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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Here’s a great article about Allonzo Trier and all that he represents. You can go read it if you like.

What the article does not tell you is that Allonzo has a little brother, Geraldo. Geraldo displayed an early interest in the family’s piano, plunking out tunes when he was three-and-a-half. By the time he was four, he could mimic anything he heard on the radio.

One day when he was five, he heard a Philip Glass piano piece on the radio (he keeps his radio tuned to the local NPR station), went to the piano, and played it from memory.

He had to do a book report on a prominent African-American in second grade, and he astonished his teacher by writing a small musical about how Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery. He wanted to do the famous man’s whole life, but he didn’t have time, he said. His teacher, Ms. Barbara King, thought it was cute.

In short, Geraldo shows every sign of being another Mozart or Bernstein just like his big brother does of being the next Lebron James.

But he can rot in hell.

An insight

I’m sitting here rereading some posts and comments thereunto (yes, I do that), and I had a sudden insight.

This springs from a comment on my Charter Systems post about how perhaps the push for the charter systems movement is coming from the corporations that run some charter schools, and that the whole thing is to push for the vast profits these corporations stand to make if we all go charter.

I had snarkily replied that if it were possible to make vast profits from a school, wouldn’t we be doing that? And I’ve been thinking: are we so wasteful of the taxpayer’s dime that we can’t see how to make money doing what we’re doing?

And I’ve decided, no, we’re not. There was a headline this week about how our school system is under budget, thank goodness, and won’t have to tap into the reserves. Well, yes we are, and do you know how? Spending was frozen in August. The amount sent by the state to this county for my media center, and which is entailed upon it, has been frozen.

Our checkbook balance looks good, but it’s the “good” we all see at the first of the month: lots of cash on hand, but every single bit of it is already marked for bills. My point is that the only way we can beef up the assets column is to choke the actual education process.

No, my dears, education is a rathole. You just have to keep shoveling money into it, and is that any way to run a business?

No, it’s not. Here’s my insight: education is not a business, and you cannot run it like one, or at least run it like one and expect business-like results. Education is a farm.

You plant, you water, you fertilize, you tend, you weed, and with any luck at all, you harvest. But some harvests are big ones, and some are not. You have no way of knowing, although of course you do have to use the right fertilizer and the right techniques. But one thing is for sure: you still have to pour money into the process. You have to buy the fertilizer and the tractors and the combines and the irrigation, and you have to maintain them. Because if you don’t, then you will get no harvest at all.

And I think it’s a better metaphor, at least to bring us back around to the profit motive, if we regard our farm as the source of our own food, not as crops to sell for profit. I’m not going to explicate that one; think through it yourself.

As for funding these nourishment-providing farms of ours, the History Channel had an absolutely intriguing show the other night about agricultural technology. We saw cotton farmers in California using satellite technology to identify which areas of their fields were ready to be sprayed with a saline solution, and with how much, as they flew over them with spraying helicopters. We saw rice farmers using satellites and computers to tell them which areas of which fields needed fertilizer or pesticides.

These were compared, of course, to developing nations where it’s all done by hand.

Now, which farms were feeding the world? Yes, I know it blows my metaphor about food vs. commodities, but you get my point.

Charter Systems

I am intrigued by this latest movement on the part of school systems across the state of Georgia to move to “charter status.” Our own beloved Coweta County is exploring such a move.

Essentially, an entire system switches its schools over to charter school status, which means that it is freed from many state rules and regulations. Who wouldn’t want to do that? No more pesky rules about testing, hooray!

The question arises, why would the state want to do that? It turns out there is a trade-off for gaining charter system status: you have to produce better results than you would have under the state’s restrictions, “results” being defined as “student achivement,” where “student achievement” is defined as “better test scores,” where “better” is defined as “higher.”

Still, imagine the freedom! You get to teach your kids however you like, as long as you’re sure that your mavericky instructional ways are going to produce Lake Wobegon test scores.

Just this morning I heard a school system superintendent (not ours) on the radio, enthusing how charter system status would give them “more flexibility on things like class size and teacher pay.”

Well, alrighty then, let’s do that thing where you lower class sizes and hire more teachers at higher pay so that you can… what?


Oh. Never mind then.

I suppose that it is entirely possible that you could load up a class with 35 students (although today’s classrooms have been built for much smaller numbers) and cut the teacher’s pay, and at the end of the five-year charter period have freaking incredible test scores. It’s possible George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales will be charged with war crimes, too. I am after all an optimist.

However, I am still curious: if “easing” the regulations on class size and teacher pay (among others) so that local systems have more “flexibility” actually would produce significant student achievement, then why do we have those gosh-darn regulations in the first place? Wouldn’t it make sense to liberate the entire state from the onus of these burdensome regulations so that Georgia could immediately “lead the nation in improving student achievement”?

I remain, as always, curious.

Teaching and testing

I’ve spent the past few days working with 1st graders, trying to show them atlases and dictionaries, and then at the very end of the session, sneak the internet in.

Why? Because on one standardized test or another, there is a question which asks them which would be the best place to find a picture of some animal. Would you look in an atlas, in a dictionary, or on the internet?

Whoever wrote the test item knows that dictionaries don’t have pictures. Except, of course, when you’re six years old, and the whole frickin’ dictionary is pictures.

Up and down the grade levels, our standardized tests ask similarly narrow-minded questions about reference sources that indicate that the people who wrote the test items do not know how the information society works, at least since 2000.

This has been a message for those who think that they’re getting reliable data from those standardized tests.