Archive for December, 2012

What We Teach When We Lock The Door

December 18, 2012 Comments off

We do not live in a risk free world… yet to limit the risk of having our children killed by a gunman in a school we appear to be ready to trade the personal freedom of many for the liberty of a few. I read this morning that several school districts in the Boston area are locking their doors during the day and installing video cameras to monitor entrances. In effect, we are willing to lock the doors of our public schools to parents so that gun aficionados can acquire and use dangerous weapons. We live in a country where we are willing to make parents wait in the cold to pick up children for dental appointments but don’t want to make a gun purchaser wait any time at all for a background check. We live in a country that wants to reinforce our children’s notion that the world is full of crazy people with guns… but they do not need to be fearful because they are locked safely indoors in a facility whose perimeter is monitored by cameras. That is what we teach when we lock the door…. Oh… and another lesson we teach? Get a gun for your walk to and from school if you REALLY want to be risk free…. because there are crazy people out there with guns and we really can’t do anything about that.

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The Mindfulness Paradox

December 17, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes op ed section featured an essay on mindfulness called The Power of Concentration by  Maria Konnokova, a Columbia doctoral student. The messages in Ms. Konnokova’s essay are:

  • concentration is an essential skill in today’s world where multi-tasking constantly divides our attention,
  • research shows that engaging in mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to concentrate
  • research shows that when one engages in mindfulness practice their brain is permanently altered… no matter what their age is.
  • mindfulness can be taught

So… if mindfulness can be taught… and it results in permanent and irreversible changes to one’s ability to concentrate… why are we not including it in the school curriculum?

Two reasons: we don’t have tests we can use to rank teachers an schools based on the ability of students to concentrate… and meditation and yoga— technique used to teach mindfulness— is religious training!

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The Literature vs. Information Debate

December 14, 2012 Comments off

Over the past several weeks, a debate has raged in the education blogosphere over the Common Core State Standard’s (CCSS) recommendation that 70% of reading in classrooms be devoted to “informational text” with the balance being devoted to “literature”. This is an anathema to many liberal-arts-major-bloggers who see this as a portent of the elimination of Shakespeare in favor of reading manuals and dry analytic texts.

I strongly disagree with political context surrounding the CCSS— namely the desire to quantify the “quality of schools and teachers” using analytics derived from on standardized tests based on a common set of goals and objectives. However, if testing is a “given”, and the improvement of public education is a national priority, then having a set of universal standards is a necessity. Having started my career as a public school superintendent in 1983, the year A Nation At Risk was published, I have engaged in variations of this debate throughout my career> I’ve noticed that the breakdown in consensus occurs when a panel attempts to specifically identify which books should be included in the national canon at a particular grade level and which topics should or should not be included in historical and scientific texts. The notion of dividing language arts reading into “informational text” and “literature” seems a more productive undertaking than trying to determine WHAT information to include or what books to read.

The question of whether the split between “literature” and “informational test” seems to be a  good way to divert attention from the overarching political context and also seems to be creating a host of false dichotomies. With all of this swirling in my mind, I was interested in Timothy Egan’s column this in this morning’s NYTimes. Titled “In Ignorance We Trust”, Egan is concerned with the state of history instruction in our schools:

…History, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

He calls out FLA Governor Rick Scott’s “knuckle headed” idea of charging more for liberal arts courses because we have all the anthropologists we need, and writes about the sad stte of history texts many of which “… are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense.” This is the comment I wrote in response to the article… which I hope might provoke a column about in the future.

You MIGHT have something to contribute to the ongoing debate among educators regarding the 70-30 rationing of “informational text” to “literature”. Liberal Arts majors are annoyed and there is a lot of rumormongering going on about “the elimination of Shakespeare” in favor of reading “dry non-fiction”… As you note in your essay, non-fiction isn’t necessarily a recounting of carefully screened factual information that is arguably propaganda… it can be stories told by real people who lived through experiences similar to those we are encountering today.

I DO think the “literature-versus-informational” text assumes that students will be forced to read textbooks in history and social studies to the exclusion of literature. It could, just as easily, compel teachers to work in an interdisciplinary fashion.

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