How I Spent My Summer Vacation

If asked to pinpoint our decision to try yoga, it would have to be when we just happened upon a couple of mats on sale for an impossibly low price at Kohls. A blue one for Dom, purple for me. We were in need of some stretching and structured exercise. Suddenly, two random, very fine looking mats had appeared in our path. Call it fate. Call it destiny. 

Image result for images of yoga

It isn’t that we didn’t believe yoga was real work. We did, which is why we decided to give it a go. We talked about it for a month, then another month. The mats, still in the Kohls bag, still in the car, waited patiently. Finally, we googled yoga in Westchester, ready to pull the trigger.

Who knew there were so many different names for yoga? Or so many places to “practice” it? Web sites all whispered persuasively: peace, fitness, flexibility. We focused on those sites that repeated the mantra “Practitioners of all levels welcome.”  Each beckoned seductively through gentle color schemes, special introductory offers, free parking.

What’s a newbie to do?

“Check the reviews,” Dom suggested.

“OK, here is one,” I said with authority. It was close enough to home and the class schedule offered lots of options. Every review was positive: clean studio, friendly staff, private showers and even a little yoga shop where practitioners of all levels could purchase the necessary accessories of the discipline. What more could we ask for? Giddy, we unfurled the blue and purple mats and, as the site instructed, found a couple of colorful beach towels.

And when we showed up at our first yoga experience, a ninety minute Birkram class, we were sure we were on our way to inner peace and new found strength. What we didn’t know? So much.

The parking was free as promised.

As promised, every single person associated with the studio was nice, from the barefooted boy who gave us the senior discount even before we asked to the woman who would orchestrate our torture.

And though I never got to check it out, there was, as promised, a little shop of yoga, too.

The first clue that we were out of our league was the dress–or rather the lack of dress–of our fellow practitioners. A shirtless man with a German accent smiled so broadly that I almost didn’t notice he was wearing nothing more than a black Speedo. Sports bras and minimal spandex shorts, clothing that looked more like underwear than yoga wear. In gym gear, we were woefully overdressed.

It was when we opened the double doors to the studio, though, that we should have sprinted for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts. One hundred and seven degrees. 40% humidity. If we accepted the sale on mats as our reason to give yoga a chance, we missed the equally obvious message that maybe Bikram wasn’t the yoga we were meant to practice.

But they say you see what you want to see and what we saw was downward dog, lotus flowers. The heat aside, I think we still believed we could fight the good fight. The first couple of activities were sort-of, kind of, do-able. But this was the tease, the baby stuff, a warm up for our descent into the fire and rain of hot yoga hell.

Instead of finding inner peace, my mind wandered and I wondered how many people passed out during a single ninety minute session or how many threw up. I tried to focus. But the challenge to grab a sweaty left ankle with an equally sweaty right hand was too much for me. I could see the clock in the mirror. I might have confessed to any number of sins or crimes if I thought that would make the clock read 5:30.

Then it was over. We didn’t puke or faint. On some level, there was temporary euphoria at having survived, at having passed this cosmic test of endurance. But I knew I would not set foot again in a hot yoga studio.

The lesson? Do your homework. Master the basics. Don’t quit.

Tomorrow, we return to yoga. When we open our mats, we hope to feel the burn, but not the heat.

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When School Is Out Part One

 

A great friend and mentor once confided that teachers are always thinking about school:while  in line at the grocery store,while  unloading the laundry, during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.  And, as she was about most everything else, she was right about this, too.

Yes. It’s our dirty little secret. Teachers are always in school mode, even when class is not in session.  Even when we are not correcting today’s papers. Even when we are not attending meetings, communicating with families, filing reports, running photocopies.  We are always thinking about the next great lesson.

My husband reads the morning newspaper to catch up on what happens while he’s busy living life.  Me?  I scour the op-ed pages for accessible and relevant informational texts to supplement my core readings.  Last week, I found a piece about the endangered Madagascar ecosystem to enrich the 7th grade whole class novel Once on this River by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.  I was on the treadmill–actively avoiding exercise ennui– when I caught a rerun of a clip about the Lost Boys, perfect to pair with A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.

It is like watching the  scenery on the daily commute: you never know what you are going to see. But you have to be looking.

And it is not only me.  My middle school colleagues readily confess.  Road signs are signals, symbols like greater than-less than, the periodic table or middle C on a musical staff.  Cooking directions in Spanish is a  sequential use of authentic language.

And yes, this is because we love to teach. It is part and parcel of who we are.   But it is also because we love what we teach. We see the world through the lenses of our content areas; it is how we create meaning from every interaction, every day.

 

Why Taking Notes By Hand Is Better Than Taking Notes by Laptop

It is interesting how, as we learn to manage technology, we begin to discover the best ways to “own” it.  When I read this post, it struck me as relevant to the instructional value we attach to technology.

Diane Ravitch's blog

We have been told that buying a laptop or a tablet for every student is a civil rights issue. Vendors of new technology might find it awkward to make such a claim for their products, but “reformers” do not.

Lest the inevitable technology boosters complain that I am spreading doubt, let me iterate and reiterate that I love technology. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge its drawbacks.

An article in Scientific American warns, “Don’t Take Notes with a laptop.”

Why? Students using a laptop tend to transcribe the teacher or professor’s remarks verbatim.

“Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date. Only it isn’t. New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and…

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Go Play!

It’s official. Kids need more time to play.

Duh.

We didn’t need the Atlantic  [ http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/for-better-school-results-clear-the-schedule-and-let-kids-play/373144/ ] to tell us this. 

But wait. There’s a rub. It seems kids need more time to play… without adult intervention. 

What? No grown-ups?  It will never fly. Developmental anarchy. Instructional blasphemy. They are kids, you know. They need us; they really, really need us.   

They do need us, but not all the time.

Consider this.  For some kids, up to 90% of their time is spoken for. There are the non-negotiables like school, meals and sleep.  Figure in the play dates, gymnastics, music lessons, Little League, dance class, travel teams, AYSO, art lessons, swim practice, Scouts, drama lessons.  There isn’t a lot of time left over for make believe.  There is practically no time left over for trying out independence or making a stab at conflict resolution or practicing assertiveness.

Sometimes, kids need grown-ups to just butt out. Sometimes, we should MOOB: Mind Our Own Business. 

But we mean well.These activities can be great for kids and sometimes, they can even be fun. We want our kids to turn that double play and to play the Pachelbel Canon. Of course, they need to be able to do a front handspring and earn that orienteering merit badge. They must get those community service hours logged.  We can’t have our kids left behind. They will thank us later, when they present a rich and well-rounded resume in this uber-competitive world.  

And besides, they need us. Really. In so many ways. We can officiate, instruct, intervene. We are, after all, the grown-ups.

The truth is they do need us.  They need us to keep them safe. They need us to help them make sound choices. They need us to support their efforts.

 But they also need us to give them time to create an imperfect fort out of a refrigerator box.  They need us to allow them time to settle a disputed call at third base. They need us to let them make–and fix– a few social mistakes. 

They need this time to develop the individual self confidence that they will never pick up from an overly adult-directed childhood.  They have to learn to trust themselves, to figure what to do and how to do it. A small study conducted by three German psychologists suggests that the most successful among us are those who have had ample time for unstructured play. [ http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/value-unstructured-play-time-kids-81177/ ]

We won’t always be around–nor should we be–to right their wrongs and chart a perfect course for them.  Though it may be a tough pill to swallow, we have to understand that our job is to make ourselves obsolete. 

So let them go play! 

 

5 Lessons Education Can Learn from Sports

1. There are no short cuts.

Success is about hard work.  In every sport, the best players embrace the sweat.  Someone way smarter than I am once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

 2. Experience counts…a lot.

Rookie errors are costly. Veterans anticipate the unexpected and react with skill.

3. Resist the urge to showboat.

Humility is always classier than self aggrandizement. Individuals make plays, but teams win games.

4. Trust the coach.

Respect leadership.

 5. Stay hungry.

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.

Gravity

No, not that “Gravity.”   I like my cinema closer to home and just a little bit lighter.

No. Forget the movies.

Imagine instead a Pearson Common Core multiple choice question that might go something like this:

The gravity of the state of American education cannot be underestimated.  Which of the following answer choices best defines  gravity as it is used in this sentence?

A) weight

B) magnitude

C) the attraction of the mass of a planetary body at or near its surface

D) solemnity

Don’t misunderstand.   I don’t dislike the Common Core.  As an English teacher, I am a huge fan.  I love close reading.  I love supported, well-crafted argument.  I love that implemented appropriately, the Common Core will simultaneously challenge both high achievers and reluctant scholars.

No, the Common Core is not the problem.

Those most closely  connected to instruction –administrators, parents, teachers– agree, too:  American students must be well prepared for their post-high school lives.  This is not negotiable.  The success of a democracy rests in an educated populace; the success of a competitive economy resides here, too.   There is no contention about this shared goal.

So what’s the problem, then?

Education has become a prop in the theater of American politics.  Contenders for public office who may know little about the ingredients of successful instruction wave education about, making sweeping promises, sometimes vilifying teachers.   They glad-hand voters, swearing that more rigorous tests are the answer. More tests will promote learning.  More tests will lead to accountability.  More tests will provide the data necessary to fix what ails US schools.

But politicians who mislead the public into believing that more high stakes testing will somehow magically yield  universally stronger students over- simplify an extremely complex issue. Rigid adherence to the notion that linking teachers’ annual ratings to standardized tests will lead to improved performance fails to account for the intangibles that affect instruction, things like poverty and security.   Kids who come to school hungry will not perform well on tests.  Kids whose health care needs are not met will not perform well on tests. Kids who are anxious will not perform well on tests. Schools that are underfunded may not have the resources to support student achievement.  Time devoted to testing would likely be better spent cultivating a culture of intellectual curiosity,  nurturing the thrill of discovery, fulfilling the potential of every child in every classroom.

Gravity.  So much rests on education.  It’s not about number two lead pencils or  tabulated data.  It’s about the weight of wanting to know more tomorrow than you know today.  It’s about a solemn promise we make to all kids that if they work hard, their futures will be bright. It is about the magnitude of the responsibility we have to promote preparedness and achievement.  It’s about the pull of the moon, Mars, Venus that will draw today’s students to become tomorrow’s explorers.

 

P.S.: Again, I thank everyone for following/reading this and my other blog.

Data: What Would J.Evans Pritchard, PhD Say?

There will always be a J. Evans Pritchard trying to force the arts to yield to statistical analysis.

If you’ve been listening, you have heard the conversation. Data, Data. Data.

Standardized tests are the treasure troves of statistics that are driving–oh, excuse me, informing— instruction. # 2 lead pencils are the wands that, with the right sleight of hand, can make you see anything a skilled statistician wants you to imagine you saw.

But like poetry, teaching is an art, a fine art.  Just as it is obvious intellectual farce to reduce the mystery of poetry to the “data driven analysis” spoofed  in the clip, the same could be–no, should be— said for the purely statistical analysis of the instructional artistry that happens in classrooms every day.

Armies of academics going forth to evaluate kids and teachers via mathematical calculations, cold hard data?  Pardon?

Don’t misunderstand; testing has a place in education.  It is one of many tools good teachers use to plan and adjust their instruction. Reliable and valid testing can provide benchmarks of achievement. Sound tests can show teachers where kids need more time on task.

But great teachers know that testing–particularly one-size- fits-all testing– provides only part of the masterpiece that is learning. Learning is about curiosity and confidence. It’s about taking academic risks. It is about the intangibles that make every parent’s child a priority.

Every child who crosses the threshold into our classrooms is a unique and complex individual.They come to us with strengths and challenges, enthusiasm and fears.  No child should ever become a statistic on a bar graph, a mere blip of data on a spreadsheet.  Kids are people, not commodities.

Like poetry,the art of instruction defies scientific deconstruction.  There is just too much happening in classrooms on a day-to-day basis to reduce teaching to a few days of testing, especially flawed testing, especially testing created by one of the biggest text book publishers in the country.

Obviously, you say.

But here’s the rub. Politicians use data mined from classrooms nationwide to further their own ambitions, to promote their personal bureaucratic promises.

Just as J. Evans Pritchard’s method of deconstructing poetry ultimately destroys the beauty of the text, data driven education crushes the joy of learning, stifles creativity on both sides of the desk.  Teachers, fearful of the way test scores now compute into annual performance reviews, are far more likely to play it safe. Meeting Pearson’s benchmarks of  proficiency has become a matter of professional survival.  Kids, too, will stay within the lines because everyone knows standardized tests have no patience for divergent thinkers.

Where’s the data on the data?

P.S. : And big  thanks to all who continue to follow me on all my sites.