Rambling……. as of June 5, 2009

This new category, as of June, 2009, is a work-in-progress. That is, my other blog entries I try to edit so they may be carved in stone as befits them. In this category, I’d like readers of this blog to understand that these ramblings will be modified, refined, contradicted, and heavily edited over time. The input from readers will help with this.

For some reason, despite the edit function on the blog, I feel it is somehow dishonest to go back and edit a blog entry, as if I had never said what I said. I like being responsible for what I say. One reason, perhaps, that I don’t get more comments is that the entries seem to be finished products, which they are, and closed to modification. I had hoped there would be a lively exchange under “comments”, but such has seldom happened.

Eventually, a particular thread will be polished and then entered under its appropriate category. But, to be honest, so many thoughts occur to me, prompted or not, that I want to jot them down without necessarily fleshing them out.

So, I’ll start right now.
I’m finishing the third Malcolm Gladwell book, The Tipping Point. He’s talking about Sesame Street and what makes it “sticky”, i.e. makes it stick with kids. The answer: MEANING. That’s exactly what I’ve been preaching on the Listservs: if something has no meaning, it’s not retained and it cannot find purchase in the mind of the learner.

Moving to a different plane…. people give lip-service to the notion that a hungry child or a terrified child cannot learn. We invoke Maslow’s hierarchy. Then we turn around and toss off labels like ’lazy’ and ’uninterested’, ’selfish’, ’narcissistic’, and so on with no appreciation, it appears, for the situation the student finds himself in.That’s why I started the Basics category; I felt like most teachers I read on the listservs quickly lose sight of what is basic to people’s lives and make their own goals and standards the center of their concerns. Once you do that, you lose sight of what your charges are all about; they are a bundle of traits and responses. Your job is to teach them, not winnow them out. After all, you are not a drill instructor whose job it is to weed out those who will be the weak link in a combat squad. You are more like a GOOD P.E. teacher, whose job it is to bring everyone along to a state of physical fitness.

I wrote that on the third of June; this is the 5th. Gladwell is, again, the impetus. I just started “the rule of 150”; it’s uncanny how he delves into areas that I have tried to express myself on. In this case, it is the number of relationships we can handle. Human beings can handle the largest group of any primate: 150 (actually 148). Beyond that, it’s like a series of items: after 7 we begin to lose track. But we can track the relationships we have with 150 people and the relationships among them.

Earlier he talked of the Broken Windows approach to fighting crime that seemed to bring the crime rate way down precipitously in NYC. His framework is that for an epidemic in crime reduction, best-seller status, disease rate, and so forth across phenomena involving people, you need 3 laws followed: the law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the power of Context. In reading about these, the applicability to the fl classroom is clear: the stickiness factor deals with how things presented to people stick with them. The outstanding feature of this is the way stories are central to human learning. He describes the 2 year old recorded as she lay in her crib at night telling herself stories about her day and her day to come as a means of organizing everything for her memory and her conceptualization.
Then he talks about context and how Bernie Goetz would not have shot the 4 hoodlums on the subway if the subway car had not been vandalized, despite his ugly psychological history and his victims’ criminality. Something “tipped” the situation so it resulted in gunfire, thus the title.
And the first law covered, the law of the Few. The Few are either Connectors, Mavens, or Salesmen, and often a combination of the three. Connectors are people who connect to a whole lot of other people in significant ways; if you tell them something important, it’s going to get around very fast. A maven is an expert and people look to her for information; perhaps it’s on the best deal on cars or what’s going on with the newest television or computer technology or which doctors in town are the best for elderly people. They just know stuff.
Look at the teacher: a maven for sure but the last category in the Few, a Salesman, is the teacher who can recruit and convert students to a love of learning and knowing. The stickiness factor is huge in education, esp fl; how do we get students to retain vocabulary? And finally, the Context: what kind of atmosphere do we have in our classroom and in our school to promote learning?

Which leads me into the movie The History Boys. The axis is the elderly teacher of General Studies who fills the boys’ heads and hearts with all sorts of useless junk, which many sympathetic viewers will declare the essence of education, counterpoised to the New Man brought in to tweak the boys for their Oxbridge exams. Both teachers have an eye for the boys, esp for one cynical little twerp who winds up saving the old teacher from dismissal by pointing out to the headmaster his own constant touching and pinching the pretty young school secretary. One or two scenes between this boy and the New Man might be a little unnerving, watching two males spar over who is in love and who is negotiating. I was torn because the old man values the sort of learning I do but as a principal I would not have let him clear out his deak before having him escorted off campus prepatory to firing him. With great regret I would fire him, but fire him I would.
The movie juxtaposes the history teacher’s emphasis on facts combined with a real understanding of history to the old teacher’s clever use of a variety of themes to get the boys to thinking to the New Man’s focus on playing the system. In a dramatic way it plays out the issues we face as we wonder whether to prep our kids for high-stakes tests and entrance exams or just teach them. What it really makes me wonder is what sort of people rise to the position of setting up these screening systems that are so easily manipulated.

Thought One
When teachers are given materials, ancillaries, they use them passively. But when they make their own, develop them themselves, they are invested and students pick up their enthusiasm.

Thought Two
Testing – how about offering students not a test but an opportunity to write as much as they know about a topic or a variety of topics?
Question: open or closed notes/book?
How credit it? Grade it? Do we have to?
What do we do with it?

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