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!

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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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More Quality and Quantity, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I’m sorry this post is a few hours later than usual today. It was a quiet, peaceful start to the weekend in my world, but it had been a very busy and tiring week … and it’s also the weekend before midterm exams in my face-to-face teaching world. And it was “Spirit Week” at school – always a tiring, if enjoyable, time – and an utterly beautiful Fall day today.

I was intrigued at all the connections with our conversation about qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment that I’ve noticed over the past few days … and about the connections to students’ Ownership of their learning. For example, I spent a good bit of Friday afternoon on the phone with a very concerned parent of one of my Latin I students, who’s apparently been struggling with all of his classes this year. I had hoped to hear from this set of parents, as I’d been very concerned about their son as well: he’s one of those quiet, very respectful, but very disengaged kids who would “fall through the cracks” at many large schools … and, from talking with his mom, he had apparently been hoping to fall through the cracks with us, too. Fortunately for him (but unfortunately for his desire), he has very caring parents and a small school with caring teachers, so we’re now working on creating conditions where taking Ownership will be less painful for him than his current practice of refusing Ownership.

I had a real shock, though, when I looked up D’s current grades in his other classes and discovered just how badly he’d been doing there. If, as a profession, educators embraced the idea of qualitative assessment as we’ve defined it, all kinds of warning bells would have gone off weeks ago, when his grades began to decline. Think about it! If the purpose of assessment is to help teachers and learners, wouldn’t it have helped both D and his parents to know as soon as he started struggling? If we really lived in a qualitative world, I would have been in touch with them early this month, right around the time I got sick … or at least when I had recovered from that horrible, draining virus. But if we really lived in a qualitative world, I suppose there would be systems and procedures in place that allowed students, parents, and teachers to monitor their progress much more easily … and that notified everyone when students’ performance began to slip.

Unfortunately, American public education usually takes a quantitative approach, as we’ve defined the term, when it comes to assessment. We’re much more interested in crunching numbers – in seeing statistical patterns, on the macro level, and “averaging grades” on the micro level – than we are in using the information to help individual struggling learners. The more I think about that, the less I understand it. Even if we fully embraced the factory model, the purpose of quality assurance in a factory is to improve the production process, thus lowering costs and decreasing production defects. So, if an inspector at the local plant discovered that a significant number of widgets had a defect that could be traced to Step 43 on the production line, most companies would be paying some significant attention to Step 43, if only for economic reasons.

And yet, in the “education industry,” we develop all kinds of statistics – statistics about student performance, about the number of students proficient with a given objective, about the number of students who miss a particular question on tests we administer in our own classroom. And then we stop. We don’t change the data into information by acting on it! For example, I’ve noticed this year that my Latin I classes complete less homework on Wednesday nights than they do on other nights … and I stopped there, influenced by decades of a quantitative approach to such information.

In a qualitative world, I would have acted on this discovery somehow:

  • Perhaps I would have asked my students if they had a lot of outside commitments on Wednesdays.
  • Given their responses, I might have adjusted the amount of homework assigned on Wednesday evenings, or I might have worked with them on time-management skills.
  • I might have gone to my colleagues and seen if they were noticing a similar pattern.
  • I might even have contacted colleagues at other schools in the district to see if they were experiencing a similar issue.
  • But no … I just observed the information and recorded it!

The participants in that online staff-development course I teach have mostly reached our unit about “Assessing Your Assessment Approaches” as I write this post. It’s always an eye-opener for them. We don’t use the qualitative and quantitative terms, but we do stress the idea that the results of both formal and informal assessments aren’t a goal in themselves. Instead, the purpose of assessment is to find out how our learners are doing so that we can make changes, if necessary, in our instruction. We may need to speed up, slow down, divide into different groups, or whatever … but the purpose of assessment is to have a basis for our future actions. Anyway, one of “my” participants made the best comment in an assignment I just finished reading. She said she’d always resented the time it takes to develop, grade, and record tests and quizzes, but she now realizes that assessment is a “conversation” (her term) between the teacher and the learners.

A conversation between teacher and learners! What a great definition for assessment … and for education in general! I’m still pondering all the implications of that … and how we can build such a conversation into the heart of the Tres Columnae Project.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to look at the implications of qualitative and quantitative assessment approaches … and we’ll also think more about assessment as conversation. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Returning to Life, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  Since it’s been such a long time, I wanted to look back at the questions and issues I left you with at the end of our last “normal” post … back before the crazy period of sickness and ultra-busy times that intervened over the past couple of weeks.  You may recall that we were talking about a distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment.  I had been working on how to phrase the distinction more clearly – and it finally came to me as I was responding to something that someone sent me as part of that online staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district.  She had made a comment about a set of district-wide benchmark assessments that we formerly used, but have since abandoned for a variety of reasons; her point was that the information from these was often helpful, but the assessments themselves took such a long time to give – and it took such a long time to get the information back – that the usefulness was compromised.  I thought that perfectly encapsulated the distinction between what I’m calling the qualitative and the quantitative approaches to assessment:

  • With a qualitative approach, the focus is on the quality of the learners’ learning.  Numbers may well be involved, but they’re seen as the means to an end of improving learning – for example, if a child consistently misses questions about Objective 3.2 (whatever that may be), she clearly needs help with the knowledge or skills involved.  But there’s not necessarily a focus on the bigger picture.
  • With a quantitative approach, on the other hand, the focus is on the numbers themselves.  One might note that 55% of the learners in a given class struggled with Objective 3.2, or that 73% of 4th-graders were proficient with Objective 3.3.  One might even look at trends over time to see whether these proficiency levels had increased or decreased, and consider how they  compared to the levels in other schools or school districts or nations.  But there’s probably not a focus on how to help the individual children, or on the specific teaching strategies a teacher might employ with a child who struggles with Objective 3.2.

If you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus, you can probably guess that I’ll be arguing for a creative synthesis of these two approaches.  Each, after all, has some strengths that the other lacks, and neither, by itself, will improve both the big picture and the small picture of students’ learning.  You’d be right … but I think the quantitative approach has been significantly over-emphasized in factory model schools!  And it hasn’t been emphasized in a way that led to improvements in “production quality,” either.  I’ll have more to say about that in tomorrow’s (or Saturday’s) post.

Anyway, here are the questions I left us with a couple of weeks ago:

  • What do you think of the redefinition of qualitative and quantitative approaches in this post?
  • What types of information do you want to collect about your students?
  • What are some ways that we can take raw, unprocessed data and transform it into helpful information?
  • And how can we use such information – whether we get it from the Tres Columnae Project or from another source – to help our students grow in specific areas?

I’d also like to add a couple of new questions:

  • How might we work toward a creative synthesis of the qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessment?
  • Do you think it’s even possible for a quantitative approach to help teachers teach – and learners learn – more effectively?  Or do you think a quantitative approach, by its very nature, can only measure, but never improve teaching and learning?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

It’s good to return to life, and I look forward to hearing from you as this conversation develops.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 10:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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