Monday, January 28, 2008

GourMAN Additions

I am slowly but surely developing a GourMAN MANifesto. We already have categories for presentation and serving size (hence forth called Amplitude, because that is a sweet word), but some new categories that are edging in are Cost to Awesomeness ratio and Food Group Diversity.

I received a heart-warming email from my buddy K on this topic, which is the epitome of GourMAN:

Hey Man, I wanted to let you know that I made a GourMAN meal Friday night in your honor. First, I made a pasta dish with tortellini in a goat cheese cream sauce with peas and cherry tomatoes. Secondly, this is where the GourMAN part comes in, I made pheasant. This isn't store bought pheasant. My good friend Rick shot it, that's right shot it with a gun and brought it to my house. During the preparation process we found a few leftover pellets lodged in the meat and a couple more during mastication. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that your new cooking style has inspired me. I would like to author a chapter in your upcoming book "GourMAN: A Man's Guide to Gourmet". Chapter 9: GourMAN goes Organic!

K has it right. Anything that has been shot, trapped, caught, grown, harvested etc by your own hands immediately gains huge GourMAN points.

We also had a GourMAN meal this evening, but sadly, we destroyed it before any pictures could be taken. In fact, I think I ate so fast that I didn't even breathe. We had two pounds of Atlantic Salmon, a pot full of Royal Blend organic rice, two pounds of steamed broccoli and a large bowl of salad. Bam. Top that Emiril.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Landscape

Nick wrote:
"Which begs the question, should that be the goal of teaching? A standardized test. Or should it be about "learning". In practice, very few students would learn just because that is what education is about. Those are probably already the top students, such as a Mr. Blair as a child. Do the standardized tests help the laggards though? Probably not, nothing probably helps. So you have this middle group. Does it help the middle group? This is not a simple question, and one that I think we can all have opinions to but no right answers. I have teacher friends who loath No Child Left Behind (I have not discussed with Mr. Blair). I don't have a real opinion about it, but I can say with confidence that there was a reason it was created."

I feel so lucky! I have had people actually posting comments on here, and not only that, but the comments are actually thought provoking and interesting and the beginning of a conversation. Granted, pretty much all the comments are coming from one person, who just happens to be a friend of mine, so really I could take this as a sign that we don't talk enough about "important" things...or I could just be glad I have comments.

So. The Goal. Of teaching. I think Nick has been pretty perceptive already with his breakdown of standardized testing; Standardized testing is not (IMO) meant to focus/motivate/assess individual students. It is meant to compare bodies of students. It is like any data metric; an average cannot tell us what is wrong in particular, but it can show the symptoms. I would view standardized testing's role as accountability and information; the tests hold teachers, schools, districts, states, and yes students, accountable for the materials that is 'supposed to be taught' in a given time period. It also gives information about student groups that are being under-served, specific weaknesses in content.

The problem is not that the tests exist. The tests ought to exist. The problem is in their use. First, they are used as a control device by the federal government. Schools are not a federal power, so the only way that the federal government can meddle, or attempt to meddle, is through money, whether bribes or threats. So the tests are attached to money. And this is where the problem comes in; as a teacher in a Title I school, our autonomy and our jobs hang in the balance if our students to do not perform well. If they do poorly, the government brings in oversight, pays for a program that we are forced to follow (this is how you raise your hand, this is what you say at 12:31.4 this is what you should ask, this is your homework), and then they will eventually cut all positions and restaff if it gets bad enough.

That creates a culture of fear and gives power to the test. Also incorporated in this is the very real nature of the tests as an individual gatekeeper; if the tests are being used for accountability, the students should feel some of that accountability as well. Hence we now have pass to advance in (I think) 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th. Our kids are tracked (somewhat) based on results. More power for the test. More fear.

These are the things that are going on. I know the things my kids and I are accountable for. I know the level of depth we must reach. I also know where my students enter my class; they enter behind. We need to catch up.

As a result I am always balancing competing desires as I write a lesson:
  • The desire for my kids to know the material
  • The desire to honor and dignify my students as people
  • The desire to not bore myself
  • The desire for my students to do well on the TAKS test
I might also include on this list "the desire to not spend 100 years planning each lesson", which is something that I feel is both justified and at the same time somewhat lamentable.

There are times when I focus too much on TAKS, and I get fed up, because I am doing a disservice to my kids. And there are times when I focus too much on just knowing the material and having real-life applicability (honoring my kids status as People) and then we have a TAKS question and it is worded weird and my kids can't answer it.

What should teaching be about? Probably 90% the first three and 10% the last one. But my kids just do not cross-apply knowledge well. I don't know why. I can't remember if I had trouble with that or not. So I have to teach TAKS to some degree. The degree is always varying.

Next time: An example of this balancing act in action.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Backwards Design - Planning

Since Nick got me going on Test Creation, I thought I would continue to unleash all of my incomplete knowledge of planning. I aspire to be a cautionary tale, so hopefully this ends up helping somebody.

Here is my current planning cycle:
  1. Beginning of the year: Look at all of the objectives that the State of Texas suggests 7th graders ought to know. These are found in the list of TEKS.
    1. I then group these objectives into thematic units based on synergistic skills. So I put percents operations together with proportions because I plan on teaching percent operations using proportions.
    2. Next I organize the units into a general order so that most basic skills are taught first. This insures that students have all the prior knowledge necessary for whatever unit they are starting. This is called my (cue theme music) "Long Term Plan".
  2. During the year: Before each unit I read through all of the test materials and book materials for the learning objectives contained in that unit.
    1. I go through the test creation cycle described in my other post.
    2. I create quizzes that are very similar to the tests, differing only in their length and scope. They still scaffold from ground up to TAKS, but they will only cover 1 or 2 skills, and be limited to 4 or 5 questions total.
    3. I look at my Long Term Plan to figure out how long I have to teach the unit. I break out my calendar and fit my test and quizzes onto it.
    4. Before I put the rest of my lessons on the calendar, I break down the objectives into all of the skills and knowledge that my students will need to obtain in order to be successful on the tests and quizzes that I wrote.
    5. Using this list of skills and knowledge, I fit them into general lessons and assign them to the remaining days on the calendar.
  3. During the week: For each day I review what my students need to learn to be on track for the upcoming test/quiz, and review practice materials, previous lesson plans, exceptional lessons (from NCTM or other EduBloggers for example), and textbooks.
    1. Knowing what my students need to know for a given day, I write some sort of assessment for that day. Sometimes it is the homework, sometimes it is just a question at the end of the class. Whatever it is, that is the daily progress to goal measurement.
    2. With the daily 'assessment' written, the rest comes out in whatever it comes. Sometimes I will have a good idea of the practice I want to use. Others I will have an idea of the Introduction of New Material (the actual teaching) section. The important thing here is that I build gatekeepers into the lesson between INM and guided practice, guided practice and independent practice so that I know my kids will be able to handle the next step of autonomy without wasting a bunch of time.
So that's the process I've been running with this year. I definitely don't stick to it all the time, even though I should. Some units don't get all of the Unit Plan completed before we start; learning suffers as a result. I didn't start adding quizzes into my up-front planning until the end of November, so that would have helped earlier units. I didn't planning the INM to GP to IP gatekeepers until the end of October, so that definitely hurt instruction.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Backwards Design - Test Creation

Nick asked about assessment. He opened Pandora's Proverbial Box of Everything, so blame him when you start reading this and get bored. In an effort to save all you poor souls from reading, I will give the short answer here, and the long answer in a second post.

"This is interesting. How did you create a target quiz/test score from a needed score on what I expect is a different type of test entirely. Unless these test/quizzes are in the same format as the TAKS examine. Not questioning your methodology. I just wanna know how it was done, so I can use it in other applications." - Nick

There are four released TAKS tests. I also have textbook materials from 4 different publishers that are supposed to be aligned with the TAKS test, although any given learning objective has many interpretations, so there is a fair amount of variability between publishers. With these examples, I know what a specific learning objective looks like (in terms of assessment) for any of the 34 or so that my kids are supposed to know by the end of the year.

For any instructional unit, my assessment will have questions that scaffold from basic knowledge based questions up to the level that TAKS requires. I will have usually 4 questions per learning objective, with at least half of them being TAKS (literally off the TAKS test) or TAKS equivalent questions.

An example:
I have an objective: 7.1A compare and order integers and positive rational numbers.

My students need to be able to compare:

  1. Fractions with fractions
  2. Decimals with decimals
  3. Percents with percents
  4. Integers with integers
  5. Fractions with decimals
  6. Fractions with percents
  7. Decimals with fractions
  8. All 3 at the same time
  9. All 3 with integers
So I might ask 1 greater than/less than question for the first 7 items. These will be easy, low-level. Then I will ask maybe four questions with #8 and four questions with #9. Probably 6 of the 8 questions would be TAKS or TAKS equivalent, with 2 being "put these in order from greatest to least".

The end grade doesn't exactly match with the TAKS test because of the easy questions, but it does give an accurate view of how well the student knows that particular learning objective. And really, the goal is not, necessarily, to predict how the student will do, since the type of questions on the test change almost every year. The point is to see what areas the student knows and doesn't know so that I can give targeted remediation to sub-groups of students so that they have the tools to be able to pass regardless of questions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tutorial Groups

Yes this is another education post. Be warned.

The second nine weeks ended on Friday. My kids have a four day weekend, so they did not have to come in while the teachers rolled up their grades and made plans for the third nine weeks.

The third nine weeks is pivotal as it leads into the most dreaded time for students: Standardized Testing. Last year did not go so well for my kids (read: "sucked"), and almost all of my efforts this year in planning, in organization and in instruction have been focused on having my students prepared to stomp the TAKS test on April 29th.

Since I want as many kids to pass as possible, and to do well as possible, at some point it becomes necessary to offer some extra practice to certain students that just aren't making it in the regular class time. Therefore, I welcome, tutorials (cue ominous music).

Grouping for tutorials has been particularly hard. I have about 30 kids who are currently not on pace to pass the test, but of that 30, I have 10 who even with the most intense help won't be able to do it this year. Based on where they came in to my class, even if they grew by roughly 10% (I made a growth goal for each of my students this year, based on standardized tests, and then backed out a target percentage for each quiz/test) they still would not pass. So what do I do with them? I decide not to use tutorial time with these students.

Then there is a group of kids who are supposed to make Commended (90%) on the test this year, and for whatever reason (read: boys/girls, sex, hormones, drugs, gangs, home-life, personality clash, boredom) they are not on track to get close. Should I offer them tutorials? They will probably pass already, but I don't want to just leave smart kids behind where they should be either? I decide to make one-day a week a Challenge Group.

I also have a group of kids that are right on the bubble of passing. They will probably pass, but I don't want any surprises. I could take kids that are just below the cut-off or just above. I decide to take just below, which is another 10 out of the original group of 30. This group will also be once a week.

Finally, the last 10 out of the original 30 are shown by their performance this year to be really low, but based on their goal, should be passing. This is my final group. They will need tutorials twice a week.

So how I broke it down:
Monday and Thursday: Remediation Group
Wednesday: Bubble Group
Friday: Challenge Group

Then I have to decide which kids actually get in. There are a lot of kids who could use it. There are a lot of kids who will hate it. Should I take the ones who need it most, even if we don't get along? Will I hate my life if I put one of these kids in the group?

I haven't decided what to do about that yet. Maybe this weekend will bring some clarity. For now, I need to go fix my Xbox360. My life satisfaction has dropped significantly without Guitar Hero 3.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is that Gray Poupon? No, it's GourMAN.

I've created some extraordinary meals of late.

Normally, I shy away from anything (or anybody) that would label my cooking as gourmet. I feel like the word gourmet, and really, a person who might be called a gourmet (yea you can use it like that, I checked) usually connotes a general priggishness, and a large case of stick-up-the-butt-itis in particular.

I don't really know what turned me off to that whole side of the culinary spectrum. I would say the emphasis on presentation, but I know from my teaching experience that presentation is crucial to any sort of digestion. I mean, take Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, put it in a wood bowl with a wood spoon and you could charge $14 for it at some inn in New England. Shoot, I'd pay the $14 bucks, and not even feel bad about it, because of the presentation.

Okay that was a lie. I'd feel bad about it. But I would pay $8. And that's my point. Presentation gets you to all the way to that $8.

I think part of the problem is the small portions. Maybe I am uncultured (not much maybe about that one), but if I leave the meal and want to go make a sandwich because I'm hungry, I get upset.

So I am going to coin a new term, right here in this post. The term is "GourMan". Basically, I took the word Gourmet, cut off the end, and added the word Man. Oh. You got that part?

Well, then the meaning must be somewhat obvious. You take all the good stuff about Gourmet food; the presentation, the complex yet subtle flavors, the variety, the love. Then you take away the weak-at-the-knees, I-can't-finish-this-bowl-of-chili-because-it's-too-hot-ness and add "Give me another bowl of chili, I'm going to go cut down a tree because I can, and then use it to build a baseball bat to hit a home run with (even though I don't like baseball)".

That's Gourman.

My meals are all, by definition, Gourman. Feel free to spread that term around.

Tonight, we ate Bison Burgers, macaroni and cheeses and steamed green beans. Ms. A brought over no-bake cookies. That is a Gourman meal.

Below is a picture of a Gourman meal the men of Essex shared a couple weeks back. Here we have Sirloin Steak, Boiled Red Skin Potatoes and Baked Vegetables (squash, onions, mushrooms).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I So Fly: A Guide

So a student tells me today, “Mister. You need to get a grill.”

Naturally, I can’t understand this student clearly. And I want to play coy, so I respond, “I need to get a girl or a grill?”

Student: “Well, both. But first the grill. And a new look.”

Me: “I need a new look? I changed my hair this week!”

Student: “And you need some rocawear jeans.”

Me: “What’s that?”

Falling out of seat with laughter
Student: “You don’t know Rocawear? You haven’t seen this symbol?”

Shows me symbol
Me: “Nope.”

Student: “Oh man, you need those.”

Me: “Well, make me a list of all the things I need.”

Student: “Okay, I will.”

On the way to lunch the student drafted a list of improvements to the Mr. Blair persona. What follows is the actual contents of the list. The only changes are spelling. (he spelled Mohawk mohak for example).
Here’s the list:

  1. Get a Mohawk
  2. Get a chain that hangs low
  3. Find a posse
  4. get a girlfriend or buy one
  5. get a grill
  6. get a new look
  7. buy new Jordan's
  8. get a belt with your name on the buckle
  9. get bigger pants that’s Rocawear
  10. get a polo shirt
I don't know whether to be pleased that I am so far from being cool or disappointed. I know that #11 is simply not possible, so I guess super-flydom is simply unattainable, but still, I could pull the rest of this off for less than $300. That's a small price to pay for street-cred via fashion.

I think I am somehow going to use this list to my advantage. Something along the lines of "I will do all of these things if we average an 80% on the TAKS test" might be in order.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

More on the Wire

I was reading Pop Candy, a USA Today blog about pop culture, and stumbled across this interview with the head-writer for The Wire.

The interview is pretty long, but I found it very interesting where all the material came from, and the history of the show.

I also liked how he explained the structure of the show:
" But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think."

Amazing how he puts words to the desperation, the tunnel vision, the tightness in my chest that I feel at the culmination of every season, and nearly every episode. These structures feel omnipotent in their reach, directorless in their decisions, and uncaring in their affects.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Guitar Hero 3 and The Wire

I purchased Guitar Hero 3 on Friday. I had a gift card, so the $108 price tag was reduced to a reasonable amount, but after playing it for about 10 hours since purchase, I think that I will at least get $108 worth of enjoyment from it.

First, there is a new wireless guitar with GH3. The wireless guitar is a huge step up. The range is very good, the buttons are more responsive than the GH2 guitar, and it comes with stickers. So now I have some flaming monkey heads on my guitar. Sweet huh?

After the guitar, and really, the whole reason for the game, is the set list; the set list for GH3 is excellent. There are selections from lots of big names such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Who and Guns N Roses, as well as lots of classic songs that everyone knows the words to.

We now have 2 guitars, after purchasing GH2 and GH3, so we also have the opportunity to play co-op songs. This is a lot of fun, and a ridiculous show for any other people that are not playing. I always do my best to have a solid rock pose, make good facial expressions, and generally make a fool out of myself.

I just finished watching season 4 of The Wire. If you have not heard about or seen The Wire yet, you owe it to yourself to check this show out. Basically, the show is about the American Inner-City and all the forces that converge there for money, power, fame, influence, life, love, whatever. Season 1 followed an individual drug crew, season 2 focused on the docks, season 3 focused on politics, season 4 on the education system. Season 5 starts tomorrow on HBO, and focuses on the newspaper.

A small group of police officers form the central characters to the show across all the season, with a couple other floater characters that consistently pop up. Basically, I think that the Wire is the best television show I have ever seen. It has deep characters, great writing, and lots of moral ambiguity. All the 'good guys' make mistakes or have demons in their closets. They are faced with no-win decisions and just try to make the best of them. The 'bad guys' generally hold to some code of ethics that in many times trumps that of the police or politicians. Throughout, I find myself reevaluating concepts of right and wrong, and thinking about what I would do in similar situations.