Sunday, January 30, 2011

Passing on The Knowledge

If you want to become a taxi-cab driver in London you have to pass one of the most difficult tests in the world called The Knowledge. In it, you are tested on every street location in Greater London as well as the quickest way to get there including knowing which streets are one-way or pedestrian only.

Last Friday evening I joined one of Professor Doyle's secondary education classes to learn all about our new ePortflio process from the six pioneering students who had just gone through it. David, Katie, Andrea, Nathan, Marran, and Dan, met with professor Doyle and me to debrief and let us know what did and didn't work for them regarding their completion of their ePortfolios so that future students would have the wisdom of their experiences.

In a nutshell, which it certainly is not, the Licensure Portfolio is a Vermont State DOE requirement of all students seeking licensure to teach in Vermont and, ultimately, any other State. Traditionally it is a collection of papers that attest to, and document, the student's ability to teach at either the secondary or elementary level. It contains assignments from courses, field placements and, primarily, the student teaching experience. The portfolio is typically between three and six inches thick and presented in a 3-ring binder.
The ePortfolio allows the student to keep all of her/his documentation and evidence electronically on a website through Googledocs. This makes the material instantly accessible to anyone who has the password such as future employers who really want to get to know the candidate prior to the interview, or faculty who have to evaluate the portfolios. It also allows students to really develop their technology skills as they put together what amounts to a mammoth-sized project.

What David, Katie, Andrea, Nathan, Marran and Dan have started is The ePortfolio Knowledge. Next year another group of St. Mike's education majors will add to this Knowledge as they develop the process in new and unimagined ways. It was a great party too.

Friday, January 28, 2011

CREATE Understanding

Today I attended a small all-day conference at St. Mike's sponsored by the CREATE grant and presented by Dr. Mary Schleppegrell and Dr. Luciana de Oliveiri from the University of Michigan and Purdue University respectively. First, Project CREATE is a 5-year project jointly administered through the Applied Linguistic Department and Education Department at St. Michael's with the express purpose of preparing "all new teachers graduating from Saint Michael's College to work effectively with the increasing number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in U.S. classrooms". My current research into teaching math to English language learners is a direct result of my participation in this terrific project through a series of mini-grants that have allowed me to work with practicing teachers in local schools.

The topic of the conference was Functional Grammar Strategies to Support English Language Learners (ELLS). It focused on ways of helping ELLs get the most academically from their classroom experiences in their new American schools. Dr. Schleppegrell defines functional grammar as "a way of talking with students about the language in the texts they read. It helps them focus explicitly on an author's language and work with that language to develop comprehension and write more effectively".

I always learn so much at conferences like this because it is really outside my field of expertise. On the other hand, the activities we engaged in during the conference allowed me once again to see things differently; something I always find challenging but incredibly rewarding as I always learn something new or develop my understanding of something by looking at it from a different point of view.

For example, one of the things I learned today was to pick out all the verbs in a paragraph from a piece of science text. This was so illuminating because it made you see the whole process or idea in a sort of skeletal form: a sequence of actions. The work we do through the CREATE Project helps us include in our Education courses information about teaching students who are English Language Learners of which there are many in the Chittenden County area of Vermont.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inspired by Freire

Why am I always so inspired and renewed when I read anything by Paulo Freire? One of the chapters in the book I am using in Schools and Society is an excerpt from his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed; it seems to stand out from all the others, most of which are also really good, as a beacon of hope, a vignette of sweetness and light.

In it, Freire defines the banking concept of education which he characterizes as the deposit of knowledge by the teacher, who knows everything, into the mind of the student, who knows nothing, as a form of oppression. He contrasts this with an idea of education he calls conscientizacao, a form of critical consciousness. This form of education is problem centered and asks the learner to raise questions and to think critically of her/his experiences in the world. He also characterizes it by the way the student should interact and be a part of the world they are learning about rather than being vicariously or superficially present.

In other words, students need to be critically involved in what they are learning, not in a sense of revolt or confrontation, but to question, wonder, be curious and want to understand rather than simply know. They need to take on this responsibility if they are to develop their critical consciousness to a point where they can really make a difference in the world.
If you do read Freire you might want to have a dictionary or Wiki handy: there's at least one word in each paragraph I don't know. Isn't that neat?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Study Abroad

There's nothing quite like studying abroad to broaden the mind. I've spent half my life studying abroad although I'm not sure whether it was the first half or the second half. The 'study' part is, of course, only a part of what you do when you "study abroad". By actually living abroad for six months you do everything else that one normally does in six months living at home or at college. You have a social life, make friends, learn how to use funny money and even, perhaps, drive on the wrong side of the road. You learn how to eat, and enjoy, different foods, wear different clothes (such as pac-a-macs) and how to behave decorously at the local pub.

One of the most popular study abroad programs at St. Mike's is the ASE Program in Bath, England. It's a great program because it is so well organized, you get to live with British students in downtown Bath, and teach little kids with strange accents. Bath, of course, is one of Europe's finest Georgian cities with a host of attractions such as the Roman Baths and the remarkable architecture of the Royal Crescent. It's also less than an hour from London by train and a day trip to Paris.

My dad grew up in bath so I know it really well. When I was a child we used to take a Thomas- the-Tank-Engine-like train ride from my home town of Bristol to Bath (15 miles) to visit my grandmother every Wednesday afternoon. We always had Spam sandwiches for lunch on the train.

Over the years I've been associated with many students who have studied, and lived in England, and watched them make British friends, and attend each other's weddings and vacation with each other with their families. There are also wonderful opportunities to study, and live, in Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia and just about anywhere but I suppose I like the ASE program because of its ties with my childhood roots, whether I was abroad at the time or not!!!!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Only in Vermont

This is a picture of Callie and Hilary, two students in my ED325 Teaching Elementary School Math and Science course which met for the first time yesterday. As I was getting ready for class Callie asked me if I knew her mom, Joan Clark, who had been a student of mine when I was a professor at Trinity College in Burlington Vermont. I replied that I remembered her very well because she was one of the best students I had in my math and science classes during my 17 years at Trinity College.

It then dawned on me that it had happened; I was finally teaching the children of students I had taught in the past. Many years ago I remember giving as a reason for my immigration to the US that I didn't want to teach the children of the children I had taught in my 4th grade class like several of the teachers I worked with were doing at the time. I'm joking of course, and now that it's happened I think it's pretty neat. Callie told me that her mom is now a district-wide math curriculum specialist in the Swanton schools on the Canadian border.

As for Hilary, the "small world" adage becomes even more amazing because Joan Clark was her fourth grade teacher in Swanton; and here they are, Callie and Hilary, sitting together in my class!!!!!!!!

Trinity College, by the way, was the young lady's equivalent to the St. Michael's young gentleman's college until both went coed some time ago. While St. Michael's has flourished and grown Trinity College sadly closed its doors around 1991. At one time 1 in 10 elementary and special education teachers in Vermont were Trinity trained; such was its reputation as a center for teacher education. One can see a brief history of the college in the Trinity conference room in the Pomerleau Alumni Center on the St. Mike's campus.

I am now delighted to be teaching the next generation, so to speak, so I have absolutely no plans to emigrate.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sweetness and Light

When I was an undergraduate learning how to be an elementary school teacher I read two books in one of my classes that I have never forgotten. I still have both books and refer to them from time to time when the tribulations of our current predicaments loom too large. One is Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold and the other was Notes Toward a Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot. Arnold's book was designated as one of the 100 most influential manuscripts of all time while Eliot's has faded more into obscurity.

While Eliot seemed to cry out for the preservation of a high culture to which people must aspire to understand, Arnold argued for a culture that was all-encompassing; a culture of and for everyman, so to speak. While Eliot was complaining that we were; "destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the Barbarian nomads would encamp in their mechanized caravans", Arnold was imploring us in;"the pursuit of total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matter which most concern us, the best that is thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge turning a stream of free and fresh thought upon our stock notions and habits which we follow staunchly and mechanically, vainly imagining there is value in following them staunchly that makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically". This passage has always seemed to me to be Arnold's best definition of Jonathan Swift's term, "sweetness and light".

Arnold saw culture as something alive and changing; something that our Education system and schools should be engaged in by teaching our children the "best that is thought and said". Schools should be places where children discover the wonders of knowing, the joy of finally understanding, and the beauty of all things aesthetic.

I'm rereading Arnold's book today because in my local newspaper yesterday there was a news item in which a legislator in a Midwest State has introduced a bill which would allow school administrators to carry concealed weapons.!!!!!!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Another tragedy

A 15 year old boy shot himself to death in the boys bathroom at 8:30am this morning at my son's high school. Please take a moment of thought/prayer for his family and the MMU community, and to wonder how many more young innocent people have to die before we restrict easy access to fire arms?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The First Day of Class

No matter how long I teach I will always be nervous the first day of class. There are so many unknowns. Each student, for example, is just a name on a piece of paper; so different from how they seem at the end of the semester. The course content is always slightly different too. Sometimes a new topic such as the WIDA Standards for teaching English Language Learners is introduced and sometimes a new activity is included just for the sake of change and keeping things fresh and exciting.

When I was in grad school one of my professors, Lilian Katz, said that all teachers should teach with a sense of "productive anxiety". This, she said, keeps teachers on their toes and makes them constantly aware of the dangers of boring their students out of their minds. I've always heeded this advice because I am very aware of those times, very occasionally I hope, when I drone on and can see students beginning to nod off. They don't happen very often but they always serve as reminders of the need to make sure that I am aware of how my students are reacting to what I am teaching or wanting them to learn.

So I think this is the reason why the first class is so nerve wracking. I don't know who the students are and how they will respond to my teaching strategies, or my somewhat droll British sense of humor; "we have a lot to get through today so we may have to stay until 10pm" said with a straight face (the class finishes at 7:30pm). But toward the end of the first two-and-a-half hour class when their personalities and reasons for being there begin to show through I begin to feel more comfortable. But, thank goodness, that sense of productive anxiety is always there in every class I teach throughout the semester. I hope my students feel the same way.

Summer (aaaahhhh) in Richmond Vermont; the Old Round Church "with no corners for the devil to hide in".

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Working Together Works

I was recently reminded of a course I team taught many years ago at another college with Professor Mary Beth Doyle, the current chair of the Education Department at St. Michael's college. Her area of specialty is Special Education while mine is Elementary Education and we wanted to demonstrate to the students the importance of professionals working together who might come from different philosophical and pedagogical backgrounds.

I remember the course was a major success because we both approached the course content knowing both what we knew and didn't know. We also knew that we were going to have to re-examine what we knew in the light of each other's contribution to the course. This disposition of openness to accepting different ways of looking at things is something I learned from Dr. Doyle those many years ago and something I value as a significant part of my current professional life.

Two years ago I developed and started team teaching a course with Rita MacDonald, a faculty member in the Department of Applied Linguistics at St. Mike's. The course, Math and Diversity, brought our two academic fields, teaching English language learners and math education into close contact and again I felt the need to re-think my own field in light of what I was learning about teaching English language learners from Rita.
It seems to me that a complex organization like a school, or any institution of learning for that matter, works best when individuals are able to step outside their area of expertise and examine it from a different perspective. In the past few years more and more courses at St. Michael's are being co-taught by professors from two different departments allowing students to see the incredible things that can be learned through the intersection of two diverse academic fields.
Families work together to help their children graduate high school.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thinking about Thinking

Every so often I find myself thinking back to someone who greatly influenced my thinking in my formative years. M.C. Escher has always caused me to think about the laws of two-dimensional perception but one of the people who challenged my thinking most in my early years of teaching was Edward deBono and his CoRT Thinking Program. I used it extensively in my teaching with my fourth graders and was always amazed by how good they were at lateral thinking.

The essence of lateral thinking as opposed to vertical thinking is to think in novel ways. For example if you hear the word "scissors" one tends to think of cutting. But scissors also have weight and can be used to form a pendulum to keep time. In another example a car comes upon a flock of sheep in a narrow road that goes on for five miles with no turn-offs or gates. How does the driver manage to speedily go on her way without running over the sheep? The car stops and the sheep are driven back behind the car so that it can proceed. A simple solution but requiring a complete reconceptualization of the problem.

I thought about deBono's ideas today when setting up my Great Educators website for my Schools and Society course. I've always believed that our deeds and actions as teachers should be based on a sound, reasoned personal philosophy of education. The Great Educators page, when it is finished, will contain details of the main ideas of the Great Educators included on the page. Within the next month students will find informative resources for each of the Great Educators that I will add to the page..

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thanks to Technology

This is my lighthouse. Well, not really, but it is called Whiteford Point Lighthouse and it's just off the coast in South Wales, not far from where I grew up in south-west England. I probably never would have known about it but for technology. I can even read all about it at Wikipedia and find out that it is quite a famous early cast iron lighthouse.

The increasing role of technology in Education is quite remarkable. Children now have email accounts in some kindergarten classes and there are some schools where all students should be able to construct a PowerPoint presentation and use it in front of their peers by the time they finish fourth grade.. There are National Standards for Instructional Technology as well as State Standards and local School District Standards

The SMARTboard has made the whiteboard obsolete which, in turn, made the blackboard obsolete. I sometimes sneak into one of the few classrooms left at St. Mikes that has a blackboard and just write a few things in chalk to remember what it used to feel like. The blackboard (which was actually green) in the classroom I which I taught fourth grade in England was painted directly on the wall so that every time I used a blackboard compass to draw a circle a large piece of wall plaster would fall out. The entire board was dotted with painted over potholes that would rip the chalk from one's fingers.

Students now have their individual computers in many classrooms in many elementary schools and of course, they nearly all have cell phones by the time they make it to fifth grade. Students can shop online, download their favorite songs, listen to music wherever they are, create endless forms, cards and other printed matter on a home PC, and visit anywhere in the world that has been captured by GoogleEarth (which has to be one of the best teaching aids ever devised) ; not to mention kindle, moodle and twitter.

And this is all now when they are 10 or 11 years old. What will it be like by the time they are in their twenties? One of the things we need to focus on even more now in our education system is helping individuals understand and cope with the dynamics of change. The abilities to think, reflect, adapt, respond and create seem to be so important. Perhaps it's time to revisit Edward deBono's lateral thinking ideas.
Hmmmmm, I wonder what else there is in the name of Whiteford; Whiteford Fire Department, Whiteford Baseball, Whiteford Township, looks like Whiteford Road in Sylvania is still closed,

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dads and Moms

There's been a lot of talk over the past few years about "Velcro parents" and "parachute parents"; disparaging terms for parents who, it is said, can't leave their children alone at college. Mention is seldom made of the majority of parents who play a significant role in helping their students navigate their way through college, in addition to footing large percentages of the bill, of course.

Today, I received an email from a student who was in one of my classes last semester to say that after "long chats with her dad" over the Christmas break she had decided to continue with her studies at St. Mike's and become a teacher. When we last met at the end of last semester she was very "fragile" having had a difficult time completing assignments and getting to class. I could see that she was a really good student but there were things going on in her life that were clearly too complicated for me, as her advisor, to help her with.

I remember having "long chats" with my own daughter Marie when she was navigating her way though college. In fact she navigated her way through four different colleges on her way to her BA in music. I remember having to swallow hard when she decided to give up the significant scholarship she had been awarded to attend Oberlin when it was patently clear she was really unhappy there. I remember the importance of listening and agreeing but also the importance of challenging her to think a little less emotionally on some occasions or sewing a seed of an idea for her to think about.
I still don't know exactly what she thought about our chats but I do know that I felt I had done as much as I could to be there when I felt I was needed whether I agreed with her particular point of view or not. One of the things we can do as parents is learn as much as we can about the programs our children are going through at College. You can do this for the Education Programs at SMC by visiting the Advising Page for Education majors.
One of the benefits of Marie's year at Oberlin was that I got to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Public Schools

Over the years I have probably worked in over 100 schools and over 1000 classrooms as I have supervised students in their classroom field placements. I have very vivid memories of many of those schools I no longer work with and of course, continuing experiences with many of the schools I currently work with. There's one school system, however, that I have a really close relationship with; the Willison Schools , Central School and Allen Brook School.

In 1999, after 17 years teaching at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont, I as invited by Bob Mitchell, the assistant principal at Williston Central School, to take a one-year position at the schools as Science Education Professional Development specialist. I jumped at the chance because I needed to recharge by batteries, so to speak. The writing was also on the wall for Trinity College which closed two years later. I ended up working at the Williston schools for the next 2 years on a Freeman Foundation grant. Both schools were structured using the British House system (ala Harry Potter Hogwarts school e.g. Gryffindor house). The house system (1-4th grade and 5 - 8th grade) brought students and teachers together from different grade levels for planning, instruction and social events. Designed by Marion Stroud, it was magical place to work where students learned how to be independent learners and love to learn, and respect each other.

To my dismay, the house system was dismantled last year and I thought we would be losing one of the finest educational institutions in new England if not the US. I shouldn't have worried. Things have changed a little but the house system still exists and the same focus on independent learning is still in place. The teachers are as enthusiastic as ever and you feel the same school spirit as you walk the hallways.

My reason for being at the school today was to ask John and Jackie, the two principals if I could place my Schools and Society students there this coming semester. To my delight they agreed which means my SMC students will have the same wonderful experiences working in the Williston school that I had ten years ago. A great start to their career in Education.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


One of the things about being human is our need to belong. There's virtually no end to the different clubs, societies, and organizations to which we can belong based on our interests, affiliations and professions. As teachers, there's a virtual plethora of different organizations and societies to which we can belong.

Starting at St. Mike's , pre-service teachers can join the Omega Delta chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, the International Honors Society in Education. Also while a student at St. Mike's, there are many on-campus organizations and groups you can join depending on what your interests are. As an Education Major you can also join the Educators club, a newly minted organization for Education majors. There are other professional organizations you can join too while still a student at St. Mike's. For example you can become a student member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Once you graduate and get your first job as a teacher there are many organizations you can join. Most teachers join a union of some sort such as the NEA. Membership in a union can provide you with insurance and other benefits. There are other organizations that have a more professional development focus such as NCTM, ASCD, NSTA, NCSS, NCTE, CEC and NERA to name a few. Each one of these professional organizations will have a local State affiliate such as VCTM . It's all a bit like alphabet soup really but these professional organizations put on fantastic national and regional conferences which are well worth attending and even presenting at. Membership also gives you a monthly journal as well as occasional books and additional journals depending on the level of membership you elect. I belong to NCTM and ASCD.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Blianadh Bha Ur and Arrivederci

Blianadh Bha Ur; that's Scottish Gaelic for Happy New Year and it's arrivederci to Professor Jonathan Silverman who, along with his family lands in Italy this week to complete his six month sabbatical leave. Jonathan is the coordinator of the Arts Education programs in the Education Department at St. Michael's as well as an active leader in Arts Education on the national level.

In his own words, Professor Silverman's research has a focus on "interdisciplinary learning through dance and clay". To my own naive mind it sounds like he's making clay models of ballerinas but knowing Jonathan it's something far more exciting and valuable to the profession. I have always thought Professor Silverman's ideas embody the interdisciplinary essence of the Teacher Education programs at St. Mike's. Jonathan, his wife Martha Ming Whitfield and his two daughters will be living in Bassano del Grappa. He will conduct his research with students at the International School in Rosa just outside Bassano.

There are actually two Arts Education programs in the Education Department at St. Mike's. One program leads to Arts licensure in the full preK-12 range while the other is just for those who want to focus on PreK - 6. Jonathan works really closely with faculty members in the Art Department as well as those in the Education Department. Professor Silverman also helps direct the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler School in Burlington. This is a collaborative project between the Burlington School District and St. Mike's.

We all wish him a wonderful six months in Italy.