Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sometimes to build you must first destroy

On the day my grandma died, 
I found freesia blooming in my yard. 
Pure white, with a tinge of living yellow deep in their throats. 

On the day my grandma died, 
I stopped at the store on my way out to see her to buy food she would love--
Salmon, rice, kale, special butter for her toast.

On the day my grandma died,
I pulled weeds in my yard.
Having internalized the way she taught me, 
I grasped firmly at the base, never thinking of her,
pulled slowly, wiggled slightly, and pulled carefully
to ensure I got all the roots.

On the day my grandma died,
I cooked a meal she would have loved
even though she was no longer able to eat.

On the day my grandma died,
I sang to her and held her hand.
Some songs she loved, some songs
Pandora thought she might like.
Sometimes there were commercials.

On the day my grandma died,
I saw images of her life as I held her hand,
as she may have seen them.
I struggle to hold onto them now.

On the day my grandma died,
I wanted words, poetry
but I didn't know where to look or how to find them.

On the day my grandma died,
I prayed aloud--in front of my family and all--
Lord, take away her suffering. Dear God, please,
take away her pain.

On the day my grandma died,
I made her promises that I pray to God I am strong enough to keep.

On the day my grandma died, I kissed and smelled the top of her head over and over, desperate
to retain the memory of what it was like to be close to her, not wanting to
lose that too.

On the day my grandma died,
I told her that I loved her 57 times, and it still doesn't feel like enough.

On the day my grandma died, I tried to assure her that we knew
everything I assume she would have wanted to tell us.
I hope I got it right.

On the day my grandma died,
I watched her breathing get slower and slower.
                         At the end

it was so slow.

On the day my grandma died, I felt my grandfather's giant, warm, invisible hands on my shoulders, looking over my head at his wife. I found I had been waiting for him.

On the day my grandma died, I watched her draw her last breath and felt her life drain from the hand I was holding. 

On the day my grandma died, I felt very much at peace. The missing her came later.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cobbling together

Excerpted from Goldsmith, Kenneth. "Why I Am Teaching a Course Called 'Wasting Time on the Internet.'" The New Yorker. 13 Nov 2014. web.
For the past decade, I’ve been teaching a class at Penn called “Uncreative Writing,” where students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own. For a final assignment, I require them to buy a paper from a paper mill, put their name on it, and defend it as their own—surely the most forbidden act in academia. In the class, students are penalized for originality, sincerity, and creativity. What they’ve been surreptitiously doing throughout their academic career—patchwriting, cutting-and-pasting, lifting—must now be done in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions. Suddenly, new questions arise: What is it that I’m lifting? And why? What do my choices about what to appropriate tell me about myself? My emotions? My history? My biases and passions? The critiques turn toward formal improvement: Could I have swiped better material? Could my methods in constructing these texts have been better? Not surprisingly, they thrive. What I’ve learned from these years in the classroom is that no matter what we do, we can’t help but express ourselves.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).  A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods.  1913.
17. The Land of Counterpane
WHEN I was sick and lay a-bed, 
I had two pillows at my head, 
And all my toys beside me lay 
To keep me happy all the day. 
And sometimes for an hour or so         5
I watched my leaden soldiers go, 
With different uniforms and drills, 
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills; 
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets 
All up and down among the sheets;  10
Or brought my trees and houses out, 
And planted cities all about. 
I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain,  15
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Death of the CST

Praise Jerry Brown from whom all blessings flow: the CST is dead

Apparently the feds aren't happy, but who can take them seriously anymore anyway?

Tom Torlakson (I love this man. Antioch, represent!) said it beautifully: "Faced with the choice of preparing California’s children for the future or continuing to cling to outdated policies of the past, our state’s leaders worked together and made the right choice for our students . . . These new assessments represent a challenge for our education system—but a lifetime of opportunity for students. As a teacher, I’m thrilled to see our state and our schools once again leading the way.” 

Right on!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mastery Grading: Year 2. Some thoughts as the year gets started and cautious optimism.

Last year, my first year of teaching, I took on the ridiculously complicated task of attempting to implement mastery grading in my classroom. As I noted in my MA Thesis (yes, I'm about to quote myself--so sorry), despite the difficulties I had, "mastery grading is ultimately a promising system, one that I truly believe will provide students with a greater sense of control over their learning."

Building on Year 1
At the beginning of this year, I narrowed down the number of mastery targets I'm using for grading, tried to make them parallel in scope*, and was able to take on weighting with greater confidence that the percentages more accurately reflected relative importance within my curriculum.

I worked out a system where assignments ("practice toward mastery") as a category are weighted zero but are entered in School Loop (online gradebook) as either "Complete" (100%) or "Incomplete" (50%). Certain assessments are counted toward mastery of various targets (categories) and can be marked as "EE" (Exceeds Expectations: 95%), "P" (Proficient, Meets Expectations: 85%), "AE" (Approaching Expectations: 75%), "FBE" (Far Below Expectations: 65%), or "I" (Incomplete: 50%, as noted above).

I can't totally get away from percentages, unfortunately, but there is at least a level of interpretation required to make students think about what the grades mean. Additionally, I can use the comments section to provide individual feedback about every mastery assessment that I enter, so that there is more showing up on the report card than just a number.

Questioning the System (mine, the man's)
We had a chaotic start to the year with more students than we were staffed for and crazy, untenable class sizes until budgets could be sorted out and hiring could be done. So, for a time, mastery grading took a back seat to classroom management and crowd control.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. Hiring: accomplished. Class sizes: shrunk. Students: checking School Loop as the end of the first marking period approached. Most, as I expected, focused on the assignments that were marked "Incomplete" and didn't even seem to notice that they weren't being calculated into their current grade for the class. One student, however, we'll call her E, noticed. She not only noticed, she was mad.

She came to me after class one day to discuss her grade. Although I'm just getting to know her well, she very obviously knows how to "do school" and is clearly in the habit of getting good grades. She turns in all assignments on time, and her work is strong. The summaries she had turned in, however, were not yet proficient. I wasn't concerned about this as learning is really just getting going, but she was not happy.

She first asked, very politely, for clarification about how her grade was being calculated. She then posited that it was perhaps not fair for her grade to be based solely on a single assignment. Why, she asked, were the other assignments she turned in worth nothing? What, she wondered, was the point of doing them? All fair questions. All asked in a delightfully mature and thoughtful manner. I was thrilled and crazy anxious.

I explained my thinking about wanting to move students away from the idea that they should get good grades for checking boxes and completing assignments. I explained that I wanted to encourage them to see homework and classwork as practice toward demonstrating mastery. I explained about the mastery targets. I explained that I wanted their grade to reflect how close they were to achieving mastery.

E was skeptical, still seemed unhappy, but said she'd be willing to check the rubric and revise the summary she'd turned in to try to make it better.

After she left, I tried to breathe and calm down, but I had some serious doubts. Here was this good student, one of the few I had hoped would understand the system early on, not getting it. Not only not getting it, but mad about it. What would her parents think? What would the school think? ACK!

My anxiety got worse when I checked in with my coach, S. A panic attack about all the things I'm NOT doing to support ELs in my classes led to a stressful discussion about how this whole grading system business fits into the systems in place in the district.

I have to give grades every six weeks. Sure, they can just be check-ins on a running total for the semester, but they should be as meaningful as possible, right? Oh damn. Right. What am I communicating to parents and students, who are used to a very different system, when students like E (who I think are right on track) come home with a 75% on their report card? How am I going to communicate that this normally A student is right on track with what amounts to a C? How am I going to communicate something like that to parents whose English and/or literacy levels are low? Will this affect students' ability to get scholarships, jobs, honor roll recognitions, places on sports teams?

The marking-period system is inherently contrary to the ideas of mastery grading, but I'm not going to take it down alone, at least not any time soon. And what do I do in the meantime? Every possibility I came up with seemed either too daunting or too much of a compromise on my underlying philosophy or both. Giving up and moving to a standard completion-based system (20% Homework, 40% quizzes, etc.) certainly crossed my mind more than once.

A Break in the Clouds
Things got better quickly, though. As a stop-gap, and with the help of S, I made a decision about what to do for the first marking period (which ended Friday). Grades would be based on the two mastery targets we had covered most deeply: summary and narrative writing. Period. I would stick with it and try to make a year-long progression of mastery over the weekend.

I communicated this to students and encouraged them to revise the assignments that would serve as the basis for their grades. Many of them came for additional help in improving their summaries and narratives. I referred them to rubrics and checklists, made some scaffolds for those that were in most need, and began to feel really good about the work that was happening in and out of class.

E came back to me the following week with a revised summary that was improved but still not perfect. We talked some more about what made it better and what was still lacking. Both of us clarified our understanding more than we could have otherwise. She left with ideas about how to improve even more and the intention to do another draft.

I got caught up on my grading and students continued to turn in revised drafts of summaries and to improve their narratives.

In the middle of last week, E came in with another draft (her third or fourth at this point). It was fantastic. She had "Exceeded Expectations" and earned an A on that assignment. She expressed satisfaction not only at the increase in the grade-book grade she would receive, but at the work she had put in(!!!), at the way her brain hurt(!!!).

At the same time, growth mindset is being reinforced in their math class and in AVID (possibly in other places, as well, but I've talked to the teacher of those classes about it specifically).

Students are being taught to help one another with questions in math, rather than by giving the answer. I saw this spill over onto the feedback they gave one another about their narratives: "How might you add more imagery here?" "How could you make the conflict clearer?" scrawled on the side without ANY prompting by me!

And I've heard stories of students helping one another understand imagery in AVID: "How could you show you feel cold without using the word 'feel'?" It's brilliant! And their narratives are getting better!

Next Steps
All this has left me optimistic that mastery grading can work, even within the marking-period system. But cautiously so. For there are still a lot of questions and uncertainties.

This weekend, I'm working on charting out how student learning outcomes progress and build on one another over the year. I'm writing rubrics, some of which I've been able to break down by semester targets (e.g., these pieces are not expected until the second semester, these are expectations in the first).

I'm stuck, though, with how to treat marking period grades. Mastery grading is supposed to tie grading to an assessment of where a student is on the road to proficiency. It's supposed to make that journey more transparent and understandable. But if that's the case then students cannot be expected to get As in the first six weeks of school. They are still developing at that point. Nor can they be expected to grow at a steady or one-size-fits-all rate. Learning happens differently for everyone, and for many it happens in fits and starts.

One of the important ideas behind a mastery grading system is that I am measuring what I say I'm measuring. If I say I'm measuring mastery, I can't base grades on whether students are using good work habits (i.e., moving consistently and steadily towards mastery at a pre-determined rate).

But students and parents are used to grades being tied to other things: completion, attendance . . . sometimes it feels like, self-worth. And so for a hardworking student who is on track to mastery to come home with a C is devastating. And probably confusing.

Another problem is averages. Averages are great for determining the rate of steady climbs (or descensions). They are not great for assessing mastery when there has been a big jump at the end or when students produce inconsistent bi-modally distributed work (sometimes awesome, sometimes terrible). What am I really measuring with an averaged score in those cases?

So, I'm working these things out. Or trying to. And I'm happy with the work I'm put in and with home much my brain works. Your thoughts are welcome, desired, NEEDED.

*I'm still working on a definition for this, but, basically, one of my concerns last year was that the mastery targets I articulated were not equal in the level of learning they assessed. That is, some focused on a product outcome, some were more closely tied to a way of thinking, some were steps toward completion of a product, etc.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Difference "as determining meaning or as being safely excludable from the determination of meaning"

No repetition is exact, but the meaning of a sign depends on taking it as the exact repetition of some other sign. Nonetheless, the meaning of a sign, as linguists have told us, lies not in its exact contours but in the possibility of differentiating it from other signs, adjacent or nearby, in the possibility of recognizing that an "a," however mad, is an "a" and not a "b" or a "z." In any sign something is always left over that is not sublimated in its meaning but remains stubbornly heterogeneous, unique, material. . . . At the same time this exigency makes all texts undecidable in meaning. They are undecidable because the role of that physical substratum either as determining meaning or as being safely excludable from the determination of meaning, as trivial or accidental, can never finally be decided or sure. Does it matter, for example, that blue, black, or red ink is used to inscribe a given written document? It might or it might not. No convention or code can ever fully circumscribe these alternatives. Each letter mark, or sign, as Jacques Derrida has more than once said, must have an ideal iterability in order to be identifiable and have meaning. At the same time each mark is divisible, marked by the possibility of being used, in whole or in part, in different contexts and therefore with different meanings. Derrida names this propensity to wander away from itself, intrinsic to any sign, "destinerrance."
Miller, J. Hillis. Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1992. print. 8-9, emphasis added.

"A deification of string"

String is my foible. My pockets get so full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if anyone cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold. How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine. To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure. I have one which is not new--one that I picked up off the floor, nearly six years ago. I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford. quoted in J. Hillis Miller, Ariadne's Thread

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some thoughts on Bakhtin and Education-ology

I just read a great article from 2007 (cited below) and wanted to get my thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Basically, the article is an interrogation (a Bakhtinian dialogue, really!) of whether Bakhtin has been misapplied or inappropriately applied to education theory.  Matusov's conclusion is no, with some reservations, and I generally agree, though not totally.

First, I learned some fun new terms:
1) problematics (217): the things that constitute the problems addressed in a given field
2) silence-response (silence in the second person) vs silence-address (silence in the third person) (225)
3) voice: "includes height, range, timbre, aesthetic category (lyric, dramatic, etc.). It also includes a person's worldview and fate. A person enters into dialogue as an integral voice. He participates in it not only with his thoughts, but with his fate and with his entire individuality." (227, quoting Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics)
4) internally persuasive discourse (see below)
5) "cursed perpetual questions": those big, unanswerable (maybe "essential"?) questions that are fun to hash out and that Dostoevsky has his characters discuss (and plays with through the interactions of his characters) (I need to try again to read Dostoevsky)

Second, I loved this: 
Attacks on educational scholarship by Bakhtinian philologists might reflect some interdisciplinary struggle over  who "owns" Bakhtin scholarship. But putting aside possible interdisciplinary rivalry, gatekeeping, and jealousy, putting aside the unproductive question of whether philology or education has a monopoly on the Bakhtinian scholarly legacy, I think that Shepherd and Emerson have raised some important points worth considering within the field of education. (217)
This, for me, gets at the heart of scholarship and working with ideas and dialogism. Basically, he is taking the criticism of certain scholars outside his domain (the "Bakhtinian philologists" Shepherd and Emerson) and, rather than dismissing them out of hand as outside the field and therefore incapable of offering insight, he digs in and engages with their ideas. Hell yes!

Third, he mentions "a long history of defining the educational process by its goals." (217) Some of those proposed have been "identity development, transformation of participation in a community of practice, raising critical consciousness[,]" etc. Some Bakhtinian educational theorists (Freedman and Ball) proposed instead "ideological becoming," (218) that is, the movement from an "authoritative discourse" to an "internally persuasive discourse."  An authoritative discourse is one in which meaning is upheld by an outside authority (whether through persuasive violence, trust, tradition, etc.), while an internally persuasive discourse is one in which the self imbues part of the meaning in dialogue with outside others--it is capable of change, enhancement.

There were some bits about whether some in education have misinterpreted these terms, which I was less excited about.  What was more exciting for me is that (1) I love this goal of "ideological becoming," (2) it is inextricably bound up with identity for me (though I wonder if I am, like some of the educational theorists he describes, inappropriately "psychologizing the notion of discourse" (229)), (3) there is an exciting ongoing question (one of Bakhtin's "cursed perpetual questions") of whether this is possible in education.

This last point is explored in detail in this article. Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom (contextual) discourse is too "monologized," i.e., despite the fact that lip service is paid to equality, interrogation, and critical pedagogy, the teacher's authoritarianism is paramount. This type of education
assumes that the analytical tools that the instructor wants to teach his or her students will be useful in tackling the students' problems, even though the instructor does not know what these problems are in advance. It further assumes that the fuctionality of the tools can be understood and appreciated by the students outside of the particular contexts of problems and goals for which these tools were originally invented. Finally it assumes that the teacher can unilaterally decide what the students need to learn. (222)
"Critical pedagogy," he reminds us, "is not just a curriculum for students, but it has to be practiced by instructors with the support of their institutions." (222) 

Additionally, Matusov looks into instances in which the classroom discourse is too "dialogized." In order to fully understand this section, I think I'm going to have to read more Bakhtin directly (which I want to anyway). BUT . . . the problem here seems to be a lack of real outside voices to contend with. Matsuov draws a distinction between cognitive doubling (which as far as I can tell is an internal dialogue between self-as-embodied-thing-in-the-world and the conscious-mind-taking-on-other-orientations, i.e., self and self-as-other) and "relation with actual others." (224) The latter is necessary to avoid "paralysis of action, relativism or cynicism, and even rationalization of oppression among educators." (224) 

"Excessive dialogism [can also] create[] minefields, in which any step is criticized by the educator." (224) I didn't understand this at first and was going to leave it out of this discussion, but I had an idea suddenly that seems important. Too much dialogism occurs when there is not enough authority.  Ideally, you have a balance that creates an internally persuasive classroom discourse that facilitates students taking on internally persuasive discourses. They need outside others (real others) to converse with or they end up with artificial dialogues going on in their heads. 

It's what happens when you ask a semi-open ended question that you want a specific type of answer for. You fail to take into account all of the possible directions student thought could take--you fail to sufficiently map the minefield. Brave students unsuspectingly wander in and *blammo* are told they are asking the wrong questions, that they are walking the wrong way. But they are essentially walking blind.

We as educators have contended with the Other (whatever, in our field, it may be) and have internalized the struggle. We know where to look for mines, how to identify them. An inauthentic struggle against the consciousness's unlimited potential for conflicting orientation leaves one directionless. 

For example, there were times in undergrad when I would read a challenging book and know that I was supposed to find SOMETHING in it. But I had no idea where to start looking. 

Left to my own devices, I may have pooped out looking for the authentic Other or failing to recognize him when I saw him (I'm going with him as my other since I'm a her*). Luckily, I took classes that showed me to look for things like patterns of desire in narrative or power dynamics or voice.  Luckily, I learned to search for theoretical articles.  I gained authentic authoritative Others to battle with, in person and in written form. By tackling them, I engaged in the educational struggle that led to my ability to take on an internally persuasive discourse.

So then, this balance must be reached: students must be given authoritative Others to contend with, they must be privileged to assert the authoritative discourses they've taken on (to be Others for others) AND they must be allowed real authority to question and contend with authoritative discourses. Matusov sees the teacher's role in this as one of creating a space for recursive learning and allowing for gradual release of responsibility in terms of providing authoritative-ness.  He does not think that a teacher can authentically engage as an equal (albeit more knowledgable) participant in the internally persuasive discourse of the classroom but must rather stay outside.  The reasons he gives for this are that, one, the questions in a classroom are not of the "cursed perpetual question" quality, and, two, the problem of the need to reproduce curriculum.

He gives as the example of a inappropriate question the need to teach 2 + 2 = 4 in first grade. Ok, maybe. I'd have to ask my math colleagues if there are good authentic questions to be asked in the higher grades (or even lower) (I tend to think so). And, just, shenanigans on all other disciplines. 

Authentic, good, struggly questions exist and should be taught. Maybe this is what project-based curriculum is for? Maybe that would also solve the problem of repetition? If we are allowing students to come up with authentic problems to solve and engaging with them in really solving them, it seems to me that there are countless iterations that even experts could be involved in hashing out with students, engaging as partners in the struggle and maintaining our own internally persuasive discourse through the struggle to make meaning that defines such a discourse. 

This is just the beginning of my thoughts on this. But, damn, I'm excited.

Matusov, Eugene. "Applying Bakhtin Scholarship on Discourse in Education: A Critical Review Essay." Educational Theory 57.2 (2007): 215-237. web.

*but maybe that is a false dichotomy--i'm still developing my internally persuasive discourse on this

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The pull of narrative

Stories, however perfectly conceived and powerfully written, however moving, do not accomplish successfully their allotted function. Each story and each repetition or variation of it leaves some uncertainty or contains some loose end unraveling its effect, according to an implacable law that is not so much psychological or social as linguistic. This necessary incompletion means that no story fulfills perfectly, once and for all, its functions of ordering and confirming. And so we need another story, and then another, and yet another, without ever coming to the end of our need for stories or without ever assuaging the hunger they are meant to satisfy.
Miller, J. Hillis. "Narrative." Critical Terms for Literary Study. 2nd ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1995. 66-79. Print.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Good news from Ed Week (June 5, 2013 issue)

"Student Vehicle Search Negated by Neb. Court": Student's car parked off campus during school day is not a sufficient nexus to school activities to support a reasonable search.  No sh**.

"AERA Set to Launch Open-Access Journal": Yay! Also, there's a directory of open access journals. How cool is that?!