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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Agrarian Model Myth

The model of public education is not primarily agrarian, although the needs of a predominately rural population may have influenced the school calendar back in the beginning. It is not even predominately industrial, although the way factories were organized strongly influenced the organization of schooling.

The most salient model of public education is the model of the mind we inherited from the Age of Enlightenment.

Without further ado, I give you the animated illustration of an intriguing talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

Education reform is stuck in a rut because society has not confronted its most basic unexamined assumptions. I have often said we need a complete systematic overhaul. I was satisfied to mod the car, but no longer. Sir Ken goes further and says we need a new paradigm. He wants to throw the car out completely. Furthermore, he does not want to buy a new car. He wants to build something a completely different vehicle, perhaps one we have not imagined before.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Teach Tony Danza, Episode 2

In the second episode, Tony Danza gives his first quiz which half the class fails. When he hands back the quiz, a clash of expectations occurs. He expects the students to support their answers to the opinion questions. They complain that it is unfair for him to mark them off because opinion questions “do not have a right answer.” I do not blame the kids. Many years of lame critical thinking lessons have taught them that there is no wrong opinion, and that variations of the very popular “I think (fill in the blank) because I think (fill in the blank)” formulation is adequate support for an opinion.

Tony is sure they failed the quiz because they did not read the material; they insist they read it “five or six times.” He says out loud he does not believe it. Oops. But he knows they did not read because when he was in high school he did not read. One girl cries. Tony approaches her as if there is not another person in the room. If the class was inattentive before, they are all ears now. Tony has a lot to learn.

I am not impressed with Tony's instructional coach. He seems unwilling to give Tony any affirmations, is somewhat argumentative, and chooses to open emotional wounds, “Have you cried yet, Tony?” he asks. I am not impressed with the needlessly nasty assistant principal. I am not impressed with the overly harsh principal. Although they promised to support Tony, clearly their idea of what constitutes administrative support is far different from what teachers expect. The distinction is important because the number one reason teachers leave is lack of administrative support. “Mary,” a teacher quoted in the Chicago Studies, described what administrative support incarnate looked like.

I appreciate his early morning visibility and constant presence in the hallways every class period. He stands during all three lunches while we sit and enjoy our 30-minute meal. He writes personal notes when you do an excellent job on a project; he is open to suggestions that are results-oriented, and he chides negativity for negativity’s sake.

He keeps to the middle of the road and even if he has favorites, his choices are based on performance, not personality. In staff meetings, he does not preach, he shares. He has a sense of humor and attends most after-school functions.

He always greets you, and when he evaluates your instructional delivery, he stays the full 90 minutes. He actually reads over your plans to check for evidence of quality instruction, multiple tracks of learning, and assessment within your plans.

He learns the students’ names and jokes with them on their way to class or at lunch. At the same time he is firm and does not think twice about taking real troublemakers to our nearby town in handcuffs. He allows for flexibility some times in the teaching schedule to let kids display their talents, even in the midst of teachers complaining about instructional time lost. We are in a rural setting, so he realizes that for some students, school is the center of their total existence when it comes to cultural diversity and showcasing talents.

He reads a lot of different research and shares it with staff; he strives to establish some form of professional learning community in a school that knows very little about how it works. He meets with various groups repeatedly and has a 100% attendance rate except when he is at a workshop.

I have a different attitude about working for this principal because he actually notices how hard I work and lets me know that he sees what I do. He meets with every department to ask, what can I do to help you do a better job? What does your department need? How can we accomplish this or that?

In other words, supportive administrators act more like the teachers' servants than their overlords.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reality Education: The Teach Tony Danza Show, Episode 1

Tony Danza, TV personality whose most memorable shows were probably Taxi and Who's the Boss, is only a couple years away from qualifying to draw his Social Security benefits. He says he always wanted to be a teacher, but boxing and acting derailed him. Quoting Robert Frost, Tony Danza is finally returning to the road not taken. He has become a 10th grade English teacher in an urban magnet school in Philadelphia. His road is a little different from most first year teachers. His first year is the subject of a reality TV show. He says he is terrified and he looks it.

We all know good and well that most reality shows are not really undirected slices of life. Real life is generally pretty uneventful, and in fact, we are shown less than twenty minutes of one week's class time. Although we abhor stress in our own lives, we love it other people's lives, even if the producers must create the conflict. Thus we have the scene starring the pointlessly nasty assistant principal. None of us knows what is going on “backstage” or what “stage directions” the students who volunteered to be in “Mr. Danza's” class have received.

Most viewers have never experienced the so-called reality of most reality TV. How many viewers have ever attended chef school, much less been stranded on an island? However, everybody has been to school. Everybody possesses a lens of personal experience, a frame of reference when it comes to education. Everybody's an expert. Funny thing is, we all have a different lens, and that makes the comments (on Hulu) about Tony Danza's show as interesting as the show itself. Furthermore, most people have a rather limited frame of reference, but that does not stop people from overgeneralizing, like the commenters who claim he should have picked a school more like their school if he really wanted to show what education in America is like. Nevertheless, as the show progresses, the comments should provide an interesting cross-section of society's attitudes toward education gathered together in one place. One thing I have already learned from the comments is that the general public does not know the difference between certification and an education degree.

When it comes to sheer numbers of frames of reference, I have more than most. I have taught in urban schools, suburban schools and rural schools, American schools overseas and in the good ole USA, Japanese schools, public and charter schools, religious schools and boarding schools, elementary, secondary, and post secondary schools. The show and Tony Danza have taken a lot of undeserved heat. I mean students do not usually sit around a cafeteria table and complain that they have not seen their teachers' resumes (as they did in this show). Every teacher has a first day, so whining about a teacher's lack of experience sounds specious. Students and Tony's colleagues complain about Tony talking too much, as if most classrooms are not dominated by teacher talk. When Tony is entertaining, students complain that it is not a teacher's job to entertain them, as if they have never complained about being bored to death by un-entertaining teachers.

Then there are those who resent the fact he is teaching without a state credential. A certified teacher sits in the back of the class every day, so it is more like an extended student-teaching placement . Did you know Tony is paying the school $3500/per class for the privilege? Mr. Danza's first day was no worse and no better than the first day of many, if not most, first year teachers. Many people seem invested in Tony's failure—but spoiler alert, the reviews are out, and his principal has gone on record saying she would hire him for real in a heartbeat because he proved to be a caring, gifted teacher. Apparently his on-the-job training was at least as effective as the course work for a state credential, maybe because the schools of education focus on the theoretical and neglect the practical aspects of teacher training. I am not willing to write off Mr. Danza. I am curious to see how he develops. He has the potential to do more for education in this country than all the PhDs put together.