Thursday, May 20, 2010

The most awesome and free creature creator- Spore!

For those that don't know, Spore is a game created by Will Wright, the same dude that created The Sims. In a nutshell, it takes you through 5 stages of evolution- you start off as a cell, then you sprout legs and come onto land as a creature, then you become sentient and enter the tribal stage, then you enter the civilization phase, then finally you blast into space and try to dominate the galaxy. Every step of the way, the decisions you make affect the type of existence you will have- aggressive, social, economical, religious, etc. There are many paths to complete domination!!!

Anyway, the game is pretty cool by itself, but one thing I've been doing with students is to use a small piece of the game that is available for free- the trial version of the creature creator! Just click here, click on "Try Now" and download for PC or MAC)

The creature creator is a really easy to use builder. You start with a torso that you can bend and shape however you want. Then you start adding parts to the creature- mouths, eyes, arms, legs, noses, wings, spikes, etc. Then you can paint the creature any way you like. And finally, you can take em for a test drive to see how they would walk, roar, dance, sing, and do flips. It's a really sweet program. I suggest you download it at the links above and give it a whirl (You'll have to install DirectX on your computer if you're using a PC)

Finally, the other cool thing is that it is very easy to take pictures and video within the creature creator. This media can then be included in all kinds of other creations- slideshows, digital stories, movies, wikis, etc.

Things I've used this for with students:

Character creation - I've had students in groups on wikis, creating characters together. Each time they add an attribute they have to think about what that means for the character they're creating (for example, if they put the eyes in the back of the head, what does that mean? Is this character paranoid? Does it run into things? How does that make it feel or act? How does that impact others around it?). It's a great tool to activate students' creative writing- once they've developed a good character, often their stories flow much more freely.

ESL and Foreign Language students: We've done labeling of body parts, vocabulary of the movements, etc. It's a great way to work on these things. One Spanish teacher had her students create the creatures, import pictures into Word, then write a descriptive paragraph in Spanish about their creature.

Genetics: I've been working with our biotech teacher for the past two years, using Spore for her genetics unit. It's really very cool- the kids are given genotypes and are asked to build the parents and then work out the Punnett square to guide them in building the offspring. Then they create a powerpoint that pulls pictures taken in Spore and describes the genetics principles they used.

There are other things I've used it for like creating charts from the attribute points, having students try to create a creature based on a novel's description (Goosebumps work great here), and a few other things.

Here are some documents I've created to use with Spore- feel free to use/pass on to whoever:

Anyway, this program is FREE, it's VERSATILE, and is very engaging to students. I highly recommend you give it a try!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Final Thoughts on Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education"

First off, I enjoyed the book. I think it's appropriate to reveal the biases I had going into it:

** I've felt from the beginning that NCLB was a failed policy- another grand sounding idea that wasn't thought out through implementation
** I don't use the word hate, but if I did I'd say I hate standardized testing. I think it's a terrible way to judge just about anything that is useful in the 21st century and the unintended effects of widely spread testing make my skin crawl- I've had the throw up on my shoes from the 3rd graders and up nervously working on the one test that determines their fate for the year...
** I value people that are advocates of a certain position but keep an open enough mind not to cling to it when new evidence comes up. I don't mind flip-floppers- it shows that they're human, make mistakes, and learn from them

So I was set up to like this book going into it. It made me think, gave me some history I was not aware of, and offered real insight into how this all came about and how decisions about education reform are made. This is good knowledge.

The overall feeling I get after reading this is one of disappointment in the system. My eyes have been opened as to just how ed reform gets driven by those that are not educators. Rather, it's lawyers, politicians, and businessmen that frame the debate and offer their solutions. They are in power so they make policy. It's just that simple, and sad. And not only this, but they are obviously incredibly persuasive- whether it be because of their positions of power or the fact that money talks. They were able to persuade curriculum minded folks like Ravitch with their ideas about reform, after all. And the public was persuaded too (and still are). Throwing out bullet points such as these are simple, powerful, and persuasive: 1) the system is broken, 2) teachers and schools need to be accountable, 3) parents should be able to move their kids out of a failing school and into a better one, 4) all students must be required to be proficient. Who can argue these points? The problem lies in the SHALLOWNESS that this boils ed reform down to. Which is perfect for politicians because it avoids the hard truth- there is nothing simple or shallow about true ed reform. It's hard and blueprints don't work.

So I agreed with much of what Ravitch is saying, although I take issue that it took her this long to realize it. I'd love to see someone with FOREsight instead of just HINDsight here. I mean, how many educators saw NCLB's requirement of every child being proficient by 2014 and started laughing? Getting educators in the discussion and in positions of policy power would have halted a lot of what was wrong with the bill.

Here are a few things I take issue with from the book, however:

  • There is nothing about the impact of 21st century learning, literacy, skills, tools, or anything else. In fact, at one point Ravitch states that we should go back in time 10 1983 and follow the recommendations of the A Nation at Risk report, stating "These recommendations were sound in 1983. They are sound today." This is a huge mistake and oversight. The very meanings of information and literacy have changed immensely since 1983. Students now are growing up in a completely different landscape. The answer to ed reform for this generation is not to dig up relics of the past.
  • There is no mention of Bloom's taxonomy and how the testing movement has undermined higher order thinking skills. That's a huge missed opportunity here.
  • She relied way too heavily on urban reforms. Of course, this seems to fit with the overall theme of education reform- it is driven by what urban areas are doing. I would have liked to see her explore the effects of urban driven reform on the rest of the country's students. It's my opinion that it is a huge mistake to take an urban reform and try to apply it to a rural area. Having worked in both environments, there are simply things you can do in an urban setting that will never work in a rural area. School choice is an obvious one.
  • There seems to be a cultural elephant in the room. All throughout the book she referred to high performing students/areas and low performing students/areas. She speaks about how charter schools siphon off the top students and leave the public schools with the worst of the bunch. Let's be clear here- she's talking about whites and blacks/Hispanics. There are significant cultural differences that she is shirking (and no one really wants to touch, especially in politics)- there are real differences in how some cultures view schooling, learning, being smart, etc. I'd like to see more attention given to some of these real issues instead of skirting around it every time. Let's work on solutions instead of pussyfoot around the problems.
The way forward

So I leave this book thinking about how it affects my thinking and actions. Here are some thoughts:

  • Is it time to incite or encourage student protests of standardized tests? I know my wife doesn't want to hear that (she is an AP and a test administrator, after all!!). Bubble card burning? What can we do to wake the public up to the effects of all of this testing and the time/money wasted on it?
  • Encourage as many teachers to forget the test as possible. Just teach and do what's right for your students.
  • Keep pushing for collaboration, creation, and publication. Focus on high quality learning environments that help students be creative, flexible problem solvers. Because that's what the world needs moving forward.
And, finally, it is really interesting to finish this book and jump into Drive, by Daniel Pink. A great convergence that is really shaping how I think about things. I'm looking forward to starting a project revolving around Drive in the future- a global book club of sorts. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ravitch Book Review Pt 6 (Final Chapters- 10 and 11)

Chapter 10 - The Billionaire Boys Club

Chapter Review

Here Ravitch dives into (and tears into) the foundations and corporate financiers that are changing the face of education based on the dollars they are shelling out. She goes into the history of big money philanthropists and the reforms they wanted to see happen. This leads up to the current decade, when a big three of billionaire entrepreneurs got into the education reform game by making targeted monies available to schools. The big three are Eli Broad, the Walton Family (Wal-Mart), and of course Bill Gates. They are what is known as "venture philanthropists" because they operate similar to a venture capitalist- they try to find something that will work and then throw money at it to make it happen.

With targeted investments, the big three have come to have a large impact over American Education Reform, at least according to Ravitch. Ravitch argues that the idea of capitalist driving public school policy is "fundamentally antidemocratic". She artfully argues that there is a lack of accountability on the very folks that are pushing the accountability argument in schools. They can't be voted out of office. If their plans fail, there are no penalties. As she states, "they are bastions of unaccountable power".

The agenda of these foundations is choice, competition, and privatization. She points to the Gates' initiatives to produce smaller high schools as an example of a failed experiment. The idea sounded grand and made sense, but the foundation didn't take into account the benefits of going to a large high school- including, mostly, the much more varied course offerings, more ability to take AP classes, etc. The results of the smaller high school initiative were that attendance was better, but academic results were no different than other high schools.

Ravitch also touches on Race to the Top and how it grew out of these types of reform efforts. It is described as "NCLB 2.0: The Carrot that Feels Like a Stick". She then touches on the more human side of school choice- that parents shouldn't be burdened with shopping for a school. Their neighborhood school should be high quality.

My Reactions

I'm not a big fan of bashing Bill Gates and others that are pushing money into school systems. I'm usually not on the fence on things, but on this one I see both sides. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with Ravitch that Gates in particular is pushing corporate ideas and driving reform more towards privatization and linking teacher pay to test scores- ideas that I think are simply wrong for American public schools. But on the other hand, I respect Bill Gates and anyone else that is willing to do what they can monetarily and philosophically to HELP. The system is broken and at least here is a guy that is putting forth some ideas and efforts to help. I have trouble faulting someone that is actively engaged in trying to help, even if their efforts are misguided.

And the other thing is- Gates wouldn't be able to push these reform ideas if we didn't LET him. If superintendents drooling over cash didn't bend over backwards and compromise their ideas to receive the handouts, they wouldn't be embraced.

I'm not sure what it might take to steer Gates and other corporate minded reformers away from the measure and punish/use data to steer every decision mindset. It feels like NCLB all over again- many educators can see the writing on the wall with these reforms- they will lead to corruption, increased teaching to a test, brainless bubble-fillers focused on the lowest levels of knowledge, and many students that are good at taking tests but bad at the kinds of creative and flexible problem solving this century will require in it's workers. The question remains- what can we do about it? How can we stop it and steer the ship another direction? This is a question I look forward to working on for the next 10 years or so. :)

Chapter 11 - Lessons Learned

Chapter Review

Here's the recap chapter. Lots of soundbites in this chapter that illustrate the main thrust of Ravitch's arguments. Here are some that stand out to me:

"The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers."

"The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn."

"Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislators should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations."

"Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for college or the modern workplace."

"Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure....Not everything that matters can be quantified."

"Closing a school should be only a last resort and an admission of failure, not by the school or its staff, but by the educational authorities who failed to provide timely assistance."

"Schools are not businesses; they are a public good. The goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character."

"Our schools cannot be improved by blind worship of data....If the measures are shoddy, the data will be shoddy. If the data reflect mainly the amount of time invested in test-preparation activities, then the data are worthless. If the data are based on dumbed-down state tests, then the data are meaningless."

"Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn."

"There is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather."

My Reactions

I agree with every statement above. I really do. But I think she has some wide gaps in her thinking that are mostly attributable to the lack of attention she gives to how the Internet, Web 2.0, the explosion of mobile devices, and the changing face of information changes everything.

But I think I'll save those thoughts for my final post/reflections. That one will be next!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Part 5- Ravitch Book Review (Ch. 8 and 9)

Forgive me blog, for I have sinned. It's been over a month since my last entry. (hmmm you can take the boy out of Catholic school, but...)

Anyway, my spring break ended and craziness happened at work, as usual. I did finish the book a few weeks ago but hadn't had the chance to come back and finish up these review posts. So here goes, I'm going to do chapters 8 and 9 here, then 10 and 11, then a post with some final thoughts. Again- these are just my gut reactions/reflections and they will probably read as such!

Chapter 8- The Trouble with Accountability

Chapter Review:

Ravitch speaks about how the mantra of accountability came to be embedded into education reform in the 1990's. The movement grew steam until President Bush, in 2001, introduced NCLB- the ultimate throwdown in accountability, proclaiming that all students would become proficient. It was entirely tied to testing and "came down from elected officials who did not understand the limitations of testing."

Ravitch spends some time going into detail about the limitations of testing. She is not anti-testing, per se- she recognizes that tests can be quality measures if used to inform, assess, and guide a teacher towards reteaching. She told about how they are imprecise, have margins of error, only take a snapshot, don't take into account wide abilities of students, NCLB-based tests only happen once a year, etc. Basically all the stuff that educators are already aware of, I'd say. =)

She then gets into the real troubles with "accountability", when it's based solely on test scores. The tests completely absolve the student and their parents of any responsibility whatsoever. Basing high stakes decisions, money, and labeling on test scores leaves the door wide open for corruption. Test-prep actitivites emerge as a way to game the test. In short, "What matters most for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached 'proficiency'. This sort of fraud ignores the students' interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements." (p. 159)

My Reactions

Most of what Ravitch writes in this chapter rings true for me. It boils down to one sentence in this chapter for me: "When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble." (p. 166). This is exactly how I feel. School should be so much more than filling in bubbles and forcing students into the boxes that testing puts them in. School should be about opening the mind, allowing freedom, nurturing self-directed learners, and of course creating.....collaborating...publishing. The jobs the majority of our students are going to be doing in the future will require them not to be robots, but to solve problems creatively.

I am not anti-testing- I'm pro assessment. Tests are necessary, but only if used as they should be used- for helping students. The first year I taught 2nd grade, at the end of the year there was a test we had to give in our county. One of the questions seemed so benign- it showed a bunch of shapes (trapezoids, squares, triangles, pentagons, rectangles, etc.) and asked the students to simply color in all the rectangles. My kids totally BOMBED it- I think only one out of twenty-four got it right. My class was by far the lowest in the county on this question, and it wasn't even close! Why did they bomb it? Well...I had never taught them what a rectangle was, pure and simple. I assumed they knew it...but they didn't color the squares, and most colored any shape with 4 sides. Did I get embarrassed? Nope. Was I worried? Nope. Did I care? YES. I cared and was actually excited to see it- I knew exactly what I had to go over. We did some fun little activities to address it, they nailed it, and we moved on. That's what assessment should look like- a guide and opportunity to help students understand something better.

But that's not what we do with standardized testing at the end of the year. It's not designed for the student and it's not an opportunity. In fact, what often gets done is the scores come in, then we write little goals into the school improvement plan to increase the scores a little bit more the next year...In other words, we take the scores from one set of students and, instead of using those to help those students, we use the data to guide decisions for the NEXT group of students (the ones that didn't take the test...). This overlooks one huge issue- every teacher knows that every class is different than the last. One group is nuts, one is low, one is high, one has the extremes, one has all the talkers, one has a lot more ESL students, one has huge attendance issues, etc. Boiling teachers, students, schools, districts, and states down to points of data is way too narrow.

Chapter 9- What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?

Chapter Review

This chapter finally starts to personalize Ms. Ravitch a bit- she starts by talking about her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, who obviously had a big impact on her. Mrs. Ratliff was her senior English teacher. She challenged Ms. Ravitch to use proper English and to provide deep answers that revealed her thinking. Accuracy mattered. She had larger goals for her students- beyond teaching literacy and grammar. Stuff that doesn't show up on standardized tests. They dove into rich literature and the classics.

Ms. Ravitch sets this teacher up as an example of one that would not be valued in today's education world. This type of teacher has more and more trouble existing and functioning in today's high stakes testing environment. They are too pressured to prepare students for the test, their tests mirror the EOG/EOC, deeper thinking is not as much of a focus. If merit pay were around back in Mrs. Ratliff's day, she might find trouble eating....

Ms. Ravitch then spends a decent amount of time talking about teachers' unions and how they have become a lightning rod in the realm of education reform. The issues of merit pay, teacher tenure, teacher compensation structures all set battle lines between teachers' unions and market-minded corporate reformers.

Finally, she tells about the idea of good teachers being quantifiable based on data. Many reformers out there talk a lot about the effects of a good teacher on students, but what they're really doing is equating "good teacher" with "teacher that raises test scores".

My Reactions

So what we're talking about in this chapter is "What makes a good teacher?" What would the answer to this question be from parents? From principals? From businessmen and women? Most importantly- from students? I'd bet most of them wouldn't mention better-than-average results of standardized testing....and if so, that would be near the bottom of the list of qualities. Here are some qualities I think make good teachers, in no particular order and off the top of my head:

  • someone who can make students laugh at the same time they learn
  • someone who can tell you a personal story or some background about each student in their class
  • someone who identifies a students' interest and adjusts to meet it
  • someone who listens
  • someone who offers an ear more often than a pointed finger
  • someone who takes content seriously
  • someone who can make igneous rocks seem interesting
  • someone who tells students (and parents) about the GOOD stuff that is happening
  • someone who pushes and pushes and pushes and doesn't let kids give up
There are a million other qualities I'd list before I touched a stupid test score. And I'd wager most others feel about the same way. So this begs the question- why are so many "reformers" moving towards boiling a teacher down to their testing data? And why are so many people letting them do this?