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March 2018

Thoughts on Trump, Literacy Coaching, and Writing for My GIS

Like usual, I couldn't be more disturbed about the incompetence going on in Washington. I've been reading this book by Kurt Eichenwald about Enron and why it failed, and so many of the people at the top of that organization had no business working with large sums of money and creating financial vehicles like hedge funds. They had no business buying up water utilities and shuffling funds around. This compares to the Trump administration in a bunch of frightening ways, and I am tired of just watching the train wreck in slow motion. Some nights after reading in that book, it's hard to sleep well. And then I wake up in the morning and turn on the news, and Trump has already been up since before dawn making a fool of himself and taking the entire country along on his weird little ride.

My theories about incompetence isn't confined to politics; I'm worrying about other places too. When you are depending on your leadership to make good choices (because it's like you are on a bus careening down a dangerous mountain with a bunch of other helpless people when you are subject to the decisions of an incompetent team), your life is on a kind of holding pattern, like at an airport. For example, I went on an interesting job interview last year. The school was in a tough neighborhood and the principal was young and inexperienced. Honestly, she looked like she was just out of high school, and she even had a squeaky little voice to go along with her tiny, young appearance. She had the campus instructional coach sit in the interview, and at the time I didn't see anything wrong with that. And then in January of this year, I read an entire text book on coaching. It turns out that the instructional coach should never chime in on personnel decisions because that interferes with the trust that is needed between the teacher and the coach. The student's success in the classroom should be the goal of coaching, not deciding which teachers should win or lose during hiring season. To help students succeed, the coach has to be trustworthy and ethical so the teacher can feel comfortable asking questions and demonstrating teaching methods in the classroom. The coach is suppose to support the teacher in an objective and professional way. A coach that is critical and unethical, willing to gossip, or seek power over an individual's employment, is unworthy of the position. Coaches should never verbally abuse a teacher or make hateful and derogatory comments either, but most of us in education have seen this kind of unprofessional conduct at least once. 

But my answer on that day was pretty blunt. I told them that I respected credentials and experience, and that I was hoping to work with a team that had a campus wide learning strategy. But in some ways just relying on a person's credentials or education is an invitation to open Pandora's box because as soon as someone thinks that his or her terminal degree means it's okay to stop learning from colleagues, then the department or institution is limited to something that may not be what it appears, similar to Enron's CFO, Andy Fastow. So, if a team is looking up to someone that is believed to have all-encompassing knowledge, overloading this person's ego with decision making power or influence, and grooming them to serve at the top, then the institution will never know what it has been missing in the way of growth or innovation because it has chosen to overlook other perspectives. When an organization centers its attention on a particular individual, and relies on that individual as a source of guidance or constant advice, then the organization threatens its very existence because of this insulating factor. It's important to listen to every voice. Let's take a look at the relationship between Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, and Andy Fastow, the CFO. Anything that Andy did or said was supported by Ken Lay, and it took a string of whistle blowers and mini-disasters, and finally a major disaster, to get anyone outside of the company to believe that the entire organization was near financial collapse. It was basic incompetence 101 that brought Enron to its knees after years of mismanagement, and the fact that Lay was enthralled with an erroneous idea and image of Andy Fastow. 

This is why I have been thinking about writing some ideas about literacy coaching into my GIS. The way we do education in this country does need some revamping, but the reforms that have been tried so far have done nothing but harm students and teachers. Maybe if more teachers were encouraged to take advanced coursework this would help with student achievement. But ignoring professionalism has done nothing to improve outcomes, and just allowing anybody to coach, teach, or lead a school, is just as crazy as relying on a perceived guru. When I say ignoring professionalism, I think of the instructional coach example.

My first instructional coach has since retired, but I met her one night last fall on a moonlit bike trail. It was the strangest way to meet back up again, and I was so happy to see her. She had so much to offer me back at my old school in the way of knowledge and expertise, but she had no clue about the actual learning environment between her visits because all she was ever shown was numbers and data, so she was unsure of how to guide any of her teachers on that campus (an example of how misguided leadership can hurt kids). But our conversation was tinged with sadness since we both already knew from watching the news that my old school is in its seventh year of "improvement required," and will soon be closed, proving in general that drastic reform strategies fail our kids. 

Anyway, my GIS is my capstone course for my master's degree, and I want to expand on how standardized testing has affected student writing. I've already done some work in this area in previous courses, but I would like to offer some solutions on how to mitigate the classroom tragedies that are taking place everyday in public schools everywhere. I know that the emphasis on writing to an examination has overshadowed the creation of student writers per se. The drill and kill method of grammar instruction is once again overshadowing the more effective literature based method. Standardized tests cater to a certain demographic, and the writing prompts are evidence of this. I know that I can't change policies, but one voice at a time can help one child at a time. I hope that what I learn from my capstone course will help me become a better teacher.

Vogt, MaryEllen, et al. Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches in the Real World. 2nd. ed., Boston, Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2007.

Eichenwald, Kurt. Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story. New York, Broadway Books, 2005.


Trump and Tillerson: Fascists Hate Dissension

The fact that Trump keeps kicking people to the curb that disagree with him makes me think that he's so demented and hard line that he finds even the slightest bit of advice repugnant. If that's true, and by all accounts it is, then our country is in even deeper trouble than we imagined. His arrogance is unmatched by anyone, and he is the quintessential adult bully.  

As he becomes more authoritarian, his followers become more defensive of his behavior. The other day, when I was driving home from school, I tuned into Sean Hannity's radio program. I listen to Hannity so that I can hear the other side of the argument, and he is generally so facetious and such a liar that he makes me feel slimed while I listen. But he was one-upped last Friday by a whining female caller that couldn't get over the fact that the "liberal media" wouldn't admit that Trump is a "Godly man doing God's work." 

This kind of talk is sickening to say the least. Nothing anywhere is further from God than Trump, unless it's the devil himself. But the incident today ushers in a new low-level of hate mongering and potential violence because Tillerson's replacement, Mike Pompeo, supports and promotes torture as a method of extracting "information" from terror suspects. Even though it has been proven that evidence and intelligence garnered from torture is generally false or inconclusive, it appears that it will now become formal US policy. 

I can remember the first time it occurred to me that my country would actually officially torture a suspect, and I was in shocked disbelief. I knew that rogue military personnel would torture prisoners, but I had no idea that this behavior would ever be accepted by the leaders of my country. The unbelievable and hideous hypocrisy of these so-called Christians is just mind boggling. All of this is extremely disturbing, rather reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Getting Trump and his mess out of our highest office must be a priority.

unknown cartoonist


I Don't Want to do it Myself: Teaching Writing with a Worksheet

This week some of my fellow students (I'm in a composition pedagogy class) shared some worksheets that they would assign during a writing workshop. First of all, I am completely confused by this assignment because I have attended numerous writing workshops around the country, and I've never had to do a worksheet. My own composition classes have all been of the workshop style, so I really didn't even know there was any other way. I have met people that teach writing at the secondary level that have never attended any workshops and don't know what they are, but I have never met anyone teaching at the college level that doesn't use this methodology along with writing pedagogies and theories.

I am totally confused. I don't know what will happen with my grade in this course because it seems as if the professor is more of a constructivist (the Kenneth Burke variety), and I am more of an expressivist (the James Berlin variety). All I can do is look at what most of my classmates are offering in the way of writing exercises, and think about how I could see myself getting into a whole lot of trouble for handing the worksheet back to the teacher and declaring a big "no thanks." I believe if you don't want to do the worksheet yourself (or any kind of classwork for that matter), then you shouldn't be passing it out to somebody else. 

We all know that post-secondary educators are all crying the blues about the low level students they are getting. I keep hearing that none of the kids can write, and that some of the kids can't read, and how close reading exercises have had to be added to classes and textbooks, and how some of the kids have no library skills, or classroom etiquette, and the list of grievances just goes on and on forever. Some institutions are even bucking back against accepting any dual credit or Advanced Placement scores because they think the kids still can't write or think critically.

And all of this makes me wonder if the worksheets are some response to this perceived problem with literacy skills, at least in the undergraduate writing class. So, with this in mind, I would like to recommend a change based on my experiences with math. Schools have transformed the way they teach math, and it is working. Students do small group tutorials on a regular basis regardless of skill level (it is sometimes important to have a mixed ability group). Math tutors are everywhere, and most of the instruction has the look and feel of a workshop. The classes are more cohesive than ever before. I honestly envy what I see math teachers doing, and I can't figure out why secondary English teachers aren't attending workshops and taking advanced coursework so they can do the same thing. And, of course, math has some differences because students have to constantly do worksheets because repetition is important to memorizing an equation or learning how to operate a calculator. But, even so, math departments have their own versions of the writing workshop and writing lab.

Just like a mini math lesson, a mini grammar lesson can be fun. Students can revise pieces in class, and teachers can choose texts that are relevant and engaging. Every now and then a worksheet is okay. But drill and kill grammar lessons with worksheets and computer programs that are out of context with the student's life is oppressive. Students should never be handed a grammar worksheet without some context. Reading and fixing sentences that you didn't write yourself, and that no identifiable person wrote, is boring and tedious. For example, one of the future educators that I'm working with in my course created this elaborate worksheet for citation creation. On one side it has the text information, and then on the other side it has a bunch of lines where you would try to write your citation. If you need to make a bibliography for the sources you have used, you can look up how to do it in a handbook and follow the container pattern. It is really that simple. Teaching how to make citations is okay, but you don't need a worksheet for that, and it's a major waste of time anyway when you can just copy it out of a book. 

Students should be writing for a larger audience than just the teacher. Student writings should be published on school walls, school websites, blogs, or local newsletters and papers. When students are no longer isolated by the teacher, when they are no longer working out of context for some unattainable goal, when they have options about who reads and values their work, they become writers. 

 Cartoonist unknown


Why would someone that is a true reading specialist with years of experience trot out all of these computer based learning programs that are basically ineffective and a waste of time? If a district has talent at the top, then why would it resort to this kind of instruction? Sure, I agree that a bit of this computer based reading and analyzing is okay, but to make students spend hours upon hours gazing at a screen, and then complaining at teachers for not making kids gaze at this screen for hours upon hours, seems like the height of educational malpractice. Instead of providing instruction and creating meaningful lesson plans, these teachers are basically sitting at their desks doing nothing, or walking around the classroom trying to make sure that these kids are on the right website. How is this going to improve social skills, reading fluency, an appreciation for literature, or basic speaking and listening communication? Why are these kids not reading great stories and poems and sharing them in the classroom? Why are these kids not writing in the classroom for a variety of purposes? Obviously, the people that promote these kinds of programs are in it for the profits, and they could care less about teachers and kids. But it seems sad that an entire district would decide that it has such contempt for its English department that it would try to diminish its capacity for creativity and instruction by replacing it with a Chromebook. I have only met a small handful of teachers that I thought wouldn't improve with professional development and support. It must be easier and cheaper to support a computer...I wonder what kind of message this sends our kids...
But more importantly, what is all this screen time doing to the brain? I've been reading about kids spending hours a day on a computer at school, and I have seen some of this in action. This doesn't count after school hours that kids spend on phones or other devices at home. In light of the research and the unanswered questions, I would say that making students sit in front of a computer for hours on end is irresponsible and cruel. Parents should begin to ask districts how many hours a day their child is sitting in front of a computer. The answer might be shocking.