Yet another STEM alert

Honey please.

This morning’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story (sorry, premium content/no link) about how students in Georgia and the nation are no more interested in careers in science, math, and technology than they were a decade ago.  Quelle horreur!

A key finding of a U.S. News & World Report study was that interest had actually fallen between 2009 and 2013.

Hey, you know what else had fallen between 2009 and 2013?  FUNDING FOR K-12 EDUCATION IN THE STATE OF GEORGIA, you freaking morons.

Between 2000 and 2011, I watched my media center’s budget shrivel to $0.  That is Z-E-R-O dollars.  The only money I had to buy books with was raised by the PTO’s book fairs.  That’s it.  So whatever I was supposed to be doing to help turn our children into wonks and geeks wasn’t getting done.  At the same time, the overwhelming focus on reading and math meant that science was barely taught at the elementary level.

Between 2003 and 2013, I watched the budget for GHP go from about $1.6 million to about half of that.  Our science classes had to scrounge discarded computers from VSU to do their lab work.  They had to trek down to the library to do even the slightest bit of web research.  Purchase of spiffy materials or equipment was out of the question. Experimental work that took longer than two and a half weeks was not doable within our crippled four week program.  Our technology and design classes were coasting on computers we bought years ago.  We were “significantly different from the regular high school classroom” only in being significantly behind.

So don’t come wringing your hands to me, Powers That Be.  If making sure that more of our students desired careers in the STEM fields had been important to you, you would have bloody invested in making sure it bloody happened.  You didn’t.  Fuck off.1

update: I need to clarify that our GHP science/tech/design classes were “significantly different,” of course, because of the incredible instructors and their ability to focus on the process, but boy it would have helped if I had been able to, you know, buy stuff for them.

—————

1 Apologies for the language.2

2 Not really.

My secret lust

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Grock, King of Clowns, the memoir of Adrien Wettach.  No, I had never heard of him either, but Mike Funt said I should read it, and so I found a used copy on Amazon and ordered it.

Totally delightful read, even though I had no clue as to who this man was or how he managed to retire to a 30-room villa in Italy as a millionaire after 50 years of performing as the most famous clown in the world. We live and learn.

But that has nothing to do with my secret lust.

For this book was a discard from a university library, and tucked away in it were these:

::sigh:: Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?  The only way these could be more arousing would be if they were a complete set.  Still, I mustn’t complain.

Actually, these are two main entry cards, possibly from two different libraries.  Neither is what I would call complete.  The first one has the original title (Nit m-öglich) but no subject headings; the second has the obvious subject Clowns but not the original title.  There is also the difference of opinion as to where to put this book.  The first library puts it under Circuses in the 791’s, although they could have extended the number with the –092 standard subdivision for biographical works, i.e., 791.1092, although –09 would have been sufficient.  The second opts for the Biography section with the 92, the lazy librarian’s shortcut for the actual number, 921.  Either card is correct.

Both use Cutter numbers for the author rather than the first three letters of the author’s last name.  For the regular school library, that’s an unnecessary complication.  (So would be the extension of the Dewey Decimal number I suggested above. The purpose of such detail is to allow books on similar topics to be grouped together on the shelf, and how many books on the circus does a regular library have, after all?)

This just gets me going.  Even among media specialists I was a cataloging freak.  I loved cataloging, from the days when we still typed the cards ourselves (like these two) to online MARC records.  I knew the Dewey Decimal Classification Abridged edition by heart, and when we built the new East Coweta High School I ordered the full edition.  When it arrived I was physically tingly, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The new library at ECHS was essentially empty, a blank slate, and over the next four years I got to fill it with 15,000 books, most of which I cataloged myself.  Sure, some came with catalog cards, and most books in those days (1988-1992ish) had full Cataloging in Publication records on their copyright pages, but, you guys, CIP was often hugely inaccurate.  The minions at the Library of Congress were often cataloging based on a title page alone, and that created some incredible howlers, DDC-speaking-wise.  I was compelled—compelled, I tell you—to correct them.

I was so in love with cataloging that I actually programmed an Apple ][e to print a full set of catalog cards for any given main entry.  The way it used to work was that, like the above cards, you had a “main entry” for a book. That main entry included titles, subject headings, editors, illustrators, etc., and after you typed that card, you then typed all the other cards.  Originally, subject cards had the subject line typed in red ink, but around the time I arrived we had settled on ALL CAPS instead.  (See here, for example.)

With my program, you typed in all the elements—author, dates, title, subtitle, publisher, subjects—and then the dot matrix printer spit out every card you needed.  It was awesome, and everyone in Coweta County used it until the state automated us in the early 90s.

Let me be clear: I am not one of those who misses the actual card catalog.  What a nightmare to construct and maintain!  What happens when a book is not returned?  Do you pull the catalog cards?  At the time, the main entry cards (plus title cards) were in one piece of furniture, and the subject cards were in another piece of furniture.  You’d be pulling all these cards from everywhere—pulling the metal rod out of the entire drawer, pulling the card, reinserting the rod, etc.—and, what, storing them?  Because then what if the book shows back up when lockers are cleaned out at the end of the year?  Then you have to refile the cards.  Ugh.

But the cataloging itself?  Remember this scene?  That’s how I feel about cataloging.  I was so notorious amongst my fellow media specialists that when new books came without cataloging, others would wait until I had input mine in the online system, then just add their copies to my main entry.  If the books came with electronic cataloging, I would go through and correct entries, add subject headings, and improve call numbers.  I was incorrigible.

I mean, look at this: Catalog card prøn!

Now go here and get your inner Dewey on!

Mugshots: The Newnan Crossing 100 Book Club

Ah, the acrid smell of failure…

I would call it a spectacular failure, except that would denote spectacle, and the Newnan Crossing 100 Book Club never crawled out from the mud, much less took flight.

The concept was simple, and I should be standing astride the world of elementary reading like a Colossus, not to mention filthy rich somehow, but I never found a way to make it work.

I got the idea from a book called The 100 Greatest Books for Children, or something equally ludicrous.  It occurred to me that it might be a good thing to challenge students to read some of the “greatest books for children,” and it would be even better to distract our better readers from the Accelerated Reader™ point treadmill.

For those who have never suffered through Accelerated Reader™, it’s a behemoth: Renaissance Learning wants to take over your school one computer and one child at a time.  For AR™, as it is commonly known, all the student has to do is to 1) read a book at his “level”; 2) take a computerized comprehension quiz; 3) accumulate points based on his score.

Simple, and actually effective as a strategy for helping low-level readers improve their reading skills.  However, for very good readers, it’s awful.  First of all, if a school focuses on the points and creates a competition based on them, the gifted kids go nuts.  It’s a piece of cake for them to read a Harry Potter book, take the quiz, and snarf up 20+ points, while the struggling reader (for whom the program is designed) is lucky to get 1 or 2 points for their little books.

Worse, the good readers will race through books so they can get even partial credit/points for a book, thereby destroying what pleasure there might be in tackling Harry Potter.  (Remember, the quizzes are low-level comprehension quizzes only: no higher thinking skills required.)

So my idea for the 100 Book Club was equally simple: the student picked one of the 100 Book Club books, read it, and wrote a review explaining how they liked it. There were over 800 books on the list (cataloged in the online catalog), each and every one either an award winner or a starred review in one of the library journals.  The aim was to read 100 of these books by the time you graduated 5th grade.

Kids could even go ahead and take the AR™ quiz if they wanted to, but passing the quiz didn’t get them credit for the 100 Book Club.  They had to write a review, and it had to be approved by me.

That was the problem, in the long run: we had no way to manage the review process that would keep it alive.  At first, I had folders for kids to use, but that was unwieldy.  Then I had the IT crowd install a group content management system that was supposed to provide every kid with his own book blog, but that was also unwieldy.

Finally, Follett Software Company upgraded their catalog software so that students could write reviews in the catalog.  Perfect!

But it didn’t work, and I think the main reason why is that I could never get the teachers to organize around it.  AR™ was much easier—the kids managed that on their own, and I handled the only rewards Newnan Crossing gave out, the aluminum dog tags for “Point Clubs.”  All the teachers had to do was to give the Renaissance Learning reading diagnostic and assign the kids their reading levels.

(To be fair, the best teachers worked very hard using AR™ appropriately, cajoling kids and encouraging them with praise, etc.  100 Book Club would have added a whole other layer of work which they could scarcely deal with.)

It was also nearly impossible for a kid to get even close to the 100 books unless they started in 2nd grade and read bunches of the “Junior Level” books before getting to 4th grade, and even then it meant reading one of these higher level books every week in 4th and 5th grades.  Not really do-able; I should have thought of that before launching it.  But “100 Book Club” is really catchy, isn’t it?

So the whole thing just sat there, nudged along by me for five years, but never really taking off.  If it had worked, we would have been graduating kids who not only had read some of the best books around, but who would also have learned to write well about their reading.

There were lots of kids, the cool kids, who hooked into the concept and regularly consulted the list of titles to choose their reading—they had found that Mr. Lyles spoke the truth when he said these books were better than the regular books.  But none of them wrote reviews; they took the AR™ test instead.

Oh well, in my charter school…

Note: I use the trademark symbol after AR™ because I always wanted to remind the teachers that this is a commercial venture.  We have to pay for the software and pay for each and every quiz.  Otherwise, many people think it’s just a wonderful gesture of kindness that someone does to help our students learn to read.

A Chomskian post from the past

I was trolling through files on my hard drive, wondering what some of them were, when I came across a word processing document that impressed me. I was working on my specialist degree, five or so years ago now, and I think it was the piddling psychology class they make you take to give the psychology professors something to do. It was like the last class I had on my agenda, and like me, most of the students were old enough to be the professor’s parent. We were mostly amused by his efforts.

Anyway, there was some online discussion as part of the class, and this one was on Chomsky and others of that ilk. I had gone away for the whole week (could it have been that historical trip to the mountains that Thanksgiving?), and when I got back, I was bothered by the turn the conversation had taken. Most of the participants had taken “grammar” to mean “rules of speech,” and it took a pretty prescriptive turn. Silly.

This was my response, and I think it still reads well:

I notice there is some confusion in our discussion of Chomsky over the nature of grammar. “Grammar” is not that set of rules set up by the dominant power structure to govern our language, nor is it a set of exercises out of Warriner’s. Grammar, as Chomsky means it, is innate, that is, born with us, and it includes our ability to recognize and create sentences that no one has ever heard before nor ever will again. It is not literacy and it is not writing.

The comparison of transformational grammar to math [in the textbook] is interesting, since one of the biggest problems non-mathematicians have with symbolic logic is the idea that an argument/syllogism can be true even if the statements which make it up are false. To wit:

  • All women have three heads.
  • George W. Bush is a woman.
  • Therefore, George W. Bush has three heads.

The structure is perfectly valid, perfectly true, despite the fact that the premises are outrageous fabrications. This is grammar. The most famous example from Chomsky is the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” immediately recognizable as a correct sentence even though it makes no sense. In contrast, “Dog the his ate brown under food tree the” is not a sentence in any language. Innate transformational grammar is what allows any child in our schools to a) recognize those words in that order as gibberish; and b) rearrange those words into a real sentence. If literacy is removed from the equation, any child in the school can perform that task without any instruction from us.

A thought experiment: take the “dog” sentence, and consider how you would present those words on cards to a non-reading child and ask him to put them in some grammatical order. If you decided to start simple and then ask the child to add the remaining words one at a time, you’d probably begin with “dog the ate food his.” How did you know that? That’s Chomskian grammar. The kicker is that eventually you come up against “under.” Even a moment’s thought is enough to show you that you can’t hand the child just the word “under” and expect him to proceed. You would have to give him “tree under the” and ask him to put all three words in, which he would proceed to do after rearranging them into a prepositional phrase. Finally, the word “brown” can go in any of three places, but only in those three places. That is transformational grammar.

Our concerns over “street” grammar and “standard” grammar are misplaced in this discussion. Standard grammar is one of the tools used by the dominant power structure to cement its influence, and anyone who intends to live profitably within that power structure needs to know how to speak and write it. Indeed, one of our duties as educators is to provide students the opportunity to avail themselves of that knowledge. However, bemoaning the decline or absence of that structure in our students is trivial. One might just as well compare the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln with those of our current political leadership and conclude that we were suffering from a precipitous decay in the public arena.

So, how would I use Chomsky’s theories in my media center? If I were coaching a student in his reading, I would (and do) rest comfortably in the knowledge that the child is capable of recognizing the sentence on the page, whether or not he is currently capable of translating those squiggly black marks under the illustration. The words on the page are not arranged randomly, but in a pattern that is born in the child’s brain and already expanded by his experience in the world so far. This is a hopeful, and helpful, hook: whether or not the child says, “Bobby be’s riding his bike” in his daily life, he will not be puzzled by the sentence, “Bobby rides his bike” on the page. Whether we then correct the child’s daily speech is a political choice, and with Chomsky, it’s all political anyway.

A brilliant idea

I have had a scathingly brilliant idea. I’m sure it’s not original, but it is exciting in many ways.

It occurred to me last night, as my head was hitting the pillow, that Pages (Apple’s word processor) will export files in ePub format. (This is in addition to PDF, .doc, and RTF files.)

You know what this means, of course? I can get students to write their stories or poems or essays, and we can publish them for iBooks on the iPad. We can create class magazines, or a school publication. Individual students who are assiduous enough to write books can see their handiwork distributed.

If they do their work on the iPads, they can “print” to the home computer, and I can prep the files there.

If they do artwork in ArtRage, we can lay it out in Pages and publish it.

If they do a comic strip in Comic Life, we can export it to PDFs and convert that to ePub via Calibre.

Students who are emerging writers can copy their work to SpeakIt and have it read back to them, helping them develop their inner ear.

We can build a library of student work. Students will want to read what others have written. Students will want to write in order to be read.

Turn, turn, kick turn , yes, it will work!

Reading Caves: theory & practice

On the Nature of Reading Caves

At Newnan Crossing Elementary, we’ve been celebrating Read Across America, as is our wont, with our Reading Caves event. I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the theory and practice of this curious cultural artifact.

First a photo of this year’s caves:

As you can see, teams of teachers come in and transform the media center with bulletin board paper and fripperies. The idea is that students will come in and secrete themselves in one hidey hole or another and read for a short time. It’s just something out of the ordinary and fun.

But why? Why don’t I bring in multitudes of volunteers to read books, usually something by Dr. Seuss, to classes all over the school?

I used to do that, actually. As the school got larger, however, it became more and more of a problem to line up the number of volunteers needed, then match their availability to our insane patchwork schedule all over the building.

And then one year, I forgot. I looked at the calendar, and it was February 25, and I had done nothing about Read Across America Day on March 2.

I panicked.

But then, somehow, I remembered a thing I had read years before.

The Theory of Reading Caves

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, et al., is a tome published in 1977, and it bears every hallmark of the sensibilities of the 1960s and their aftermath: utopianism, rejection of urban/corporate life, respect for older ways, optimism, etc., etc. Large parts of it belong to the “isn’t it pretty to think so?” school of planning, but a great deal of it is not only heartfelt, but valid.

The book is essentially a grammar of design for living spaces: towns, buildings, homes, neighborhoods. More than 250 ‘patterns’ in this grammar are presented, hierarchically listed and interlinked. The patterns are derived from the authors’ observations about how healthy cultures live(d), and many are precisely archetypal.

Late in the book, p. 927-929, we are presented with a detail pattern: 203 CHILD CAVES. I will quote the pattern in its entirety:

Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.

In the course of their play, young children seek out cave-like space to get into and under, old crates, under tables, in tents, etc. […]

They try to make special spaces for themselves and for their friends, most of the world about them is “adult space” and they are trying to carve out a place that is kid size.

When children are playing in such a “cave”, each child takes up about 5 square feet; furthermore, children like to do this in groups, so the caves should be large enough to accommodate this: these sorts of groups range in size from three to five, so 15 to 25 square feet, plus about 15 square feet for games and circulation, gives a rough maximum size for caves.

Therefore:

Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves ” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural left over spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low, 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet, and the entrance tiny.

I don’t think I need to provide a lot of proof or defense for pattern 203: who among us has not thrilled at the receipt of a refrigerator box? I remember that one reason I looked forward to school being out each summer was that I could prevail upon my father to go to Maxwell-Prince Furniture (“Drive a little and save a lot,” a slogan necessitated by the fact that they were not on the Court Square but, gasp!, nearly a whole mile away out on Hwy 27, at the Hospital Road intersection) and get me a box. It would become my Fortress of Solitude for weeks.

So, in my panic and desperation at having not scheduled a single reader for the school, I boldly announced a new initiative: Newnan Crossing Reading Caves!

That first year was more than a little desperate. I pulled the thing together literally overnight, bringing in sheets and swaths of fabric; lamps; pillows. I turned over tables and enveloped them in bulletin board paper. I turned the book aisles into long, narrow enclaves. I borrowed the parachute from the gym and draped it over tables and the couch. I borrowed materials from teachers. The whole thing was quite lame.

And it was a huge hit. The kids didn’t see the tape and bulletin board paper, nor did they see how desperately cheesy it was: they saw CHILD CAVES, and they were ecstatic.

At that point, Newnan Crossing was pushing 1,000 students, and it was clear to me that Reading Caves was a much more practicable solution to Read Across America Day than the nightmare that scheduling volunteers had turned into. We went with it.

Reading Caves in Practice

Since that first year, I have invited teachers to join in the fun. Those who choose can volunteer to put up a Reading Cave, and they choose their theme. On the afternoon beforehand, they come into the media center and transform it. For the next two days, media center traffic comes to a standstill: it’s silent reading time in here, and besides, most of the shelves are covered by the caves.

After the teachers have set up theirs, I’ll go around and do the table thing to fill in the gaps. (I also have my own major Cave to put up.)

We run Reading Caves for two days so that most classes have a chance to come in and spend a while reading. After each class comes in, I give them four minutes to explore, and after a one-minute warning, they have to sit and read. (This year, I created two sound files, one with an introduction, and the one-minute warning, followed by a “sit and read”; and a 20-minute loop that had nothing in it but a chime to end the session about three minutes before the end. During the entire day, I play quiet music, this year all space music. Drove me nuts.)

The four minutes are insane: we usually have two classes at a time, and they go nuts as they explore one cave after another. And then when the one-minute warning sounds, it becomes bedlam. Now they have to choose which cave to sit in, and the friend/clique factor kicks in, and lo! there is much squealing and running.

And then it’s quiet for about ten minutes as they settle in and start reading. For the little kids, that’s enough time. For the older ones, I need to find a way to have longer sessions, because they’re just getting into it when the chime instructs them to close their books and “return to real life.”

They leave on a high, chattering about how much fun they’ve had. It’s pretty neat: a really big response for not a lot of work.

The caves can be elaborate, or they can be simple as pie. Here are some from this year and the past:

Charlotte’s Web, complete with bales of hay, the web, troughs, and a fence of yarn (that no one could see and which we finally had to take down for safety’s sake). If you look in the trough on the right, you can see a little brown Templeton. Kids climbed up on the tables inside, somehow managing to not knock off all the chairs that were perched up there with them, holding up the roof.

The fifth grade’s Iditarod cave. Simplicity itself, but because you entered from one aisle and had to crawl all the way down and around (in a U-shape), it was very popular. Also popular, and pictured up at the top of the post, was a Twilight cave. How do kids this young even know about that accursed phenomenon? That cave was actually two: a cave and a den (for the werewolves.)

My 100 Book Club cave. Not very flashy, but it was comfortable. More than a few kids found it cozy:

I have these large pieces of cardboard that were donated several years ago by Multec, a local company that makes packaging. I’ve saved them and use them every year, so my cave has actual walls. I’m thinking of ways to make it more complex and interesting next year. And I hold them together with Mr. McGroovy’s Box Rivets, a wonderful, wonderful invention.

One year, I did a Hogwarts. Here’s the Slytherin common room from that cave:

Above that was the Gryffindor common room. You entered the cave by crawling under a table; that table had the Great Hall on top. I had house banners hanging, and great portraits all over the walls.

Here’s a glance at the exterior, beyond the Three Little Pigs houses:

The houses of the Little Pigs were made of PVC pipe, covered in fabric. Each would hold one child.

My all-time favorite was the year 5th grade did Narnia. You entered through the Wardrobe, of course:

There was a stretch of Narnia in winter:

Then you turned the corner, and there you were in Mr. Tumnus’s house:

Pretty spectacular.

Some practical considerations: since we turn out the lights, you will need to consider how the children will see to read. There are outlets nearly everywhere in the media center, so power is not really a problem. I made that mistake with the “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way” cave two years ago: the all-black and black-light lit space was very cool, but no one could see to read.

You have to consider supervision. Make sure there’s a way an adult can see into the space and check on things. We had to cut a flap in the Iditarod cave this year for that reason. Otherwise, the more closed in, the better. One reason the 100 Book Club cave was not as popular as it might have been was that it was largely open.

Seating is an issue. This year’s Magic School Bus looked great, but was not very popular because there were no cushions. The same went for the secondary parachute cave. There was just bare carpet, and not many kids found it appealing.

Like A Pattern Language suggests, room for more than one student is good, but more than five is just not cozy. Still, most of the one-kid caves were occupied, because there are some students who are serious about the reading part and don’t want the distraction of other kids.

The cave does not have to be elaborate:

This one, just a table on its side draped with paper, was occupied more than half the sessions. If I had gone a little more origami on it and closed the front a bit, it would have been even more popular.

I’m already planning next year’s Reading Caves. Let me know if you’d like to join in.

Bragging

I have to brag about a lesson I started today with a fourth grade class. The teacher has been bringing them in almost weekly for writing lessons: persuasive, response to literature, etc. This week’s lesson was to be about figurative language.

Last week, we had ended one project and I was caught a little off-guard, so I just tap danced. Playing off their dread of poetry, I suggested Shakespeare instead, and I filled them in on the basics. The thing that always gets their attention is the fact that at every moment of every day, this man’s words are being spoken aloud, 400 years after he wrote them. That impresses the children.

So today, when they came in, I announced, “Poetry!” and let them groan, and then announced, “…by Shakespeare!” and they groaned even more.

But I handed out Sonnet 18 and we read it out loud. I explained the structure to them, then they brainstormed all the good things about summer that they might compare their True Love™ to.

Then we dove into the poem and discovered that he’s actually comparing his love to the downsides of summer, that he/she (which we didn’t get into) is better than a summer’s day.

Then I explained what we would be doing next week: we’d use our new iPads to create a Keynote presentation which illustrates the figurative language in another sonnet, #73.

We practiced with #18. I pulled up Google and asked for search terms. At first, they were giving me language straight from the poem, and I was trying to explain why that wouldn’t work. And then, I was inspired. When a kid suggested we search for “eye of heaven,” I said, OK, let’s do that.

Up came this image, which on the not-very-clear projector, looked quite gross, like a slimy bug or something.

“Here’s the point,” I said. “Computers are stupid. They’re literal. You tell them ‘eye of heaven,’ and they look up ‘eye of heaven.’ Humans have brains. You tell them ‘eye of heaven,’ and they think, ‘Oh, the sun!’ See the difference between literal and figurative?”

Light bulbs all over the room.

Can’t wait for next week’s lesson, in which they have to find three images to put into a Keynote presentation. Week after next, actually, we’re on break next week.

By the way, this is what a 21st century media center looks like:

A small but profound rant, and other thoughts

It has not escaped my notice that when conservatives put forth plans to fix our public schools, they do not involve actually fixing the public schools. More and more standardized testing, charter schools, or vouchers: which of these involves actually taking a failing school—and let’s just point to an honest-to-goodness failing school in some inner city somewhere—and solving the problems it faces in providing a free and appropriate education to the young minds trapped there?

I have a problem with that.

In other news, my media center has been undergoing a complete technological facelift.

I’ve always stayed ahead of the curve on the technology thing, all the way back to the Apple ][e’s that Alan Wood bought me for the media center in the old East Coweta High. I made the technology readily available to the students and trained them how to use it, even to program in AppleBasic. I myself, as I’m sure I’ve said around here somewhere, programmed a word processor, a card catalog printing program, and an overdue fines/notice program that everyone in the county used until the state automated us in the late 1980s.

For the last ten years, the school system has declined to purchase Apple Macintosh computers, for reasons which we will not go into here. As the years slipped by, all the elementary schools (including mine) began to divest themselves of their iMacs, the old candy-colored winners from the 90s. And they all came to me, because I refused to give them up.

For one thing, they still ran, and they were still more reliable than all the crappy Dells flooding the county. For another, I was still able to use HyperCard (‡‡‡) to create some really useful educational tools. And finally, while other media centers might have six look-up stations, I had twenty-six. Woof!

However, a decade is a decade, and the poor things began to wheeze and complain about the bulky internet pages they were having to deal with. So I began to campaign for new computers. Two years ago, after holding my breath and turning blue, I was finally awarded six new iMacs, the first instructional Macs in a regular school setting in forever.

So I began to campaign for more. I was able to demonstrate to the powers that be how well they integrated into the network, give or take a few hurdles set up by the IT Crowd themselves due to the nature of the insecure network of PCs they have to manage.

To make an uninteresting story short, I got the money for two new iMacs from our PTO, plus a new printer, which was necessitated by the death of my old Apple LaserPrinter 16/600, after eleven years of solid service. The iMacs came last week, and the printer came yesterday.

But wait, there’s more: we were suddenly able to use some Title I money to purchase twelve iPads. I will soon have two instructional computers for each of my six tables. This should be interesting, given the real power of the things—and their real limitations. It would have been nice, for example, to have known about the money for the iPads before I ordered a new printer, because they will immediately print to an AirPrint-compatible printer, of which there are currently maybe eight, all made by Hewlett-Packard.

Oh well. I don’t think that’s something I get to complain about, having twenty Apple computers at my disposal.

However, there is something very sad about unplugging those trusty little iMacs for the last time and lugging them over to the wall, to be disposed of. And I had to say a few words over the LaserPrinter. I felt like a criminal pulling the plug on it.

Now that I’m slowly returning to the Land of the Drinking (my stomach issues have largely prevented the consumption of any alcohol) I’ve been playing around with some cocktails. At the moment, I’m experimenting with apple juice, my recent liquid of choice.

I’m not sure about this one. I’m halfway through my first attempt, and it may be a bit cloying. I’ll adjust tomorrow and try again if necessary.

YELLOW FAIRY

1/2 oz. Galliano

3 oz. apple juice

2 drops absinthe

Shake the Galliano and apple juice with ice; strain into martini glass. Add the drops of absinthe.

This weekend interviews/auditions for the 2011 Governor’s Honors Program begin. I’m once again in charge of the theatre interviews at Pebblebrook High School. I was asked also this year to corral and confirm the interviewers, and if no one backs out between now and Saturday morning, I will have the full complement of 35, which is a first for several years.

I have applied to teach either Theatre or CommArts this summer, and I’m adamant that I don’t care which. It’s been kind of fun to have both Jobie and Mike desire me. Of course, there’s no guarantee I will be offered a position since I took last summer off, but honey, please. Does that make me nervous? Yes.

I should write a post about the coursework I’ve planned for each department. Maybe later.

Better living through sound effects

Bereft as I am of any assistance in the media center, I have had to be very resourceful in keeping myself sane. And no, I am not talking about tequila.

One of the problems I encountered last year, when the entire school was tightly scheduled into (and out of) the media center, was that kids would be browsing and searching and suddenly there would be the next class at the door. Pandemonium ensued, as the outgoing class had to be rounded up and checked out and the incoming class moved in. If there were instruction involved, it was even worse.

So, using GarageBand and its built-in resources, I constructed a sound file: timetocheckout.mp3. Then I sent it to youconvertit.com to change it into a .wav file, since that’s all that Outlook is willing to entertain.

You should have been there the first week, when this went off. The kids were like stunned rabbits. It was great. Now, of course, they’re like Pavlov’s dogs. As soon as that first blast hits the air, they’re on their feet and lining up.

However, it soon developed that the warning would catch some students unawares, and then there would be a lot of motion away from the circulation desk as they scrambled to find a book, any book, to check out. Mostly of course these kids were the slackers who hadn’t been looking for anything anyway, but it created a chaos where there should have been order.

So I went back to GarageBand and came up with the three-minute warning. Now no one has an excuse to do anything but move towards the circulation desk (or the exit) when the final warning comes on.

This year, while I am no longer on an imposed schedule, I do have two instructional classes every day, for third grade info skills. I often found myself looking up and seeing that we were out of time. (I may not be on a schedule, but everyone else certainly is.)

This time, I went to www.freesound.org and downloaded this set of sounds, one Herbert Boland’s “Piano Moods.” From this set of nearly 40 little piano bits, I was able to assemble (in GarageBand) a three-minute, new-agey kind of piece. I built it so that it starts quietly, then builds, then fades away. I cued the deeper base notes to begin when we had one minute left. Now, when the “time fairies” start, we know it’s time to wind up whatever we’re working on and put our paperwork back in the folders. The first few times, it took us longer than three minutes to get all packed up, but now, everyone’s all lined up by the time the final little chimes are pealing.

In my Outlook calendar on my circulation computer, I have the infoskills warning set to repeat on a daily basis, three minutes before that class period is over. The others I have to set every day, based on who’s signed up for what time slots. It’s a little bit of work, but it’s also a nice ritual with which to begin the day, and it keeps us all on track.

Excelsior!

CRCT Festival Time

I have issues.

Specifically, as we head into our annual celebration of the Criterion Reference Content Tests Festival next week, I have issues with the questions purporting to provide data on our students’ information skills, aka research/reference skills.

Many are innocuous, asking which word comes first in ABC order, which guide words would include a specified topic, that kind of thing. But many are sloppy, betraying outdated perceptions of how research works even at the elementary level, or worse, complete ignorance.

Here are some examples, taken from the practice questions provided by the state, and which I’ve been using in review lessons (The Evil Game) with 3rd graders:

Which do you need to have if you are going to type a story on a computer?

  1. a database
  2. the internet
  3. writing software

“Writing software”?? Even kindergarteners call it a word processor, for heaven’s sake. So what we end up testing is not their awareness of text generation on a computer, but whether they can synonymize an archaic and unfamiliar term with something they use on a regular basis. And of course, it seems that the test makers are unaware that kids have more than a little experience on websites provided by PBS, General Mills, etc., that encourage them to “type a story.” So, if I don’t know what “writing software” is (to practice my handwriting??), and the last time I went to the computer lab we played on the Dora the Explorer website and wrote stories about our adventures, then the correct answer is obviously 2.

To keep a list of all the animals your class saw in a month, which is the BEST to use?

  1. a database
  2. a radio
  3. an encyclopedia

This inclusion of databases as a technology we need to test kids on is very amusing to me, because not even their teachers know how to use one. I mean, they know how to negotiate a database like the county’s Infinite Campus student database, but almost none of them have ever created a database for regular use, nor do they completely understand why one would do so. The reason is simple: Microsoft Office doesn’t come with a database. And for that reason, our teachers are trained to use Excel’s spreadsheets to keep lists of information in. They have no clue as to how that differs from a database like FileMaker or, heaven help us, Access. Do you know how much this makes me despair?

Of course, we know (or hope) that the student will eliminate radio and encyclopedia as choices because they’re just stupid, but then we’re not testing their information skills, are we?

Which do most people use to connect to the internet?

  1. database
  2. computer
  3. videotape

“Connect to the internet.” You mean like when I place my phone receiver in the cradle of my mo-dem and send the AT* commands to it? Confronted with a term he has surely never heard before, a student is thrown back onto his knowledge of what he’s encountered on the internet. Internet Movie Database? YouTube? Hm, your guess is as good as mine.

Read the part of the index below. Which page should you read to find the information on the bottlenose dolphin?

God in heaven. Yes, I know that a child with even half a brain should be able to untangle that, but is there anything correct about that sample’s formatting? It looks like something an actual 3rd grader would produce.

Try this:

Or even better:

You know, like an actual freaking index in an actual freaking book.

Mr. Pope wants to make an apple pie, but he can’t find his cookbook. Which resource is the BEST for Mr. Pope to use to look for another recipe?

  1. a database
  2. writing software
  3. the World Wide Web

Oh, where to begin? This question must have been written in 1998, including such quaint terms as “writing software” and “World Wide Web.” Seriously, does anyone call it the World Wide Web any more? Even the major newspapers have stopped capitalizing Internet and Web. The kids these days simply call it “the internet.” So do I. And once I’ve gone on the “World Wide Web,” where will I find recipes? Let me count the ways. Databases all, and found via Google, itself an enormous database. And what if Mr. Pope has one of these? If we’ve been as thorough in our teaching of databases as these questions seem to imply is our job, this question will thoroughly confuse a student.

Which address on the World Wide Web would MOST LIKELY have information about cats and dogs?

  1. www.toys.com
  2. www.pets.com
  3. www.birds.com

This is not an unfair question, but at my school at least I teach the kids that URLs must not be thought of as search engines, i.e., www.whatIwantofind.com is never the way to navigate the internet. Pardon me, the World Wide Web. Still, as an internet-age version of “Which book title would be best for Topic A?,” it’s unoffensive.

Which is the BEST way to select a topic that you will enjoy for a report?

  1. Find the topic that looks the easiest.
  2. Choose a topic that interests you.
  3. Ask a friend what she wrote about.

All right, I’ll close with a question that I really liked and had fun going over with the kids. What we do in the Evil Game is I show the question on the Promethean Board (a smartboard kind of thing) and ask the kids to hold up little cards indicating whether or not they understand what the test makers are trying to ask them. If I get a smattering of question marks or Xs, we stop and deconstruct the question.

With this one, we actually parsed the gender-specific approaches to the problem. I told the girls that #3 was their answer. When they denied it, I launched into a sample dialog: “What are you going to write about? I’m doing koalas. Let’s both do koalas!” They giggled and copped to the plea. The boys were looking smug, until I pointed out that #1 is the boy answer. They readily admitted to it.

The really interesting thing, I pointed out to them, was that the correct answer is actually ambidextrous. For the boys, the correct answer would be “Choose a topic that interests you.” For the girls, it’s “Choose a topic that interests you.” And along with all that, I gave advice on making the correct answer work in real life as well.

On the whole though, the questions our students will face next week during the CRCT Festival regarding information skills are not up to par. The state is not getting good data about how prepared our children are to engage the information age effectively. And because, as the Curriculum Liberation Front says, what’s unassessed is unaddressed, these flawed test items produce flawed and inadequate information instruction across our state.