Monday, November 17, 2014

I didn't see THAT coming.

I never did get a bill for the ambulance ride home.

So what do cyclocross racing, software engineers, data collection, education policy, and immovable objects in the form of telephone poles have to do with each other? Well I’ll tell ya…

Sara and I have just returned from the Young Adult Literature Association’s symposium in Austin Texas. Generally I love Austin, good food, funky town, warm weather, great place to ride a bike, All were true this time except for the weather – freakishly cold – but still better than the blizzard we left behind us in Ohio.

It was at a dinner thrown by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong – publishers of the Poetry Friday Anthology series that the germ for this blog was first conjugated.

First: Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a form of off road bicycle racing that is kind of like a steeplechase on wheels.  There are obstacles that one must dismount their bike and hop over, sand pits, sets of steps etc. My son Frank and I have taken it up this season – a season that runs from the Autumn into the Winter. It’s a raucous sport that encourages heckling and cowbells from fans as well as beer and food. It’s the rugby of bicycle racing in my opinion.

Okay, Frank and I are doing a little training – we’ve set up a course that shares two parks about a mile apart – we complete a circuitous course around one park then book like mad down the sidewalks to the second park, run that course and then back again for a predetermined amount of laps. Between the two locations we get a pretty good rehearsal for what we might be encountering on race day.

As we add up the laps though, Frank adds to his lead on me. By our final lap he is around a quarter mile ahead of me or so. I bear down, stand up on my pedals and hope he doesn’t notice my sprinting behind him. I have an idea of my threshold exertion and I stare at my Garmin GPS device on my handlebars. I note speed, rpm, and time. I want to exert the most effort I can without bonking and try to close the gap that my wiry son has opened between us.

It was while I was collecting this data that I did not notice the singular telephone pole that was edged 8 inches more into the sidewalk than the rest of the domino line down the street.  Rather, I didn’t notice it until I hit it dead on with my left shoulder at full speed. I spun off my bike twirling like a boomerang into oncoming traffic. The air whooshed out collapsing my lungs like an empty toothpaste tube. I dizzily rolled myself out of the street onto a nearby tree lawn staring up in the sky and waited for the pain to come raining down new year’s eve confetti style. Which, it did.

I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers:

Fortunately some concerned citizens stopped to assist me and called the ambulance. I remembered every detail of the accident, so I knew that I most likely didn’t have a concussion. Frank had circled back and looked on with concern as the paramedics checked me out. I didn’t seem to have any broken bones and my pupils looked fine so the EMS team gave me a ride home and Frank wheeled my bike home like a combat solder helping a comrade off the battlefield. I have since made almost a full recovery and even went on to race three days after the accident. But what I really want to talk about is education policy.

My mistake on this ride was paying too close attention to the immediate data in front of me and not looking up to see what was coming down the road.  This is, I believe, the same mistake our high stakes test driven education scheme is taking. We miss what is coming down the road in the long run when we teach to the test, to the point where in some districts a 4th grader can expect to spend over a quarter of their learning time just taking tests.  We’ve got our kids heads buried down and pedaling as fast as they can blind to real world obstacles to success.  We swap out short term graphing of test results for real critical thinking skills.

Context is everything:

Why? Software engineers (see this is all coming together now.) and one in particular, Bill Gates. His billions of dollars have way too big an influence on what is happening in our public schools. He was one of the loudest voices in the smaller school campaign – the one that busted large schools into smaller entities –oftentimes in the same building. Well, this idea crashed and burned in the end. Gates himself has admitted as much. So you’d think we would have learned from the lesson of taking education advice from non-educators? No way.

Now the money is flowing into test taking, data collection, and private enterprise charter schools – sounds more like a computer corporation than a school right?  That’s because data-collecting systems is what software engineers know – and when trying to solve a problem one will go to what they know right? Unfortunately what one knows is not always applicable to the task at hand.

Knowing my exact speed, rpm, watts exerted did nothing to keep me from popping like a water balloon against a utility pole. Data collection was not the route to success for me at that time. Now, had I collected the data and used it later as part of a training program instead of my sole focus during the process I might not be waking up as stiff recent mornings.

Similarly – how do you think a software writer might feel about me asking him or her to go back and rewrite the code for that skyscraper’s climate control system with an eye more toward character development and foreshadowing?  Right tools for the right job.

Just because a guy made billions in business doesn’t mean he should have a seat at the head of the table when education policy is being discussed. Kids are not lines of code and I think the there are a lot of folks messing with education policy that need to get their heads out of their – well lets just say they need to look up.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A circuit is a Hula-Hoop.

Here's a video from Pasir Ridge International School of Theresa Marriott's 3rd and 4th graders writing about electricity.

This is from our definition poem exercise where students (working in pairs)  first list attributes about their vocabulary word - what the word can and can't - would or wouldn't do. They then select from their pre-write items to prioritize the information they will presenting their first draft which is then immediately revised.

Gather information - prioritize - visualize - then revise - nifty little format providing deep thinking and then quick assessment if I say so myself.

This was one of the younger bunch of pupils we have run this clinic with and we think they did us proud.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pasir Ridge International School

“A small school that is big on learning.”

Seamus Marriott, the head of school here, reminded me that - that is how I described the Pasir Ridge International School when Sara and I visited two years ago. It is probably the smartest thing I’ve said in a long time.

Well two years later my comment is just as true. Sara and I love coming to this little knowledge factory on the east coast of Borneo. This school runs grades pre-K through eight and totals in the area of 75 students so everyone knows everyone. At PRIS lunch is an inclusive affair with 2nd graders sharing the table with 8th graders; a 4th grade girl may be organizing a game of “kick the cone” for the Kindergarteners at recess and a parent jumps up to volunteer to lead the birthday commemoration at Monday morning assembly. 

At Pasir Ridge they teach thinking not subjects. Oh sure there are Science, English, and Social Study classes and units – but it’s the atmosphere of inquisitiveness that permeates the humid jungle air that grows the accomplishment here. When asked about test prep Seamus says he tells the kids to get a good night’s sleep and have a breakfast the day of. It seems to be working – this school consistently tops the charts on standardized tests – most recently every single student scoring well above average.

PRIS is a writing school where the students evidence their learning through their writing. We wrote about electricity in 3-4 with the kids and their teacher Theresa Marriott, about good citizenship in K thru 2 (Don’t break stuff, follow the rules and don’t pick flowers in other people’s gardens!) We personified emotions in the middle school as well as extending a few metaphors. Everyone participated and everyone shared and everyone took risks. We did writing clinics we usually reserve for grade levels a year or two beyond and these guys ate it up – taking on the challenge and coming through with success.

What makes kids willing to go out on a limb for a couple crackpot poets from Cleveland, Ohio? It’s feeling safe in their classroom, knowing that individually they and their education are really cared about and important to all the teachers and administration at PRIS.  It really is an extended family and one that Sara and I appreciate getting play the role of the little off-kilter Aunt and Uncle who show up to talk writing every now and then.

So, if you are lucky enough to be headed to Pasir Ridge International School get a good night’s sleep, eat your breakfast and be ready to be inspired.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Surabaya International School

Here we are in Southeast Asia again.

Sara and I had the honor of presenting at the EARCOS conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. This is the third time we have presented at a conference for this organization. Usually we have presented at the teachers conference – this time we spoke at the administrator’s conference. It was a little different – but one thing that was the same for sure was the participants desire to provide the best education for their students in the world.

Well since we were in the neighborhood we arranged to visit a couple of international schools in theis corner of the globe, the first being Surabaya International School.  Leslie Baker, the librarian there picked us up at the airport and whisked us into the city of three million.  We only had two days to spend due to commitments back in the States (and another school over here) so we squeezed as many sessions in as we could.

Leslie made sure we were well fed and watered and basically treated us like family.

Well the extra hard work was a pleasure. We felt so welcome and appreciated – everyone from students, administration, teachers and the PTA who we met were absolutely wonderful. We came away wishing that we could have spent much much more time there.

Rooftop dinners, assemblies, fuzzy slippers with built in bear toes, a tea with parents and a mad dash to the airport in a mere 48 hours. It almost seems like we imagined it.

We finished the visit a little pooped – but in that satisfied so glad we came kind of way. So – bye bye Surabaya – hope to see you again.