Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How to Prevent Another Leonardo da Vinci


While surfing other "teacher blogs" I came across this posting by Kris Bradburn. The following article which Kris Bradburn wrote has been nominated for online awards and this website is something I am adding to my "google reader"

This is how we kill each trait that may yield another Da Vinci:

1. Curiosita (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Intense and insatiable curiosity; constantly learning due to a desire to ask and answer questions
The Murder: In schools, for the most part, students learn only what the teacher decides they will learn. Student questions will often go unanswered if they lead away from the material (go off-topic), or if there are time constraints on what must be learned that leave no time for these questions in class.

2. Dimostrazione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Constant testing of knowledge through experience and persistence; accepting of and learning from mistakes
The Murder: Except in the sciences (and sometimes even then), knowledge is simply given and expected to be absorbed rather than questioned and tested. On tests and labs, wrong answers cost the students their grades, therefore it becomes unacceptable to make mistakes. Mistakes are less about learning experiences and more about losing marks. Questioning societal norms is a very negative thing, even if they don’t make sense.

3. Sensazione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Fully noticing and observing things with all senses, but especially sight (seeing things that others miss, seeing the details)
The Murder: Except in the sciences and a handful of other subjects, students are usually taught passively through the use of only one sense, listening, or maybe sight (diagrams, photos, etc.). Classrooms and assignments may be incredibly unstimulating to most (or all) senses.

4. Sfumato (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? An acceptance of ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty out of a realization that life is not black and white (also an art technique using shadow famous for its use in da Vinci’s paintings)
The Murder: A student’s answer is either right or wrong, usually with no middle ground tolerated. Standardized tests are mostly multiple choice, and in the case of an ambiguous result, students must choose the best possible answer, not a possible answer, even though more than one is really correct. Life and its problems have more than one right answer; multiple choice questions have only one best answer.

5. Arte/Scienza (From “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Interest in both the arts and sciences and interdisciplinary work that combines them
The Murder: High school courses are most often strictly defined as an “Art” or a “Science”, and they never mingle; interdisciplinary courses at this level are rare. In college, an undergraduate usually receives a either Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science, though there is more flexibility here than in high school. Scientists and artists have their own professional domains which almost never overlap.

6. Corporalita (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Keeping one’s body in good shape; attending to nutrition, fitness, and general physical well-being
The Murder: Physical Education programs - especially in the United States - are being severely cut, and obesity has been described as an epidemic. Junk food is readily available and sometimes may be the only option in a high school cafeteria. Fast food is cheaper and more convenient than healthier food ($4 for an entire meal at McDonald’s or $4 for a single, small-sized fruit bowl?).

7. Connessione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Acceptance and appreciation for the interconnectedness of everything in life; interdisciplinary approaches and thinking
The Murder: Facts and concepts are taught in specific classes that are independent of each other, and students are moved from individual class to individual class without knowledge of how the two might be connected. Boundaries like that between art and science are rarely crossed or their connectedness even explained. Facts and ideas might be taught with no explanation of the links between them (ie, learning individual details and facts but not the big picture).

8. Drive, energy, intense focus (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Energy and desire to focus intensely on one’s work and interests (often the same thing); merging of work and play
The Murder: Each class is allotted a certain period of time that is inflexible. Despite the student’s interest in a particular class, they must conform to this schedule. Many schools have required curriculum that force a student to give up desirable or necessary electives for core classes they may not need. Students must go to school and all perform well academically, despite their individual talents and aspirations. Musicians and artists especially must break focus on their real interests to attend required academic classes, and may be too drained to work on their own by the end of the school day.

9. Confidence, willingness to take risks, and tolerance of failure (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Willing to continue on with creative work despite rejection; ability to sell oneself and one’s talents
The Murder: Many creative people must face multiple rejections until their idea is sold, and they must accept that if their idea or creative contribution is too radical, society may not yet be ready for it (many artists and writers have only been recognized after their deaths). However, as mentioned above, mistakes and failure are not tolerated in schools and this learned attitude may carry on throughout life. Instead of learning the value of taking risks, students are taught to fear any mistakes that might result. Students are often “babied” - all team mates get a ribbon or a trophy for “participation” - and do not gain the real-world skills they need to sell themselves.

10. Independence, introversion (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Willingness to spend lots of time alone working and honing skills; acceptance of possible isolation
The Murder: The social climate of high school severely discourages spending time alone, especially when spent “working”, and loners are isolated and considered antisocial and friendless. Refusing to conform and “sticking out from the crowd” is highly discouraged by peers and teachers. Creative individuals may have to accept that if the world is not ready for their ideas, they may find few people who understand and support them.

This is how we kill the spirits of our up-and-coming da Vincis. These ten things are the most commonly cited characteristics of highly creative people… and they’re heavily discouraged in the early years by the education system and social climate of adolescence. This is why we won’t see another da Vinci for a long, long time - or why, if we do, he/she would not have come from the system we currently have in place. At every turn schools and society are set on pushing back the most creative individuals. Their common traits are not welcomed nor encouraged, and certainly not nurtured. This must not persist, because I think the world is long overdue for another da Vinci-type right now.

I would love readers to share their thoughts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, November 24, 2007


A Closer look at the Looming Literacy Debate

By Meredith Stebbins and from the Teaching Matters eNews series

In the 1990s, an alarm began to sound from authors, critics and experts — young boys in America were in trouble. Across all economic and racial backgrounds, boys were lagging behind girls in areas like reading, outnumbering girls in special education classes and more often being prescribed mood-managing drugs. Even now, more than 10 years later, none of these trends have improved. A 2004 National Center for Educational Statistics study analyzed ten years of reading achievement data. At grades 4, 8 and 12, girls consistently performed better. Girls in these grades outperformed boys in writing achievement as well. (Freeman 2004) A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, states, “I don’t think that anyone will deny that girls are more academically superior as a group…They make the grades, they run the student activities, they are the valedictorians.”

Classrooms - Are They Geared Towards Girls?

Famed author and educational consultant Ralph Fletcher writes in Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, that today’s more restrictive, test- and curriculum- driven classrooms have negatively affected all students, especially boys. In a recent Time Magazine article, David von Drehle elaborates, “Even in the youngest grades, test-oriented teachers focus energy on conventional exercises in reading, writing and other seatwork, areas in which girls tend to excel. At the same time, schools are cutting back science labs, physical education and recess, where the experimental learning styles of boys come into play.” He goes on to say that boys need “mentors and structure, but also some time to experiment.”

Girls vs. Boys - Is There Really a Problem?

Our impulse to compare boys to girls and to measure each gender by the success of the other is, perhaps, the wrong approach. Sarah Mead, former senior policy analyst at the Education Sector (a private think tank largely funded by the Gates Foundation) argues that boys are holding their own overall and, in some cases, even improving on standardized tests; they just are just not improving as quickly as girls. Mead believes that the ‘good news story about the achievements of girls’ has been sensationalized into a ‘bad news story about struggling boys.’ It is entirely possible that girls, as a group, are only now starting to realize their full potential.

The standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress test (also known as the nation’s report card) indicates that by the senior year of high school, however, boys have fallen nearly 20 percentage points behind female peers. Is there cause for concern because boys are so far behind girls or, because many boys are leaving school functionally illiterate?

The Teaching Matters Approach

Animated students like JT (shown here) relate to young urban boys’ sense of humor, interests, and communication style.
Teaching Matters is committed to improving literacy in the New York City public schools and recognizes the need for programs that capture the interest of boys and girls. Over the years we have made the most of what researchers have learned about engaging both genders. In fact, some of the country’s foremost literacy and writing experts serve as our consulting curriculum authors.

Lynette Guastaferro, Executive Director, says, “Teaching Matters is focused on engaging boys and girls in literacy and writing by using technology to make writing relevant to students’ experiences outside of school.” We have developed Writing Matters; a technology-enhanced middle school writing curriculum and professional development program. The program uses story-based animations to help students grasp the critical thinking behind effective writing. Furthermore, it offers students a safe space for writing, collaboration and online publishing that is teacher tested and approved!”

Teachers report that even their struggling students are writing more and persevering through all stages of the writing process. Boys, in particular, have been cited as extremely responsive to the technology-rich writing environment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Put to the Test!

In response to a flawed test booklet (entire article):

“We need to recognize that the testing industry is under immense pressure at a time when scores are being given immense importance,” said Thomas Toch, who wrote a report last year detailing the problems of the American testing industry for Education Sector, an independent policy group, where he is a co-director.

I think its important that the testing company not be discounted on everything else they have done just because they did poorly on one test. Lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. One test should not make or break a company only k-12 kids should be held to such standards. Testing companies are doing so much good driving the non-critical thinking curriculum. Without these privateers of the American education system where would the media get all the sheep to lead to the consumer slaughter? We need these company's to inform teachers of what needs to be taught. Maybe if we divert more funds from the classroom, companies will do better?

Read the rest of the article!


Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Role of the Teacher, Part Deux

The role of the teacher. Great question, with so many answers...More angles, as my favorite college professor used to say "than a 4 way cold tablet."

As I write this post, I do so with some strong feelings towards some of my co-workers, A couple of days ago, I emailed my team...

In the interest of trying to further my advisees' progress, I was wondering if it would be possible if we could communicate with one another regarding assignments. Many of my guys (we have single sex advisories) don't know what their HW assignments are, or when major projects are due. If we could create a system, through email, blogging, etc. where they would be listed, even on a day-to-day basis, that would be great. I know, they're supposed to do this themselves, but reality is what it is.

I have no intention of coddling my advisees. My point was to figure out what they need to do, and make sure it gets done.

To which, I've received the following responses...

"If they cant take 2 seconds to write down their assignments when i mention them several times in class, then they deserve the zero for the work they don't do. They have to learn some responsibility."

"they're 10th graders."

What does that mean? They're a bunch of (sometimes) goofy, confused, scared, angry, frustrated 15 and 16 year-olds who, for the most part have been completely disenfranchised by the school system, whose parents have been just as disenfranchised, or don't have the means, ability, time or responsibility themselves to help them. A system that our school was DESIGNED AND CREATED TO FIGHT AGAINST!!! Moreover, if these kids don't graduate, or drop out, the entire purpose of our school, and the small school movement, is for naught.

Does receiving "zero" teach responsibility? Maybe. Or, to the kids who've lived with the zero their whole lives, is it just more reinforcement that school isn't for them? Of course, deadlines are important. As adults, don't we get reminders about bills being due, and the like? Does anyone really believe these kids come to school everyday because they want to fail?

I'd like to hear some feedback on this, and appreciate the forum that's been established to air things like this.

Monday, November 12, 2007

What is the Role of a Teacher?

Are we to facilitate the lucrative test company's heavily lobbied NCLB law? Is my job to help children pass standardized exams? Exams that even the author's own children do not take? Am I being charged with creating a class of student who follow directions and complete tasks well without asking why? Is my job to remove any iota of critical thinking from my coursework?


Are we trusted as educators to do what is best for the students?

How can I sit back and give tacit consent to Regents exams, when I know they are only in place to maintain a class structure? Will the students forgive me for distributing a test designed to be a hurdle in their academic life? Will I be able to forgive myself for becoming part of the system that filters out large swaths of students? Will the students who fail these exams wonder why the school system based their entire diploma on a set of exams?

Can teacher's be conscientious objectors to the standardized testing process?

A colleague of mine visited Kohl's Department store the other day and saw a former student working behind the counter. The student and teacher were very excited about the meeting. The student was working very hard behind the register it was the start of the holiday shopping season.

"So, Bill how are you doing?" asked the teacher.
"I'm great, I think about you guys at QHST allot..." exclaimed the student.
"Where are you going to school?", said the teacher.
"I didn't graduate. I didn't pass the US history Exam...", explained the student.
The teacher only replied with an, "Oh..."

What are we doing to these students? How does this happen?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What Will They Carry?

The last two days of teaching have been unforgettable experiences for me. On Wednesday Mayo and I had invited guest speakers from Veterans for Peace into speak about choices after high school and the importance of critical thinking. Jim Murphy and Dayl Wise entranced the students with their stories they carried with them home from Vietnam.

Mayo's seniors have been reading Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried". The speakers engaged the class in "self to text" discussions making many references directly to the book during the talk. Both Dayl and Jim were impressed with the level of discussion and questioning our seniors had attained. They visit many schools and were taken aback by our students. The dialog about the book between the students and the speakers was natural and genuine and speaks to the culture of reading we are establishing in the building.

The second unforgettable moment was the culminating event my students worked on from their unit on Hinduism in Early India. Students, teachers, and paras created a piece of Rangoli art. The students were able to experience a communal art project and through this have a greater appreciation for the Hindu culture.

Why are you writing about this Brown?

Believe it or not I'm always afraid of doing things that are hard to measure through traditional means. ( I know this is hard to believe) I take my job quite seriously and I do not want to do a disservice to anyone. I was stressing over the time that was going into the event. Gathering all the freshmen during one period is no simple feat. The thing that stuck with me the most was a side comment Mayo made to me during the event. Mayo in her passionate "non-smoking manner" explained to me that these expereinces (guest speakers and communal celebrations) are the ones that students remember."

She was half right. I think they are the things that teachers remember too.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Report Cards

I think its interesting that school administrators in a recent New York Times article are complaining that grades do not do justice to what schools are doing. These school report cards will not reflect any whole school. Teacher grades for students are due this week. Do our grades reflect our whole student? Quantifying quality is not easy.

“It is just so demoralizing to have a number or grade assigned that is just sort of trivializing things,” Ms. Foote said. “It doesn’t reflect, I think, the valuable work and the very complicated work that we do here.”

Throughout the city, principals are bracing for the release this week of report cards from the Education Department that will, for the first time, grade schools on a scale of A through F. Because the report cards will assess schools on how much individual students improve year to year, as well as on a complicated mixture of test scores and other factors, many of the grades are likely to upend longstanding reputations, casting celebrated schools as failures and lauding those that work miracles with struggling students. Some principals refer to the scores as a “scarlet letter.”


Look up a school's grade HERE

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Working Together

Recently the idea of Co-Teaching seems to be under scrutiny in our school. I question where this is coming from. Rather than "trusting" administrators we should trust each other. And if we have doubts we should visit each other's classes. From what I heard in the past, and experienced myself, some of the most effective classes have been co-taught classes.

Eg. 1 SCART. Science and ART. When I first came to QHST Varriale and Fox shared the products and the accolades of the co-taught science and art class from the year past. I was impressed with the outcomes and the freedom teachers had. I was also impressed with the level of respect each teacher had for each other. It seemed that using the time in an effective manner was an appropriate use.

Eg. 2 Current Events. Swetten and I co-taught a three period elective on current events. Woolsey and O'Malley observed this and can both testify as to how effective this class was. Students were asked to present each week and deep philosophical issues guised in the veil of current events were being discussed each class. We infused technology. Each teacher worked to the best of their abilities and the result was something the seniors who were freshmen at the time still talk about today.

Admittedly this doesn't always work as smoothly. Teachers need time to plan. We don't always get stuck in an elevator together. Yet despite the common planning time the "Journal" class being created with Bachinsin and Mayo looks simply amazing. Students are given an opportunity to express themselves through art and written expression.

Conversely teaching one period electives to students who have hole in their program can be a nightmare. I'll never forget the various "PROJECT LEARN" classes. I still to this day have a one period elective named "Research and Technology". Admittedly its quite hard for me to remain motivated for this class even though its probably the one topic I hold dear to my heart. Students don't want to be there, its early and seniors are aware we are just filling holes. Hopefully in the future we could at least consider a schedule that allows for real electives. Hopefully re-considering past proposed schedules is on the horizon.