Making a Difference: Three Cups of Tea

Reflecting upon the dreams of those who came before us and the dreams that we have for our children on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wonder when in our history we took education for granted. As a social studies teacher, my students were always amazed to learn that education wasn't always mandatory. That children would often work in very dangerous conditions to help to support their families. That education was something that people strove to achieve - not something that was expected.

Today, we argue about whether we are preparing our students adequately for the world they will enter when they leave school. Since their inception with compulsory education, schools in the United States have operated under a factory model. We have bells, we have a set curriculum, we churn out graduates like Model T cars. Only we don't, do we?

I am not sure that I have the answer for education - in fact, I am pretty sure that I do not. But after reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time I have been thinking very differently about education. Throughout the book, which chronicled Greg Mortenson's struggles to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan against the backdrop of the internal and external conflicts of those countries, Mortenson talks about the power of education to bring peace. The communities where Mortenson built schools worked together to see them constructed - often carrying materials on their backs to the remote areas where the schools would be built. They challenged traditional and religious norms to allow their daughters to attend school. Those schools brought the world to remote villages, for all the good and bad that entails. It brought new perspectives and new opportunities.

We have plenty of schools in this country - but we don't have the passion for them to exist that is described in Mortenson's book. I am struggling with why.

Photo credit: Lewis W. Hine. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Professional Discourse

So I'm minding my own business doing e-mail today, pulling together a database, having a grand old time listening to the Dr. Horrible soundtrack. I open an email from an international listserv on statistics in education. A member posted a question about a study, unclear on why a particular test had been used to analyze the data. Her question was neutral, well-reasoned and appropriate to the listserv. In effect, a professional said "I don't understand this. Can you people who are in the same field as me help me understand it better?"

The response to her inquiry a few minutes later?
Did one of the authors of this paper steal your boyfriend in grammar school by any chance? As to your question "Am I missing something here?", I would have to say professionalism, scruples, and a LIFE!

So maybe he is the woman's best friend and he has an odd way of teasing her. Perhaps he knows the authors and feels the need to defend their academic honor. Or perhaps he's provided yet another example of why we as a profession so often chose to struggle alone rather than revealing our challenges or struggles in front of others. In any event, I sincerely hope the listserv moderates call him out and give the original author some positive lovin'. Odds are they won't.

The 11th Hour

New York State opens the testing window the ELA grades 3-8 on Monday. My hunch is that most schools are starting on Tuesday and spending Monday doing a wide variety of "test prep" activities, both helpful and detrimental to students and teachers. I imagine there's going to be a run on Tums on Sunday night and some child will have a hard time falling asleep, convinced that if they fail the test their life, as they know it, is over. In time, I think the pendulum will swing toward the middle. In the meantime, my two cents on how to spend Monday.

Odds are good that by this point, the students are familiar with the format of the test and would not benefit from taking any additional practice tests. This is especially true for 8th graders who could probably write the test by now. An approach that may be more beneficial is to spend some time reminding the students of the purpose of the tests and the intended audience. It is not to find out if Jane or Jose is smart or is a good student or to determine their self-worth or to find out if their teacher is good. The audience is every student, Grades 3 through 8, in the state of New York. In other words, a student's self-check for a correct response might be: is this the best answer or is it best for me?

Monday may best served by reminded them how to translate all of that learning to one particular format. A useful strategy may be to provide the students with a Venn Diagram on the board or chart paper and have a discussion about the difference between Real World behaviors – all of those great things we do when we interact with texts in our “real lives” versus what we do on the day of the test that we do at no other time. To anchor yourself in this mental model, consider how you drove the day of your driver's test. How did you behave when driving while running errands or driving to work (assuming there weren't three inches of ice on the roads - yeah Buffalo!)? There are some things in common (text tagging, using the text to find an answer) but there are lots of differences that are worth highlighting:

The analogy may not work for all students - if that's case - and seriously (even in the most "test netural" schools Monday is a high stress day) what else are you going to be teaching/talking about? - spend some time Venn-ing out behaviors playing basketball versus football, watching TV versus watching movies or eating dinner at home versus eating dinner at a friend's house, then shift to testing and real world behaviors.

In any event, regardless of how the is spent, it's helpful to keep in mind the sage advice of Dr. Seuss in Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!

Miss Bonkers rose. “Don’t fret!” she said.
“You’ve learned the things you need
To pass the test and many more –
I’m certain you’ll succeed.
We’ve taught you that the earth is round,
That red and white make pink,
And something else that matters more –
We’ve taught you how to think.”