Monday, August 19, 2013

That's that terminology I don't like

My face-to-face and phone-to-phone conversations about Achievement First tend to become a love-fest of sorts...there is so much thoughtful stuff going on in our network, plus I love our school, and there's really nowhere else I'd rather be. But there are some things about the ed reform movement at large, including AF, that I'm not a huge fan of. In particular, though I love so much of what we do, I don't always love how we talk. I'm not asking for these things to be changed, and I think I understand the rationale behind all of the terms (and will continue to use many of them when appropriate because I generally believe that alignment is a good thing.) Here is a brief list:

1. Upspeak.   This is where you end every statement with a rising tone, as if it were a question? But what's more annoying? is when it's used? at every natural pause? in a SENTence. (the last word is spoken in a definitive downward-moving tone.) I reckon this is a function of ours being a youthful movement/organization, and that this linguistic feature is merely a mirror of a general shift-at-large over the past 15-20 years. I don't have any philosophical qualms with this one, and I don't believe it belies an underlying lack of confidence (as Taylor Mali posits); I just find it annoying.

2. Scholars.   I had some professors in college who were scholars. There were Biblical scholars, scholars of medieval Spanish writing, scholars of 19th-century Brazil, world-class mathematicians (who are scholars in their own right), and Constitutional scholars. I've heard the argument before that calling ten-year-olds "scholars" belittles the term...and that may be the case, but I know that's not the spirit in which the term is used. It is used to mean "a future scholar", or "one who is studying and working hard, as scholars do." That's cool. I like reminding kids I'm working with that they are on their way to doing great things. What I don't like is the implicit statement that we're not going to treat kids like kids. Rafe Esquith likes to remind us all that kindergarteners barely know where their belly buttons are, and that treating them as if they were already in college is a bit absurd. I think about Barbara and Sebastian, ages 7 and 6, respectively, and it cracks me up to think that they are referred to as "scholars" at school. Yes, I hope they end up extremely well educated, but I'm also aware that they currently enjoy ice cream, have horrible taste in television shows ("Dog with a Blog"), and don't like wearing pants at home (but seriously, who does?) I propose that we replace the term "scholars" with "kids" and, if it helps us keep their potential in everybody's mind, focus on asking these "kids" great (dare I say rigorous?) questions that inspire them to think deeply.

2.5.   KIPPsters.   This one is just pure baggage. In 2009, when KIPP Fresno closed, we had to confront the truth that there would be no KIPP for our kids to come back to. Tying their identity, even tangentially, to a school that was about to close seemed like a bad idea; we preferred, instead, to focus on helping them develop their character regardless of their surroundings. It also reinforced the "you're better than all those other kids" narrative that goes against our overall mission of helping all kids. I'm fine with "this is a special place" and "let's work on going against the norm and becoming extraordinary"; I'm less OK with "you're better because you won the lottery and got into this school." Though I think it's obvious, my dislike of this term has nothing to do with the kids this term is used to refer to. I love the kids I've had the pleasure to teach in Fresno and in Jacksonville, and I've met a lot of amazing kids from KIPP schools across the country. I just don't love the term KIPPster.

3. Rigor (and its derivatives).   Does this mean "difficult"? "At a level that requires application or analysis, rather than simple understanding or recall"? "Scaffolded in such a way that kids can figure out the meaning on their own, but in a stepwise fashion"? When we were looking at some of our mistakes after the Year of Terrible Results (2011, in Jacksonville), we identified "rigor" as a huge gap. What we meant was that we were asking questions that were too easy and that didn't force kids to keep the concept in working memory (in order to apply the concept) long enough for it to make its way into long-term memory. I understand that "rigor", in our case, was a shortcut for this more precise but long-winded verbiage, but it means so many different things to so many different people that it now leads to more confusion than clarity. Let's either have this word mean one thing or take a break from it until we figure out how to dress it up to convey the specific meaning we're going for (e.g. "You should try increasing the Blooms-Rigor of your final question" vs. "Maybe your questions aren't difficulty-rigorous enough.")

4.   The Achievement Gap.   I'm not the first one to publicly dislike this term because it takes "white achievement" as the norm and implicitly accepts that this should be the norm by comparing other groups to white students' achievement.  I'd much prefer to talk about "educational inequity" or "gross unfairness" (which reminds me of Dr. King's quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere", indicating that educational inequity is everybody's problem.) Look, I don't have a problem comparing our students' work to that of their wealthy, largely white counterparts, because I want our kids to do as well as possible, and this is the group that is currently doing the best. But let's just name it. We're not reinforcing a standard sense of norm by saying we're comparing our kids to normal kids out there who have regular opportunities; we're comparing our kids to the students who are performing the best. On standardized tests, in writing samples, and the like.

5. Acronyms and ultra-precise terminology for everything.   Last weeks, we sat in an otherwise very good training that took a 3-minute detour to clarify the difference between TDQs and EBQs, how each related to the PBA in its relative need for framing and context vs. contextualization. The point of the session was to learn how to ask better questions - why can't we just call this "asking better questions" and then clarify what characteristics good questions have at various points in the lesson, to achieve different purposes, etc.? I get the need to precisely define terms, but I think we may have jumped the shark here. Some of you may

6. Trite phrases.   There are a host of other words and phrases I think are comically overused, like transformational impact (particularly to describe some good-sized jump on a math test), climbing the mountain to college (which most often runs together as Clem The Man To College), and...

...write your guesses/contributions in the comments :)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Remembering the Gatorade: Reflections on our family trip to Venezuela

I spent about 2 ½ weeks in Venezuela this summer with my wife Maria, our daughter Barbara (age 7), and Sebastian (age 5, then 6). I then came back to a job I love in the US while the rest of my family remained for a couple more weeks. Most people I have seen since returning to the US have asked about the trip, and I have yet to find an answer that really captures an honest answer to the question, “how was it?”

Truthfully, there was some good and some bad, but in the end it doesn’t really matter how it was in some general sense. I tend to polarize my past experiences after the fact, and I often remind myself of this when I’m in the middle of an experience that lends itself to this type of polarization. For college in general, my summer working in Argentina, and a recent trip to Niagara Falls, I remember thinking I would probably idealize the experience ex post facto and – lo and behold – I think back fondly on those times, even though not a lot of dopamine was coursing through my veins at the time. The two weeks my family and I spent together in Venezuela, on the whole, were a great way to spend the summer, and, more importantly, were crucial to our kids' development. As time distances me more from the experience, I’m increasingly seeing things this way, though there was certainly a lot I didn’t love at the time. I call this remembering the Gatorade. Skip to the end if you don't particularly care about the details but still want to know what a sports drink has to do with memory.

If you’re curious about what all happened, here’s a brief list:
  • Our family of four was staying with my wife’s family, which is not without its issues.
  • Venezuela is currently a very dangerous country. One night, we returned to the house at 1am and had to call a friend who was ‘in’ with some of the local troublemakers in order to escort us back home. There’s a lot of stress because of this sense that things have never been this bad – most people we talked to had been robbed at some point in the past year, which can take its toll.
  • Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis in recent times. When a store receives a shipment of butter, or corn flour, or toilet paper, there are lines down the block. It’s tough to live in a place where you don’t have access to what you need. 
  • I was sick for about half of the trip, which is par for the course. It’s all but impossible to avoid unfiltered water, even with a great deal of effort, and this water has the effect of absolutely wrecking my intestines. Every time.
  • The exchange rate is artificially held low (by a factor of 5) by the government. So the prices are sky-high for people who live in Venezuela, and dirt-cheap for visitors. 
  • Interestingly, we filled up a 30-liter tank of gas for 3 bolivars, which amounts to about 10 cents (at the unofficial exchange rate.) This one cent per gallon exchange rate is the result of exorbitant oil subsidies, which some op-eds in local papers assert primarily help the rich (who can afford cars.) I’m skeptical of this argument, since people who ride buses also end up paying for gas, albeit indirectly. Regardless, that’s some cheap gas.
  • I was on a plane a few weeks ago, and for the entire 40-minute duration of the flight, I was the most scared I’ve ever been. I filed an FBI report about it later, and I’d include the details here, but my sense is that the FBI doesn’t like people blabbing on about things you’ve asked them to investigate.
  • It was absolutely wonderful to spend so much time with Barbara and Sebastian.
  • Though it was a bummer to not be able to walk around Maria’s family’s neighborhood (for reasons of safety), the upside was that I got to read a lot. I read or listened to the following:
    • The Alchemist
    • Moonwalking with Einstein
    • Practice Perfect (again)
    • Antifragile (almost done!)
    • To Sell Is Human
    • The Book Whisperer
    • A bunch of Radiolab podcasts
…And, inspired by Josh Foer, I decided to memorize the only list I had handy, which was the list of 42 “rules for getting better at getting better” from Practice Perfect. Going into PD season, this has definitely come in handy!

  • Barbara started speaking Spanish with everybody she could find, having extensive conversations about anything and everything. 
  • Sebastian’s last trip to Venezuela was when he was 2. His Spanish isn’t as good, and he was getting really frustrated with the fact that everybody seemed to constantly feel the need to tell him that his Spanish wasn’t very good. His response was to ‘prove’ that he speaks Spanish by rattling off a quick dialogue: “Yo  sabe español. Como estas bien como estas tu bien como estas tu bien gracias.” Sadly, as those of you who actually habla the español already know, this didn’t help his case very much.
  • After I came back, Sebastian had his 6th birthday party, and apparently a good time was had by all.
  • I really enjoyed spending time with my father-in-law. He’s a good guy, and we haven’t spent a lot of time together in the past. My favorite episode on this trip was when he invited himself (and me) to go fishing at 9pm with a fisherman who was going out for his daily catch. They caught the fish; we promptly fried and ate it. 
  • The low point of the trip was at a concert (which was great – Billo’s Caracas Boys, which is still a phenomenal group) when I ran to the restroom, only to find that there was no toilet paper. I ran to another restroom owned by the same locale and again found no paper. I ran out and told the manager there was no toilet paper, and he replied, “That’s correct.” Ultimately some napkins from the bar had to suffice, but nothing can take back the sheer terror of his response.
In the end, though, this trip wasn’t about me having the time of my life. I left for the last two weeks (to come back and work), and my family stayed; by the end of the trip, our kids didn’t want to come back because they were having so much fun with their cousins. Barbara told me she wants to go back to Venezuela when she’s 25. I say that sounds great, as long as the country is less of a mess by then.

So, looking at the above, if all incidents have equal weight (which they don’t; wondering how your kids will do when you likely die in a plane crash isn’t something you cancel out with fresh fish), there’s about an equal ratio of positive to negative comments. That’s nice, as it allows me to choose how I remember the trip. 

For guidance, I’ll go with my natural tendency, but look to Barbara for guidance on what to call this tendency:

Barbara told me something about the trip yesterday that made me think we’re probably doing some combination of raising her right/being very lucky parents and maybe not talking about social norms quite enough. We were walking through the soda/sports drink aisle at Target, with lots of people around, when she loudly broke the silence with: “One day in Venezuela I had really bad diarrhea. I had to eat only mashed potatoes and drink Gatorade all day. It was the best day ever.”

 Let’s coin the phrase “remember the Gatorade” to describe the glass-half-full phenomenon when applied retroactively. So, remembering the Gatorade, it was a pretty good trip. We reconnected with a part of our family we don’t see often, our kids developed a more rounded sense of who they are and where they come from, and we’ve all gained in some way from the experience of truly living in a place so radically different from where we are living now.

Teaching tip (look for this in Teach Like A Champion 2.0):
Use the last 20 seconds of your class to Remember the Gatorade, reminding kids of what a great time you’ve all had, how hard everybody worked, how much they all embraced and learned from mistakes…even if this stuff only happened a little bit. People will remember the end of class positively, and – if this is what you’re doing at the end of class – will, by extension, remember all those positive attributes and come to class tomorrow ready to learn from mistakes, work hard, and have lots of fun doing it.