On teaching thoughtfulness

I’m doing a lot of thinking about how I can focus more on my students’ thinking this year, as opposed to just their products. The book Making Thinking Visible is giving me many ways to try to do this.  Grant Wiggin’s recent post on teaching “thoughtfulness” captures why this is so important far better than I ever could.  I want to quote the entire article here, but these two points had me wanting to scream in acclamation:

So, none of this is original thought, as I said above in reminding us of Plato’s Cave. Tyler’s thought, too, is an old thought: Kant, Whitehead, and Dewey all said as much. That’s what makes me think about it all. The wonder here, the true food for thought, is not that teachers everywhere and from time immemorial cover content. The thought-provoking issue here is that most educators agree with these thinkers – but then fail to see that when their work deviates from what they assented to.


More knowledge, more content mastery is thus NOT the antidote to a lack of thought, in either teachers or students. That’s what differentiates me from many reformers. I don’t think most so-called good schools are particularly good; I don’t think “bad” schools should strive to be “good” suburban schools because most of those schools are intellectual stultifying.

Reading the whole piece will make you a better human being.


On the pleasures (and perils) of bike riding

I love David Byrne.  The Talking Heads were a significant portion of the soundtrack to my college years; Stop Making Sense is my second favorite concert film (behind The Last Waltz); a girl I was dated in college broke me and a friend into a RISD building  to see him speak there as an “alumni artist (he dropped out); I played his building; I even caught him performing a concept album about Imelda Marcos and her love of shoes at Carnegie Hall.  He also recently described better than anyone I’ve seen the joy I discovered this past year in biking around NYC:

I’ve used a bike to get around New York for decades. There’s an exhilaration you get from self-propelled transportation — skateboarding, in-line skating and walking as well as biking; New York has good public transportation, but you just don’t get the kind of rush I’m talking about on a bus or subway train. I got hooked on biking because it’s a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures. But it does all these things, too — and sometimes makes us a little self-satisfied for it; still, the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does.

Unfortunately, I learned about the flip side of that coin last week; on my way to work  Thursday I hit a wet spot right as I was about to go over a curb I go over every morning on my way to work, fell, and broke my (non-dominant) left wrist.  It’s my first cast.  All things considered, I’m doing well, and will be back on my bike the second I can.  However, at least for the next 2-4 weeks when my arm is in a long cast past the elbow (and very possibly for the 4 weeks after in a short cast), my blogging will be severely restricted, as one-handed typing is slowing down my life significantly.

Two must reads for policy makers/influencers

Larry Cuban sums up what most people talking about education (as opposed to doing anything in education) tend to get wrong:

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings. Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily.

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

I agree completely. The whole thing is well worth the read.

Also, on the outside chance you missed it, David Kirp’s provacative op-ed in Sunday’s NY Times is a strong challenge current educational discourse:

To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

How we mis-measure attendance problems

I swear I made this exact point on Monday.  I have witnesses.

Up to 15 percent of American children are chronically absent from school, missing at least one day in 10 and doing long-term harm to their academic progress, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

They argue that policy makers tend to look at absenteeism in the wrong way, requiring districts and states to measure average daily attendance rates, but — with the exception of a few states — not focusing on the relatively small number of students who account for most absences. They found that some schools report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance, masking the fact that 40 percent of their students are chronically missing.

“We don’t see the problem clearly because, in most places, we don’t measure it, and average daily attendance really skews the way we view this,” said one of the authors, Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the university’s School of Education.

Read the whole piece here.  I’ve already sketched out a plan to track attendance this way at my new school.  Granted I teach seniors, but I very much see this problem with my students.  My daily attendance is somewhere between 80-90%, but nearly half my students have missed at least 10 days this semester.

Appreciating teachers

If you haven’t already read Charles Blow’s Op-Ed in this morning NY Times, you should:

Next week is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t get nearly enough.

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Education is hoping that people will take to Facebook and Twitter to thank a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. I want to contribute to that effort. And I plan to thank a teacher who never taught me in a classroom but taught me what it meant to be an educator: my mother.

The column is 95% wonderful, but it hit one of my pet peeves in calling for more “top third” teaching candidates.  Here’s the comment I left in response:

Reading this was a wonderful way to start my weekend morning. As an NYC public school teacher, I appreciate Mr. Blow’s efforts to raise our profession, and I particularly enjoyed the overwhelming number of positive comments about teachers.

I did want to add one thing, though. Mr. Blow references the oft-cited McKinsey report which calls for more teachers to come from the top-third of their graduating classes. It’s important to note that the same report notes that while “A growing body of research suggests that a teacher’s cognitive ability, as measured by standardized test scores, grades and college selectivity, correlates with improved outcomes…other credible research finds such effects either statistically insignificant or small.”

As a “top-third” teacher (1450 SAT, Brown University BA) finishing my 7th year in NYC, I would want to add that I’ve seen little correlation between a teacher’s education background and their success in NYC classrooms. Most of the most disastrous new teachers I’ve worked with came from top tier schools, whereas the majority of the best teachers I’ve worked with did not.

I hope as we enter Teacher Appreciation Week, we can appreciate all the wonderful teachers we have, regardless of their educational background.

NYC Writing Project Teacher-to-Teacher Conference

I’m doing a session at this relatively inexpensive conference June 2 at Lehman College in the Bronx. I was emailed a draft of the session options the other day, and they are incredible! I wanted to go to nearly every session, all led by NYC teachers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conference with such a strong list of topics and options.  I hope many will attend.

For registration and more information, click here.

New NYC social media policy

Gotham Schools’ Phylissa Cramer saved me from having to write a response to the new NYC DOE Social Media Policy that was released yesterday:

Stephen Lazar, a high school teacher, said he was relieved that the department had not gone so far as to ban online communication between teachers and students, as has happened in other school districts. But he said the guidelines showed a lack of understanding about a basic reality: Students often see no distinction between email and other forms of online communication, including Facebook and Twitter messages…

Lazar said his personal policy was not to accept students’ online friendship requests — unless they are his advisees. Then he makes sure he is friends with them.

“If I am responsible for their social and emotional wellbeing then I should know what is going on in their life,” Lazar said, adding that Facebook posts have in the past alerted him to students’ mental health problems and allowed him to get help for the students.

Read the piece here.

(Full disclosure: I serve on an informal reader advisory board for Gotham)

How we should teach economics

Great stuff from Ukiah Coach Brown:

I start every semester of Economics with the statement that the students have been totally shafted by not being taught the most basic theory in their twelve years of education; every choice has a consequence.  That’s why the subject has been given the name “the dismal science”.  People don’t like the idea that they control their own destiny a lot more than they are told, or that they are responsible for their own actions.  However the idea of choice is rarely what’s discussed when Economics takes the stage.  Occupy, the Great Recession, income inequality; all of it becomes politicized to the point that we forget that people make choices and choices have consequences.

As I near the end of my first semester teaching economics, what Jeff writes rings true.  If my students walk away from my class understanding that their decisions have consequences, I’ll feel okay.  If they understand how the decisions made by politicians have larger consequences, I’ll have succeeded.

Must Read: Distractions Drastically Effect Learning

I shared this from “Attention Alert: A Study on Distraction Reveals Some Surprises” with my students last week, telling them it was perhaps the most important lesson I had to share with them.  From Dr. Larry Rosen (emphasis added):

Recently my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for a mere 15 minutes in their natural environments. We were interested in whether they could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.

The results were startling. First, these students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology. [By the way, other researchers have found similar attention spans with computer programmers and medical students.] The major culprit: their smartphone and their laptop were providing constant interruptions. We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student. Not surprisingly those who stayed on task longer and had study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them. One additional result stunned us: If they checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period they were worse students. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough. 

Many forward looking educators are placing greater emphasis on teaching students how to use information, rather than just helping students gain information.  This research, which adds to a growing body showing similar negative side-effects of our technology use, shows us that we need to teach the responsible and effective use of technology as well.