Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Community Meeting on School Budget

Well, I've just come from a "community budget forum" regarding the various cuts that will have to be made to cover a $900,000 shortfall in our district's budget. (You can find all of the in-depth data here.) I was actually in the process of shifting my weight to get up to talk when the meeting was adjourned. (My dad joked that they saw me coming.) So, since I didn't say it in public, I'll say what I had to say here. (Don't worry. It's not much.)

Although many of the cuts presented were just that--cuts that would result in loss of students, teachers, and/or other personnel and activities--a couple of "cuts" seem to be, to me, beneficial. For example, one possible option was combining Reading and Writing classes (which are offered separately in grades 4-8) into one English or Language Arts class. 

I've heard arguments for both sides. But I think that this move has the potential to deepen a student's understanding of literature and the English language in general. It gives students a chance to see the big picture and how everything ties together in the end. For example, a class can look at particular styles of language, and then see how they have been used in literary works. Unless the two separate classes are exceptionally well coordinated, they cannot play off of each other in this manner--and if they are this well coordinated, what's the point of having two?

Then, another potential "cut" would be the loss of the NWEA test. Multiple times a year, we lose classroom time to this computerized test. Of course, the reason this was frowned upon at the meeting was the loss of "data" about students. (Insert eye roll here.) Really--that score is just a number. In all reality, it doesn't mean that much. It just leads to more stress among students and staff alike, and I would not lose sleep if it went bye-bye.

Finally, the possibility of undepartmentalizing our fourth and fifth grades was also mentioned.1 I was never a fan of this idea, because I do not feel that students of this age are developmentally ready for these conditions. My mother passed away when I was in fourth grade, and my teacher was incredibly supportive of me in this time. However, younger students don't have as close relationship with teachers, and in similar situations, cannot receive this support.

Well, I'm afraid that's all for this time. I didn't have much to say at the meeting tonight, and I just wanted to get what I did out there!

1. Although this is probably technically a teacher reduction, I would not mind seeing this implemented in a way that did not cause this loss. With student to teacher ratios well over 20:1 for most of the district, we can certainly use as many teachers as we can afford to keep.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Limited Resources: What Now?

I've been quiet here recently, mostly because I've been traveling and haven't wanted to take time out to type up my thoughts. But they've been in my head for a while, and here they are.

Peter asked an interesting question in this post:

"What do you see as an alternative to a teacher who doesn't have he resources to have all the students participate in a lab, but still wants the concept to be taught?"

In my response, I suggested that if a student could successfully design an experiment--even without carrying it out--that should be evidence that the aforementioned student had sufficient comprehension of the ideas he or she was testing. I've actually done this myself--see this post (I know, I know--slideshows=bad. I was just getting tired of doing complex prezis for everything).

All that I really did, though, was design an experiment to test a certain question. (I can't claim that I knew everything, though--I did have information on the reactions between BTB, water, and carbon dioxide.)

Now, let's try this, and see if this can work to show if student has real understanding. Imagine the overall goal of a class period was to extract DNA from an organism--say our student chooses wheat germ. First off, we'd consider what needed to be done to isolate the DNA. We'd have to break down the cell membrane and the nucleus somehow so that the DNA could precipitate. At this point, the student (let's call her Jill) would have to come up with something along the lines of, "Because wheat germ has a phospholipid membrane, hot water and soap can break it down."

Ok. So, now we have a bunch of DNA floating around in water. What next? 

Well, let's ask Jill. "DNA isn't soluble in alcohol. So, if we add alcohol to the raw DNA, it should pull together into a precipitate."

Of course, I recognize that there are major flaws with my presentation here. After all, Jill would have to know that wheat germ has a phospholipid membrane which can be broken down by hot water and soap, and that DNA isn't soluble with alcohol. But that's the problem with examples. In a real classroom, these topics could either be covered ahead of time or Jill could be given this information (like I was on that experiment over photosynthesis). Then, of course, Jill would need to figure out how to apply these facts to obtain her desired result.

And isn't that skill what education should be about? 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Being Pseudotaught

I'll be honest: I've had some extreme difficulty developing this post. I eventually ended up looking back through the original pseudoteaching posts, and this is what I found:

"The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudoteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place." (John Burk, Pseudoteaching: Hunting Monkeys
To me, the key phrase in that quote is, "In class, students feel like they are learning...." (Perhaps that's just my bias as a student, though.) But, I know the feeling of being pseudotaught. It's that feeling of sitting in a class, typically watching, as has been mentioned many times before, a lecture or a video (complete with demos!) and truly believing that I understand what's being presented.

And then...I try to apply it. Suppose that wonderful classroom experience was a demonstration on fluid pressure. Two hours later, I'll be walking down a hallway and see some objects in an aquarium when thoughts along the lines of:

"Now, that one on the bottom is under more pressure, because...no, wait, let me think...no, that's not right...huh?"

Immediately, that familiar sinking feeling of frustration and loss comes back to me. And once again, I know--I really have no idea what's going on beneath those waves. It's not a good feeling! It only goes to reinforce the struggle that many of my fellow students have with learning.

This frustration is one that comes to many students throughout our educational careers. In fact, I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling with a post on pseudoteaching. Her response, of course, was "What's that?" I sent her through the FAQ, and once she was done reading it, she turned to me and said, "There's a lot of that in La Junta." (She's right, of course. Not having attended any other schools, I don't know how we compare in terms of volume of pseudoteaching, but I would assume, from reading various other  edublogs, that many other schools have this problem.)

I have spent an incredible amount of time thinking about how to write this post. I spent the entire Saturday at a track meet, and when I wasn't running, my mind kept coming back to this. And the whole time, I've been wondering if the reason pseudoteaching is so bad but looks so good isn't that the student isn't learning, it's that the student does not retain what he or she has learned.

Let's consider a theoretical student, Jack. When Jack sits through a lecture in his English class on the "correct" way to read a book, he really does get it. He understands the method and the techniques and the why. But when he's outside of that classroom, it's gone--because he didn't retain it. His understanding was there, but not solid. And as a result, over even a short period of time, it doesn't deepen. Instead, it leaves him.

Now, I think this is why lectures, videos, and demos tend to be so ineffective. They don't give the student time to process the information they're being given, and as a result, even though the student may understand the material in the here and now, it's not there when it's actually needed--in the future.

At least, that's how it seems to me--and that's why I'm here, isn't it? 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Any Solutions?

Like pretty much any school I'm aware of, our school district is facing massive cuts. This has been a situation of some concern to me--after all, I'm trying to take the "advanced" classes, and, historically, those are one of the first things on the chopping block.

After track practice today, Sandy Malouff, the director of our local BOCES, gave me a ride home, and she was throwing out various solutions being discussed to this problem. One particularly struck me: the idea of "modified magnet schools." This is a system where, even though, technically, there would be one school district, the schools in each of our small towns would remain active in their own specialty.

Allow me to explain some background information: There are currently, within approximately a twenty mile radius of La Junta, six school districts (La Junta, Swink, Rocky Ford, Manzanola, Las Animas, and Cheraw). If you go down the road ten more miles from Manzanola, you run into Fowler, with another school system. Last year, when our schools were forced to make even more massive budget cuts, one option that was thrown around for a while was the consolidation of these districts. (Eventually, the option of consolidating our middle and high schools was chosen.) 

There is, or so it seems to me, major opposition to the option of consolidating these districts, because, potentially, this will result in, "the loss of the hometown feeling of the schools." Of course, this would also be an issue with the "modified magnet schools" idea. Although I'm not yet expressing support for this option--I want to hear what you think about its potential repercussions--allow me to explain it in more depth.

Cheraw is a small school district. The town itself has just over 200 people, so you can imagine the population of the school (K-12) itself. Swink, just to our west, has a population of 700, and runs another K-12 school. Rocky Ford is significantly larger, with a population of over 4000, and is in the same setup La Junta (pop. 7000) currently is (three schools, K-3, 4-6, 7-12).

Do you get the idea? Each town is struggling to run a school system that is becoming more and more burdensome. Now, the "modified magnet" system would, as I understand it, involve consolidating the districts--which means it's likely to meet opposition. However, each school would then offer more options to its students for a specific need of its region. (The schools that I will use in the examples below have been randomly assigned. There is no stereotyping based on the community whatsoever.)

Cheraw, for example, could be considered a GT school. La Junta could move to more of a vocational school atmosphere. Swink could become more of an artistically themed school, while Las Animas could be a general ed school (kind of like the setup of each of the schools now).

Now, of course, there are some problems with this idea. One major one that jumps out at me is that many students at this age do not know what they want to do with their lives, and many would simply choose one school to go to because it was the "easiest." Should we give personality tests to assign students to a school? Of course, then we only have one measure to judge which school will be the best fit for a particular kid. In addition, if this was the case, the student's interests themselves are ignored.

Then, of course, which schools get to host which themes? Should it be based on which school already has the greatest strength in each area? Of course, the students could be surveyed to see what the predominant interest in a particular area is, so that the school already in that area could be themed to that interest

Finally, what would happen to graduation requirements? Would each school have its own, tailor-made requirements that students would have to meet to earn a diploma from it? Clearly, each school would have to have some sort of general ed requirements--it couldn't just teach one subject. But I think that the primary objective of this option is to give more opportunities in a certain subject area to each school.

Of course, this is an issue that deserves a lot of attention, and many solutions should be examined. I simply wanted to see what other people thought of this particular solution. So...any comments?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Paperless?

Over the past few days, I've been enjoying (hah!) the drudgery of state-standardized testing--in Colorado, CSAP. Now, I'm not going to go on an in-depth attack of standardized tests, as that's been done enough times in the past. However, as I was sitting there, in my assigned seat, waiting for the hour-long testing session for a twenty-minute test to be over, I realized that this test was probably the most interaction with paper that I've had all year.

Although this sounds like something that would be done for me by the school, I wouldn't say that it is. I've been making a conscious choice throughout the year to use Google Docs for essays and Evernote for notes whenever possible. Sure, it's great that we have that technology and those capabilities, but what good are they really doing me?

I'm tempted to argue that they help me because, with their aid, my writing is miraculously legible, but this doesn't help on CSAPs or AP tests where the entire body of the test is handwritten. (For that matter, my hand--despite my influx of piano recitals--was noticeably sorer this year!)

Do they help me learn? In a class such as Biology1, I would say that it does. Here, the teacher expects me to use the technology in a way that will be beneficial to my learning, and because of that, it is successful. I can type up posts on this blog (sometimes school related, sometimes not), but regardless, I can use the MacBook to facilitate learning.

But then, what about another class? In my English class, for example, I have spent way too much time trying to make Google Docs work with Opera (I'm an Opera user at heart) which simply provides another distraction for my hyperactive brain. Of course, if I simply used a normal browser, I could then not have to worry about this...but where's the fun in that?

However, there are clearly advantages to having it around. Being able to sync to the cloud through some service, Opera-compatible or not, allows me to work on my projects if/when I don't get them done in class. Of course, you could look at this the other way, arguing that this capability relieves the pressure on me as a student to focus and do this work in class.

I have a confession to make: My brain doesn't see solutions. It sees problems. This has caused strife on every committee I've ever been on, and it's probably something I should work on. In case you haven't noticed already, this means that often I'll be typing along, all is going well, and I get to the part of my post where I should either answer my original question or provide a fix for the problem I've identified, and you get: nada. That's going to happen again here, because I don't know the answer to "What good does technology do me as a student?" However, if you'd like to ask questions in the comments, then I can probably answer those questions, and we might actually get somewhere.


I hesitate to link to this post, because it was thrown around on Twitter back in September, and since then, it is STILL by far my most popular post. I don't really like it because of that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Wave of the Future

First off, I have a question: How many other student edubloggers are out there? I'm not aware of any, although I am sure there are some. (Feel free to comment and let me know about others!)

Now, here's another question that, to me, seems to be somewhat connected: What will happen to the idea of a PLN for teachers in the future?

I ask this not out of pessimism, but out of simple curiosity. After all, the majority of teachers (in my district at least) are old enough to have been actively teaching in the days before Twitter and Facebook became key tools for certain educators. (I'm going to focus on Twitter and Facebook because they are the two services I have observed being used by teachers for teachers most often.) But as my generation grows older and moves into the workforce--and yes, some of us will take up teaching--we will have been using these services for our own personal purposes instead of professional ones.

Of course, I don't feel that anything's wrong with this. This is what those services were originally developed for, after all. I myself first joined Facebook to maintain contact with my various friends across the globe. But because I already have this use for it, will I be able to use it in the future for professional purposes?

There are workarounds to this. First off, one can make two separate Facebook pages, and I really doubt that many people will mind seeing the occasional personal tweet. I know at least one teacher who has taken this course. But this simply leads to more confusion as to which "Michael Rees" is the one that is actually being sought.

Then, of course, it's wrong to assume that all incoming teachers will already be active on these two services. I know one first-year teacher our district gained this year (who, by the way, is fantastic!) who made a Facebook page to get messages out to his students. (Now, this leads into what the relationship between students and teachers should really be and other ethical issues, but if you really feel compelled to discuss those, there's a comment form for a reason.)

I guess that what I'm really saying is that I'm uncertain what the future here will really look like. Because our teachers of the future are growing up with their own uses for things such as blogging (!), will new services for the purpose that ideas such as #edchat has taken?

It will certainly be interesting to find out. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scripted Learning

Looking around the edublogosphere, it seems that many other edubloggers have their own catch phrase they use to build the rest of their blog around. Dan Meyer has his "pseudocontext," while Chris Ludwig has his "skills-based grading." I've actually had my own phrase in my head for the past week; I simply haven't had the initiative (or time or energy!) to type up a post about it.

Here it is: scripted learning. I admit it may not be an entirely original phrase (as a minute of Googling proves) but I came up with it myself, so I'll keep using it.

What is scripted learning?

At the risk of sounding too much like Jonathan Burk and Frank Noschese and their "pseudoteaching," I think there are two main signs of scripted learning:

1. The student is drilled in how to do something, with no real understanding of why this works or how to apply these ideas to other situations.

2. The student is then only willing to accept this method of solving a problem, because "that's how the teacher said to do it."

My sister was recently telling me about her preparations for the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) and she mentioned that she would "get in a lot of trouble" if she did not read through the questions first, underline certain passages and do everything "exactly the way [the teacher] said." 

Sound a little scripted to you?

Now, I recognize the fact that these are test-taking skills, not actual everyday instruction, but aren't scenes like this everyday occurrences in many classrooms? I'd be willing to bet that I am the only person in our school who has actually examined the proof of the quadratic formula. Even though it's right there in the textbook, a few pages away from the homework problems, curiosity has been squashed by this process of "do it this way. Don't ask why or how it works. Simply accept it."

Of course, no one would ever come out and say that. I don't think that's the intent, but often, that becomes the effect.  

Then, of course,  there's the second main warning sign of scripted learning: the assumed infallability (or maximum efficiency) of the given method of solving a problem. Time and time again, I will be working with a peer, and they will choose an elementary, clumsy, and roundabout way of solving a given problem. When I try to explain a more streamlined solution, I'm often met with, "But that's how (insert teacher name here) said to do it."

This, to me, simply demonstrates a lack of understanding to the deeper methods at work here. In the case of the quadratic formula, if you're going to derive it by completing the square on the general equation, you have to really understand the method of completing the square and why it works--otherwise, how can you solve an equation without any numbers in it?

Of course, I'm being undeservedly hard on teachers here. Students share just as much of the blame--after all, we're the ones who accept this. I have yet to meet a teacher who, when I began the "Why?" series, would not give me a valid solution.

But perhaps there is a better way. I'm here to offer my plea for bright students everywhere. I've often been asked by our district's GT advisor if I feel "challenged." Really, there's no reason why I shouldn't. I'm a sophomore in a plethora of senior/advanced junior classes. 

However, I think that the meaning of "challenged" is interesting here. If you want it to mean simply doing harder things--harder math problems, deeper essays, and more esoteric sciences--then of course I feel "challenged." But I like to think that there's a kind of "challenged" beyond that--beyond scripted learning, where the student has to really understand everything in order to simply survive. My biology class this year is a perfect example of this--it's the first class where I can say that I've really had to work so that I don't sink.

Why? It's because I don't have a teacher who tries to hold my hand and show me what they think I should know. Instead, I have a teacher who's willing to let me go where I want to. The poor guy may have students feel like they're teaching themselves, but hey...he's taught me more than I've learned in most other classes combined.

Now that's not scripted. 

Genetic Counseling

To learn about the field of genetic counseling, I went through the various problems here. Although I tend to prefer finding more creative ways of going about this, this time, I think I'll simply answer the questions given on the site itself.

First off: here's the pedigree described in the story:

(I apologize for the spots that are somewhat confusing. Progeny has some design problems that I eventually became tired of circumventing.)

Part II--Autosomal Dominant Traits

1. Do autosomal dominant disorders skip generations?

No. Simply because, by definition, they are dominant, then if their presence in the genotype will be reflected in the phenotype.

2.  Could Greg or his mother be carriers of the gene that causes myotonic dystrophy?

Because myotonic dystrophy is an autosomal dominant disorder, Greg or his mother could not be carriers of the gene that causes it. If they had the gene, they would suffer from the disease.

3. Is there a possibility that Greg’s aunt or uncle is homozygous for the myotonic dystrophy (MD) gene?

There is no possibility that Greg's family members are homozygous for the MD gene because one of their parents did not have the MD gene. Because they did not have it, they could not pass it on.

4. Symptoms of myotonic dystrophy sometimes don’t show up until after age fifty. What is the possibility that Greg’s cousin has inherited the MD gene?

There is a fifty percent chance that his cousin has the MD gene, because the cousin's mother was heterozygous (her father did not suffer) and the father does not have the gene. A Punnett square for this situation reveals a fifty percent chance of inheriting the MD gene.

5. What is the possibility that Greg and Olga’s children could inherit the MD gene?

There is no possibility of Greg and Olga's children having MD. Because their parents did not have the gene, they cannot have the gene themselves. Therefore, their children cannot get the gene from them.

Part III--Autosomal Recessive Traits

1.  What are the hallmarks of an autosomal recessive trait?

An autosomal recessive trait can skip generations, but requires two copies of the mutant gene to be apparent.

2.  What does consanguineous mean? Why is this concept especially important when discussing recessive genetic disorders?

If two people are said to be consanguineous, that means that they are descended from a common ancestor. This is important in recessive traits because if two people are consanguineous, then they often have somewhat similar genotypes--including recessive genes.

3.  What is it about the inheritance pattern of factor VIII deficiency seen in Greg and Olga’s pedigree that point toward it not being an autosomal recessive trait?

Looking at Greg and Olga's pedigree, we can see that it appears mainly in boys and only rarely is apparent. This would point towards this disorder being an X-linked gene.

Part IV--Sex-Linked Inheritance

1. What are the characteristics of X-linked recessive inheritance?

X-linked recessive inheritance is typically primarily apparent in boys because males only have one copy of the X-chromosome. This means that mutations on this chromosome are typically masked in girls by a good copy of the X-chromosome.

2.  Why does a son never inherit his father’s defective X chromosome?

A son cannot inherit his father's X chromosome because he always receives the Y chromosome from his father. This is what makes him a son and not a daughter.

3.  What is required for a woman to display a sex-linked recessive trait?

For a woman to display an X-linked recessive trait, she would need two mutant copies of the X-chromsome--one from both parents.

4.  Return to the pedigree drawn earlier for Greg and Olga; mark those persons who are carriers of the factor VIII deficiency gene.

On Greg's side of the family, his mother and maternal grandmother are carriers. On Olga's side, her maternal grandmother and her mother are carriers--and potentially, her.

5.  What is the chance that Olga carries the gene for factor VIII deficiency? Calculate the probability that she will pass it to her offspring. Will male children be affected in a different way than female children?

There is a  1/4 chance that Olga has this gene, and a 1/4 chance that she will pass this gene to her children. If she does, there is a 1/8 chance that the child will suffer from the disease (if male) and a 1/8 chance that the child will be a carrier.

6. What is the chance that Greg carries the factor VIII gene? Can he pass the gene on to his sons? His daughters? How will each be affected?

Because the factor VIII gene is on the X chromosome and he is not a sufferer, there is no chance that he has the gene. He cannot pass the gene on to his sons, because he will give a Y chromosome to them. He will give an X chromosome to his daughters, but the mutant gene will not be on it.

I will stop here--this one's already gone on long enough, especially for one as mundane as this one. I will probably include the rest of the tutorial in a Part II, which should be up within a few days.

Dominance: Why?

As I was reflecting over the last week, I realized that, although I've heard quite a bit over my life about the dominance of alleles, I'd never heard a real explanation of why certain traits express themselves over others. So...I found out.

On this page, Stanford University scientist Ruth Tennen answers this question. Apparently, there are several different reasons this happens. The most basic one occurs when the gene's function is to make a protein. If the recessive allele does not make this protein, then because the other allele will anyway, its presence is apparent in the phenotype.

For example, consider red hair. Because the protein that the MCR1 gene makes removes red pigment, as long as a person has one working copy of the MCR1 gene, they will not have red hair. A person has to have two copies of the broken MCR1 gene in order to have red hair.

Then, believe it or not, the opposite can be true--the dominant allele can be the broken gene. This was somewhat confusing at first to me, so I'll do the best job I can to explain it, often by stealing the metaphors used on the aforementioned site.

This situation of the recessive allele being the functional gene often occurs when the broken protein made by the dominant allele gets in the way of the protein made by the recessive allele. Consider a relay team. The first runner on the relay does his job just fine--he runs his 100m. But the next runner always drops the baton on the handoff, and because of this, this relay never wins. The first runner here is like the functional protein made by the recessive allele--it does its job just fine. But then, because the broken protein can't help out along the way, it is the work of the broken protein--the dominant allele--that is expressed.

Now, of course, there are more situations than this. There's codominance and incomplete dominance and...well, you get the idea. However, the basic idea here is that it's all about the proteins and the way they get along.

See you soon!