Current/Recent Reading List

30 July 2008

How I Know I'm A Tough Guy

So, in what situation would I consider myself tougher, grittier, and more battle-tested than a stout, 27 year-old high school wrestling coach (and former state champion wrestler) who appears in excellent shape?

Why, when negotiating the world of women, naturally (Wyfe would totally agree, I'm confident). You see, this young fellow and I were the only two men in the Writing Project class this summer, surrounded and outnumbered by a ratio of 7-1. The women ranged in age from mid-20's to mid-60's, and they really were a fun group to work with. However, you know in a situation where over the course of three weeks everyone was asked to write and share childhood memories and personal narratives what was probably coming; you also know that when it's time to say goodbye and head off in different directions after bonding for three weeks that emotions will be outporing.

One activity we had to complete was to "spy" on someone over the course of the three weeks, careful not to reveal who they were, and then produce an appreciative piece of writing (I wrote a light-hearted sonnet, for instance) about them based on what we learned and observed. The last thing we did on Friday was share these and reveal who we were "spying" on. My man-creeps almost got the better of me when we were told to form ourselves into a "sharing circle" for the occasion, but I managed not to complain. Then the festivities began and, oh my, did the tears flow. After only the second presentation the lady sitting to my right spontaneously burst into sobs, and I actually wanted to turn and admonish her with a stern, "Oh, stop it!" Instead, I accepted my place in the universal order and fulfilled my given duty by sighing heavily, and then walking across the room and getting the Kleenex box for her. From then on I amused myself (and others) by being irascible tissue guy, walking the box around wherever it was needed. As for my poor young compadre, who is not married or dating seriously, he seemed shell-shocked, a wrestling coach out of water. Just follow my lead, kid - I'll see you through this.

I did suggest, for the sake of next year's two or three beleaguered male participants, that they at least relocate the "sharing circle" to a sports bar.

29 July 2008

Digging Out

Well, the Writing Project summer institute is over, and I feel like I just went through another school year all within the span of three weeks. Seriously - as we reached the end of the line last week, I had that same vibe I get when we enter the last week of the school year: satisfaction, relief, and fatigue all at once. Now I've got three weeks to recover, and organize the tremendous amount of information I received at the institute, before I report to duty. Well, realistically, let's make that a week to recover and organize, and then two weeks to get ready before reporting to duty.

After persevering through it all, though, I can now proudly call myself a Fellow of the National Writing Project.

So, was it all worth it, and what was a typical day like at the institute? Here is my attempt at digestable answers to those burning questions, with a couple of follow-up posts coming soon:

Was it worth it? Absolutely. On a purely selfish level, I was able to work on my own writing, receive great feedback on it from others, and get encouragement to write more for potential publication. We'll see where all that goes, but it's nice to have the enthusiasm. On a professional level, the institute provided a high level of useful training and knowledge, which anyone who has to attend professional development of any kind can appreciate. Not every minute or every presentation was completely outstanding, but most of what we did was at least useful, and at most convinced me to make life-altering changes in the classroom. In addition, there was a tremendous sense of community built up between all of the participants, and I can now count several new, genuine friendships as a result. More on both of these latter points soon.

What was a typical day like? Well, first it was nice that our instructors and fellow participants were all fairly laid back, but not frivolous with time. Most mornings started with a short writing activity or idea, and then the days were filled with a combination of the following: presentations by participants, writing peer group meetings for feedback/criticism on our own work, demonstrations of writing activities, short lectures on academic research about writing, reading our work aloud, developing lesson plans or writing assignments for our students, and learning all about Web 2.0 (I hate that pretentious phrase) and what it might offer writing teachers (wikis, class blogs, class eZines, digital storytelling, Delicious, aggregators, etc.). Most of the web stuff was new to me, and I can't say I'll use much of it, but will use some.

Yes, we had homework, too, which is a real pain in the ass when you also have to get your child to and from evening swim lessons, and do stuff like, you know, eat. But it was mostly writing, and I'm fairly pleased with the final products. Without the deadlines, I would never have written as much as I did.

In the next couple of posts I'll go into some detail on a few of the things I've learned, what I've decided to change in the classroom, and how much crying I had to put up with (you can guess, I'm sure).

21 July 2008

Days 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8....


Sorry folks - I'm out of commission until this darned thing is over with (Friday, Thank God!). Be back with you then and can let you know of my writing adventures. Take care!

08 July 2008

The Writer's Project - Day 1

I won't have time to go into extensive detail (besides, I'm already tired of writing, which doesn't bode well), but each day I'll try to give you some highlights. From today:

* Someone in my peer group (a sweet soul, really) cried when she read her draft of a childhood memory, which involved the death of her dog. Awkward? You know, not really. After all this time (see multiple previous posts of mine over the last couple of years about working with women and yearbook girls),I've come to expect it.

* I wrote about the shameful time a friend and I threw mudballs into our neighbor's kitchen, and put his sister's bra in a glass of tea, while he and his family were visiting relatives on a Sunday afternoon. Hey, I was less than 10 years old, and my neighbor was bullying us, if you're looking for mitigating circumstances.

* No one has made themselves annoying so far by trying to dominate all proceedings, but there is at least one candidate showing potential.

* Our "gathering time" (i.e., time to show up for class) is listed as 8-9. That is what I call a laid-back approach.

* My hand still cramps up after writing for a long time, just like in the old days before these keyboard thingies.

*The lady I'm going to do a presentation with in a couple of weeks is very unsure of herself. Not sure how that will play out.

*Writing is actually, like, fun sometimes. Who knew?

01 July 2008

Murray's "Educational Romanticism"

I'm way behind on this (for all I know it's been making internet rounds for weeks), but back in May The New Criterion published an issue dedicated solely to education. While most of the articles involved the sad decline of the humanities in our colleges and universities, there was one lively article on K-12 public schools, entitled "The Age of Educational Romanticism" (sorry, it's a subscriber only article), from none other than Charles Murray. Frankly, I don't know enough about Murray's past arguments (The Bell Curve, et. al.) to comment on them in-depth, though if no less a personage than Shelby Steele has some criticisms, I'm willing to believe that Murray has at least not careful enough in stating his case from time to time. I'm not for genetic essentialism (though I am for recognizing reality, and I've yet to be able to run the 100m dash in under ten seconds!), and in my experience neither race nor sex factors in to who is highly intellectual and who isn't.

However, I've seen Murray interviewed often enough to say I agree with one of his basic premises, which is that our country's education establishment puts too much effort into trying to make everyone a college-bound academic all-star when we know full well only a certain percentage of the population has the ability and/or desire to be that. I would never say this means we shouldn't do our best with all the students we teach, or that those who aren't academic all-stars can't learn at all. But no public school teacher will honestly tell you all his or her kids, no matter their learning styles, will learn equally well.

In this latest article, Murray declares that both those on the left and the right are guilty of a romanticism that is out of touch with educational realities:

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren’t smart enough.

Murray points out that while those factors may affect attitude or application, study after study shows that one's intellectual ability is more or less fixed in place before a child even enters school, regardless of race, sex, or background. He says no programs or strategies make much of a dent in this circumstance:

...There are no examples of intensive in-school programs that permanently raise intellectual ability during the K-12 years (minor and temporary practice effects are the most that have been demonstrated). No one disputes the empirical predictiveness of tests of intellectual ability—IQ tests—for large groups...

...If a classroom of first-graders is given a full-scale IQ test that requires no literacy and no mathematics, the correlation of those scores with scores on reading and math tests at age seventeen is going to be high. Such correlations will be equally high whether the class consists of rich children or poor, black or white, male or female. They will be high no matter how hard the teachers have worked. Scores on tests of reading and math track with intellectual ability, no matter what.

Now, Murray points out that a really, really bad and violent school - or a really, really bad home life - might end up affecting these scores, but that in even a below-average school with below-average funding (like my former school), the intelligent child will almost always show the same aptitude throughout his or her school years. He or she may get lazy, or may get in trouble, and may fail classes left and right, but the innate intellectual ability does not change:

The normally bad school maintains a reasonably orderly learning environment and offers a standard range of courses taught with standard textbooks. Most of the teachers aren’t terrible; they’re just mediocre. Those raw materials give students most of the education they are going to absorb regardless of where they go to school. Excellent schools with excellent teachers will augment their learning, and are a better experience for children in many other ways as well. But an excellent school’s effects on mean test scores for the student body as a whole will not be dramatic. Readers who attended normally bad K-12 schools and then went to selective colleges are likely to understand why: Your classmates who had gone to Phillips Exeter had taken much better courses than your school offered, and you may have envied their good luck, but you had read a lot on your own, you weren’t that far behind, and you caught up quickly.

The problem, as Murray sees it, is that we squander billions of dollars in efforts to make all kids highly intelligent, though this is something nature alone has control of. When they still aren't all highly intelligent after our money and efforts, we in the education business dishonor the less intellectual by deciding that, by God, we've just got to make them like we are (or like we think we are)!. The rationale behind the No Child Left Behind Act (which, Murray points out, "a Republican president of the United States, surrounded by approving legislators from both parties [emphasis mine, b/c Bush always gets all the blame in education circles], signed into law") is that if we just re-double our efforts and make our schools tow the line a little more, all children will suddenly have that high IQ that Antoine and Susie have. So, we pay particular attention these days to the lowest performing students, thinking if they just get even more time and attention and scrutiny, they will be Antoine and Susie. But they aren't, and though they might now score a little higher than they would without this attention, they are not on their way to Harvard. AND, guess what? There's nothing wrong with that.

But wait, people say, what about the good old days when students performed at so much higher levels, and could grasp so much more academic material?:

Wrong. American schools have never been able to teach everyone how to read, write, and do arithmetic. The myth that they could has arisen because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate the least able. When the twentieth century began, about a quarter of all adults had not reached fifth grade and half had not reached eighth grade. The relationship between school dropout and intellectual ability was not perfect, but it was strong. Today’s elementary and middle schools are dealing with 99 percent of all children in the eligible age groups. Let today’s schools not report the test results for the children that schools in 1900 did not have to teach, and NAEP scores would go through the roof.

Again, I would never say we shouldn't be teaching 99% of the population - everyone can learn and improve to some degree - but I must say his point rings true in my exerience.

If, in the past, lower performing students were totally ignored, that was wrong; but then again, principals shouldn't hire teachers who ignore whole blocks of students - that's not our job description. On the other hand, how can we draw a realistic line when it comes to the allocation of our resources, maintain realistic goals, and also do justice to our smartest kids?