Tuesday, March 29, 2016

But Do They Understand the Disciplines?

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For most of my career, educators focused on the content and skills to be imparted to students. It was what they needed to know and what they needed to know how to do. Some of us had content-rich courses. Others focused more on skills. Either way, we missed something crucial.

Today's world presents challenges to citizens ranging from climate change to income inequality to genetic manipulation to new epidemics like Zika. Perhaps you would assign the first two to your social studies teachers and the second two to the science department. Not me.

Let's hearken back to the days of thematic instruction. You may recall that there was a push in the 1970s and again in the 1990s for school-wide themes that each subject area could teach from its unique perspective.  An entire school might be studying China -- China's history, language, art, ancient scientific breakthroughs. Then the focus was on what we were learning about the brain and on inquiry processes. All that is good but there's a more fundamental reason to think thematically.

Most of us see content areas -- math, English, science, social studies, business, the arts -- as independent silos. We need to see them less as categories of knowledge and skills and more as unique ways of understanding and solving problems.

Consider the example of Income Inequality. Each discipline can bring something unique and important to our discussion of this issue.

Mathematics: What are the trend lines? Is it a line (regular progression), a curve (exponential growth) or a cycle (regular intervals of increase and decline)? What can we project into the future? What other factors precipitate or interfere with rates of income inequality?

History: When in history have we seen growing inequality? What factors contributed to eventual equalization? In China, Mao allowed rapid growth, then cracked down to flatten disparities, often brutally. Did the industrial revolution increase or decrease inequality? How about free trade? Does warfare play a role? What do historical sources tell us about perceptions of wealth and poverty?

Business: What are the costs and benefits of growing inequality? What happens when large blocks of consumers are shut out of markets? What opportunities and pitfalls do inequality and equality offer?

Sociology: What motivates people to either accommodate or attack inequality? What social forces level the field or encourage individual competition? Is individual wealth a positive good?
Writing and the Arts: How can we communicate in literature, clay, music or dance the impacts of inequality? Are there analogies to nature we can use? Think Animal Farm, The Jungle, or Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl photographs. Think of songs like Living for the City or Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?

Too many of our students graduate with a bag of knowledge and skills but without the realization that every discipline is a unique way of interpreting the world and solving problems. Artists and mathematicians may use different tool bags, but both help us understand our challenges in important ways.

This is different than thematic instruction or ITI. We're not just looking for the content connections, but digging deeper to use the mindsets and the tools of each discipline to understand issues.

Imagine a school where students understand that every discipline contributes to solving important contemporary challenges. Imagine a country where citizens understand the same.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Yes, You Can Teach Creativity

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One of my favorite activities with kids was teaching about (and then practicing) creativity. Some of you may wonder -- can qualities like creativity and empathy be actually taught? Yes and yes. First creativity.

I was a social studies teacher, so didn't focus on musical or artistic creativity, just general brain stretching.

I'd begin with a timed challenge: My favorite was asking them to make a list of things you've only done once. With high school students, I often clarified that this was a G-rated list. 

Then I'd give them 5 minutes to write their list, with instructions to write everything that comes to their minds, not to screen anything because it seemed dumb. The first time, I'd give them a goal: try to list 20 things, perhaps. 

Here is some of my list:
  • Got married
  • Confronted an armored tank full of scared, machine gun armed, pimply faced boys
  • Testified to a federal grand jury
  • Ate foie gras
  • Swam with dolphins (though I thought they were sharks and panicked)
  • Was picked up by a police car (after a wild night of tp-ing houses)
  • Rode in a balloon
  • Shoplifted (Kool-Aid, age eight)
  • Fired a rifle
  • Had one pedicure, one manicure and one facial
  • Wrote a novel
  • Attended a birth that wasn't my own
  • Persuaded a lot of people to do something I regretted later
  • Visited a friend in prison
  • Voted for a presidential candidate who won
  • Prepared a body for burial/cremation
  • Airlifted by Mercy Flights for a medical emergency (not mine)
  • Almost died in a hospital
  • Snorkeled with manta rays
  • Was threatened by a gun in the US
  • Ran out of gas on the freeway while driving a bus full of students
  • Sat on the lap of an American president
  • Eavesdropped on Justice Blackmun and his aides in the Supreme Court cafeteria
  • Embarrassed my parents on local television
  • Brought a large amount of cash across international borders (not what you think)
  • Rode in a doorless helicopter
  • Got injured in a riot 
  • Drove through a blinding storm with a dead bird stuck to my windshield wipers
  • Body surfed twenty foot waves
  • Unknowingly, had students use my horrid rendition of I've Been Working on the Railroad for their cellphone ringtones
  • Spent the night -- the whole night -- in a classroom 
  • Did a police ride-along (front seat this time)
  • Hit a baseball hard enough to break the pitcher's finger 
  • Got fired from a job (cocktail waitress)
  • Got hired for a job because the owner thought I was an assassin (Squeaky Fromme)

    For my writing friends, I suspect any one of these could make a terrific poem, short memoir or fictional piece. Additional examples are below.

    After the first time students tried this, I would tell them the four elements of creativity and let them self-score themselves. The elements are as follows:

    Fluency: Number of items in their list. (1 point each)
    Flexibility: Number of different types (categories) included in their list. As a class, we would create categories -- foods, sports, places, health conditions and so on. Students would then categorize their responses and count the number of categories they included. (2 points per category). 
    Originality: Number of items on a list that no one else in the class had. (1 point each) 
    Elaboration: Detailed items get an additional point over simple ones. Above, I have a few with detail but most are fairly simple. (1 point each)

    You will note that other than fluency, the elements are subjective. Remind students that score doesn't really matter except to track how much better their own creativity gets over time. You'll also notice that Flexibility is rated twice what the other categories are. Whether inventors, artists or just good thinkers, creative people are able to flex their minds, moving out of thinking ruts into new innovative ideas. If you did this once a week or once a month, students would remember the elements and increase the quality of their lists, hence flexing their creative brains.

    Here are some other examples I've used, but feel free to incorporate into your curriculum:
    • Things that happen at school when no one's looking
    • Things I know almost nothing about
    •  Difficult things to draw (or easy, circular, or vertical things)
    • Things that only happen in Southern Oregon
    • What I would do if I were lost in the woods
    • What birds think trees are for
    • The many uses for a flashlight (or other object)
    • Ways I can extend my life expectancy
    • Different possible solutions to a given problem (nothing to do around here, adults not listening to kids, world hunger, getting a product to market)
    • What might have happened if...(pick a critical historical event)

    Try such a list yourself (untimed is also fine; but in a classroom it does help to time) and see if you can improve your own creativity over time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Our Best and Brightest not Good Enough?

To become a Valedictorian, a high school student must perform incredibly well, mixing her drive with her innate talent to secure solid A's for four years. In our school district, she also must take rigorous coursework, including Advanced Placement, Calculus and Foreign Language. Most school valedictorians are also involved in sports, student government or clubs during high school. If anyone is the ideal candidate for a top-notch school, it ought to be these guys.

Nationally, Lisa Wade's research showed that family income is a major determinant of how many valedictorians choose highly selective (or even private non-profit) colleges. Here are the types of colleges chosen by valedictorians, according to family income (SES) status.
University of Chicago

Nationwide Data
Highly Selective Other Private Other Public
High SES Vals 74% 10% 16%
Middle SES Vals 47% 20% 32%
Low SES Vals 43% 23% 34%,

She identifies the factors that matter:
  • Knowing others who attend/attended highly selective schools
  • Counselors or others explaining financial aid, application process and offering encouragement (perceptions of cost differences)
  • Family support 
The discrepancy between wealthy, middle class and poor families is concerning. Using the same criteria, I took a look at our local picture. Fortunately, our local newspaper publishes the names, achievements and goals of valedictorians from our six local high schools. I was able to identify the college choices for each of them over the past eight years. The high schools' enrollments range from 100 to 2000 students with four of them between 300 to 700 students. This is a rural high poverty county.

Percentages of Local Valedictorians Choosing Colleges that are...

Highly Selective (accept 30% or less) Selective (accept 50% or less) Other Private 4-Year Other Public 4-Year Community College Unknown
5% 10% 22% 51% 5% 6%

By school, arranged from largest high school to the smallest, the percentages attending ANY private or out-of-state college were:

39% 39% 65% 23% 20% 0%

In 2015, more local valedictorians chose selective and highly selective colleges. Here is the breakdown for the ten 2015 Valedictorians from our five local high schools:

Highly Selective Colleges (Columbia, West Point, Dartmouth)
Selective Colleges (Reed, BYU)
Other Private or Out-of-state (Willamette)
State or Community Colleges in Oregon

None of our six local high schools sent more than 7% of valedictorians to a highly selective college. When neither parents nor friends have gone to these schools, it's up to schools and counselors to encourage students to make the reach.

Our public universities, community colleges, and other private non-profit colleges are wonderful destinations for students. This is not to argue otherwise. But students who attend certain prestigious universities do reap benefits from rigor to connections to confidence to career opportunities.

Aren't OUR kids good enough?  If so, what are we going to do to ensure they get a fair shake?

Why Teens Should Not Work