Love Letter

November 17, 2008

I love Fridays here at Antioch when classes are in session.  It’s not just the obvious TGIF thing, either. Friday means Integrated Learning students in the building. Now, I may be biased (being as how I’m an educator myself), but I think Fridays are the Best Days we have here at ANE.  (Again, I’m fully aware of the depth of my bias.)  Want to know why?  Here’s a quick list:

Zoom Zoom
There are students racing electric cars down the hall past my office.  These students are in David Sobel’s science education course and, while I have no idea exactly what they’re doing- I know they’re doing it with a great deal of enthusiasm.  And I know they’re using wires and batteries of some sort.  And I’m pretty sure that their students will love this lesson as much as they do.

We are not afraid of Change.
In Pro-Sem today, students will have a chance to impact education policy during the Obama/Biden administration as part of the Dear President Elect campaign being conducted by the Coalition of Essential Schools.  Now, besides the fact that that’s just nifty as all heck, it also speaks to the way that we view our pre-service students as professionals with points of view that matter and should be included in the larger debate.  We don’t believe that you have to stay quiet for 5 years until you earn tenure and that only then are you allowed to have a voice, though that’s another post for another day.  It also speaks to the amazing way that our faculty connect to one another.  See, I’m the direct link between CES and ANE, but I’m not a faculty member in this program.  In fact, my faculty responsibilities are pretty limited  in that I only teach a couple of courses each year.  I’m lucky enough to spend my days working out “there,” in the field, with schools and teachers who are in the middle of the fray day in and day out.  That could mean (and does mean, at many other institutions) that my colleagues in the department could view me and my work as outside the realm of their work.  Instead, Jane (who doesn’t even have a Pro-Sem) and Judy and Peter and Ron were excited about the initiative, took the paperwork out of my hands happily, and promised to return letters later today.  They look to me as one of many links to the best work happening in the field, part of symbiotic relationship that exists here.

Well, Mr. Freire- may I call you Paulo?
Later today, a group of students (some of whom are still merrily learning about physics in the hall) will take on the role of philosophers during a lovely Café held in their philosophy course.  I know this because their instructor is my office mate and she’s been frantically arranging flowers, scones, tablecloths and tea all morning.  By going above and beyond, by paying attention to the details of the educational experience, teachers like Susan create a meaningful community in which learning is not only fun and powerful and rigorous, but also joyful and worthy of celebration.

Can I frame your Out to Lunch?
Speaking of beauty, the final reason (for now) that I love Fridays at ANE- why I love every day at ANE- has to do with the aesthetic of the place.  Now, I could be talking about the ethos, the way of being that we share and that would certainly be true.  I’m not though.  I’m talking about the lovely way in which we do things here.  When people leave notes or make announcements, they do it on scraps of watercolor art.  Not many places have lovely “Leave Papers Here” notices, but we do.

So enough gushing.  Time to get back to work.  That’s the other thing I love- the work we do. That’s another gift I’m lucky to receive every single day.

Laura Thomas, Director Antioch Center for School Renewal

Reaching an Autistic Teenager

October 21, 2008

Did you see this latest article in the NYTimes?
Reaching an Autistic Teenager
The article describes D.I.R./Floortime (D.I.R. stands for developmental, individual differences, relationship-based approach.) Have any of you come across this technique?
The method seems to be involve relating to students on a direct emotional level, responding to students interests and concerns. The article contrasts D.I.R. with ABA and never really addresses how the two could work together.
I was left thinking that what they are recommending is what I see good teachers and interventionists do on a daily basis – that is – not relying solely on behavioral strategies but also responding to students in a personal, connecting way. I’m glad someone has articulated why this is important, it is pulling back the curtain on what effective teachers do instinctively.
One confounding part of the article is a connection to Autism and Attention Deficit Disorder which the author seems to assume and passes over much too quickly.
Can any of you help sort any of this out?

Oyster Restoration Project

October 10, 2008

Will Smiley, Antioch New England Educating for Sustainability M.Ed. student, leads his school in an oyster restoration project in Virginia. Click the link to see the article.

Autism on the High Seas

September 17, 2008

I read with interest this article in the NYTimes Sunday, September 14 about travel with autistic children.

Bypassing the Roadblocks of Autism

Is it encouraging that the travel industry is creating specific packages for autism families? Or is this another way that special needs families get shunted away from others so they can be ignored? Are these vacations the  solution for families in difficult situations? Or is this a gulag that keeps typical families sheltered form the realities of the differently-abled?

I think it is important to remember that vacations are supposed to be relaxing for everyone in the family and if that means going to a resort or cruise or campground that caters to families with special needs, well parents and children need to know that they can go somewhere for vacation where they feel totally at ease. There are plenty of opportunities in this world to feel different, I’m thrilled that this is a chance for autism families to feel typical.

The article also includes a video of an autism family talking about travel and their upper middle class privilege jumps off the screen. It’s great to see families marshalling resources to make a life for their autistic children, wouldn’t it be nice to see more diversity in economic class? Maybe that is asking too much of the NYTimes Travel section.

Tom Julius

Heterogeneous vs. Homogeneous Grouping, Brian Audet, ExEd Program

June 5, 2008

Recently I had the opportunity to research the effects of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings in the classroom. Although I agree with most of the research in the articles that I read, I feel that the best way to experience the effects of such groupings is to experience it in the classroom on your own.

I have now been teaching mathematics for six years and have never had the opportunity to teach in a situation where the entire class of students were homogeneously grouped. I have, however, had the experience of using both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings within the same classroom. One year, I had a small group of students who were at a very high level of math and a large group of mixed ability students, all in the same classroom. This class began the year in heterogeneous groups. I soon realized that I was going to have to do something different to challenge the upper level students. That is when I chose a small group to work with to be able to challenge them. It was much more work for me , but the payoff for the students was immense in terms of how much more of my curriculum I could cover with them compared to the other group in the classroom.

This group of students worked quite well together. Not only was I able to challenge them with more difficult assignments and activities they also challenged one another. I would get them started on a lesson or activity by quickly teaching them the concepts that related to the lesson while the other group was going over the previous nights assignment and then let them work as a group to complete the activity or lesson as I instructed the other group. It was amazing to me how motivated this group of students were when left on their own to do the assignment. I would take the opportunity to check in on them as I got the other group working on their activity. Their needs were much less than my heterogeneously grouped students and they were completing much more challenging work. As they worked in groups, it was a total group effort to complete an activity or to solve a problem. I did not have to worry about one of the students not participating in the group activity. My biggest problem was containing their volume when one of them could not convince one of the others that they were doing something incorrect. At times it was comical to sit back and listen to them argue to try and convince one another. There were a few times when the work was not challenging enough that I would have a few behavioral problems, but very rare.

As every educator is aware when dealing with mixed ability groups, you always have the students who prefer to sit back and let some other student do the work. It is quite challenging as a teacher and requires a creative teacher to be able to get every student to participate when you are working with students with mixed abilities. I know that it requires a lot more effort on my part. On many occasions I have grouped students so that I have many levels in one group and there are times when the stronger and more dominant students are doing the work and others will just be along for the ride. As you question the students on their work some of the students cannot tell you what they have done. Some of this relates to their confidence in their abilities and some of it is because they were not participating in the activity and do not understand the material covered. I have also experienced the strong math student who feels used by me to help other students in the classroom. Some of the students are good about helping other students and some are not.

Many low level students that I have worked with feel much more comfortable working in a group when grouped with other students who are at their level. I have seen this year after year in my math labs that I teach. You would not know that they are the same student as when they are in the regular math class. They are so much more responsive to me and to others that they are working with. They have commented that they are afraid to make a mistake in the regular classroom because they feel stupid. When they are working with other students who they know struggle as much as they do they are more comfortable giving answers. As much as I tell them that we all learn from mistakes they just will not participate in class unless I call on them. I as a teacher, I will hesitate to call on them in class because I know how they feel or I will call on them if I know they have the correct answer.

As far as mathematics goes, I would much prefer to work with students who are homogeneous grouped. I can easily challenge my strong math students and cover much more of the necessary curriculum. With the other students it is much easier to give them the one on one instruction and attention that they need to make them more successful in the classroom. Both of these groupings have their advantages and disadvantages, a lot of it depends on the students that you are working with. I feel that I am much better at meeting the needs of my students if they are grouped by their ability.

As we all know when we have groups that are mixed ability

NCLB – No Culture Left Behind, Jason Finley, ExEd/Principal Certification Program

June 2, 2008

Vermont’s cultural base and sources of heritage are rapidly vanishing. With them vanishes a sense of place for our communities, a sense of identity for our children—a knowing of their local heritage and their place in the global community.

No longer is the iconic image of the small town in the valley a bastion of deep community roots. No longer is the dairy farm a cornerstone of Vermont’s economy. No longer are sugaring, mowing hay, and deer camp focal points of conversations at the general store or post office. No longer are there stark distinctions between individuals from the Mettowee Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Vermont is changing. That is inevitable. But, this does not inherently imply the loss of our distinct and unique culture.

Our distinctive heritage, both the tangible and the intangible, is undergoing assimilation into the more prevalent cultures of southern New England, the East Coast, and America as a whole. Vermont is being homogenized—and, we are not talking about our milk. It is becoming nearly impossible to tell the difference between a woodchuck and a flatlander. This might sound trivial and humorous but, if you consider the potential loss of the myriad of unique American subcultures on a national scale it becomes frightening.

Admittedly, there are efforts to ensure that we are preserving the tangible aspects of Vermont’s culture. There are many groups dedicated to the conservation of structures and the filling of historical museums. But, who are the stewards of the intangibles—the traditional practices, skills, pastimes, oral histories, methods of self-sustainability, and entertainment that created the basis of our culture? Where have they gone?

They are still here. They are the teachers in our local schools. But, they are being asked to teach to a new standard in No Child Left Behind. Some people with very good intentions are bringing a “oneness” and a “sameness” to the educational system.

No Child Left Behind was created to “eliminate the achievement gap”. This act is decent and good in its intent. But, it is wrongly forcing educators into a standardization of education. By standardizing education it is eliminating an untold number of avenues for children to truly connect to their education through familiar and relevant means.

Our natural surroundings and local communities in Vermont are essential elements of who we are as individuals. These common possessions are the things that help us to form our individual identities and to understand our place in the greater world. It is these things we relate to and gives importance and meaning to our education. Does anyone question that it is easier for a student to understand the peril of our entire planet if they appreciate and understand concepts of sustainability in local ecosystems that they have played in, that their food comes from, and that their parents rely on either directly or indirectly for an income?

As we lose the opportunities to exert local control over how and what our children learn in our local schools the opportunities to teach the intangibles of our local heritage will disappear. When cultural heritage is no longer relevant in a child’s most influential years what is the chance that that culture will survive?

What cultural connections does NCLB make? From where does it draw its sense of place and relationships with communities? To come to my point, I believe that in order to eliminate the achievement gap in education the first and most important thing that needs to be done is to make education relevant to those being educated. And, a nice byproduct may be the preserving what remains of a unique cultural heritage.

Where Do We Come From, And Where Are We Going? Larissa Cahill, ExEd Program

June 2, 2008

How can teachers teach without being offensive? It happens all the time, even in the seemingly most benign lessons. Educators are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to teaching their curriculum. In order to best serve their students and cover the depth in a certain subject matter, they end up crossing into the controversial, especially in science lessons. I had an opportunity to delve into this dilemma during a recent project in my graduate program. I decided to narrow the focus of my inquiry to issues of teaching science curriculum into the debate over teaching Evolution or Creationism. Through my research, I discovered that there is a large component of the population who believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis including that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. This belief becomes problematic when their children learn science lessons in school including Evolution, carbon dating, geology, dinosaurs, the Big Bang theory and other ideas that are associated with origin of the Earth. So what is a teacher to do when they realize that there may be a student in their class who vehemently disagrees with an assertion that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago when they learn at home that dinosaurs lived side by side with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and even rode on the Arc with Noah, only becoming extinct because of the unfavorable climate conditions after the Great Flood?

Many reasonable people will wonder what we can do better to be more inclusive with our curriculum. For equity’s sake, why can’t we look at all sides of the issue? No one really knows how it all began so why can’t we teach Creationism in conjunction with Evolution?

We took up this conversation as a component of this project. My partner and I presented a series of vignettes to address this very issue. We set the scene in a typical third grade class room with the teacher giving a lesson on dinosaurs. The controversial lesson led to a parent and teacher confrontation before a “school board” (a group of our colleagues) to resolve the issue. The first proposal of the “board” was to teach both ideas to children with the intention that students should be given as much information as possible so that they can come to an educated decision. As the idea to teach both Creationism and Evolutionism came to the floor, the conversation took another turn. Someone brought up the fact that the Judeo-Christian teaching on the origin of life is not the only explanation, and if we decided to teach that understanding we should also include other religious beliefs as well. Many “board members” gave examples of many different creation myths that they knew from their education and indicated that it would be unfair to only teach one.

Where does that leave us? Can it really be all or nothing? One colleague thought it was interesting that she never questioned her education that was vastly different at church and school. She shared that she learned Evolution at school and about the Bible and Creation at church and no one seemed to be bothered by the perceived incompatibility of the two. However, that acceptance of two opposing ideas is often unacceptable to parents who do not want their children taught about ideas with which they do not agree. The argument over what to teach and what not to teach can end up hurting our children, as often the solution is stripping our curriculum down to the lowest common denominator and our children receive a watered down lesson with no real depth.

Our “School Board” decided against teaching both Evolution and Creation in our vignette. The decision was based on the idea that science is an ever growing and changing discipline, and students should be taught the latest scientific theories with knowledge and understanding that they will shift as new evidence supplants old evidence.

Ultimately, science should be taught in schools as an explanation of the world around us and hope that it instills in our children a quest for further knowledge.

We realized that this choice would be unpopular with some families. We also realized that if educators don’t take the time to actively listen to the concerns of the families the result will be a growing faction of people who become disillusioned with the whole educational system. We will become combatants rather than partners in the raising and educating of our children. The idea is not to dismiss all religious influence in schools because by doing so we would also do harm to our children. Some of the greatest works of art, music and literature are born from religious faith. To deny that to our children is just as detrimental as keeping them from the latest understanding of scientific theory. In addition, whether we are parents or teachers we all have the same goal of raising moral and ethical human beings. There exists in all of the world’s religions a standard ethics and morals from which we can all learn and seek to foster in all of our children.

We are all in this together. We want to prepare our young people who are our greatest natural resource for the future. One of the best ways to teach our young people about the future is by showing them their past, and these lessons can come from a variety of sources, and ought not to be offensive.