential issues involved had already been explored, 2500 years ago. Bertrand Russell, who remarked that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, would not have been surprised. It’s a tribute to Mr. Joy that he had the insight to raise these questions. I can’t help wondering, however, how much sooner he would have achieved his insights, and how many others would have foreseen the same problems, had a thorough exposure to Greek literature and philosophy been a part of everyone’s general education.

Greek philosophy, by the way, is not as scary as it might sound. Like Greek literature, it combines a surprising simplicity with amazing depth. The Greeks, in the infancy of Western thought, produced literature and philosophy that can be read and enjoyed by children, and re-read over a lifetime with increasing understanding and appreciation. Soon after his election as President of the United States in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice. Noticing a book on the table, FDR asked Holmes, who was then in his nineties, why he was reading Plato. “To improve my mind”, he said.

Plato wrote philosophy as literature. His dialogues feature a wonderful protagonist, Socrates, who delights his young friends and infuriates his opponents by asking seemingly simple questions they cannot answer, all the while professing to know nothing himself. The best introductions for secondary school students are the “Apology”, which recounts the trial and conviction of Socrates, and the “Crito”, in which Socrates refuses the opportunity to escape death by fleeing. Both will provoke vigourous discussions. My other favourite is the “Meno”, in which Socrates famously claims to to demonstrate his theory of learning by helping an unschooled slave-boy to learn geometry. The “Allegory of the Cave”, which forms just a small part of the very long dialogue named “The Republic”, is also a must-read. As is common in literature, the surface often deceives in Plato’s dialogues. It is not at all certain, for example, that Plato’s description of the ideal state in “The Republic” is really intended to be a blueprint for political reform. In the “Meno”, similarly, Socrates may not really believe that the demonstration with the slave-boy proves anything; he may simply want to convince Meno not to give up searching for the truth.

If your school is lucky enough to include philosophy in the curriculum, Plato will provide enough material for all the lessons the school could possibly offer. If not, I would argue strenuously for adding Plato to the reading lists for English. A dialogue, after all, is literature, and few alternative works will provide as much stimulation. English teachers who are used to finding ambiguity and layers of meaning in works of fiction will have no trouble finding them in Plato.

As for Greek literature per se, The Odyssey is first on my list. It can be read profitably, in different ways, by students at any grade level. The great myths–the Oedipus cycle, the story of the Trojan War, the Agamemnon/Orestes saga–should be taught in the middle years so that students can later read Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides with the benefit of their earlier experience. Once their interest has been piqued, students can explore the lesser myths on their own and in groups, and then share their discoveries with their classmates in speeches, presentations, and written work. In Grades 10-12, students should read the full versions of The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Agamemnon, and as many other plays as possible. Remember: if your students don’t read these great works in high school, it is almost certain that they will never read them at all.

For a teacher who has never studied Greek literature or philosophy, getting started teaching it can be intimidating. My advice is to start small, and go slow. Begin with a re-telling of The Odyssey, or a selection of myths, or a re-telling of the trial and death of Socrates. The response of your students will convince you that you’re on the right track.

Teaching narrative technique

I’ve just discovered a great resource for teaching narrative technique: H. Porter Abbott’s Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge Introductions to Literature), 2nd Edition (2008). The paperback edition is under $20 on Amazon.com (U.S. dollars).

Abbott writes clearly and uses examples that high school students will be able to understand. More arcane points are covered in sidebars, where they may be ignored if you wish. He defines terms carefully but avoids jargon. He is aware of all the various schools of narratology that have sprung up in the last generation or so, refers to them from time to time, but is not enthralled by any particular theory. His view is broad and tolerant, but he is not afraid, either, to take his own positions and defend them. 

This is a great book to help students begin thinking about how stories work, instead of reading naively. Highly recommended to anyone teaching literature in Grades 10-12, and beyond.

The right to life

I’m 56 years old as I write this, with a net worth of zero on a good day. I figure they’ll let me keep teaching English for another 10-15 years. After that, what?

When I was a kid, men would retire at 65, putter in the garden or on the golf course for a couple of years, and then drop dead of a heart attack. The widows would collect the pensions and life insurance payments and live on for a few more years. Retirement was not such a problem.

Today many of us are likely to be laid off or encouraged to retire at 60, at which point we can look forward to 20-30 more years of life without an income. Even if we had done everything we were supposed to do, it’s highly unlikely we could have saved up that much money. And of course most of us didn’t do what we should have. Like me.

Living in China, I see lots of grandparents taking care of babies and toddlers whose parents are both working. Great-grandparents live with one or another of their children, or grandchildren, and are taken care of by the family. This model has much to recommend it, but do I have any right to expect my children to take care of me when I can no longer take care of myself? I am not sentimental about these matters. The fact is, they didn’t ask to be born. If I have cared for them, that’s because I chose to do so and because I feel an obligation to do so. If they choose to care for me, it should be just that—a choice. Certainly I don’t feel I have any right to be cared for at their expense.

In European social democracies, they take care of old folks, but the demographics in Europe, as in America, are not good: declining birthrates for several generations mean a huge population of seniors whose upkeep must be financed from the earnings of a shrinking pool of workers. In North America there is only a token effort to care for the aged, and that is likely to dry up altogether under these demographic pressures. Either way, we old folks should not expect the government to look after us.

And at what cost, exactly, should we wish to go on living? The intermittent debate concerning assisted suicide or euthanasia centers on extreme cases of physical debilitation, but as I imagine my future I wonder just how worthwhile my life will feel when I am living in some hovel or upstairs room, unable to work, with little or nothing to occupy me. What will be the point of continuing to occupy space and consume resources? If I’m teaching immigrants to read, or writing a novel, OK, but if I’m just watching the telly or sitting on a park bench, what kind of a life is that?

As I said, I’m not a sentimentalist about life, nor is my view complicated by any religious beliefs about immortality. I think the Greeks had it right when they used the same word—psyche—to mean mind and soul, and modern neuroscience has clarified things much further: the mind is the brain; consciousness results from the functioning of the brain, and when the brain dies, we cease to exist. There is a kind of immortality in genetics. I’ve read enough of my family history going back several generations to know that just as a frog is highly similar to his ancestors, so I am highly similar to mine, and my children are similar to me. But when my brain shuts down my personal consciousness will end.

So at what point will checking out seem like a good option? At 65? 75? 90? And whenever it is, who, exactly, should have the right to tell me, then, that I must go on living? It has long seemed absurd to me that governments can impose restrictions on where I can work or travel, and demand money from me if I decide to marry and even more money if I decide to divorce. But how much more absurd is it to assert that someone else has the right to tell me that I must go on living when my life has become persistently unpleasant for me? It’s my body, it’s my life, and when my circumstances reach the point that I really have nothing to look forward to, then I won’t demand a comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle, or free health care: but I will demand that no one stop me from ending my life. It’s mine, after all.

The death of liberal-arts education

High-school teachers who think their job is to prepare students to succeed in their university studies will be sobered by this column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times. In it he reviews and comments on “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” by Frank Donoghue.

According to Fish and Donoghue, liberal-arts education is fast disappearing and being replaced by “a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment”. This new model has no place for “an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration”. 

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Is that sobering enough for you? 

Of course there will always be a place, even if it is off in the corners here and there, for real teaching and learning, because the human spirit will demand it. But the capitulation of the university to the marketplace makes it even more important for elementary and secondary schools to focus on real learning. It may have once been possible to think, ‘My job is to get these kids into college—then their real education can begin’. If Fish and Donoghue are right, however, we who teach children and adolescents now bear the burden.

I have known for a long time, as an English teacher, that if students don’t read Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Dante, and Chaucer in my class, the chances are very good they will never read these authors at all, because the fashions of literary criticism have dictated for a generation or more that such Dead White European Males are unworthy of attention. 

Now it appears that if we want to turn our children into educated persons—literate readers and thinkers—we will have to do it before they graduate from high school, because after that they will simply be buying job skills.

 

 

 

A quotation for Natasha . . .

. . . who complained today, at a moment when everyone was working in silence, that the class was ‘boring’:

Perhaps in the end the question one should ask of any scholar is what purpose he feels his work serves. I could claim great nobility of character and tell you that I work for the good of humanity. Or I could try to shock you and tell you that all I care about are the financial and professional rewards. Neither would be entirely false. I am, indeed, a bit of a romantic who believes, rather in the face of the evidence, that good ideas eventually prevail and make everyone’s life better. I am also not an ascetic: I will not sneer at a nice honorarium or a free trip to a pleasant location.

But the honest truth is that what drives me as an economist is that economics is fun. I think I understand why so many people think that economics is a boring subject, but they are wrong. On the contrary, there is hardly anything I know that is as exciting as finding that the great events that move history, the forces that determine the destiny of empires and the fate of kings, can sometimes be explained, predicted, or even controlled by a few symbols on a printed page. We all want power, we all want success, but the ultimate reward is the simple joy of understanding.

Paul Krugman

(New Times columnist, Princeton professor of economics,and 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize)

http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/incidents.html

The challenge for students and teachers is to dig beneath the mundane routine of school and find the ‘simple joy of understanding’ in every moment.

Wordle: toy or tool?

I just began playing with Wordle, a web app that takes any text and turns it into a graphic ‘word cloud’, with each word a different size based on how often it’s used in the text.

I tried it out with a student’s essay comparing two WWI poems: Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Here’s what I got:

sample

It’s easy to pick out words that the writer uses too often: two, way, and think jump out at me. She overuses understand as well. She could improve the essay just by reconsidering each of these words and either omitting them where they are unnecessary or replacing them with synonyms.

(The app allows multiple versions of each ‘cloud’, with different colours, fonts, and arrangements.)

It would be interesting, as well, to “Wordle” a professional writer’s work and see what insights it offers.

Early verdict: Wordle is a useful tool for writers—a simple way to see at a glance where editing is needed.

Diction

Our diction—choice of words—can dramatically alter the effect of what we say or write, even though the literal meanings of two optional wordings are identical. My students and I often contemplate the effects of diction in literature, but today I found a nice example from the world of politics in an article about the current financial crisis in the U.S.

“The Times/Bloomberg poll asked respondents whether they believed it was ‘the government’s responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ dollars.’ A majority said no.

“The Pew poll, by contrast, asked respondents if ‘investing billions to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure’ was the right thing to do. A majority said yes.”

So, they’re for it if you say it one way, against it if you say it differently. A lesson for us all.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/blog/2008/09/24/BL2008092401517.html

Strunk & White's 'Elements of Style'

The best little book about writing well has been given a new review in the Washington Post by Jonathan Yardley, including a list of available editions. 

Yardley also points out that Strunk’s original 1918 ‘little book’ is available for free online on Bartleby.com.

Students in Grade 9 and up, and especially anyone needing to write extended essays, TOK essays, World Literature essays, AP exams, and IB exams will benefit enormously from Strunk & White’s wisdom.

Read Yardley’s review first, then go to Bartleby.com. 

More Chinese fakery at Olympics

BEIJING August 22, 2008 (AP)

Western visitors have discovered that Beijing’s world-famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ is in fact not a bird’s nest at all.
“It’s a fake”, said James Finnagan, of Annapolis, Ohio. “We slipped past the security and looked all over that thing, and we can confirm absolutely that it is NOT a nest.”
For one thing, they say, there’s not a single bird in the entire stadium.
Chinese officials were quick to rebut the claims.
“Lots of bird’s nests have no birds in them,” said Zhou Yu Tang, spokesman for the Beijing mayor’s office. “These westerners are sadly misinformed.”
IOC President Jacques Rogge, asked to comment, said, “I have not seen these reports, so until I have read them it would be irresponsible of me to make any statement.”

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

A matter of Principal

The math teacher has lots of problems.

The PE teacher gets exercised about the smallest thing.

The history teacher can’t get over his past.

The English teacher has choice words for everyone.

The geography teacher knows her place.

The biology teacher loves life but hates frogs.

The chemistry teacher reacts to the slightest change.

The physics teacher is full of energy.

The art teacher claims he was framed.

Put the Home Ec teacher together with the Crisis Management Counselor and you have a recipe for disaster.

Commencement Address

Graduates,

I’ll begin with a story. One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred but wiser because of their experience, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First. Take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat vegetables mostly, a bit of meat and fish as side dishes, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: read up on lactose intolerance and do your bowels a favour by leaving the milk for the calves.

As you age, your metabolism will slow down and you’ll gain weight. You won’t lose it by exercising—you have to stop putting all those calories in your mouth. You do need to exercise to stay fit, but you don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons—a few sit-ups and push-ups, every day, will do the trick. Above all, keep your abdominals strong. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I will advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. Their wives, if they were lucky, were left with a comfortable pension and life insurance annuity. Living for two years without a salary was not such a big problem. Today, people retire at 60 and are then in danger of living another 20 or 30 years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as 40 or 50 years.

Even 20 years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheque, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheque. Seriously.

Third. Don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who appeal to fear, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth. Try to find something or someone to live for besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will.

If you’re not asleep yet you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they get giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of the work. If you work only for the giant broccoli you get at the end, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day; something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work. Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work”. I’ve given you best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, and good luck.

Making schools better: the Golden Rule

Want to make schools better? Start with kindness and respect.

Imagine a school in which teachers always speak courteously to students, especially when pointing out a problem with their behaviour. A school in which students are never bullied into participating, but are invited without coercion. A school in which every teacher knows that before the obligations to teach students well and use their time productively comes the obligation to be kind.

Imagine how many students, with just that one change, would like school so much more. And begin learning more.

Teachers need a professional motto. Physicians have “Do no harm”, which would be a good beginning but doesn’t go quite far enough. How about a Golden Rule for teachers? Stated and restated by the Greeks, by Jesus, Muhammed, Confucius, and many others, it carries the dual force of universality and simplicity.

“Treat students as you would like to be treated.”

Is that so hard?

Apparently it is. But on the other hand it costs nothing, requires no negotiations with boards or unions, or even permission from the principal. Every teacher can begin implementing this revolutionary educational reform, right now.

I say, let’s start.

The most important problems in the field of education

in which The List, it turns out, is not where the real work lies

My list is short:

  1. Purpose. The purposes of schooling are too numerous, are often unclear, and frequently conflict with one another.
  2. One Size Fits All. Educational Psychology 101 tells us that each individual grows and learns at his or her own pace, and in his or her own ways. We then put kids in classrooms according to age and teach them the same stuff at the same time and usually in the same way.

Kind teachers, enthusiastic teachers, inspired teachers can make a bad situation better.

But so long as the school is trying to do a long list of contradictory things instead of focusing on a short list of well-conceived goals, and so long as we group students by age with little regard for individual needs, nothing fundamental will change. Amelioration is the best we can hope for.

Underlying Assumptions

As I look at that short list, I realize that it will be helpful to dig a bit deeper. What’s my beef, exactly, with the purposes of schools? And learning theory aside, what’s so bad about kids going to school with their peers?

Schools are not charitable organizations—they are instruments of the state, and are designed to benefit the state. Much as I understand this, however, I don’t much care. The interests of the state interest me very little. It’s important to the state that our children be raised up to vote for one of the major political parties, and that they be prepared to hold jobs so they can pay taxes and contribute to the GNP. Fine. Wake me up when you’re done.

I do prefer to live in a society where people behave well, and where people are well-read, thoughtful, knowledgeable, healthy, and curious. These would be the aims of my ideal school.

As for the factory model of schooling—students grouped by age and taught on a conveyor belt—well, it’s all about the money, isn’t it? An 18th-century aristocrat, say, would never have sent his child to a school; he hired teachers to come to the house and, in the best of all possible worlds, a gifted and inspired teacher sensitively guided the child to explore his interests and discover new ones in a way and at a pace suited to that particular child. Of course children benefit, too, from interaction with their peers, but they don’t really learn much (academically) from each other, not at least until they are young adults. And they can interact very well with each other by playing together, doing sports together, going to camp together, etc. The success of the home-schooling movement shows how unimportant the school is. Let’s face it: if we could only afford it, we would all hire gifted, inspired teachers to teach our children one-on-one.

However, of course, we can’t afford one-on-one teaching. So we send the kids to schools that are funded by taxpayers who want their money spent well, i.e., as little as possible and never on activities whose value is controversial. And once the kids are in school Mom can go back to work, which is pretty much required these days, and that brings us to one of the most important purposes of schools as they exist today: babysitting. (If you think babysitting is only an accidental side-effect of schooling, ask any school administrator about sending students home for a day or two so that teachers can participate in professional development workshops.)

And therefore . . .

This line of reasoning brings us back to my list of the two most important problems in the field of education and tells us that neither of these problems is actually important, because they are part of the fundamental nature of schools. Or rather, they are not problems so much as they are essential characteristics of schooling. It is possible to pursue education without schools—home-schooling being the one viable example I know of, cyber-schooling being perhaps a derivative of home-schooling or perhaps, someday, something more. But so long as we are talking about schools, the two problems on my list will never go away. For the vast majority of students, therefore, we should focus instead on the pragmatic, unglamorous work of amelioration: what can we do within schools as they exist to make them less bad?

Teachers: What are the most important problems in your field?

Browsing Paul Graham’s excellent collection of essays, I came across this passage

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

—and it occurred to me that in the field of education we have lots of problems, but little consensus about what our most important problems might be.

So I put the question to you:

What are the most important problems in the field of education?

Blogging with Students: A Primer

Caroline Ellwood of IS (International Schools) magazine asked me to send her a 1000-word introduction to blogging with students, and this (with some minor variations) is the result:

As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years.

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or IB English A1, where they help to create a community conversation among class members.

Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.

If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.

Getting Started

1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on any subject that may intrigue you. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger.com or WordPress.com. Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
3. Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson, Konrad Glogowski, Anne Davis, and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning.
4. Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.

[If you are in a country where blogging sites are blocked, try using Anonymouse. In some cases, the blog itself will be accessible, but the FeedBurner rss feed will be blocked; again, Anonymouse works for me.]

Blogging with Students

So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.

1. WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. WordPress.org will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use WordPress.com, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog.
2. Edublogs.org. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress—WordPress MU—designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
3. 21Classes.com. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on 21Classes.com. With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been such a problem, and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.

My Ideal Set-up

For international schools in developing countries, especially, accessing sites hosted in the U.S. can be difficult. Ideally, a school would install WordPress MU on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress.

[Update, July 2010] My views have shifted on this question. I now strongly favour a class blog, with each student being an author on the blog. My experience with 21classes.com showed that students rarely read each other’s blogs, when each student had his or her own. Putting everyone’s posts on one blog builds a much stronger sense of a learning community.]

Finally, to get started trying to imagine a future in which all students blog in almost all of their classes, see my discussions here.

And let me know how it goes!

Eric MacKnight has been teaching English since 1980 in public, independent, and international schools in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. He currently teaches at Suzhou Singapore International School in Suzhou, China.

School-wide blogging #3: the questions

[Adapted from a comment I posted replying to ‘Julie’ on EduBloggerWorld.]

I agree that one blog per student is best. The problems follow from there, however. Questions like these arise:

  • Who controls content on student blogs? What happens when students post something inappropriate?
  • Who manages updating the blog software? Can it be done one time for all school blogs, or must each blog be updated individually?
  • How are blog posts managed so that on my English class blog, for example, I see links only to my students’ English posts, not to their math, history, and science posts, too?
  • Are the blogs hosted remotely, or on school servers? What are the pro’s and con’s of each?
  • Is the blogging software commercial, or open-source? Pro’s and con’s?

If we imagine even a small high-school with 500 students, plus 50 teachers, and let’s say 4 class blogs per teacher, we’ve got 750 blogs to manage—a big job!

So far I know of WordPress MU (multi-user) and 21classes.com, and I know of remote hosting solutions like Edublogs / Learnerblogs, which uses WPMU. I’d like to hear from folks with experience hosting WPMU blogs on school servers, and also from folks using 21classes.com on school servers. How do the costs and benefits of these two solutions compare? Are they equally good in meeting the needs of blogging students and teachers, or is one superior, or is neither quite yet what we need?

School-wide blogging #2: why do it?

All of us involved in using blogs with our students understand the value of the activity: students become real writers with a real audience, can read and respond to each other’s work, become a community of thinkers/scholars/readers, etc.

But is there any added value to blogging school-wide?

I can think of two advantages of school-wide blogging over blogging in a class here and there.

First, a student’s blog—including posts for all of her classes—would become an automatically updating digital portfolio. We all remember student portfolios; did they ever take off where you work? Me neither. But imagine a student’s blog including work for almost all his classes extending over several years of schooling. What a document!

Not all blog posts are equal, of course, and casual writing typically predominates in a blog. But nothing would stop students from posting more formal, polished work in their blogs as well.

And with the ability to tag and categorize and archive posts, there’s no need for such an online portfolio to become unwieldy. It would be simple for a student applying to university, say, to select posts from a variety of classes over the last 2-3 years of high school, tag them all ‘portfolio’, and send them as a single hyperlink to any interested admissions office.

The second advantage of school-wide blogging? Think of all the paper a school could save. Or a school district. Or a whole nation of schools.

That’s a lot of paper.

School-wide blogging: how would it work?

At the moment individual teachers here and there are using blogs with their classes in various ways and for various purposes, using various platforms and hosting solutions.

I’ve started to imagine how things might look in a school where students blog for almost every class, just as they have traditionally handed in assignments on paper for almost every class. If this blogging business really takes off we could have some serious scaling problems.

Imagine a secondary school in which students blog for almost every class. A separate blog for each class would soon become unwieldy, so they would have one blog, with categories or tags for posts in each subject. Each class would have its own blog, where the teacher would post assignments and links to all the blogs of the students in that class. Or would only a student’s history posts, say, appear in links on the history class’s blog? One of the main values of blogging in schools is that it allows students to read each other’s work, but what setup would make it easy for a student to see his classmates’ work in a particular subject without having to wade through 20-30 blogs searching for the history posts?

Perhaps it makes more sense for students to post all of their history work on the history class’s blog, their English work on the English class’s blog, etc. But then the student’s own blog becomes . . . what? A poor substitute for a Facebook page? It makes more sense for a student to post ALL of his or her work on his school blog, where it can remain and be easily accessed, serving as a kind of portfolio that updates automatically. But I’m not sure how these separate blogs could be linked selectively to show, say, links to all the history posts on the history class blog and links to all the English posts on the English class blog.

Here I am getting out of my depth, technically. Is there a solution for this problem already out there? Would individual RSS feeds for each subject tag show up on the class blog for that subject?

In short, if educational blogging really takes off, how will we manage it? Does anyone out there have experience that would shed light on this problem?

Blogging with students: my adventures so far

As a secondary-school English teacher, I use student blogs primarily as a form of ‘independent writing’, very similar to the ‘independent reading’ that my students have been doing for years. See the post I wrote about this in February 2007 for more details. (All links will open in a new window.)

I also find blogs very useful in higher-level courses like IB Theory of Knowledge, or my IB English A1 classes, where I hope they will help to create a community conversation among class members.

Finally, blogs make it much easier for students to read and comment on each others’ work than was ever possible using traditional methods—an occasional paper copied and distributed, or papers posted on the classroom wall for others to read.

For one example of what a class blog might look like after a year, have a look at my Grade 8 blog from 2006-07. (Note that, as usual with blogs, the most recent articles [‘posts’] come first, so to see what the students wrote at the beginning of the year you will have to dig back several pages, or use the archives links. Or you can explore by topic, or by author.)

If you are a teacher inclined to dip your toes into this student blogging pool, you may benefit from some of what follows. Please note that I am not an expert, just a teacher with a bit of experience, but I will point you toward some sources of information that will take you beyond the confines of my own limited perspective.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reading some blogs. You can find blogs on every subject under the sun. Go to http://blogsearch.google.com/, type in a topic that interests you, and begin browsing.
  2. Do some blogging yourself. The easiest entry-point is one of several free blogging sites such as Blogger or WordPress.com. Even if no one reads your blog, you will become familiar with the conventions of writing a new post, saving a draft, publishing, and adding tags or categories.
  3. Read some blogs about educational blogging. Try Will Richardson; Konrad Glogowski; Anne Davis; and Bud Hunt. Those four will provide you with plenty of links to other blogs about teaching and learning. [UPDATE 23 October: In a perfect example of how connections are made on the web, I discovered a great blog from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education when they linked to one of my posts on The Good Habits Blog. Instructify is a great introduction to blogging in general and educational blogs in particular.]
  4. Start using RSS. By now you will be having trouble keeping track of all those blogs unless you use an RSS reader or aggregator. My RSS primer will show you how.

Blogging with Students

So you’ve played around a bit reading and writing blogs, you’re convinced that your students would benefit from blogging, but what’s the best way to manage a classroom of bloggers? What blogging software should you use? Where should you host your blog?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I will share my experience and the preferences that go with it.

  1. WordPress: When I started out I did a fairly extensive survey of the various blogging platforms that were then available. As I wanted to host the blog on my own site, I needed something I could install and manage myself without having to hire a web site technician. I soon found, as thousands of other users have also, that WordPress was my best option. It’s open-source, which means not only that it’s free, but that hundreds of amateurs and professionals are out there producing new themes and plug-ins and helping to make each new version of WordPress even better than before. WordPress.org will get you started downloading and installing on your own server. If you don’t have a server of your own, you can use WordPress.com, which provides hosting for your WordPress blog. I use WordPress for this blog, for my Good Habits blog, and for my English A1 blog.
  2. Edublogs. Last year I used Edublogs for my class blogs during the first part of the year. They use a special edition of WordPress, WordPress MU, designed for blogs that have multiple authors. I found that they provide an excellent service, easy to use both for me and for the students. James Farmer does a wonderful job administering the site and responds personally and very quickly to calls for help. I had problems, however, connecting to the site with a whole class of students at one time, at least from China. Even when we limited the number of simultaneous users we continued to have serious slowdowns, so I had to move all the class blogs to my own domain.
  3. 21Classes. This year, following a suggestion from Konrad Glogowski, I switched to hosting four of my class blogs on 21Classes.com. With 21Classes, each student has his or her own blog, and the class blog is a ‘portal’ where the teacher can post messages. Performance has not been a problem—perhaps because each student’s blog has its own address—and the portal can be set up to include links to all the student blogs, recent posts and comments, etc. If you come to 21Classes after using WordPress, as I have, you will notice the differences in the user interface and perhaps not always be pleased by them, but none of the site’s idiosyncrasies present more than a minor annoyance. You can see 21Classes in action on my current blogs for English 7A, English 7 B Adv, English 9 B Adv, and IB Theory of Knowledge.

My Ideal Set-up

Ideally, the school would install WordPress on its own server, ensuring that connection speeds would be as fast and direct as possible. Every student could have his or her own blog, and the teacher could link to all student blogs on the class’s blog. This would combine the advantages of 21Classes with those of WordPress. Of course, if every teacher starts blogging and each student has a separate blog, things could get out of hand both technically and otherwise, but at the moment we’re a fair distance from having to confront those problems.

Questions?

I had to shut off comments on this blog following a flood of comment spam, but if you have read this far and still have a question, please use the ‘Contact Me’ link at the top of the left-hand column and drop me an email. And good luck with blogging!

Shocking results from survey of middle school students

A survey of American middle school students finds that

Being caring, attentive and friendly, and taking time out for explanations are the types of attitudes and behaviors that students value in their teachers.

I am stunned. For years I’ve believed that students want their teachers to be uncaring, inattentive, unfriendly, and to refuse to answer questions or explain things.

(And yes, for those of you lacking web cams, my tongue is firmly in my cheek.)

There’s a link to the entire survey here.

Class pages, 2007-08

I’ve now posted pages for each of the classes I’m teaching this year: English 7 B Advanced, English 7 A, English 9 B Advanced, Gr. 11 English A1 HL, and Gr. 11 Theory of Knowledge (TOK).

You can find links to each of them in the band at the top of this page, and in the sidebar at the left under ‘My Stuff’ (the English A1 link is only in the sidebar). I will continue to add information and links as needed to each of these pages.

If you are a parent or student and have trouble locating something or finding answers to your questions, please drop me an email or a comment.

Zai jian, Werner!

Werner Paetzold is leaving Suzhou Singapore International School to become MYP Coordinator at Bali International School.

Werner is one of those teachers that no school could ever adequately thank, compensate, or honour. As English & TOK teacher, drama impresario, and MYP Coordinator he has given time to his students and colleagues with exorbitant generosity, but beyond that he has given SSIS his heart and soul. He and I did not always agree, and thank god for that: when I begin wishing for colleagues who agree with me all the time, please show me the door. When he disagreed, he did so the same way he did everything else—with passion, with intelligence, and with impeccable good manners.

Above all, he has the taste and superiour good sense to prefer Apple computers.

Werner, you are a gentlemen and a great teacher. It has been an honour and a privilege to be your colleague. Warmest best wishes as you begin your Indonesian sojourn. We will miss you.

Access Flickr from China

Flickr photos are currently blocked for users in China. This means, for example, that the photos of the SSIS Garden Project that we’ve posted on Flickr cannot be viewed.

However, if you use Firefox you can download an extension called Access Flickr! and see those photos again. Thanks to Hamed Saber for putting this together.

(If you are still using Internet Explorer to browse the internet, do yourself a big favour and download Firefox right now.)

Writing in the Garden

On June 13 about 35 students spent the whole morning in the SSIS Garden, just observing and making notes. Some sat and wrote; some walked around, exploring; others chased insects, or dug holes in search of earthworms. After lunch they sat in classrooms and wrote poems, stories, and essays inspired by their morning’s observations.

They wrote in Chinese, Korean, and English. You can read some of the English pieces on the SSIS Garden Blog. Have a look: I think you will be impressed.

How to lose weight

At least, here’s how I lost 25 lbs:

  1. I quit drinking coffee. Then I got the flu, aching from head to toe for two weeks until I realized I didn’t have the flu: I was going through coffee withdrawal. Half a week later I was cured.
  2. I changed my diet. At the time (mid-July) it was extremely hot, which made it a bit easier. I ate rice and vegetables. Soy sauce. Fruit for dessert. Once in a while, a small bit of lean meat or fish. I drank water. No sugar, no dairy products, no processed foods.
  3. After 3 months or so I had lost 10-15 lbs. I then began exercising a little: push-ups and a bit of stretching.
  4. After about 9 months I had lost 25 lbs. and was down to my normal weight from 15 years ago. Without all the extra weight, exercising became possible, even pleasurable. I started to feel physically fit for the first time in years.

My conclusions: After a certain age, the metabolism slows down so much that it’s impossible to exercise your way out of obesity. The only solution is to put less food into your mouth, and better food. I had a craving for coffee, and I had a craving for cheese. I didn’t think I could live without either of them; I didn’t think I wanted to live without either of them. I was wrong. My new rule of thumb: if I have a craving for a certain food, it’s not good for me.

It’s been almost a year now since I quit coffee and changed my diet. I’m exercising every day and feel great. I don’t miss the coffee or the cheese.

Pretty simple, eh?

AnswerTips!

Thanks to Anne Davis, I have now installed the AnswerTips javascript on this site and my three class blogs. Now you can double-click on any word on the site, and a pop-up window will give you information about that word. Sometimes the match is not quite right, in which case another click takes you the the Answers.com web site, where you can find the term you’re looking for.

I’m hoping my students will find this useful. We will see.

Let's Abolish High School

Apart from the fact that this idea would leave me unemployed, I am inclined to agree.

Robert Epstein, writing in Education Week, makes the case that compulsory education for teenagers is a bad idea. Before you dismiss this as the ravings of some burned-out Sixties radical, have a look. High school is not about to be abolished, so it’s safe. And it’s always healthy, I think, to re-examine our basic assumptions. If they are sound, they will bear up under scrutiny. If not . . . .

Thanks to Will Richardson for pointing to the Epstein article.

The Myth of the Great Teacher vs. the Great Teacher

Teacher Magazine has a piece entitled ‘The Myth of the Great Teacher’ which quotes teachers’ responses to a New York Times article by a Bronx history teacher, Tom Moore. One of the comments, from ‘Gail, a high school English teacher in suburban Atlanta’, caught my eye:

I am frustrated with the mythology of the “great teacher” who sacrifices his or her entire life for the kids. I tell new teachers all the time: Your job is not your life. Your job is your job. Your life is the God of your understanding, your family, your friends, your pets, your hobbies, your passions. Healthy, well-adjusted teachers fit teaching into their lives, not life into their teaching. How do you think the kids of these “super-teachers” feel when their parent says, “I can’t do something with you because I’m doing something with my students?” I can’t respect that.

Great teachers are teachers who show up every day when they are well. And stay home and nurture themselves when they’re not well. Great teachers are those who do their best for their students every day by trying new things, keeping up with trends, teaching old materials in new ways, getting and giving feedback, and staying relentlessly positive. Great teachers let their kids be who they are but also push them to be better. Great teachers know their kids’ names and know them well enough to pick up the fact that something might be wrong in a kid’s life. And they act on that.

Great teachers are unbowed in the face of entrenched bureaucracy. Although they become weary, they do not give in to the cynicism that infects the mediocre teachers around them. They see the true sacredness of their job—making a difference in the life of a child. And that difference is different for every kid.

Wow. I’m guessing Gail is a great teacher.