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

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 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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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 3
     My tribe is separate from your tribe

Ethnic separatism in the guise of self-determination is one of the master narratives that organizes the lives of many students in today’s schools. This undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At bottom, ethnic warriors believe not in truth but in power. If they care about schooling, it is only because they see it as a technique of power. My faith as a teacher is that such people will be defeated in time by others who pay more attention to facts than to applause or credentials.

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood.
Ursula LeGuin


Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism or Native Pride, just as ignorant armies clashing at night are often more alike than different. The particular ethnicity the competing groups champion is different but the impulse to circle the wagons is the same. One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. The two sides inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ tales. The other side is their reality.

When you read the paragraph above, you quite likely began forming judgments about me based on your sense of where I stood on questions that affect you. Am I likely to strengthen or weaken cultural forces that worry you? Can you trust me to take care of the things that you feel are good? If I had power or influence, would I likely be a friend or an enemy?

Race has become so politicized that most of us have something to win or lose in the contests that go on and on, and so talking about race is nearly impossible without taking a side, except by sticking to description of what various sides say, do and believe.

Race is a complex topic, by which I mean we experience it on many levels, using many different methods of perception and analysis. When a sociologist gathers data about the behavior of many individuals to analyze statistically, he is viewing humanity at a different level than the physician who examines your white blood cells under a microscope. When we talk about race, some of us will think first and foremost about contemporary political contests, some will consider large questions of history and justice, some will think about family and blood relationship and the cultural bonds that outsiders never see accurately, and some will think about neighborhood taunts endured as a child.

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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 2
     I own myself

Therapy has displaced education as the dominant rhetoric of public schools. This has left many young people with too few resources to escape the demands of the self, and it has left the future of public education in danger from the medicalization of schooling.

“Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth.�
Eric S. Cohen


Failing to teach Jason

A few years ago while teaching at a psychiatric hospital where nearly all the troubled adolescents were diagnosed as “oppositional-defiant,� I made a routine classroom request, “Take out your work from yesterday.�

Jason, a 15-year-old boy, angrily began shouting obscenities. He stood up and threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. To protect myself and other kids, I restrained him and dragged him to the floor. Several other staff members rushed to help. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying.

“It’s your fault,” he said. “You’re supposed to fix me–” he pushed out his lower lip–“and I’m still like this.”

No doubt the kid had problems. “Needs,” he’d been taught to call them. He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity.

I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day–kids who demand that we cater to them and blame us for all their failures. We only exist, in the story we have told them, to provide services to meet their needs. But try teaching someone who has been systematically taught to blame you for the consequences of his conduct.

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What Montana should do with Education Technology
     U.S. Department of Education recommendations on track

Secretary Paige and other officials presented the plan, ”Toward a New Golden Age in American Education:  How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations.” The plan was developed with input from thousands of students, educators, administrators, technology experts, and organizations.

The plan includes support for lots of good ideas that are already being developed. The resources that are here and those that are coming are going to wreak fundamental changes on schooling. This is because the choices that students and parent will have will be too good to turn down. If Montana’s public education system doesn’t incorporate these changes, it will be left behind, as it should be.

Tuning in to a high tech broadcast

Today I tuned into webcast of U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige rolling out America’s National Education Technology Plan. Though I have an enhanced DSL line, the broadcast was sporadic--I would get the feed for a couple seconds then it would break up for 30 seconds or longer. I gave up.

“Promises, promises” might be the theme of those (including myself) who urge a real commitment to using new technologies to improve education. I spend a lot more time fiddling with software and hardware than I would like, trying to fix things that didn’t work as well as I dreamed they would when I bought them or downloaded them. Last week, Bill Gates couldn’t get Windows Media Player to work for his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Convention in Las Vegas. He needed to re-boot twice. Host Conan O’Brien asked, “So who’s in charge of Microsoft, anyway?”

Still, early auto enthusiasts didn’t give up just because trying to hand crank a Model T to life on a cold winter morning was sometimes hopeless and never fun. We need to keep a healthy sense of skepticism about promises, and we need to keep moving forward.

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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 1
     Life is a market economy

As we have abandoned morality to the markets, fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals, or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.

The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth.
Thomas Merton


The meaning of school is to get a well-paying job

Years ago when I was a beginning teacher, I read an elementary school newspaper in which the children had been asked why doing well in school was important. Even first graders reported that they should do well at school so they would be able to “get good jobs.� While the seven-year-olds that I know are far too intrigued by the world in all its aspects to believe that the main thing is getting and spending money, their testimony indicated they had heard this story so often it seemed self-evident.

Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to be nice and work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they’ll be losers.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has quite a lot truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.� Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.�

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Levels of storytelling, Part 3
     Master narratives and placemaking

The third level of storytelling is the level of master narratives. These are the large stories that shape communities and cultures.

The third level of storytelling is the level that postmodernists call “master narratives.” These are the large stories--such as those told by Karl Marx or Jesus--that sketch in the shape and meaning of human reality, and that thereby shape communities and cultures. The implication of the postmodernists has often been that these narratives are fictions, a conclusion that seems to follow from the fact that there are many of them, that they conflict with each other, and that we can to some degree enter or leave them at will.

It’s useful to draw on American pragmaticism here--the idea that our best approach to truth might be to select our beliefs based on what works. As pragmatist William James put it: “Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

By asking about experiential consequences, we can discuss the objective data of what happens to persons and groups who commit themselves to various values. We can use reason to assist our decisions about which virtues to live and teach: should we be warriors or merchants or saints? We can ask what sort of society has in the past emerged when most people lived the anything-for-profit ethic or the never-resort-to-force ethic. 

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