Notes from the Playground

The Twilight Years
Curriculum development, like many things, is a cycle. When I first started my job, we were towards the beginning of the cycle. I got to see many projects develop from an idea ("Let's write a unit for third graders about light!") all the way to a finished product ("Wow, we wrote a 600-page behemoth of a teacher's guide. Could this break someone's foot if they dropped it? Should we consider additional insurance?"). Along the way, there are several months-long stages of research, brainstorming, drafting, writing, teaching, rewriting, testing, crunching data, revising, throwing out hours of instruction and starting over, fighting with the Paranoid Publishing Company, etc etc etc. It took a team of 15 people about six years to develop twelve units for the elementary grades. A few months ago, the entire cycle was complete and -- lo and behold -- there was the finished, published Giant Curriculum Project. (Incidentally, all of our materials stacked up weigh about 76 pounds and are almost exactly the same height as a three-year-old. Don't even ask why I know that. Thank god we're going digital.)

Not content to rest on our laurels, or even take an afternoon off, we launched ourselves right back to the beginning of the cycle. Now we are developing new materials for grades 6-8. Yes, folks, that's middle school, which Matt Groening appropriately dubbed The Deepest Pit In Hell. And the reason I am telling you about all of this cycle business is that I am back in the teaching part of the cycle, where I have not been since early 2007. In curriculum development lingo, this stage is called "pilot testing" and it means that we try out our ideas on some unsuspecting class of local schoolchildren. Which is why I have spent the last two weeks teaching a class of eighth graders. Read more...Collapse )

Summary of middle school development work thus far
Science gets heavier.

Large field trip budget needed
I found this sentence in one of our teacher's guides:

Explain to students, "You will meet with other experts on that planet or moon to discuss the conditions there."

Not saying which brilliant curriculum developer wrote that and didn't notice that it sounds like the kids will be sent to Mars for a meeting. Nope, not saying.

The project I work on was recently funded (yay!) to move from elementary schools into middle schools. We're doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people as we get started. So far, I have gotten the following message:

Elementary schools are a progressive, lovely, functional walk in the park compared to middle and high schools.

I knew this, of course. But, considering the extent and systemic nature of the problem (fragmented school day; overworked teachers with upwards of 100 students to see a day; giant incomprehensible textbooks that schools spend millions of dollars on instead of fixing crumbling buildings; stance that computers are evil rather than a useful tool; laundry list of standards to plow through rather than teaching for actual understanding; over-reliance on high-stakes testing; tracking; remediating students with more reading instruction that doesn't work and replaces content areas like history and science...all combined with the hormone-rampant insanity and total awkwardness that we all remember as a part of being 11-14 years old) is extremely daunting. And, the idea that elementary schools are an ideal context for learning in comparison...just makes me want to cry.

I will post a more detailed and critical analysis at some other point, but for now I am just panicking that somehow we have to figure out how this small shot at the problem we're trying to take is going to work. I have faith that we will figure it out, and I have faith that we'll figure it out before I have to step into an eighth grade classroom (gulp) to teach it in April...but right now I'm wondering if it's even worth trying and kids might just be better off with no secondary schooling at all to screw them up.

I am disabling comments because, as much as I usually enjoy discussing the horrible details of everyone's past educational experiences (seriously, I do), now is not the time, thanks.

What do you want to do with your life?
Seriously, I am asking this question for real: if you could do anything, what would you want to do?

Forget making money, forget practicality, forget what you're trained to do or skilled at, or even the laws of physics -- what do you actually want to do? I honestly would like to know...

And if you are awesome enough to be doing it already, how did you get there?

(This post brought to you by my in-progress mid-30s complete re-examination of everything.)

Why I Married the Right Person, Exhibit Q
Me: This unit I am editing is driving me crazy. And everyone is on furlough so there is no one around to answer my questions.
D: Is there any way I can help?
Me: No, unless you can figure out how to cut ten minutes of instruction out of every lesson.
D (without missing a beat): Take out the expositional yodeling. It's cool, but kids don't really learn anything from it.

Another highly scientific poll
(I forgot to renew my paid account, so I can't actually make a poll, but...)

1. Do you know what "running text" is?

2. Have you ever worked in publishing?

Thanks, people of the interwebs.

ETA: The reason I ask these things is because sometimes I lose sight of what's jargon and what's commonly used terminology. I'm trying to write something for a wide audience, so I wasn't sure if I used the term "running text" if people would know what I meant. You are my completely un-random sample of whether people would know what this term means, so thanks!!!

It's that time of year again...
...where I have to go to the Scary Reading Conference and present papers that involve complicated statistics I don't understand. I am usually an author on these papers because I wrote the "intervention," i.e. the curriculum in question, which is great and all, but I am expected to have at least some level of familiarity with what happened beyond "our kids did better, hooray us." It's really demoralizing to try to understand what the hell is going on. I am not really a researcher by training, math terrifies me, and I remember virtually nothing from my statistics class.

This one paper I am supposed to be working on right now has the simplest analysis of all, helpfully done by my co-worker, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what her results mean. This book I checked out from the library to help is Greek (literally and figuratively) to me.

I can't figure out if this is a point in the more grad school column or not. Clearly, I need to know this stuff, but clearly, it's going to be an uphill battle.

Dear Valued Customer
Kid: Hey, are you the science lady?
Me: Um, yes, I guess so.
Kid: Well, I think you should change some things about the science unit. You should make it more challenging.
Me: Okay. What specifically would you like to be more challenging?
Kid: Well, you know all that stuff about how the Earth spins? We already know that. I think that the first part of this unit is boring for like 70 or 80% of kids. Kids my age already know that the Earth spins and what shape the Earth is and all that. If I were you, I'd start with years instead of days and talk about how planets go around the Sun. That's much more challenging. I think that would be more appropriate for fifth graders.
Me: Well, thank you for your suggestions. I'll see what I can do.

We're not changing it, obviously (that kid probably knows these things because he lives in California, where they study days and seasons in fourth grade), but hey, at least someone's honest.
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Kids want to know...
"If Canada is above us, how come we don't see it when we look up?"

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And yet again, SCIENCE!
Kid: I'm done with my scientific explanation.
Teacher (reads explanation): Wow. You are really thinking like a scientist.
Kid, looking genuinely perplexed: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Teacher: Think about it. We are learning science. I am a science teacher. If I say you're thinking like a scientist, do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing?
Kid: Good thing?

The kid, however, wandered off looking seriously unconvinced. (He did write a really good explanation, though -- the teacher made him show it to me.)

So far that's the only exciting thing that has happened this week in the Continuing Adventures of the Astronomy Unit That Would Not Die.

Quick post
I have just completed the first week of the research project for which I will be spending several weeks in classrooms. I am currently Somewhere In California, where I visited five schools and interviewed teachers and students. I'll write more about the whole experience in depth later, but for now you get two awesome things kids said:

Question: Why does the moon appear to change shape?

Kid #1: Well, the Moon rises and sets. It rises and sets just like the Sun because they're almost alike, except the Moon is used for darkness and the Sun is used for light.

Kid #2: It happens because it's getting nighter and nighter and then finally it's very night, like eleven o'clock.

I think I'm going to say "nighter" instead of "darker" from now on, because that is the best invented word ever.
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Welcome back to school, America.
The New York Times provides a rather apt note in their story on the Obama back-to-school speech:

Millions of students watched, but not all with rapt attention. At Bolingbrook High School southwest of Chicago, about 200 students viewed the address on a large screen in an auditorium, and a few of them looked downright drowsy.

“It made me want to fall asleep,” said Sarah Vogt, a sophomore. One of Sarah’s classmates seemed to take Mr. Obama’s study-hard message a bit too literally: calculator in hand, she worked on homework throughout the presidential address.

There you have it: despite all the uproar, all the partisan ridiculousness, all the adults getting in a all comes down to whether kids listen to you, and a lot of them won't. You can prepare for years and hours and days for your perfect back-to-school speech, construct the best lesson plans ever written, incorporate every research-based pedagogical strategy you've ever heard of -- but if a kid decides in that moment that you're not worth their time (or, in my experience, decides to run out of the room, cry hysterically, or hide under a desk), it's all for naught.

I guess this is my way of saying that this year, for the first time, I'm glad not to be going back to school. And my heartfelt sympathies are with all the teachers that are working for less pay, with more students, with fewer resources and more pressure, with more mandates and more tests, with a system that doesn't validate what their students know and care about. As horrible as this sounds, this year, I am glad I'm not one of them.

I hope Obama's speech was inspiring to some teacher, somewhere. Because whoever she is, she's going to need it.

I'll be back...
It looks like I will be spending a large chunk of my fall in classrooms. I'm very excited about this. (It's doing research, not teaching. And I'm kind of freaked out by the fact that I'll be observing teachers teaching a unit I wrote, but I am sure it will be a positive learning experience rather than completely traumatic. Yeah. Science!)

It's been way, way too long since I spent any significant amount of time with kids, and I was feeling as if I was starting to lose my perspective on what it's like. So, this will be good for me. The catch is that I will probably have to spend five weeks in Another State, but there are worse fates. At least it isn't in Georgia this time.

And, of course, I hope to get something interesting out of this for your amusement, Dear Readers. It's been far too long for that too.
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Yesterday, I finished the Astronomy Unit That Would Not Die.

I've worked on this thing off and on for three years, and this was the last unit that worked on all the way from the beginning of the process to the end. This also marks the end of the Big Curriculum Project for the next several months, and our future at the moment is kind of uncertain.

Of course, there are millions of little questions to answer and things to fix before the astronomy unit is published; we will soon be supporting teachers in implementing our existing units in a wide variety of settings across the country; we're writing grant proposals to (ideally) get us funded to write more units; and there are many questions still unanswered and a infinite amount of writing and research left to do. Hopefully, this project that I have poured my heart and soul into (not to mention my employment) will continue.

Still, it's the end of an era. And, dare I say (even though I may get my life outside of work back, if you all will still have me), it's bittersweet.

Curriculum Editing WTF #367
"Tell your students to imagine they were led blindfolded to a very large building."

(This, coupled with the imaginary placement of their nose on the side of this theoretical building, apparently helps kids visualize why the Earth looks flat even though it's round. And so, with that vaguely disturbing sentiment, the Astronomy Unit That Would Not Die is back.)

Because I actually need to know...more on why later.

Do you know what the phrase "Earth materials" means?


Are you a scientist or science teacher?


I ran into the mother of one of my former students at the grocery store the other day. (Teacher's Rulebook #47: Always dress like you're going to work when you go to the grocery store, because that is the main place you run into parents. You know, because they tend not to go to nightclubs.) We chatted for a while, she explained how her son is having a hard time making friends in high school (he had the same problem in first grade, so that was kind of depressing), I fielded all the usual questions that I have to respond to with "no" (are you still teaching? oh, so are you working on your doctorate?), I was glad I remembered to ask if the kid was still into the violin (he is) and baseball (not anymore).

But I guess there's really not much else to say about an exchange of pleasantries with an acquaintance except that it made me inexplicably miss teaching. Like, a lot.

Not sure what to do with that. Probably nothing.

Minor whoo-hoo.
Chemistry unit #2, done! Thank god. That took what, four months, when it was supposed to take two? No more splitting atoms with scissors. We can all sleep a little easier.

Next on my plate: Astronomy Unit That Would Not Die Returns. Um, whoo-hoo.

Coachella Index, Year 3 (or, Icons of My Youth Tour '09)
Trend alert: Band names beginning with "The" are out. Bands with "Glass" in their names are in. Also - random animals, still popular.
Best show: Leonard Cohen, duh.
Second best show: Throbbing Gristle
Surprise awesome: Patton & Rahzel
Major Fail Award: Morissey. Apparently the smell of burning animal flesh (aka barbecue) is so horrifying that it makes him forget the lyrics to "Ask." Dude. Get it together.
Runner-up, Major Fail Award: Perry Farrell (Said ammonoid, "At least you know it's live.")
Most overwhelming sensory experience (in a good way): My Bloody Eardrums Valentine
Band that really isn't the same without kampachi: TV on the Radio
Biggest logistical nightmare: The Chemical Brothers
Number of wasted teenage ravers: probably hundreds (see above)
Number of Joy Division t-shirts: 6
Oldest people at the event: Well, according to the news it was the oldest crowd ever, and I did see lots of boomers...but we felt pretty old all weekend, so I'm gonna go with: us.
Biggest mystery: Why would they put Throbbing Gristle and The Cure on at the same time?
Little-known Coachella fact: The videographer for the main stage seems to have a foot fetish. On a related note, the various female singers of Thievery Corporation have nice shoes.
Most popular genre: Country/folk/rock. Ick. Wasn't a good year for new bands.
Most popular instrument: horns, horns, and more horns. Also airhorns.
Most popular band activity: asking the audience if they've ever been in love/lost in love/had various love-related experiences.
Sentence I never want to utter again, even though at the time it seemed like a good idea: "Let's stay for a few songs of The Killers."
Best quote of the weekend, from bodyfour, imitating the lead singer of The Killers emoting about love: "Have you ever had a pet hamster? And the hamster died? And all you wanted was to get your hamster back, but you just couldn't?"
Best team effort: as usual, booking out of the parking lot before the headliner
Best band for my inner angsty teenager: Fucked Up
Weirdest musical transition: Crystal Castles --> Leonard Cohen
Best-dressed band: The Ting Tings
Best hat: Flavor Flav
Best-preserved rock star: Chris Carter
Second-best preserved rock star: Robert Smith. Yes, seriously.
Best musical moment: other artists in the wings of the Throbbing Gristle show, rocking out.
Best non-musical moment: driving around the Inland Empire listening to bad radio. (Oh wait, I guess that's a musical moment too.)
Number of bands I saw: 29
Number of bands that sucked: 7
Most missed person at Coachella: defenestr8r
Awesome people who rock: ammonoid and bodyfour

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