Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Quality education for all
     Coming home from the legislature

I drove over to Helena last week to attend some hearings in the legislature, to get a better feel for how education is being shaped by politicians in our little corner of the universe. It was enjoyable. I liked everyone who spoke and found something to agree with in most of what was said.

I enjoyed what seemed to be a room full of people trying their best to be wise, methodically slogging toward important decisions, trying to figure out how to define a “quality” education for all Montana students. I was in a good mood when I left.

Afterwards, I stopped at Hardee’s for a quick burger before the 3-hour drive home. I overheard a couple of 15-year-old girls talking about their sex lives, their parents’ views, and the social dynamics of high school. I didn’t feel I was eavesdropping, because they spoke loudly enough to be sure everyone heard them. In fact, I had intended to spend a few quiet minutes reading Paul Schullery’s excellent book, Mountain Time, and I wasn’t in the best mood to contemplate the emotings of confused adolescents.

But there they were. I know they were fifteen because one of the girls said her mother was, like, totally amazed that she had made it to that age without getting pregnant. They were scantily clad in tight tank tops, talking angrily and loudly about what jerks the boys they were having sex with were, about what interpersonal dramas had transpired at recent parties, and how much they hated their parents’ counsel: “My Mom doesn’t care if I get an abortion or give the baby away as long as I tell her.”

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More plans for virtual schools
     Growth of virtual schools remains strong

Some version of a virtual public school may be Montana’s best hope of providing quality education to rural communities with declining populations. I would like to see one such school in the state, with authority to enroll students from any location in the state for free courses. Ideally, these courses would be taken along with courses in the bricks and mortar school. The traditional school would provide high-quality broadband access and software, as well as personal support and supervision of students. The difference would be that a teacher in a well-equipped lab might have 15 students present, but each taking a different course that would be unavailable if not for distance learning: German, Renaissance art, computer programming, or calculus.

Georgia becomes the latest state to consider a virtual school. The neat twist in this plan is that private school and homeschool students would be granted access to classes, since the parents of both types of students pay the taxes to support public education.

Virtual schools have been popular with parents and students in such states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. According to an article last March in Wired, “the number of online public schools has grown from 30 to 82 during the past two years, offering instruction in 19 states. That number could more than double in 2004, as school districts in Ohio have granted charters to 63 cyber schools, up from seven in 2003.”

Of course, online coursework can be atrocious, and many k-12 students lack the personal discipline to succeed in online coursework without the active supervision and support of live teachers or parents. But these problems aren’t unique to virtual schools, and good planning and implementation can make online learning an excellent alternative to traditional classes.

In any case, some version of a virtual public school may be Montana’s best hope of providing quality education to rural communities with declining populations. I would like to see one such school in the state, with authority to enroll students from any location in the state for free courses. Ideally, these courses would be taken along with other traditionally taught courses in the brick and mortar school. The brick and mortar school would provide high-quality broadband access and software, as well as personal support and supervision of students. The difference would be that a teacher in a well-equipped lab might have 15 students present, but each taking a different course that would be unavailable if not for distance learning: German, Renaissance art, computer programming, or calculus.

We are at the beginning edge of an explosion in what can be done with simulations and video online, and for many purposes online learning is superior to traditonal classrooms, where students often have to spend large amounts of time waiting and enduring monkey business. Be honest. How many of the traditional classes you’ve attended have been exciting affairs full of learning?

The public school special interest groups tend to be cool to virtual schools, since they divert funds that these groups hope would otherwise go to the brick and mortar schools. This can be a real problem, but this is an area where market forces will ultimately prevail. Demand from parents will bring virtual schools to them, as it has done in British Columbia and Alberta. Done intelligently, public education could organize market forces for the good of the public system--that is, for the good of students and the state’s future.


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Computer games and the future of schooling
     Virtual worlds allow real experience and real learning

The computer gaming industry has already grown to a $10 billion-a-year giant, according to researchers in Wisconsin. It has eclipsed Hollywood box-office sales and will soon surpass the music industry and home-video rentals. We know two things: kids are going to play computer games, and the games they play shape their cognitive, emotional, and moral development. The important question for parents, teachers, and all citizens is who will create the games young people play, and for what purposes. Gaming is likely to be “the next big thing” in education--one of several emerging technologies that will have profound effect on how people learn. People who think digital technology and the internet will not shake schooling to its foundations are a little like people in the first years of the twentieth century speculating that automobiles had far too many drawbacks to ever replace horses.

The computer gaming industry has already grown to a $10 billion-a-year giant, according to researchers in Wisconsin. It has eclipsed Hollywood box-office sales and will soon surpass the music industry and home-video rentals.

We know two things: kids are going to play computer games, and the games they play shape their cognitive, emotional, and moral development. The important question for parents, teachers, and all citizens is who will create the games young people play, and for what purposes. Gaming is likely to be “the next big thing” in education--one of several emerging technologies that will have profound effects on how people learn. People who think the internet will not shake schooling to its foundations are a little like people in the first years of the twentieth century speculating that automobiles had far too many drawbacks to ever replace horses.

Computer games are not just mindless entertainment. They hold tremendous potential for education. The U.S. Army realizes this, and has become a major user of games as training tools. They even released the free game, America’s Army, as a recruitment tool.

Researchers at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Center (University of Wisconsin--Madison) say that games allow players to “step into new personas and explore alternatives.” They can create powerful opportunities for people to “try to solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately.” They are also “more engaging than textbooks or lectures.”

For a good introduction, you can read Video games and the future of learning.

Even better, watch a streaming video of the conference in Madison Thursday, where three of the top researchers in the nation talked about what’s coming (the video didn’t work here, but the audio was fine, and it was just three speakers). It’s an hour and a half (with questions), so pick a time when you want to relax and enjoy a tour of the near future.

Better yet, listen to it with a class of students and share with us what they say about schooling and computer games. I’m especially interested in hearing what the boys say. I’ve heard several comparisons of boys’ interest in computers today with the interest young men had in cars in the 1950s--their lack of interest in school and their interest in the digital revolution, at least one researcher says, will profoundly change education as we know it.

Update: Beck McLaughlin at the Montana Arts Council sent me information on a great resource: Theory of Fun for Game Design. This is a book by Ralph Koster, Chief Creative Officer for Sony Entertainment.


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Washington Marches On
     Every child can learn what's on the test

Despite the problems with No Child Left Behind, the Republicans seem satisfied to keep on saying that opponents of NCLB just don’t like “accountability.” The Democrats like to say the act is not “fully funded,” and we need to appropriate more federal dollars. Supporters of NCLB acknowledge that it’s full of design flaws, but they say this is normal in large programs just getting started. They want critics to be patient while the law is fixed. The talk on the street in Washington is that Congress is leery of opening the act up to work on it, because the fighting would be brutal and Congress has other large and important issues that need attention.

Middle school parents at East Middle School in Great Falls got letters yesterday that they can transfer at district expense to Paris Gibson Middle School, because East failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. This was because Indian and low-income students didn’t score well enough on the annual tests. The remedy provided by the law is to allow students to move.

However, the federal government through Title 1 provides extra money to East that makes tutors and smaller classes available to students who are not doing well. These funds are not available at Paris Gibson Middle School, which is not a Title 1 school. East has a population who are not doing well, and to serve these kids they get extra money. When test scores show these kids are not doing well, the solution is to move them to a different school, which does not have programs to serve them.

That parents have the right to move their kids from one public school to another is a parody of the voucher plan that was part of Bush’s original proposal to improve schools. To get the bill passed, he courted Ted Kennedy, who stood beside him when they announced the new law. To get that photo op required dropping the only real reform measure in the bill. Arranging such photo ops takes far too much energy to think through in detail what will actually happen in the thousands of schools affected by the legislation.

If what actually happens now the law is law seems a little incoherent, we might take comfort from knowing that it’s one of the smaller confusions the feds have set up under NCLB.

Expect the number of law suits over No Child Left Behind to increase as the law’s progressively more punitive sanctions against schools kick in. This will educate more people to how poorly thought out the law really is.

School districts in Illinois are suing the federal government because the test scores of their Special Education students have kept them from meeting the requirements of NCLB.  NCLB requires that all students show annual improvement according to standardized test scores or risk losing federal funding.

But the federal goverment also takes the position through its Special Ed law that children learn at different rates and need individualized rather than one-size-fits-all assessments. Special Education students have for years inhabited a realm created by the Individuals with Dsabilities Education Act (IDEA) in which students are given tests to determine intellectual, physical, emotional, and social capacities and limitations, and then a team of educators meets with the child’s parents to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) which has realistic and attainable goals for the individual student. A goal for a Downs Syndrome student at a school where I was principal was to learn to interact with female staff without showing inappropriate physical affection (groping). One goal for another student included learning to tell time on an analog clock.

Special Education students are assessed regularly to monitor progress in meeting the goals specified in their IEP. For years, educators influenced by IDEA have been saying that all students should have IEPs--custom designed education programs tailored to their abilities and their goals.

Now, they are being told that, in effect, one size must fit all. Special Education students need to get adequate scores the standardized test or schools lose their federal funds.

The conflict between NCLB and IDEA is only one of a host of problems. Other lawsuits have been filed by schools on the Mexican border which fill up each year with new immigrant children who do not speak English. No matter how hard the teachers try, each year the students they face seem to have English test-taking skills as poor as the ones they faced the year before.

Despite the problems with No Child Left Behind, the Republicans seem satisfied to keep on saying that opponents of NCLB just don’t like “accountability.” The Democrats like to say the act is not “fully funded,” and we need to appropriate more federal dollars. Supporters of NCLB acknowledge that it’s full of design flaws, but they say this is normal in large programs just getting started. They want critics to be patient while the law is fixed. The talk on the street in Washington is that Congress is leery of opening the act up to work on it, because the fighting would be brutal and Congress has other large and important issues that need attention.

I agree with that. The feds have other things they should be paying attention to. Most likely they will pay attention to those other things, and let states and school superintendents and disgruntled parents sort through the mess as best they can.

Besides, they are off to solve new problems. On January 11, Bush announced his plan for a “$1.5 billion initiative to help every high school student graduate with the skills necessary to succeed.” States would be required to administer annual tests in reading and math to public school students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Under Bush, federal spending on education has gone from $35.7 billion to $57 billion. Ted Kennedy says we will not be able to educate our kids with such “tin cup spending.”

Perhaps we can take amusement if not solace from the wisdom of that reliable old leftie from fifty years back, Joseph Kinsey Howard. In a speech in Missoula in 1945, he argued that Montana would not be able to meet its educational challenges without federal dollars:

The opposition argument most frequently heard in Montana is the bugbear of federal control of our schools. It is wholly without merit, this argument. Legislation providing for federal aid specifically prohibits federal interference in state direction of the schools; such federal interference is prohibited implicitly in the Constitution of the United States; and it is prohibited explicitly in the Enabling Act by which Congress created the State of Montana, in these words: “The schools, colleges and universities provided for in this Act shall forever remain under the exclusive control of said States.”

So there.


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Reading the future
     High school t-shirt slogans

Seen on t-shirts of high school students:

“Whenever I go to school, I have to ‘power down’”
“My cookies on my computer know more of my interests than my teacher”
“It’s not attention deficit, I’m just not listening...”


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Writing for the ages, Part 2
     Talking our way home

Few things are as educationally powerful as assisting young people in researching and writing about their family heritage. Family elders are often an ideal audience for young writers, drawing out the best that they have to say. At the same time, in coming to see more clearly how that elder was once young, students develop their own historical consciousness, sensing better what they themselves are becoming.

Sometimes creating a persona is creating a prototype identity, which is work all teenagers face.

In order to do a good job of either, we need to do a good job of imagining our audience. By “doing a good job” I mean both that we need a vivid and realistic sense of other people and that the other people we envision are the sort of people who bring out something good in us. We have trouble finding something to say or a way to say it when we have no sense of who might hear us, but who we imagine hears us affects what want to say and what we think we can say. One of the ways teenagers get to know who they are is by noting how others respond to them, and one of the ways any of us might go badly astray is to badly imagine who notices us.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

It’s interesting to consider that, since what we send to the internet may last forever, much or most of our audience may be people who are not yet born. This is even more intriguing when you note that teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. This suggests that the most attentive audience for much of what today’s teens are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.

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Writing for the ages, part 1
     Students should be taught their words may last forever

Teaching writing can be a powerful way of helping young people think about what sort of people they want to be. We don’t need to criticize them as people, but we can help them see the way the persona they are creating comes across, how audiences will understand that persona, and what techniques can be used to strengthen the message that would be most effective in whatever particular situation the persona evokes. The best rhetoric teachers have known for centuries that this needn’t lead to the sort of manipulative sophistry common among politicians. Generally, the most credible and trustworthy persona will be the most effective. The sound of goodness is persuasive.

Forever is composed of nows.
Emily Dickinson

Blogging and the same old same old

I’ve been visiting blogs lately, to see what’s happening and to think about implications for teachers. Much of what’s going on truly is exciting. Now that publishing is as simple as clicking a “submitâ€? link, lots of people are re-thinking what writing and publishing are for.

And yet, much of what is happening seems caught up in the same old same old.

Some blogs give me the same feeling I got at a university MFA program--too much desperation. The MFA program sometimes reminded me of those infomercials that run on late-night television--feeding on people’s desires to lose weight or make lots of money or quit smoking. Most people enrolled in the MFA program because they wanted to be famous poets. Could the professors teach anyone to be a famous poet? Of course not. They liked to claim that the value of the program was that it created a community where aspiring writers could find and support each other.

Maybe that was true. Pretty costly support group though, even if credentials were included.

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Within These Walls
     Researches into the history of one house

Within These Walls is a wonderful exhibit at the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C. By tracing the history of one house and five famlies who lived in it from 1757-1945, the exhibit succeeds in illustrating how local history can provide a gateway into national history, and how family history is American history.

Now this exhibit is available online. Students can follow the family history, learn how historians uncover the history of houses, and how they might do a similar project in their own town. The online exhibit uses Flash, so it’s best viewed over a broadband connection.

In addition to the online exhibit, a three part video series will be broadcast this spring that address national standards for writing and using original sources in research. The series

is designed to teach students research skills, generate ideas for uncovering historical evidence in students’ own communities, neighborhoods, and families, and to suggest ways they can write about their findings. These programs address the national standards for writing and using original sources in research, and have many applications for classes studying American history and the social sciences.

This is a great site. Of course, I think its best use would be to show students what can be done with tools that they have--websites, digital cameras, scanners, and county archives. Montana would be a better place if we had a couple dozen such websites for houses in Plentywood, Glasgow, Red Lodge, Broadus, and so on.


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Virtual schooling leads to residency dispute
     Alternatives for parents

Pennsylvania allows students to enroll in the state’s virtual school rather than at a physical school. Since such students are still enrolled in the public school system, the local district is responsible for the tuition.

Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa) enrolled his five children in the cyber school. Though he owns property in the Pennsylvania district, he actually lives in Virginia. So the taxpayers in Pennsylvania paid more than $100,000 to educate Santorum’s children via computer from their home in Virginia.

After the dispute, Santorum resumed home schooling his children.

I imagine that like many parents, he was eager to find an alternative.  I wish the folks in the legislature who are eager to put controls over the homeschoolers would instead put their energy into figuring out better ways to serve this part of the population. Offering them high quality educational support delivered to their homes where they can monitor it seems a direction worth pursuing.


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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 4
     The cavalry will save us

One master narrative that is gaining ground--because it is being pushed from on high with billions of dollars--is the story about the federal government saving our children, arriving with flags and trumpets like the cavalry. This story has not caught the imagination of many young people. Its main attraction is for non-teaching bureaucrats and for companies that create and market tests.

I would hate for No Child Left Behind to succeed, if success meant that young people took it seriously. Tests have their uses, but how well any of us does on any given test is a single dimension of our lives. A school that is driven by the need to raise test scores is as unlikely to be attentive to the whole child as a business driven by the need to maximize profits is to be concerned about employees in any way that doesn’t increase productivity. For NCLB to succeed, it will be necessary to adopt a narrow and rigid curriculum and define success as some arbitrary score based on that curriculum.

For some students, this would lead to better schooling that they are getting now. But for most students, especially the children of attentive and concerned parents, this would be a disaster.

Unfortunately, the feds-to-the-rescue tale draws its power from the very real failure of a good many schools over decades to make a meaningful attempt to teach. Without question, a community that lacks the will or the capacity to educate its children is troubling, and we have many such communities. If you think this problem belongs to Washington, D.C., then you are going to end up with something like No Child Left Behind. This federal education project, co-created by George Bush and Ted Kennedy, relies on tests and sticks and carrots, the sort of controls that intellectuals always hope will allow them to run the world by remote control.

But living in a state like Montana allows one to see quite plainly how poorly the central office functionaries grasp the details of what they blithely prescribe. Though the feds have backed off, in part due to the good work of Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, the gist of their plan was to punish failing schools by letting students attend different schools. An idea that makes more sense in Boston than in Chester. The feds are scrambling to make modifications, but a stupid mismatch between reality and what the plan calls for isn’t an innocent glitch that will be fixed as time goes on. It’s the nature of trying to control from afar such work as teaching, which cannot be satisfactorily standardized. NCLB is to education what McDonalds is to cuisine. 

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