Urgent and Important, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Sorry about my lengthy silence! There’s been a lot going on in my face-to-face world, both at school and in other parts of my life, and unfortunately it hasn’t left much time to write, to reflect, or to think about anything but immediately urgent concerns. In the school world, there was the end of a semester and the looming start of another – and, of course, all that goes along with administering exams, grading them, finalizing grades, and preparing for the start of new courses. Losing four days of school to snow and ice (one right before our Winter Break, and three during what would have been final-exam week) certainly didn’t help matters, either! The disruption in our “typical” routine at school was mirrored in other parts of my life, too … I put “typical” in quotes here because, after all, there’s no such thing as a “typical” day (or week or month or year) for a school, a family, or any other group of people. Life, as the old saying goes, is what happens when you have made other plans … and we’ve certainly had a lot of life going on over the past few months.

I’m reminded, though, of that important distinction between the Urgent and the Important made by Stephen Covey and so many others. Urgent things are time-sensitive (those grades have to be finished by Monday! Those exams had to be copied before the students could take them!), but time-sensitive is not always the same thing as mission-critical. Important things are mission-critical, but they may not be time-sensitive. Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, distinguishes among four “quadrants” or categories of tasks – those that are both Urgent and Important, those that are Important but not Urgent, those that are Urgent but not Important, and those that are Neither. Obviously that first group (which he calls Quadrant I) requires our immediate, sustained attention, but most of our tasks fall into either the second group (Quadrant II, Important but not Urgent) or the third (Quadrant III, Urgent but not Important). As Covey wisely notes, if we focus on the Urgent, we tend to encounter more and more urgent crises, but if we can manage to focus on the Important, our lives over time become much less painful. After all, if you deal with the Important before it has a chance to become Urgent, there’s no mad rush to meet the deadlines … and there’s a corresponding reduction in our adrenaline and stress levels. Sometimes I wish I could tattoo that concept onto my own eyelids … or on the inside of my skull, or something like that! 🙂 And I certainly wish I could do the same for a few of my dear friends, some relatives, and a large number of current and former students – unhappy procrastinators all.

As my time of Urgent and Important task overload is coming to an end, I’m reminded that I can choose, each day, to focus on the Urgent or to focus on the Important. And whichever one I focus on, I’ll probably get more of it. For example, I could choose the Important task of regular exercise or the seemingly Urgent desire for a few more minutes of sleep. At home, I could select the Urgent demands of emails (new mail has arrived!) or Facebook updates, or I could choose the Important commitment of spending time with my family.

As new classes begin on Monday in my face-to-face teaching world, I choose to focus on – and help my students focus on – the Important rather than the Urgent. I’m also reminded that the Tres Columnae team needs to keep the Urgent vs. Important distinction firmly in mind as we continue to work on Version Beta of the project. There are many things we could be doing over the next few months, but we need to focus our time, attention, and resources on what’s truly Important to the project and to our Joyful Learning Community.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How do you balance the calls of the Urgent and the Important?
  • What seems most Important to you in your teaching and learning?
  • And what do you think are the most Important features of the Tres Columnae Project?

Tune in next time for more. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 10:10 am  Comments (1)  
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Winter Wonderland

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I write today’s post, I’m looking out at the remains of a huge – and very unusual – snowfall that shut everything down Around These Parts starting on Christmas night. I had an unexpectedly quiet, peaceful day at home yesterday, which I spent watching the snow fall, reading, and occasionally venturing outside with a very surprised and concerned dog. He doesn’t see snow very often, and when he does, he tends to respond in a predictable way: at first, he wants nothing to do with the strange, cold, white stuff that’s covering his favorite territory, but gradually he begins to explore and enjoy … and pretty soon he decides that he likes snow after all.

And so I wonder: Is my dog Jasper a living metaphor for the way that so many learners respond to strange, new things? As I write, he’s asleep on the sofa … and even if he were awake, I don’t suppose I could ask him. But I think of so many students I’ve worked with over the years – and their responses when I ask them to step out of their comfort zones and try something new. Like Jasper, they are usually reluctant at first, though they don’t usually show their reluctance by stepping gingerly, by pulling on a leash, or by looking longingly toward the closed front door of the house. But with time and patience, they start to venture out – though, again, their ventures look a bit different from his hesitant footsteps, questioning over-the-shoulder glances, and tentative sniffs at the strange new stuff covering his familiar surroundings. With even more time and even more patience, they, too, start to run and play and enjoy the strange new world, and eventually they come to find that it’s become a familiar place. Unlike Jasper, though, they do tend to remember the previous strange, new things they’ve encountered – at least, they remember some of them, some of the time! 🙂

Speaking of wonder, I wonder what you’ll think, lectōrēs fidēlissimī, about an amazing talk from the 2010 TED Conference that a friend just told me about. At 17 minutes, it’s a bit longer than the video links I normally share, but I really think it’s worth your time! The model he describes – self-directed small groups of learners, with four or so children sharing a single computer – is very close to the way that I think the Tres Columnae Project ought to be implemented in a school-based setting for best results.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What have you been wondering about as 2010 draws to a close?
  • What new plans and perspectives are you thinking about trying in 2011?
  • When you’re confronted with something new and surprising, how do you typically respond?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to explore these issues of wonder and consider see how the Tres Columnae Project and its model of Joyful Learning Communities might be able to contribute to – and help restore – the sense of joy and wonder in our learners. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Just Wondering, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! And warmest Christmas wishes, for those lectōrēs fidēlissimī who celebrate the holiday. I left you yesterday with this question:

Say that you were a young doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, electrician, auto mechanic … you name it. At some point early in your training, you confront the critical issue of Where The Money Comes From. But young teachers usually don’t. Why? And how would the world be different if they did?

As I mentioned, I’ve been wondering about that for a few days … and I’m also wondering why I never wondered about it before! Perhaps things are different for my colleagues in private schools. After all, even if you don’t formally discuss the issue, it’s pretty clear Where The Money Comes From there: it comes from some combination of tuition revenues and endowment income, if the school is fortunate enough to have an endowment. When I was a young teacher, I certainly understood, in general, Where The Money Comes From to run American public schools: there’s a mixture of federal, state, and local tax dollars, a mixture that varies widely depending on where the school is located, among other factors. But no one ever sat down with me and explained the different “pots” of money and how they’re used – and how, by law, money normally can’t be moved from one “pot” to another. (I remember, years ago, when I was chair of the Foreign Language Department at a previous school, a colleague wanted to purchase a file cabinet with a special grant for “classroom supplies” – but he couldn’t, because file cabinets are “equipment,” not “supplies.” That was a difficult explanation! In the end, we did find some money for a file cabinet for him … but not in the “supplies” budget, of course.)

Those budgetary restrictions aren’t unique to public education, of course – if you’ve ever had anything to do with the operations of a nonprofit or a religious institution, you’ve probably run into similar, possibly even more baffling restrictions. But the staff and board members of nonprofits, churches, and other religious organizations get some training or explanation about the restrictions … or, if they don’t, the results are unfortunate. Why is it, then, that the details of schools’ operating budgets, the sources of the funds, and the restrictions on expenditures are so often kept secret? I can certainly understand that the details of some expenditures might be kept private … but schools are public institutions! And in most places in the United States, citizens have a right to inspect public records … so it’s not as though the budgetary details could really be kept secret forever. And most school administrators I know really don’t have any personal interest in keeping secrets, either. When the budgetary realities are understood, their teachers tend to make fewer unreasonable requests … and there are always plenty of unreasonable requests (and a few reasonable ones) coming across their desks in any case.

Why is it, then, that schools don’t routinely inform and train their teachers about Where The Money Comes From? I’m really not sure. I suppose, though, that it might be a vestige of the factory-model system; after all, in a twentieth-century manufacturing firm, why would you bother telling the assembly-line workers about the details of your firm’s annual budget and revenue forecast? That’s very far removed from their daily task of making widgets, and they probably neither know or care about such things anyway. That wasn’t a bad way to run a company in 1950 or even 1970, but in today’s turbulent economy, those production-line workers are very concerned about the company’s long-term prospects … and they often have very good ideas for cost savings when their managers ask them.

I have a feeling that the same would be true of schools, factory-model and otherwise: the people closest to the front lines know where certain money is well-spent and other funds are wasted.

For example, many teachers complain about the costs – both in money and in time – of adopting, ordering, inventorying, distributing, collecting, and accounting for textbooks, especially when the information in them is often outdated even before they’re printed … and especially when today’s learners find it difficult to relate to static words on a printed page. And I think of a former principal of mine, now long retired, who was convinced that all of his teachers needed two boxes of large paper clips and two boxes of small ones per year, no more and no less. One of my colleagues, a P.E. teacher, asked him point-blank what the P.E. department could possibly do with so many paper clips … and I think he finally realized that some teachers might need less than two boxes of each type of clip per year. That was well over a decade ago, when the factory model was much stronger than it is today … and when budgets in my face-to-face school district were much stronger than they are now.

One odd benefit of the Great Recession for learners and teachers, I think, has been the realization that Business As Usual is simply impossible. When everything is open for reconsideration, new ideas naturally emerge, and I hope that the Tres Columnae Project will help a lot of schools and teachers in this time of financial struggle. Not only can the Tres Columnae materials help teachers work “smarter, not harder,” as the old saying goes, but they can significantly reduce costs for textbooks, copy paper, photocopies, and the kinds of “supplementary materials” that teachers often buy to help a particular student. Unlike a hard-copy textbook, the Tres Columnae pages never wear out … and no one will vandalize them or tear them out of the (non-existent) book. No need to make copies, legal or otherwise; no need to spend hours grading and returning paper worksheets, only to watch students leave them on the floor under their desks. No way for organizationally-challenged students to lose things, either, since all their results are safely and securely stored online!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What benefits can you see from giving teachers (and parents and students and other community members) more detailed information about Where The Money Comes From to operate their schools?
  • What disadvantages or concerns can you think of?
  • What do you think of the potential cost savings from something like the Tres Columnae Project?
  • What other benefits – or disadvantages – can you see?

Once again, I wish all lectōrēs fidēlissimī who celebrate the holiday a very Merry Christmas, and I thank you again for continuing to read … and for coming back even on those dreary November and December days when sickness and too-busy-ness kept me from posting regularly. grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus!

Published in: on December 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Just Wondering, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! In the words of the holiday song, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” … but I’d like to take “wonderful” in a slightly different direction in today’s post. Once I’ve been away from the daily grind of the factory-model school for a few days, I often find that I have time to wonder about things that I normally take for granted. So, today, we’ll take a look at a few of those wonders, and we’ll continue tomorrow (if all goes well) and after the Christmas holiday weekend.

Returning for a moment to yesterday’s final questions, I wonder:

  • Why my students and I are so exhausted at this half-way point of the school year;
  • Why we, the teaching profession, so frequently fall back on the way we’ve always done things even when there are better, more effective, less difficult practices available – like the regular pattern of rehearsal that I mentioned in yesterday’s post; and
  • Why, in times of budgetary disasters, educators don’t tend to look for more cost-effective ways to do things.

I also wonder if these three wonders are somehow connected! And I think they are.

One common thread is that idea of the way we’ve always done things. If you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus of this blog, you know that always is a problematic word for me. Latin teachers, for example, tend to believe that the language has always been taught with grammar-translation methodology, even though that system is, historically speaking, a very recent development. School people, in general, assume that schools have always looked and operated pretty much the way they do now – or at least the way they did when we ourselves were students. But factory-model schools are also a fairly recent innovation; even the idea of one teacher delivering information to a group of learners passively seated in rows dates only to the establishment of the Prussian system in the late eighteenth century, as a friend of mine reminded me in a recent email. Before that, the schools that existed – and the teaching and learning situations in which most people obtained the knowledge, skills, and understandings that would guide their work and daily life – were very different places.

As I was writing this post, an email from eSchool News arrived in my in-box that described this “flipped” model of science and engineering education, in which students “watch lectures at home and practice in class.” I’ve only had time to skim the article so far, but I’m intrigued … and I think this system is very much in line with the way that the Tres Columnae Project would be used in a “blended” learning environment. What do you think?

One of the wonders I’ve been grappling with over the past few days has to do with the ways that we train teachers and school administrators … and, in particular, with a significant difference between the professional induction of young teachers and that of young members of other professions. There are obvious differences like the length of the induction process, the degree of supervision and guidance that young professionals receive, and the level of mastery that’s expected – but I’ve addressed those in other blog posts, and they’ve certainly been at the forefront of the national conversation about education. What I’m wondering about today is different:

Say that you were a young doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, electrician, auto mechanic … you name it. At some point early in your training, you confront the critical issue of Where The Money Comes From. But young teachers usually don’t. Why? And how would the world be different if they did?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question, and we’ll pick up with more about it – and why I think it’s important – in tomorrow’s post. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on December 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Returning to Life Again

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Once again, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write to you this way. In fact, I see that this is my first post for the month of December! As many of you know, December is a very difficult month in factory-model schools. Even if courses aren’t ending (or about to end in January, in our case), there’s still pressure to “get to the right place” before the Winter Break. And of course there are lots of interruptions to the routine – special holiday programs, field trips, and the like. They’re good for students, who need and deserve the opportunity to do a few “non-academic” things from time to time, but they’re hard on teachers, who have to plan around them. It’s also hard to readjust to the routine on a day when something “special” or “exciting” has happened.

In my face-to-face teaching world, where the semester ends (and new classes begin) in mid-January, December is also the time when I pledge to my students that “everything new” will have been “covered” or “introduced” before they leave for their Winter Break. This leads to a rapid pace during the earlier months of the school year – a pace that my students sometimes complain about at the time. By December, though, when they see that “everything new” really has been “covered” or “introduced” in their Latin classes, they tend to feel a lot more positive about the pace – especially when they compare the relative calm of our classes with the frantic forced march they experience in others. Yes, they’ll see a few new vocabulary words in January, and they’ll read a few new stories – but they won’t have to deal with any brand-new grammatical concepts, and they will have had plenty of time for the “older stuff” to sink in over their two-week vacation.

When I compare typical final-exam results on this schedule to those from the brief period when we did try to end the semester before the holidays, I’m amazed at how much better my students do when they take exams after a break. Of course, there’s a good bit of recent brain research about the importance of “rehearsal” for long-term memeory, and about the connection between “rehearsal” and adequate sleep. Check out this link from the California Department of Education for a good summary, and this fascinating one about the implications of the brain’s natural rhythms for when – and how often – you should review things you really want to transfer to long-term memory. How well are we doing with the kind of regularly spaced, intentional rehearsal described in that second link? And are we teachers showing our students why and how to do it?

I don’t think we are – and I think that’s a big cause of the exhaustion that teachers and students experience at this time of year. Even though I’ve been fascinated by The Brain for years – and even though I regularly teach my colleagues about “connections between Differentiated Instruction and the Brain” in that online staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district – I had never seen the recommendation to rehearse the day’s learning an hour or less before you go to bed, which features prominently in the California Department of Education link I mentioned in the paragraph above. I suppose we all have experienced the “mysterious” solutions that come to us, either in dreams or when we wake up, if we’ve been thinking about a problem right before we go to bed at night. But I’d never made the connection with learning – or with brain function! It’s amazing what adequate rest can do!

And yet, for so many students and teachers in factory-model schools, adequate rest during the regular school term is a distant hope at best. Students rush from class to class; they rush to each lunch; they rush to after-school events or jobs; they rush home for a rushed dinner; and they rush to complete homework assignments that their teachers rushed to prepare and will rush to discuss or grade the following day. Is it any wonder that so many students and teachers are exhausted so much of the time? Or that the levels of mastery and retention are less than we’d wish? I’m reminded of a sign that used to hang in the office of the wise, crusty old mechanic who maintained our family cars when I was a child. It said something to the effect of, “We can do things three ways: good, fast, and cheap. You can choose any two.” Sadly, I think too many schools choose fast and cheap, then wonder why the results aren’t as good as they could be.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you find that you (and your students, if you’re a teacher) are exhausted at this time of year?
  • What do you think of the brain-research findings we looked at in this post – especially the ones about regular rehearsal and about the rehearsal – sleep connection?
  • What are the implications for the ways that you teach and learn?
  • And what are the implications for the Tres Columnae Project?

Tune in next time, when we’ll take a closer look at these questions and raise a few others. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Holiday Wish List

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re reading this post “live” in the United States, congratulations! You must have survived “Black Friday,” traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. (If you’re outside the U.S., you may well be shaking your head in amazement … but that’s another conversation.) As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve developed a “Tres Columnae Project Holiday Wish List” in honor of Black Friday. But no worries! You don’t actually have to buy anything on the list … and none of the items will cause any conflicts in the aisles at your favorite local big-box retail store.

So here’s what the Tres Columnae Project would like to receive from Santa Claus this year:

  • A successful launch of the full Version Beta early in 2011, with all the “core” stories, exercises, and other content in place.
  • Growing numbers of subscribers and contributors, adding, editing, and remixing each other’s stories, images, audio, and video clips as they teach and learn Latin together.
  • Enough subscription revenue for our organization to sustain itself, pay its staff, and continue to grow and thrive. We’d love to grow to the point that we could provide a way for lovers of Latin and the Classics to make a good income (or even a good supplemental income)!
  • The opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of 21st-century Latin teachers and learners – you know who you are, either because you’re reading this blog or because you’ve been dissatisfied with the 19th- and 20th-century tools at your disposal.
  • The opportunity to showcase and share our subscribers’ stories, images, audio, and video clips – like this amazing one by some students at our pilot school in the UK.
  • The opportunity to build a real, vibrant community of Tres Columnae participants … not only in our online environment, but also face-to-face. If we can manage it, we’d like to hold a series of “unconferences” in places that are convenient for our subscribers. That may have to wait until 2012, but we went ahead and put it on the wish list, just in case.
  • The opportunity to co-create with our participants … to build the Tres Columnae Project not just the way that we envision it now, but the way that the community will design it together.

Of course, we should probably ask for a lot of strong coffee, since the other items on our Wish List will take some significant time and effort. How about 32 hours per day rather than the normal 24 so we can accomplish everything? And we might as well go ahead and ask for world peace and untold riches for everyone while we’re at it! 🙂 But if we could get even a few of the items on our Wish List, it certainly would be a Merry Christmas for us … and, we think, for the larger world of teachers and learners of Latin.

Whatever you desire, and whatever your holiday traditions may be, I wish you peace and joy amid the commercial whirlwind of this time of year. Tune in next time, when we’ll look in more detail at some of the items on the Wish List and see if you want them, too. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

 

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Giving Thanks

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s the day after Thanksgiving Day in the United States … the day that has come to be known as “Black Friday” because of its positive effect on retail stores’ balance sheets. I have a “holiday shopping list” for the Tres Columnae Project that I plan to share in tomorrow’s post, but please don’t worry – it does not involve the kinds of items that cause minor riots in the pre-dawn hours on “Black Friday.”

Today, though, I want to focus on gratitude, on the things I’m truly thankful for as a long, difficult year nears its conclusion and the promise of a new year awaits. It’s a long list!

  • My family, who support and love me, and whose encouragement (and constructive criticism) have meant so much in the development of the Tres Columnae Project, Versions Alpha and Beta
  • My wonderful circle of friends, both “physical” and “virtual,” who constantly encourage and challenge me, too
  • My students, even the “difficult” ones, who deserve real 21st-century learning materials, and who need their voices to be heard
  • Their families, who continue to entrust their children to a somewhat-unusual little school, and who then encourage (or at least allow) them to do such an “impractical” thing as to study Latin and the Ancient World
  • Remarkable books, filled with ideas that challenge and inspire. I’ll have more to say about two, in particular, in posts next week
  • The Tres Columnae community as it continues to form … especially Ann, Lucy our amazing illustrator, and Tim who did the thankless work of setting up the structures for Version Beta
  • Resources to meet our material needs, and a growing perspective on what’s really important and needed, and above all
  • The opportunity to live and work now, in these rapidly-changing times, and to be able to take part in some of the changes that are sweeping through the institutions of society.

Whether it’s been a week of thankfulness, a week of shopping, or just an ordinary week for you, I’m also truly grateful for you, lectōrēs fidēlissimī. It still amazes me to know how many of you are looking for something like our Joyful Learning Community, and I’m so glad you’ve become part of it.

grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Returning to Life

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Some of you lectōrēs fidēlissimī have probably been wondering what happened to me in the past few weeks. Many thanks to everyone who’s sent private messages and emails of concern.

Late October and early November happen to be a really difficult time in my face-to-face teaching world. The first quarter of the school year comes to an end, with grades and exams as I mentioned in my last post in late October. I was still recovering from the after-effects of that virus that had sidelined me for a few days at the first of October, too. Then came a set of intensely busy weeks and another virus – an upper respiratory one this time. Teachers and students often say that they’re “sick of school” around this time of year … but apparently my body decided to take that old saying literally this time! 🙂 I did manage to keep working with my students each day, but by the end of the day I was very tired, very drained … and very busy with that online staff-development course about Differentiated Instruction that I teach for my face-to-face school district. The fall session just ended yesterday; progress reports go home tomorrow; I finished grading a large pile of students’ tests this morning; and after a small dinner and a long nap, I realized that I finally had both time and energy to write this post.

As I read back over the last paragraph, I was reminded of several things about teaching in factory-model schools. First, it’s an exhausting process! Since teachers have very little practical help with designing instruction or designing assessments, the hours of planning and preparation are long. At the same time, since teachers’ primary “work” involves direct contact with students, the vast majority of our time is simply not available for the designing part of what we do. Second, it’s an inefficient process! When time is held constant, as the assembly-line approach demands, quality and learning are necessarily variable – and even when you try to run an enlightened factory, the students (raw materials? production workers?) come in with memories of other, less-enlightened factories … or, in some cases, fresh experiences of those less-enlightened factories from the classes they’ve attended earlier in the day. Third, it’s not a very systematic process! Whatever big-picture goals a factory may have – even if they’re sincerely, deeply held by its managers and workers – the daily, number-one priority has to be to keep that production line moving. In the same way, it’s so easy for factory-model schools to fall into the “coverage” trap – to rush their learners through a superficial exposure to a broad-but-shallow curriculum, rather than to take the time necessary for deep learning to grow.

In the past two days, I saw two amazing indicators of this rushing trend – one in an article shared by a friend and one in my own students’ performance on their last test. The article, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the first-person account of a professional paper-writer; he (or possibly she – it’s hard to tell from the pseudonym) makes a good living producing custom-written papers for undergraduate and graduate students in a whole range of academic subject areas. You really need to read this – and the comments are as telling as the article itself. The factory model reaches its logical conclusion! The test item is one I’ve used for several years; it’s part of a section where students choose the right meaning for an English word derived from Latin and identifying the Latin root word, and it comes after students have had a great deal of practice with this particular skill. The word was ubiquitous – certainly a word which college-bound high-school students, especially the juniors and seniors who are a significant plurality in both of my Latin I classes this semester, should know. They were generally able to link it to its root word (both ubi and ubique happened to appear in the reading passage where they were to find the root), but as a group, they failed dismally to choose an appropriate meaning. No doubt, at some point, ubiquitous had appeared on a “vocabulary list” in an English class they’d taken, and no doubt they had dutifully “copied the word and the definition” and taken a “vocabulary test” on which the word was featured. But there was no retention at all! (Ironically, they had retained the Latin word ubi quite well after experiencing it several times in context, using it repeatedly, and then using some formal study techniques.) If you subscribe to the Latin-BestPractices listserv, you probably saw this post, which refers to Stephen Krashen’s research about vocabulary acquisition; if so, you’re probably not surprised either by the fact that my students hadn’t retained ubiquitous but had retained ubi, given their very different experiences with “learning” (or, in the first case, “memorizing”) the two words.

If you’re feeling a bit hopeless, please don’t despair! After all, my students recovered from their ubiquitous problem and had a wonderful day of test corrections today. They also showed me – and themsleves – that they really have retained quite a lot of Latin vocabulary, and gotten quite good at reading and understanding the language. And if you’d really like a treat, check out this amazing video from the Tres Columnae Project’s pilot school in England. Notice the Joy, the Learning, the Community, and the Ownership! I highly doubt that the students will ever forget the words they used in their skit … or the skit itself, for that matter!

And then, when you have a chance, please check out the very preliminary Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project. No need to subscribe or create an account yet; you can see all the stories and other content for free at the moment. We’ve been working hard to move things over from the Version Alpha Wiki, which of course is still available (and isn’t going away!), and we’d love to know what you think. We’ve also been working hard to add some more sample exercises, quizzes, and other good things to Version Beta. Of course we’d love to have your help; please let me know, with a comment here or a private message, if you’d be interested in helping with the transition or in developing some additional exercises. The more you contribute, the better the project will be … and the less the subscription costs will be for you and your students if you choose one of our paid subscription models down the road. If all goes well, Version Beta will have its official launch in early 2011, and we’ll always continue to add new features as the community works together to envision, create, and implement them.

Tune in next time for your comments, our responses, and more of a preview of Version Beta and beyond. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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More Quality and Quantity, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! It’s a week of beginnings and endings in my face-to-face teaching world: the end of a grading period, the beginning and end of midterm exams, the departure of some students whose families are moving. It’s a time for taking stock and reflecting … and it’s also been a very up-and-down week. Monday afternoon I felt as though I’d been completely unsuccessful with three students in particular, and yet, by the end of the day on Tuesday, things seemed to have turned around for at least two of them. I also had wonderful, positive conversations with the mothers of those two. They both continued to have some struggles (and, at times, to be extremely unpleasant to me and their classmates) for the rest of the week. But as I write this on a sunny, cool Friday morning (the first day of a three-day weekend in my face-to-face teaching world), I feel more hopeful about the two of them than I have in a very long time.

The experience of midterm exams in my face-to-face classes is often a bitter learning experience for my less-responsible, less-mature students – the ones who haven’t yet taken Ownership of their learning in particular. They certainly have wake-up calls along the way in the form of smaller, more targeted assessments … but those can be easy to ignore. As you know if you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus, I have some reservations about large, summative assessments in general – but if they’re going to happen (and, by policy of my face-to-face school district, they’re required), I want them to be a real learning experience and a real indicator of my students’ progress with all the Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings they’ve developed at the half-way point in their courses. The sober faces – and the false bravado that some of my students like to put on as a mask – were good indicators that this year’s exams achieved both goals. I’ve looked at them, but am waiting until later today (or possibly tomorrow morning), over a cup of coffee or tea, to do the actual marking and grading. If it were just a bit less windy, I’d sit outside in the late fall sun … but wind and exam papers don’t mix well! I’d also have a very disappointed dog if I were outside and he were stuck inside – and a very difficult time concentrating if he were outside with me.

Of all weeks, exam periods really bring out the industrial side of factory-model schools. The very existence of a midterm or final examination implies the kind of post-production quality control I mentioned in Monday’s post, of course. And since factory-model schools are all about attendance and seat time, my poor students are stuck at school all day – even when some of their teachers have “nothing” for them to do. After years of schooling, they’ve come to expect such wasted time … so much so that they often resent being asked to “do work” on such days. I was able to find an engaging – and utterly different and self-contained – learning opportunity for them yesterday, the “makeup exam” day, but it was a painful struggle. There were several times I felt like the foreman at a factory where the workers were about to strike … or maybe the vīlicus on a Roman farm where the servī were considering rebellion! 🙂 My hope is that within a few years, schools (and assessment techniques) will change to the point that this paragraph seems hopelessly quaint and outdated! And I hope that the continuous assessment model at the heart of the Tres Columnae Project will help to lead the way.

But in a time of huge changes and shifts across society, it’s hard to know what aspects of any institution will need to change and what will need to stay the same. Is it more difficult, or just different, I wonder, when the institution is a school? Like all institutions, schools are fundamentally a conservative, restraining force – and what’s more, they (I should say “we”) exist, at least in part, in order to maintain the social order, to socialize young members of society into their “expected” or “proper” roles. That can be difficult, to say the least, when the social order is changing! And it’s always difficult to find the right balance of structure and freedom or opportunity for young people who are on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there yet … especially when they make poor choices, or when they abuse the freedoms or opportunities that are provided for them.

When I was first planning the Tres Columnae Project, it seemed to me that a self-paced, collaborative learning environment would make it easier to strike the right balance between structure and freedom or opportunity for our learners and subscribers. After all, unlike a student in a factory-model school, a Tres Columnae subscriber presumably

  • comes to us by choice rather than by compulsion;
  • is free to work at his or her own pace, rather than at a “forced march” dictated externally;
  • can linger over difficult or intriguing points until his or her curiosity is satisfied; and
  • can become a co-creator, not just a consumer, of the learning materials by making Submissions to the project.

But just as my own face-to-face students sometimes make poor choices and abuse their freedoms and opportunities, the same is certainly possible for Tres Columnae subscribers … and for participants in any learning environment. What structures might we want to put in place to help them? Or is the process of making – and learning from – poor choices an essential part of growing up?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time for more – and for an exciting preview of Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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More Quality and Quantity, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I mentioned on Saturday, our posts this week will focus on two main themes:

continuing to explore the ideas of qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment, and

thinking more about the idea of assessment as conversation, with many thanks to my colleague who mentioned this idea in the assignment she submitted as part of that staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district.

Ironically, as I write this post, it’s midterm exam week in my face-to-face teaching world … not a time when assessment usually feels like a conversation to students. Indeed, it sometimes feels more like a punishment, both to the students who have to take the exams and to the teachers who have to grade them.

But why is that? Any time that I find myself avoiding a task, I assume there’s some kind of a mismatch going on. Perhaps the task is too hard, or I’m not well-prepared for it. Perhaps it’s too easy and I find it insulting. Perhaps it’s just tedious because it doesn’t match my personality. Perhaps I’m avoiding it because it was an imposed task rather than a chosen one. And, of course, all of those factors can be involved when teachers procrastinate about writing midterm exams, or when students procrastinate about studying for them! 🙂

As it happens, my midterm exams are all written; I just need to take a quick look at them, make a few minor revisions, and get them copied before Tuesday (for my Latin III students) and Wednesday (for the I’s). I also need to deal with a small pile of papers generated over the past few days – one set from that period when I was first sick, and another from the middle of this week, as well as some last-minute makeup assignments that my students have been turning in. I haven’t been consciously avoiding these, but I realized I wasn’t as eager to look at them as I typically would be. I suppose it’s partly because I’ve been doing so much work on the assessment part of the Tres Columnae Project recently. Once you see the power of instantaneous corrective feedback, it’s hard to go back to “the old-fashioned way” of hand-grading things and the inevitable time lag that results. Fortunately, that small stack consists of summative rather than formative tasks, and they were mostly small-group collaborative efforts. So my students know how they’re doing with these tasks even if I don’t have “official” numbers yet.

And I think that’s really important. Even before I had articulated the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment, I was moving toward the qualitative approach. I’m a lot less interested in “official” numbers than I am in students’ learning … and if I had to choose, I’d rather that they knew how they were doing than that I did. Of course, I don’t want to choose: I obviously need to know how my students are doing, if only so that I can plan appropriate activities for them, and so do they, if only so they can figure out whether they need extra practice or are ready to move on. And if we all know, then assessment as conversation must be happening, at least to some degree.

But too often, in too many schools and classes, it isn’t happening. Assessment is still being used as a club rather than a conversation, a weapon rather than a window into greater understanding. If I wait more than a day to look at assessment results – unless it’s a pre-test for something that we’ll be doing in a couple of weeks – I’m obviously not going to be able to respond to any weaknesses or deficiencies revealed by those assessments. At best, they’ve become a snapshot of my students’ performance; at worst, they’re completely useless to everybody.

I suppose that lengthy delays in delivering assessment results to those who need them are probably a legacy of the factory-model approach that has governed American public education for such a long time. After all, if you’re running a factory, the cars, radios, and washing machines really don’t need to know how well they’re being built … and, in fact, they obviously can’t know such things! In a mid-twentieth-century factory, even the production workers probably don’t need to have much of an idea about the overall quality of the product; they just need to make sure to do their step correctly. For that matter, even the foremen and supervisors need not be concerned with the overall quality of the product; they could just focus on the work done by the workers under their supervision. And that model, where no one involved in the production is all that concerned with quality, continues to influence the operation of schools to this day.

Of course, factories can’t work that way anymore, and there’s a lot of pressure on schools to change their approach, too. But old habits die hard. Just the other day I heard a colleague mention her belief that students “have to have the right to fail” and the choice not to do what’s expected of them. Now, on one level, that’s true: in the end, no one can truly compel anyone else to do anything. But hidden under that truth was an expectation that lots of learners probably would choose to exercise this “right” – and that such a choice was perfectly OK with her. That’s where I part company with her – just as I would disagree with a manufacturing company that found it acceptable to ship 10% or even 5% of its products with significant defects. I wouldn’t buy stock in that company, and I definitely wouldn’t buy its products – especially if I needed 10 or 20 of them! In the same way, I can’t see how, as a society, we can possibly accept a 10% or even 5% failure rate on the part of our schools … let alone the 40-50% or more that seems to be routine in some large urban school districts.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to explore these ideas … and begin to look at ways that the Tres Columnae Project and other online resources can make a real difference. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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