Sunday, December 6, 2015

Meaningless Star Wars speculation

Yes, I'm excited for the new movie!

No, I have no inside track into JJ Abrams' mindset.

No, I'm not stalking the interwebs for every leak, spoiler and shred of info. I want to be surprised by the movie itself.

But I am seeing what is in the mainstream media, and that's fueling some internal speculation that I'll share for kicks...Herewith are my observations:

1) Mark Hamill is completely absent from the pre-film publicity. Not doing the morning talkshows, not on late night TV, not on podcasts, and only glimpsed (we many other characters have the mechanical hand?) in the teaser and trailer by the campfire with R2D2. And he did the voiceover in the first teaser. He was at the Celebration, but after that....pffft! gone like a drop of water on Tatooine.

2) Antony Daniels is completely absent from the pre-film publicity. Not doing the talkshows, not on late night, not on podcasts, and not in the trailers at all. No C3P0!

So, based on that, here's what that could mean for the film:

Option1) The new movies are no longer about the Skywalker males. The focus isn't on Anakin and Luke's story, and 3P0 (Anakin's creation) and R2D2 (the unsung hero of the two trilogies) and Luke are in the background. Instead, the focus shifts to the new characters. Luke gives Leia a lightsaber, a pep talk to the new guys and bugs out, off to contemplate his navel in retirement by the fire.

Option 2) Luke plays a large and dramatic role in the story, and JJ is being super secretive.  Mark Hamill is tied up in his basement, because if he were to be out talking about the movie, there would be major spoilers being released. Similarly, 3P0's part is one that has a part of the plot that can't be talked about, though I doubt he plays that integral a part to this new story.

Option 3) 3P0 has finally been sent to the spice mines of Kessel...Anthony Daniels is prickly and old and he's just opted out of the publicity tour. But he's also quiet on twitter...and that still doesn't explain why he's a no-show in the teasers and trailers...

Option 4) The original cast drew straws for the publicity, and Carrie Fisher lost, Harrison Ford came in next to last and Mark Hamill won outright. Thus, he gets to relax at home, while they are out and about. There's no significance to his absence; I and other fans just need to get a life.

Personally, I'm hoping for Option 2.  I think it's interesting that the trailers seem to be drawing largely on what seem to be the opening scenes of the movie (clearly introducing the new characters) for the longer portions, and then later parts of the film in the snippets.  So I'm of the mind that Luke plays a pivotal role in the story, either as the hero who saves the day, or, gulp, as a casualty/noble sacrifice in some dramatic showdown. JJ is ballsy, but I don't think he's that ballsy...right?

Option 1 is plausible, and, though I can't imagine a Star Wars movie that isn't about Skywalkers, (it seems unlikely that Leia is the focus) this does open up the film for all new characters, which makes future films sustainable. It would make strategic sense to fade the old generation out, so perhaps Han Solo is playing the guide for the newbies, Leia and Luke will impart wisdom and then stand on the sidelines.  This would dampen my enthusiasm for future films, but I could grow to accept it. I suppose.

See? Meaningless.  But better than trying to puzzle out what the hell the connection is between Star Wars and the Dodge car company.  Seriously, Disney's marketing team is out of control...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A seminar by, for, and of the students. THAT is student agency!

I have begun to teach a new course this year, called Advanced Seminar in Social Studies. As far as I know, it is a wholly unique class for my school.

However, it isn't a unique idea.  When I was a senior in high school, I took a course called Advanced Seminar run by the English Department.  The course was taught by Liz Whaley, and it had a very simple premise: as a reward for doing well for three years, students would get to run the class.  We chose the books, we led the discussions and we workshopped the papers that we wrote.  The English Department was committed to building student agency, even though they didn't use those words; they created a student-centered learning environment, and then they did a great job of getting out of the students' collective way.  So for this idea, I owe a debt of gratitude to Liz Dodge, Liz Whaley, Emma Rous and the late Dick Tappan; they've had a tremendous impact on how I teach!

My desire was simple: I wanted to have a discussion-based course that would reward students by empowering them to take control of their own education. I have long felt that we don't do discussions well in my department or in my school. By that I mean we don't create an environment where student interest is why students speak up, where they are intrinsically motivated to participate rather than extrinsically motivated. I wanted to change that.

One of my colleagues also recently remarked that, "The second we assign a book, kids will hate reading it. We can't impact how students feel about reading." I mostly agree with him; making a book a requirement is a sure way to kill it.  So, rather than my mandating what they read, I figured students could choose what areas of the social sciences to study and choose what they read about those topics. That way, I am not impacting how they feel about reading, they are doing it themselves.

If they are choosing what they read and are then motivated to talk about it because of their own desires, then it only follows that they should also be in charge of determining the methods by which they are assessed on their performance.

So Advanced Seminar in Social Studies is a semester-long, student-directed seminar. We talk. About books. The students were presented with a list of non-fiction books from all different areas of the social sciences and were told to investigate the books. They were also invited to add in any non-fiction they have read or are interested in reading.  Ultimately, they chose to read four books. Each student is in charge of leading the discussion at least once during the course. Participation is assessed through a regularly held conference with me. They have agreed, after discussion, to compose a written check in halfway through the book, and a written assignment at the end of each book, which they will design to reflect the contents of the book. I am a member of the class and my role is to jump start the discussion if needed, and to serve as the referee/arbiter should that be necessary.  Otherwise, I read along with them, I add my opinions to the discussion, and I stay out of their way.

There are 12 students in the class, and they have a range of strengths. They are not raising their hands to speak, but rather they are working out how to have conversations without a teacher calling on them. They are grappling with issues of economics, politics, psychology and sociology. As a result, my classroom is noisier than it has ever been before; the "noise" is 12 seniors actually talking to each other about books they enjoy, about topics they are interested in and it is all the direct result of their desires and choices.

We need more of this in our schools.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How to win a presidential election.

Not necessarily in this order, and not necessarily in this priority:

1) Understand that you aren't entitled to anything. Nothing. You have to earn it first. My trust, my respect and my vote. In that order.

2) Listen when people talk to you. Actually listen, don't just smile and nod. Maintain eye contact, and make actual conversation in response to actual questions.

3) Be yourself. Not who you think I want you to be. Yourself. Not everyone will like you for you. But everyone will respect a candidate who knows who he or she is and is true to that.

4) Have values and principles. Real ones. They may contradict mine, but that's ok. Don't surrender them under pressure but affirm and explain them. They can be nuanced. I am a smart person; I'll work with you.

5) Know the job. Not what you think it is, or what the media thinks it should be, but what it really is. That means read the Constitution. Be able to quote it. Carry a copy around with you. Call it what it is: the user's manual for the government.

6) Understand that the media are not now, nor will ever be, on your side. Ignore them and pay attention to real people. Real people make up their own minds, they don't let talking heads tell them what to think. Trust that.

7) Your appearance does matter. Dress in clothing you actually own and would actually wear. No botox. Ever. It makes your face look fake.

8) When asked, tell me what you really think on a subject, not what your handlers tell you will poll well. It's ok to pause before you answer. Not long ago, that was part of being thoughtful, and that's a good thing. Then answer directly and to the point.

9) Care. Visibly, actually, truly care about this country and the people living in it. Explain, fully, how you will make our lives better. Use details and examples.

10) Don't tell me you are doing any of the above things. Just do them.

I'll tell you what: The candidate who can actually check the boxes of this list will get my vote. I don't even care what party you belong to. Sadly, as of now, I think I won't have anyone to vote for in November 2016.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Local Civics projects for Snow Day make up work

Below are the final projects that the BHS Social Studies Department did for the snow day make up assignments aka "Blizzard Bags." Let me say again how much I dislike that term...

Overall, they were a successful pilot of the program.  Reflecting on the overall concept, I think that there is a fine line that we need to walk between creating the teacher-directed portion and the project portion.  For instance, the 9th graders were able to pretty much parrot back the information that we provided them in the composition of their project.  From my perspective, it wasn't a big deal for them to do that, as voting information is voting information; we weren't interested in them doing synthesis-level thinking for these projects!  In the end, what we really wanted to accomplish was to familiarize our students with some of the basic and important avenues of civic interaction with their state and local governments, and by and large, I think we did that successfully! I don't know the exact completion rate, and I don't have copies of students' final work to share, but anecdotally, teachers shared with me that students had little difficulty in completing the assignments, not one parent complained about the assignments, and my own students said that they actually learned something from doing the project, so I'll take that as positive!

Grade 9
 project description, Grade 9 supporting presentation

Grade 10 project description, Grade 10 supporting presentation

Grade 11 project description, Grade 11 supporting presentation

These are public copies of the documents, but they are set to view only in Google Drive.  Please feel free to make use of them, but do credit the BHS Social Studies Department should you reproduce them!  High School teachers in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I don't know the outcome of DESE's decision making on the future use of these types of assignments, but know that you can use these with minimal changes should your district require that you come up with assignments that your students can complete in the event of another winter full of 100 year storms!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Take that flag down!

The recent shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina has renewed the focus on the fact that the Confederate flag flies in a place of honor on the grounds of the capitol there.
In a slight improvement over the days up through the year 2000 when it flew directly above the capitol building, it has been moved to the side and flies over a monument to the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, which, as we all know, was begun by South Carolina's secession from the United States over their fears that President Lincoln and the Republican controlled Congress were about to do away with slavery.  The Confederate flag, thus positioned, commemorates and honors the soldiers who fought in the bloodiest, costliest and most destructive war this country has ever seen on its home territory. And they fought against Americans. And they fought to preserve slavery.  And 700,000 Americans died. The flag may not be lowered (it isn't even on a pulley system) altered or taken down unless the General Assembly of South Carolina votes a 2/3rds majority on the third time the initiative is introduced. (see a recent Washington Post article for more about this.) So the state government clearly doesn't want it taken down. And recent comments by the white members of the political elite in South Carolina (and beyond: see Charlie Baker's recent comments in Massachusetts, which he subsequently apologized for after realizing that his actual opinions weren't palatable to other human beings...) make it clear that they are in no rush to do anything about this.

When pressed, many respond with the statement that the Confederate flag represents "Southern Heritage," and that's why it should be flown, worn as tattoos, integrated into state flags, placed on bumper stickers, mugs, and who knows what all else.

So Southern Heritage represents:
1) open rebellion against the United States of America and the subsequent death of almost one million people;
2) a repressive system of violence and exploitation against nearly four million human beings kidnapped from their homes and sold as chattel because of their skin color;
3) a secondary system of oppression that forced human beings of African descent into social, political and economic poverty, subject to lynchings, rape, terror and outright murder;
4) a tertiary system that allows whites in this country to continue to discriminate against other human beings of African descent to such an extent that they are shot arbitrarily by police, prevented from attaining mortgages, denied jobs, denied access to education and denied the right to vote by Republican controlled state legislatures and the US Supreme Court.

It appears that those nine human beings, those nine people with lives, dreams, hopes, families, and fears, who went to church to pray weren't killed by the Confederate flag; they were killed by what it represents.

Be proud, people of South Carolina.  Be really, really proud.

Take that flag down!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Paper v iPad update #1

We've been at the paper game for the last two and a half weeks.  Some observations so far:

1) Video of the classroom shows that the students are fairly mentally present during the lessons.  They are generally attentive and on task. At least, as attentive and on task as a group of freshmen ever are.  There are side conversations, staring into space and poking at cuticles.  This is no more or less than it ever has been in the class.  Students return to task easily when called to do so.

2) There has not been one moment of resistance to our saying "put your devices away" at the start of class.  Many students are not even getting their iPads out, though their phones are a pretty constant presence. Students are not showing signs of withdrawal from their devices for the duration of the class. This may be due to our amazing ability to fully engage every student for every minute of each class, or it may (more likely) be due to the notion of addiction being overstated.  Or perhaps some combination of both...

3) Students did not perform noticeably better on the first quiz.  It was 5 terms/names to identify and give the significance of, and we allowed them to use their notes.  The first day of notes in the notebook was instructions for writing a good identification.  The average score on the quiz was an 11 out of 20, which is the same score we saw on a similar activity with devices.  Of the 21 students in the class, 8 left their notebooks at school rather than take them home.  Those students scored a quarter of a point lower than those who took the notebook home.

4) I am getting frustrated at the amount of paper being used that I have to collect and keep track of.  My table is flooded with past, current and future handouts and assignments.  So far, my shortest time at the photocopier is 15 minutes, and the longest time (due to a massive paper jam followed by toner shortfall) is 35 minutes out of my 45 minute prep time.  I am committed to doing my photocopying during the school day during my prep period, and I'm hating every minute I have to spend sucking in toner fumes.  It doesn't feel efficient at all.

We are giving the first test (which will not be open note, and will encompass three lessons that were device focused and the remainder of the unit in the notebook.) and will be checking through their notebooks to see their level of organization.  I alternate between feeling optimistic that they will do well, and pessimistic that this is a waste of time...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Device-less unit begins

The first day went well!

Each student was given a one inch three-ring binder, a stack of lined paper (hole punched) and four plain pieces of paper (hole punched) to serve as dividers.

Students were given an instruction sheet for assembling the notebook into four sections (In this order: class notes, class handouts, homework assignments, returned work, ) that also contains tips on note-taking. The instruction sheet was the first addition to the handouts section.

We gave the students time to assemble and personalize the notebooks.  They were not at all upset to put their devices away, and several (3-4 students) said they were glad to be doing this.

We then walked them through how they should format their notes (using an outline method), start a new page for each new day, with the date on the top right corner of each page.

Lastly, we handed back their most recent test (which was not good), and walked them through how to structure their answers to identification questions.  This was their first written note for the notebook.

We are having them keep their notebooks in the classroom at first, and after a few days of use, we will allow them to take them home so that they may review notes, make corrections, identify questions, and prepare for assessments.

Snow Day Make up--the rough cut

Two things off the top:

First, our charge was to come up with something that could be done in the equivalent of two-three class periods if we were in school, but that could also be scaled up or down in the future depending upon the number of days that were missed.

Second, I made the executive decision that each teacher was not going to do his or her own thing.  It seemed to me to be easier for us to all collaborate on one project for each grade level (so all 9th graders will do the same thing in all classes) rather than each teacher try to come up with an acceptable activity on his or her own.  I also wanted to avoid the inevitable comparisons that parents would do between what one teacher assigned and what another assigned.  Invariably, someone would complain that so and so's assignment was easier/harder than another teacher's. If they all do the same thing, this concern is a non-factor.

What follows is the first draft of the project description:

9th grade: Are to research how a person registers to vote, where voting happens, and how voting is done in the town of Burlington and the state of MA. They can interview, research and read about this. They must then make an infogram and a physical poster explaining this information that would help to guide a person with the process of voting, from registration to casting the ballot. We provide them with copies of the MA Constitution with commentary/annotations/presentations to guide their reading in this process, and perhaps also give a guided reading about voting rights in the US. Posters are placed in the hallways of the school and town buildings. Infograms are shared via Honors student possible extension: look at how voting rights have evolved in MA from colonial times until now.

10th grade: Are to learn about how town government works--what happens at all levels of local decision making--Selectmen, Town Meeting, School Committee, Ways and Means, etc.--They can interview, research, read about this. They are then to create a digital presentation that shows the way that all aspects of town government are a flow chart in Explain Everything/Showme, or a series of slides, or a diagram of who does what, how it happens and how a person gets involved/elected. Presentations are posted to a YouTube channel and/or given to BCAT as infomercials to run and shared with the town government.  We provide students with copies of the MA Constitution with commentary/annotations/presentations to guide their reading, and perhaps a guided reading about the history behind NE town government as a structure different from the rest of the nation's structures.

11th grade: Are to learn about how state government works.  Who are their state representatives, how long have they served, what do they do.  What are the parts of state government and how do they connect?How does the state government function? They can interview, research, read about this. Students are to produce a video that explains state government (think, I’m Just A Bill-esque, or a Welcome to Your State Government, or a TED talk).  Videos are posted to a YouTube channel and/or given to BCAT for broadcast and shared with Burlington’s State Reps and Senator. We provide students with copies of the MA Constitution with commentary/annotations/presentations to guide their reading, and perhaps a guided reading about the differences between state and federal government.

All we have to do ahead of time is annotate the MA Constitution for the relevant information for each grade level, and find a reading and make some questions, all of which can be done in Google Docs for rapid and easy distribution on a snow day. I can create the common submission points for their digital work, which would make it easier to pass along to others, and to check off compliance/completion. Because they are publishing their work publicly it can be largely done pass/fail, I think, or we can create scoring guides if we want to, and scale the expectations for AP/Honors, CP I and CPII, with a layer of expectations depending on future number of days they have to spend doing the work. In the event of lots of days off, we could also extend it by asking them to submit a written reflection, or a critique, or suggestions for improvement to the political process they are researching.

return to writing

I'm returning to the blog to post on two topics as they unfold in the coming weeks.

Topic #1: The state has asked that my high school be one of two to pilot a program to allow the school to "make up" snow days through the development of teacher-directed student work that students may complete at home on their own time.  This is being referred to as "Blizzard Bags," after the program that many other states have who are routinely stricken by snowy conditions that prevents students from attending classes. (Apparently my state, which is also routinely dealing with weather-related closings, is just now discovering this fact?) In those states, elementary students are presented with a literal bag that has numbered assignments in it.  On a day when there is no school, students reach into the bag and withdraw an assignment, and they hand it in when they return.  I'll be sharing what I and my department develops in the hopes that what we do might be useful for others as the program rolls out.

Topic #2: I and my co-teacher are conducting an experiment with our 9th grade inclusion-level US History class.  We are removing all devices from the classroom for a unit, and doing everything as though we were in the 20th Century--handouts, written notes, three-ring binders (sorry, no TrapperKeepers!) and assessments done on paper (quizzes, tests, essays, etc.).  We expect this unit (on the Civil War) to last between 3 and 4 weeks.  We will be showing videos, and using Google Presentation/ExplainEverything as our platform for lecturing, but we will not be sharing those items with the students.  We will then re-introduce devices for the next unit (Reconstruction and Westward Expansion). We will set up their digital notebooks explicitly and teach students the use of Notability, and how to structure their Google Drive Folders and use Google Classroom to distribute handouts.  Assessments will be run through Socrative, and all materials we create will be shared with the class.  We will use exactly the same assessments in both units to determine student learning, and to generate a comparison between the two styles of classroom. I'll be sharing our findings as we go along, and trying to provide an account of the various joys and frustrations of each unit as they unfold.

So if that doesn't get your pulse pounding, well...