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."

Teaching

Is the MFA a professional degree?
     Speaking of credentials

Seth Abramson at MFA Blog is pondering the mystery of credentials, specifically whether the MFA degree is a “professional” degree, akin to those earned by lawyers and such. His pondering has little to do with writing and focuses mostly on positions:

. . .I know this much: for those who want to teach creative writing at the college level, the MFA is undoubtedly a “professional” degree because you can’t teach without it, even if (as with a J.D.) an MFA is not in itself sufficient to get a job, and additional displays of talent and skill and motivation are necessary.

I got an MFA so I could teach at a university, just in case someone started a university in the town of 900 people where I live. I wouldn’t want to move just for a job. This is called “thinking like a poet.”

The MFA is an expensive credential, like other graduate degrees, and it has its value in the academy—though working in a university without a Ph.D. may be a little like working in Iraq without body armor. In getting the degree, I enjoyed the time to read and write, and the association with good writers, and for someone who wants to have a position at a university, it can make sense.

However, when students who have wanted to be writers have asked me about education, I’ve usually steered them away from the MFA—actually away from English departments in general. The emphasis upon personal expression in “creative” writing programs feeds the worst delusions of young writers. To speak in simple terms, I think being encouraged to do research helps young writers far more than being urged to think about “voice.” What distinguishes the best writers is knowledge of the world and getting things right, while many a would-be artist has gotten lost in the abyss of self. Voice does come to matter, of course, but only when it is no longer the voice of one wanting mostly to be heard.

Technical writing classes can do some good, such as the course offered at the University of Montana’s Forestry Department—and often the methods for finding things out are better taught by history programs that include guidance in doing original research and by some journalism programs, though both the disciplines of history and of journalism are often dissipated by their own tribal passions.

I sometimes thought the MFA program was a little like all those programs offering to help people lose weight or stop smoking—they were feeding on people’s fantasies. There are always some young people who want to be famous poets and are willing to pay for a program that promises to help.


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Outgrowing school
     The modern superstition of schooling

Concerning Bias has a post adding two more things to the three things Ben Casnocha cited Bill Bullard saying about what we need to unlearn from school: (1) pretending you understand something when you don’t and (2) trusting authority.

Whatever, as one of my students was fond of saying. 

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The “honor student” syndrome
     Bill Bullhard's "three things to unlearn from school"

I’ve sometimes worried that school had a bad influence on honor students. It seems worrisome to be as ready as some honor students are to take as your own the agenda of whoever is at the front of the room. Along similar lines, Bill Bullard (via Ben Casnocha) suggests three things to unlearn from school:

The importance of opinion. “Schools, especially good ones...that so emphasize student voice, teach us to value opinion. This is a great deception. Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge; it requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge, according to George Eliot, is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in anothers world. It requires profound, purpose‐larger‐than‐the‐self kind of understanding.”

The importance of solving given problems.
“Schools teach us to be clever, great problem solvers, but not to include ourselves in the problem thatҒs being solved. This is a great delusion. It makes us arrogant and complacent and teaches us to look at the world as a problem outside of us. As in Oedipus, public problems the plague on Thebes or our own pestilences, war or global warming ֖ are private problems. The plague is only lifted when each person sees his responsibility not in analyzing the problem, not in solving the riddle, but in changing our actions to address a public need. Oedipus destroyed the two things that had deceived him his eyes and his power ֖ and in so doing saved his city.”

The importance of earning the approval of others. “Schools teach students to seek the approval of their teachers. Indeed, for all of our differences, this is one area that parents and teachers share; we are wired or we are hired to believe in you, to approve you, to prevent or mitigate the experiences of disappointment...Try to correct this in two ways. First seek people, work for people who dont have to like you, people who can easily disapprove of you, people that you canҒt easily please.  Their skepticism or indifference will define you. Second, if you dont how to do so already, begin working for yourself, and let the teachers be damned. But they wonҒt be they֒ll just be all the more approving because that kind of integrity can only command respect. After all, most of the work we devise is devised for students who are not working for themselves, so those that do surpass our expectations and teach us things that weve never thought of.”

Having the knowledge is more fundamental than having an opinion, being on the right side is more important than solving an assigned problem, and having integrity is far more important than winning the approval of authorities.


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Forgotten Heroes of American Education
     Putting teacher education first

Teaching teachers is a crucial part of the educational ladder that stretches from the gutter to the university. This ladder has been broken in half. It has been broken economically, culturally, and politically. Only 50 years ago in this nation we had entire institutions dedicated to teaching teachers. They are now gone. These were the teachers colleges. Well, they abandoned (or at least radically marginalized) the profession of teaching when, like everyone else, they began to hanker after money, purely intellectual prestige (instead of moral prestige), and power. Teaching teachers is the most important task that any institution of higher education does.—Michael F. Shaughnessyd

George Will’s recent call for the abolition of teacher education programs stirred up all the old debates.

Who will teach, and how will they be prepared? This really is one of a handful of fundamental questions America should seriously wrestle with. It’s important enough that we should be drawing on the riches of our cultural heritage, reading thoughtful books from the past. What we lack is not new ideas so much as wisdom. 

You’ve probably noticed that relatively little that is said today about “teaching” has much to do with teaching. Much of it has to do with how we might re-shape or interact with the bureaucracies we’ve built. It’s easy to be completely absorbed in the present, trying to untangle knots we ourselves have made.

We see flyers for workshops that will show us how to comply with Special Education law or No Child Left Behind requirements. We read about legal strategies to force legislatures to dance to tunes ordered by courts. Articles about new schedules or new team organizations land on our desks. Noisy debates about charter school effects on this or that population jostle for attention. We get caught in arguments about merit pay or vouchers.

Much of it is necessary, but little of it is essential.

What is essential? The best way to get a sense of that is to leave the clamoring present and spend time considering the arguments of the past. The more one does that, the better sense one gets of issues that--in various forms--are always present. Those are the enduring concerns--the essentials.

An up-to-the-minute place to start might be with a new book by Diane Ravitch and Wesley Null: Forgotten Heroes of American Education.

In an interview at EducationNews.org, Wesley Null introduces the argument of the book: theories of progressivism have led Americans to place diminished value on teachers, curriculum, and standards. This has weakened teacher education programs, which need to have a “coherent, morally defensible, and intellectually substantive vision” for their curriculum restored:

Teaching teachers is a crucial part of the educational ladder that stretches from the gutter to the university? that Aldous Huxley talked about. This ladder has been broken in half. It has been broken economically, culturally, and politically. Only 50 years ago in this nation we had entire institutions dedicated to teaching teachers. They are now gone. These were the teachers colleges. Well, they abandoned (or at least radically marginalized) the profession of teaching when, like everyone else, they began to hanker after money, purely intellectual prestige (instead of moral prestige), and power. Teaching teachers is the most important task that any institution of higher education does.

Of particular interest to Montana teachers, one of the “forgotten heroes” they call attention to is William C. Bagley, who began his career in teacher education by taking a job in “frontier” Montana--he taught for four years at the Normal School in Dillon, just before 1910.

Throughout a fifty year career, Bagley tried to integrate the subject-matter disciplines, the techniques of teaching, and the moral purpose of education. He called his approach essentialism. He believed students should wrestle with the essential insights and methods of the established academic disciplines. “Gripping and enduring interests frequently grow out of initial learning efforts that are not appealing or attractive,” he said.

According to Diane Ravitch, the essentialists believed that common schools should not decide whom to educate, and they sought federal aid for education to promote equality of educational opportunity long before doing so was popular. The essentialists criticized Progressivism for being anti-intellectual and utilitarian. They championed the liberal arts tradition.

The main ideas of essentialism include:

  1. Learning involves hard work and often unwilling application.
  2. The initiative should lie with the teacher rather than with the pupil.
  3. The heart of the educational process is the assimilation of prescribed subject matter.
  4. The school should retain traditional methods of mental discipline.

Here’s an article about Bagley (which includes a sketch of his Montana years):

J. Wesley Null, William C. Bagley: Scholar, Gentleman, and Committed Educator of Teachers,? In They Led By Teaching, ed. Sherry L. Field and Michael J. Berson (Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 2003), pp. 6-17. (PDF)


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Rotary’s 10 virtues
     Common ground between world's six major religions

To develop Empower The Family as a turnkey project for Rotary clubs worldwide, a universal message has to be crafted that transcends geography, religious, racial, political, social and similar barriers. World Peace Parents turned to the world’s six major belief systems of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, seeking such a message.  Accepted by 65% to 75% of the world’s population, common virtues embraced by these six belief systems for ten, twenty, even thirty centuries approaches universal acceptance.  A founder of a belief system that has endured the test of time, as these six have, must have taught basic virtues essential for harmonious, peaceful community living.

World Peace Parents engaged graduate students at Harvard Divinity School and Brigham Young University to research ten virtues common to these six belief systems and accepted by most world cultures, religions and societies. The “Ten Virtues” selected were:  Fairness, Family, Forgiveness, Free Agency, Love, Peace, Service, Trust, Truth, and Worship.  The results of the research to date:

“The founders of the six belief systems have common teachings, with some variations, for The Ten Virtues. The research was expanded to include the question: Do these six- belief systems teach that parents have a duty to teach their children? The short answer is yes.”


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Hunting with questions
     Asking questions about the landscape and the past

A team of adults and students visited Gerald Leighton along Spring Creek in the Mission Valley. They had been brought there by questions. They were studying a stream restoration project spearheaded by local environmental activist Bill Edelman that was underway, and they wanted to compile a history of the stream. They had read the journals of fur trade era residents, and knew that once the area supported dense beaver populations, but they also knew that now few beaver were to be seen. They had looked at aerial photographs that made vivid how the stream had been straightened and wetlands drained to increase ag production during World War II. They came intending to talk to Gerald about his fifty years experience living along the creek.

As they talked, they noticed an abandoned barn that, as they got nearer, they saw was crafted of hand-hewn logs. It was all that remained of a stagecoach stop, Gerald told them. This led to a story about his mother’s arrival in the valley in a Model T taxi before there were roads. He began pointing out where the cold house had been on the creek, where people lodged. All sorts of questions arose about the history of transportation–roads, waterways, railroads–began coming to mind.

Most places have layers and layers and layers of hidden history, and the more you learn the more you wonder. Our landscapes are enchanted with traces of lost worlds.


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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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