Saturday, January 30, 2010

RATS (Stuff and Nonsense)

Please forgive me if this blog seems disjointed at times. I wrote it this morning--it was quite good and I was pleased and when I hit PUBLISH POST I lost it all. I looked at DRAFT and it wasn't there as well. I don't know what happened to it. RATS! To say that I am a bit peeved is to put it mildly. But as I taught my student in Instructional Technology some years back, the best thing one can do is to restart at once. Let's see what happens.

My original title was Stuff and Nonsense. One of the characteristics of good teachers is that they normally have a lot of stuff in their rooms. You can call it audiovisual or media but I prefer STUFF. Stuff includes posters, maps, charts, interesting pictures, models, magnifying glass, rocks, books, perhaps a copy of the constitution as it was written with all its curlycues and squiggles that was the style of writing in that day. You walk into some teachers room and it takes your breath away.....all that interesting stuff.

Do you remember Susan Donnelly who taught first grade and I put those small footprints on her blackboard? It was in my second blog. Mrs. Donnelly taught first grade but had an old kindergarten room which had two bays. In one bay was the old typewriter and guinea pigs in a cage. There was an old rocking chair, books, stuffed animals, a whole bunch of stuff. So when a student was done with some assignment they could wander in this part of the room and continue their education. I do remember Miss Tillia, the best teacher I ever knew who would throw out her "stuff" every three years as she was afraid of having one years experience thirty times. Interesting philosophy. You need to know that I have a map of the State of Washington printed for the Coca Cola company about 1961 framed and in my bed room at present. It's faded but my university map library wants it when I'm done with it. Just some of my stuff.

Stuff teaches. One year when I was teaching fifth grade I wanted to improve on teaching science and health. I went over the requirements for the district on fifth grade science and it didn't look very exciting. Somewhere in my notes from classes and conferences I remember that the Washington State Diary Council was prepared to send me learning material on how proper nutrition. Perhaps I could join health and science in someways by studying better eating and better health. I surveyed their catalog and noted that I could get four rats, some learning materials and teacher aids that would go along with the nutrition unit I wanted to cover. I called them and although they thought that fifth grade was a little under the proper level they agreed and the deal was made. The idea was that I would get four laboratory rats, feed two on a good diet that included dry milk and two on a poor diet without milk. I could live with this. After four weeks, the rats would be reversed so that the poor diet rats would now be on the good and vice versa. After eight weeks, I was to "dispose" of the rats. So I started the unit and we read the textbook. To say the kids were overly interested was pushing it. This was boring stuff. Yawnsville. We struggled on.

I made some cages out of large cookie sheets with edges and hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is lightweight cage material for chicken coops. You can cut it with a heavy duty scissors which I did, folding the cloth and putting a cookie sheet on the bottom and top. Put a brick on the top and you have a serviceable cage for a small animal. A couple of water bottles to hang on the outside feeding in and you're done. I continued to push the textbook info on nutrition.

One day the school secretary called on the intercom and said there was a wooden box just delivered to the office. It was labeled Laboratory Rats. Would I please come down immediately and pick it up. She was not a happy secretary. I did and brought the box back to the class. I remember putting the box on a desk in the front of the room and with a screw driver managed pry one of the boards off revealing a lot of sawdust. I had kids standing on desks, kneeling in front of me--the entire class was intensely involved. There was the sawdust but no rats. I didn't know anything about rats--did they bite, would they run if I touched them. Talk about a dumb teacher. As I ponder what to do one of my young girls reached in and located a rat. It was so small and pink and the class went "aaaaaaawwww" a soft sigh. Darlene handed it one of the other girls and reached once again and found another little rat. She found all four and as a class we decided which two were going in one cage and which other two were going in the other cage.

Since it was after lunch, I can attest that there was no further learning in other subjects that day. We talked about what food we were going to feed the rats and how it was to be measure, how we would weigh the rats and how often, what sort of notes we needed to keep. It was heavy duty science. I had borrowed a scale from the high school, one of those that you put weights on one side until it balanced. The kids spent much of the day measuring stuff. Others mixed the food and labeled it. We put the cages, food and notebooks on a table out of sight of the windows so that drafts and heat would not bother the rats. In fact, several children wanted to spend the night to keep the rats company--they would get lonely. I sort of thought the rats could use some peace and quiet and most of the room agreed.

From that moment on, the class measure grams and teaspoons and tablespoons and all sorts of weights. The "R" volume of our old encyclopedia hardly made back to the rack. Those kids learned more about rats, the plague and everything else in between. And "we" learn to take notes. Each day four children were to take out each rat, weigh it and make sure the others agreed to the weight. Then it was written down and the next rat was weighed. I was proud of the kids, they did a good job. And at the end of four weeks a big celebration as the diets were reversed. In spite of what the Washington State Dairy Council had advised, the kids named the rats. It probably took only a day before everyone in the room could identify who was who in the rat world. Darlene was the unofficial head of the whole project.

I had them write what their thoughts were when we opened the box and I got several of the students writing more then one page. Writing was improving when they had something to say. And note taking seemed to be getting more popular. Even in social studies I'd say, maybe we ought to take a note on this or that and they would agree. The scientific method was definitely being understood. After eight weeks, I felt like the kids had a much better understanding of nutrition then when I only used the textbook .

At this point the rats went to heaven! No, I didn't "dispose of them" the way the Washington State Dairy Council recommended. The rats now became close friends with everyone in the classroom. They were hardly ever in their cages. I remember teaching something one day and looking up I saw a girl busily taking notes and on the top of her head sat a white rat. Another time one of my boys asked me for some help and as I was giving it, a white head appeared from under his shirt. But I don't think that the rats ever took anything away from the learning. It seem to add to the ambiance of the learning of the moment. Holding a rat and reading to the class became second nature to some of the kids. Perhaps I should have been more forceful but I'm not sure.

At the end of the year I knew I had to get rid of the rats. I wrote a letter home to all parent saying that I was going to have a raffle for those letters that come back signed by the parents. Most of them came back signed but I'm sure there was some heavy duty pressure applied by some of my children. Perhaps some parents thought that four out of thirty eight were good odds--I don't know. I do know that the day before the end of school the high school called me and said would I like to give out twelve more rats? I sent home sixteen rats at the end of school.

There is a post script to all of this, actually two. The first one happened one evening several years later. A mother of one of my kids in the rat class called and with tears in her voice said that their rat had died of old age and the family was heart broken. They had called all the pet stores but none carried Laboratory rats. I gave her all the phone numbers and addresses and I heard later that she got two more rats from a lab at Washington State University.

The other post script story was about Darlene. A couple of years after this first story, a young teenage girl walked into my class after school one day. It was Darlene. She wanted to know where I had gotten the rats. She was going to duplicate the experiment with nutrition and demonstrate some science principals at the same time. She also told me she was very afraid of the rats the day she took them out of the box. I wouldn't have believe it. She was thinking of going into biology and science at college. I hope she did. It would give me a warm fuzzy if she did so.....and I don't have a rat running up my back.

That was a good year. I did the unit one more time. Same results. And I think those children had a much better understanding of what science was all about.. I hope so. And thanks to the Washington State Dairy Council for their advice and help. It was invaluable.

So if a teacher got you interested in some subject because there was stuff in the classroom, be sure to thank that teacher. One never knows what catches someones attention do we? Thank a teacher today. It is scientifically proven that they will appreciate it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What are the Characteristics of a Good Teacher--Contnued

I have had a good time thinking about all the good teachers I have observed, talked to, was told about, or who taught some of my student teachers. I do get more then a bit peeved when someone tells me the first thing we need to do is get rid of the bad teachers. I wish someone would tell me the characteristics of a bad teacher....however, I want to focus once again on the positive aspects of what good teachers do. No, I haven't done a survey and I'm relying on my memory of many observed classroom teachers. My bias is that I know that I observed more elementary and middle school teachers then I did high or secondary school folk. So we start with somewhat of a bias. But quite frankly, I really do not see much difference between a kindergarten teacher and a university professor teaching a graduate class.

In my recent blog I suggested that good teachers have the following characteristics. Let's review. (I do sound like an old college instructor, don't I?)
  • Good teachers have to teach. Many could do something else but good teachers will teach regardless of the circumstances. "Can't get a job? I'll start my own school."
  • Drive. Good teachers don't give up on their students. They are the last day of school.
  • The good teacher wants to continually improve their skills. They are always trying a new lesson plan or a method to enlighten their students about something.
  • The good teachers I have observed have Control. Call it management or leadership--whatever, the top teachers waste little time going from one subject to another or from one problem to another. Discussions are logical and thought producing. They are in control.
  • These teachers have broad goals. In their minds they know what they want the end result to be and push the students continually in that direction.
  • The good teachers treat student with respect. No talking down and they know how to listen to the students.
I'd like to add a couple of more characteristics of good teachers. By and large they use the KISS system of teaching, i.e., Keep It Simple Stupid. Lesson plans are relatively simple--"this is what I want you to learn today." Many teachers will write the days "objectives" on the blackboard for the class to see when they first come into the classroom. As in a high school band class, those objectives may well include 1) warm up scales (in a certain key), 2) tune up by sections and tune up by the entire band, 3) musical selections to be practiced by the band and 4) works to be polished.

I'm sure you've heard the medical schools method for teaching--Watch one, Do one, Teach one. It is simplistic but I've heard medical doctors say it works. What I did in my classroom (regardless of grade level) is to 1) Tell You What I'm Going to Teach You, 2) Now I Am Teaching You, 3) This Is What I Taught You. The hard part is in the second section where I have to show the students what to do--but the first and third part are essential to the lesson. I note that Amanda Ripley (see previous blog for web site address) talks about Mr. Taylor's system that I think is better then mine. She writes that he....1)I do, 2) We do, and 3) You do.... in the learning lesson. I like that. KISS all the way.

An aside for the moment. When I first started teaching fifth grade I spent much time developing lesson plans for the subjects that I was supposed to teach. Gleaned from district and state requirements, I wrote my lesson plans on regular sized paper folder lengthwise in half, with the objective at the top and to the left of the page, what I was going to do and on the right of the page what my students were suppose to do. On the back of the sheet of paper, I would put down page numbers, or questions that I wanted to ask. You with me so far? Then I put these lesson plans on a clip board in order of the subjects that I would teach that day. The clip board was important to me--it told me what I should be doing and at what time. Okay!

It did not take most of my students long to come into the classroom, hang up their coats and put the lunches away and then they would swipe my clip board. They would read it over to see what we were doing that day. At first I was incensed. "Put my clip board down--thats mine." Of course fifth graders paid little attention and while I was still getting ready for the first bell they would read my clip board. But what I noticed after a week or two was that they were getting ready to do that work! Finding the place in the book--maybe marking it with a book mark or reading ahead as to what we would be discussing. Finally I just put the clip board on my desk for them. Well, actually, I went one stage better. Most elementary school classrooms have student helpers. The kids love these jobs such as blackboard eraser (2 kids), lunch room helpers (4 kids), Pet feeders (4, when we had rats in cages), row monitors (4) and finally, Clip board monitor (1) to hold my clip board and tell me when we were going past time. Sometimes the clip board monitor would say, "Mr. Blackwell, you forgot to ask....." And if the clip board monitor was busy or absent that day, someone always took up the slack. It was cool.

Now there is one more part to this KISS technique I need to address. One of the things that use to frost my cupcakes is when a student teacher would finish up a lesson and then say, "Are there any questions." No, no, no, no, NO! Good teachers always have the questions....not the students. "Is everyone ready for lunch? Okay, who can tell me what happened on July 1st, 1776?" OR.... "John, how do you solve for this equation? Good teachers are always checking on their kids to see if they understand. They don't wait for a child to ask the question--they want to know first what the student knows or doesn't know.

Oops, my present day clip board holder says it is time to go on to something else. What we've done today is talk about the simplification of lesson fit broad goals. On our next blog we going to discuss "Good Teachers and STUFF. Are you with me?

I suspect there are several of my university college professors smiling and saying, Well, I'll be damned. He got it. Thanks to all of you who helped me be a teacher. And thanks to all the good teachers out in the classrooms. Hang in there.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What are the Characteristics of a Good Teacher

In the January/February (2010) issue of The Atlantic there is an interesting article entitled, What Makes a Great Teacher? by Amanda Ripley. It is an interesting piece, well written and has a lot to say about the characteristics of good teachers. But I am a little angry with myself that I didn't think about what makes a good teacher in this way, that is, by assessing good teachers and then looking at what they have or do in common. I've been doing that somewhat in these blogs over the past year but I haven't focused on what the commonalities were. Perhaps I should do that more as I write these blogs.

Ms. Ripley, a writer and reporter and not a teacher, spent much of the article on a non-profit program called Teach for America. They take college graduates, give them some training and place them in low-income schools for two years. Some succeed, some do not and some become excellent teachers. Why?

The first part of the article deals with two young fifth grade boys, one goes to one school and the other to a different school. One boy achieves better then grade level while the other boy falls behind. Ms. Ripley suggest that this is the result of the teachers--one teacher is the great one and the other is not. First off from a researchers narrow point of view, it would have been better if the two fifth grade boys had gone to the same school. There are too many variables already in the mix. Ripley writes about Mr. Taylor whose fifth grade boy excels but she doesn't write about the other teacher. This would have helped.

Then Ripley writes how Teach for America is studying the differences between their successful teachers and those that do not do as well. It is an interesting read. I find it fascinating that what Teach for America is doing to select the best incoming students many Colleges of Education have been doing for years. [a sidebar: The college of education where I taught at for thirty two years at Western Washington University is named "The Woodring College of Education." It is named after Paul Woodring who was a faculty member in the education department and also editor of the education edition of the Saturday Review of Literature for many years. I knew Paul and he continued to the very end that we should only admit those students who were the brightest and best and HAD to teach.]

Teach for America has a list of characteristics that you need to have before they will admit you to the program. You can review that list at: . Scroll down and your can survey the list of characteristics which they call leadership. It is interesting that many of the qualities that I have written about in good teachers are listed here. We need to do more research on teachers who do well and categorize their behavior.

Here is what I think good teachers have in abundance. First, the teacher in question HAS to teach. All of the teachers that I admire have to teach. Many say they could make more money elsewhere but they have to teach. Some of these teachers knew at an early age they were going to be teachers. Their minds did not comprehend doing something else. At one time in one of my college classes I started out in a pompous way by stating to a brand new class, "This is an education course. If any of you can do something else, please feel free to change your major. I recommend it." It was not a good way to start and that afternoon a student from that class came to see me although I did not have office hours at that time. She was furious with me and proceeded to lash out in a very emotional way. Yes, she could do other things but she wanted to be a teacher. She was going to be a teacher and she did not like me telling her to go elsewhere. She was more then angry. We sat down in my office and close to tears she said she had been waiting to be a teacher since grade school. Her mother was a teacher, her father was a teacher--I think her whole family was in education. And she was going to be the best damn teacher there was. I apologized and said that it probably not the smartest thing for me to start off with but I was really looking for student like her--not those that thought education classes would be easy. She sniffed and said I ought to phrase it better. We did become friends but it took much of the quarter for her to trust me. Yes, she did graduate and become a "damn good teacher." I'm proud of her. There are a lot like her who are teachers. They have to teach.

I think good teachers have drive--always looking for a way to improve something. Don't confuse drive with energy. Some of the great teachers who are quiet are always thinking on how to do it better. "How can I teach Anna how to read better?" Or "How should I explain uncommon fractions to Tommy." Good teachers are always looking for different ways to teach a subject. Do you remember way back when I wrote about the best grade school teacher I ever knew, Jo? The alcoholic, the ex-nun and the ex-Army officer? At the end of every third year she would throw out all her lesson plans, maps, charts, bulletin board stuff, whatever and start over. She'd alway told me that she didn't want to have one years experience thirty times. It's scary but I learned to do the same thing--get rid of all my teaching materials and start over.

Good teachers have control. Maybe you want to call it respect or love, but kids need to know their teacher is working for them. When a teacher says to get books out or have the class watch the board, the students do just that. I find this characteristic as important at the high school level as it is at the grade school level. I have watch a teacher just look across the room at a student and they immediate sit down or do what was asked of them. Teachers have eyes in the back of their heads? Certainly, but it is this control that is essential. Do you also remember my student teacher who rode up to the school on her large Harley and thereby gained control. That was what both of us were looking for.

One of the characteristics that Teach for America looked for was what were the goals of the teacher. And it turned out that good teachers have broad goals for their students and they are long range. "My students will really do well in math this year." Then they work back and figure our what skills each child or student needs. Some school districts bother me with detailed lesson plans that teachers are suppose to follow. It has gotten worse since the "No Child Left Behind" was introduced. Most good teachers have a much larger view of what they will do in their class during the year starting with day one. And their lessons change depending upon how their students respond. If the students are not getting it, then the lesson plans are scrapped and a different approach is applied. My first blog was about a teacher who took my small footprints on a blackboard and changed them into a lesson plan on how to read. I admire good teachers.

I find good teachers do not talk down to their students. I don't know how many times a day I would hug a student. I can't do that now--pity. But students need to know that the teacher is there for them. Not one of my finest hours I remember coming into my fourth grade one day at the beginning of the school day and saying, "I'm in a bad mood today so don't do anything that might cross me." I've heard other teachers say that to me. I'm now embarrassed....not very professional. But anyway, a couple of weeks later one of my students came into class that morning and said, "I'm in a bad mood today so don't do anything that might cross me." I really heard me! And I thought if I can say it why can't he? Well, we had a carroll in the room and I asked Eddie if he would like to work at the carroll today. I turned it around so he could not see the room and the kids couldn't see him. We got his books and he was pleased with the result. I taught class that day with Eddie hearing me but not seeing the classroom. By noon he came out of the carroll and said he was feeling much better. I sat down with him and we talked for awhile. He had problems at home and we talked about what he might do. He thanked me and then gave me a hug. In fact Eddie gave me a chance to talk to the class about what should we as a class do if someone is having a bad day. How do you know you're having a bad day? What should you do and what should you expect from the class? It was a revelation to me how smart these kids were. And it brought us together closer as a class. Learning is a group effort. It is more then fascinating that Mr. Taylor, the good teacher in Riply's article puts his kids in groups and has a team leader.

I'll write more about these characteristics in the future. I like the tone of the article of looking to what are the commonalities of good teachers. Instead of looking for "bad" teachers whatever that means, this is a positive approach.

And to all the good teachers out in the classrooms be it grade school, middle school or high school, thank you for needing to teach. You also taught me a lot. Thanks.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Potpourri of Subjects from taxes to Kindles

I have been subdued, maybe a bit sad over the news about education in our nation. More folks are writing about how we need to get rid of bad teachers. It seems that the American Federation of Teachers is endorsing teacher evaluations based on student achievement. But I have not been able to get a good read on what is behind this thinking as yet. But also in the State of Washington the State Superintendent of Education is going along with a plan to do something along the same lines. Here it seems that we are changing some state policies to evaluate teachers in order to gain access to federal monies. This state is in such dire straits financially, along with many other states, that we will do most anything to increase federal funds, private donations, company grants--anything to save education.

Already the journalists are saying that cuts in education are probably going to happen as our state legislators gather in the state capitol for their yearly session. Having been a lobbyist it is way too early to ascertain what the thinking is, what trends should we expect and what will happen to the kids. As I've mentioned in an earlier blog, when I was the president of the teachers association (yes, the union to most of you) we had really only one standard to follow--would this help students. No, we didn't always go to the legislature and ask for pay raises. And I doubt if there will be many folks this year (2010) who will be arguing in that direction. We just don't have sufficient income for the state.

What bothers me is that those that send their children to private schools will continue to do so. Lakeside school in Seattle and the Little School in Bellevue will still have small classes, sufficient supplies, field trips, and a good education will continue while the public schools will be cutting back. And, no, I don't have the answer to this perplexing problem. What to do?

I suspect public education will cut more pre-schools, release some more teachers with the result of larger classes. If music, art and theatre haven't already been eliminated, these will also go. There are tough times ahead for education and I suspect teachers on a whole will just suck it up and go about teaching their students the best they can. That is what they have always done.

On the bright side--a change of subject. I've had my Kindle for less then a month but I am quite taken with it. I've read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, three potboilers (mystery, romance) and one How to Use My Kindle. The latter has not been that good although I have gotten tips and wander the Internet because of it. So I'm reading away. I've noticed that I watching less television at night because I'm reading more.

Here is what I have ascertained. I like reading off the Kindle. Easy on the eyes. I also like having it in a leather case, in this case, an expensive one--it feels good. So those that say they still want to feel a book ought to try a case on their Kindle. Another thing that I've noted: I read several books in the same period. For example, I'm re-reading Pride and Prejudice looking more at the sentence structure then I did when I first read it. But I only do this for a short period, then I switch to another book, like the How to on the Kindle. When I tire of that, I might switch to a potboiler or something else.

Now here is my point. Would I change readings if I were using hard copies (including paperbacks) of the books. I don't know. My wife is reading Collapse by Diamond, which I have already read a year or so ago and it is a large book. She, like me, is reading it at the dining room table for the most part. The Kindle is the answer to large books.

I have eight or so books on my Kindle. And I haven't yet tried the voice approach on it. Too busy reading--I read faster then most voice reading. However, I am day-dreaming of getting a Harlequin romance and having the Kindle read it to me. Will I get embarrassed? Will my face turn red? What primeval research this could be.

Please note that when I mention the Kindle, I also include the other eReaders in my thinking. Both Microsoft and Apple are poised to debut their own eReaders in the near future. Sony and Barnes and Noble are already on the market. I did peruse the bookstores on the web recently and was amaze at the prices of textbooks. There are a number of textbooks in the field of Instructional Technology that sell for over a hundred and twenty dollars. Lordy. No wonder some university students are dropping out of college. I would be embarrassed if I mandated a book for my class at that price. However I could live with a textbook for my class on the Kindle (or equal) for ten bucks..... I think teachers will endorse some form of an eReader for their classes that hold the students' books for that subject.

There seems to be some good stuff here. Let's say a student in high school takes beginning Biology. The next session they take Biology 2 (advance Biology, whatever you want to name it) and have forgotten something from the first course. A quick flip of their Kindle and they can review what they need to know. Had it been a traditional method of teaching, the book would have been returned and already in use for a different class. No, I like this possibility.

At the moment, I think having a laptop computer and a Kindle would be very valuable to a student in our school system. Perhaps Bill Gates could pick out a school and supple the students with these items and give it a try. Match the one school with another like school and lets measure student performance after a year. I wonder what we would find out.

Have you thanked a teacher lately for sucking it up and teaching more kids then they would like? We need to do this. Thanks to all the teachers out there working with students.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My number one complaint

Something has bothered me for a number of years. And during the past week my bothersome thoughts came back to upset me. I saw an article on the web about the list of the best colleges and universities in the country. Who was number one? Two? I read the article and now I'm mad at myself for reading it for I knew before I read it how I would respond. So WHO was number one? Let's get it on the table for all of us--Harvard and Princeton tied for the top spot on the list. Ticks me off! Really frosts my cupcakes.

Before I loose my cool, let me explain some of my thinking. And to be sure my thinking has not yet come to fruition on this subject, in fact I don't know where I am going with it. When I was a kid myself, I tried to do well in school but there was always someone else, mostly girls, that were better in the academic line. I was probably last in physical skills until I got to college. But I remember some of my teachers listing the students on a bulletin board with someone on the top until it got to the bottom. And yes, someone in my class had to occupy the bottom slot. Most of the time I was in the upper third of the class but I wanted to be number one. The top kid. Never made it. And I can remember a number of times sitting at my desk feeling out of sorts cause I wasn't better then I was.

So when I started to teach fifth grade I tried not to "pick" a top kid in any subject. Yes, I did do grades and sent out report cards to parents but I remember telling my students they were to take them home first before showing them around....I doubt seriously if they followed my instructions but I tried. I also tried not to recognize a child in my class as being the best. It seem to me at the time that child, whoever it was already knew they were doing good work and telling the rest of the class wasn't going to motivate the rest of them. Indeed, if a child was having problems know that another was doing well would probably just make them feel worse. Yeah, I'm back to my "success breeds success" theory. I would have loved to have a fifth grade class where all the kids got "A" grades. It didn't happen.

I have been in grade school classrooms where the teacher would say something like, "I see that Tommy is sitting nicely at his desk with his hands folded--can you do the same?" OR, "Mary has put his books away and is waiting for the rest of the class to catch up." I am sure this did not endure either Tommy or Mary in the friendship category in that class. Had I been a kid in such a class I would have made sure I was not the first to do whatever it was the teacher wanted. Once I got into the Army I was damn sure I was not first.

So I was upset when I read the list of top universities. Now to be sure had I bought the magazine I am positive that the university that I taught at for thirty two years was listed somewheres--we had been number two in a category, I think "state schools" for a number of years. The university that I received my doctoral degree from eons ago was listed number seven in this list that I was perusing.

Why oh why do we need to label who is first and indirectly who is last? I don't understand it. If a person goes to a school listed in the upper decile, will that person be that much smarter? Will they end up in the upper decile of our society? What this magazine has done was set up some criteria and then looked at the statistics to see who fits their criteria. If one of the criterium is how much money is endowed in a foundation, then Harvard is going to win boo-quo points. Then I worry about a bias. Most of the writers and editors are from eastern schools. So when the criteria was selected they were thinking about their school. It stands to reason to list who is number one without listing all the categories of measurements is not valuable.

I have been to some of the east coast schools. I have interviewed some of the faculty. There were some I could agree were excellent schools but only with the condition that a student going to that school could appreciate and use those qualities that I thought made that school excellent in my mind. As an example, I think M.I.T. in Boston is an excellent school for a person who like to learn on their own, knows how to make use of laboratories, likes to talk a lot to other students, wants to day dream, has their own drummer, and is highly expectant. I prefer M.I.T. over Harvard.

There is a little college in a town called, Walla Walla. The town is named Walla Walla--sorry. It is in a corner of my state, wonderful people and also home of one of the state's state prisons. However Walla Walla is also home to a wonderful institute of higher education, Whitman College. Expensive however it has excellent faculty who have the time to sit down and work with individual students. I do not feel that a Whitman undergraduate student would feel at home at M.I.T. but they would do as well, maybe even better for having graduated from Whitman. I keep hearing good things about this college. But I doubt if you will see in on any list of top colleges. Maybe they are but I haven't seen it as yet. Pity.

I suspect there are colleges and universities in every state that get overlooked and it bothers me. If for this reason alone I don't like making a list of which university outranks other universities. It is not fair. If I had a category that I would want it would be how much does the university in question motivate a student to look around and at themselves. I want a student who questions my lectures. I want a student who says, "I can do that better."

If you remember, I wrote about a first grade teacher who would not give any tests to her students. She wanted her children to look at learning as a fun thing--as something that is enjoyable to do. And she didn't want them comparing themselves to each other. I applaud that teacher. Thank you, Mrs. Gibson, for teaching not only your students but me as well.

Have you thanked a teacher lately? It doesn't have to be your number one teacher--any teacher will do.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Year--A New Idea

Perhaps this blog is premature. Maybe it needs to sit and permeate a bit longer. On the other hand I have been thinking about this concept since the late 1960s. Thinking.... And I have written several little articles about it but most did not like what I had said. The concept? Reading books on an eReader device--like a Kindle from Amazon

Before we get into this discussion let me remind you of some variables that you need to know. First, I am dyslexic and have some difficulty some days reading off ink and paper. No, I don't know why. Words at either end of the sentence tend to "float" and on my worst day (which I haven't had for some time now), the whole paragraph wants to move around. I also miss words or "see" different words. In recent years I believe my reading habits to be improved. Does age mitigate dyslexia--I don't know.

Secondly, I like technology. Unabashed enjoyment of the new electronic world--although I don't know how to use much of it. But it is fascinating. But color me biased in this area. When I bought my first MacPlus computer, the little black on gray screen with a calc, data base, and word processing on it and when I booted it up and saw what it could do, I cried. I remember moving away from the coffee table where my wife and I had set it up so my tears would not hit the keyboard. Weird, eh? The reason for my emotional outburst was that the screen was so EASY to read. Nothing moved and it was easy to read--did I say that already. LIfe suddenly got much easier--here I was a college professor in a profession that had to publish or perish. Writing amazingly got easier with that MacPlus. It was seeing what I wrote that became important. At that time I thought why can't all books be put on my computer? Hence, my articles about how it was now time to print all materials to the computer. I'm sure you know the reaction of most librarians. "What do you mean get rid of books!" And, it wasn't just librarians--most people wanted to have a book. My articles went nowhere. In fact there was so much negativity to my thoughts that I abandoned the idea--but I kept it in the back of my mind. I did watch children and young adults with dyslexia read better and easier on a computer screen but I really didn't have research enough to say anything.

Let me get to the major point of this blog. I got a Kindle for Christmas! I've wanted one for some time. I got the Kindle 2 and I have been more then pleased. Actually I am ecstatic. I have read several books this week (psssst, THIS WEEK) among them Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin and first published in 1813. I didn't know the latter. And she didn't have a computer to write it on--my oh my. I enjoyed it immensely. Now I plan to read Jerome Jerome's "Three Men In A Boat--Not To Say Nothing of The Dog." I have read this book a number of times, one of my favorite. I want to see if reading it on the Kindle will change my reaction.

Holding it is easy. It is light weight and the black on gray screen is as easy to read as anything I have--including the old MacPlus. It does need light so reading under the covers as I did as a child will still require a flashlight. But it is easy reading. And you can change the size of the font. You want bigger words.....or smaller words. Just change them to what you want. Do you want less words in a sentence line? You can do that as well. Now here is a perfectly good research project for a graduate student. Find out what do children prefer in the number of words per line--I never thought much about that.

But there are those, many my close friends who say they want to feel the book. HA! I have the answer....a good one. I bought a leather cover for my Kindle. It is a beautiful cover and it changes how the Kindle feels when reading it. And you can turn back the cover and have this soft felt feel to your Kindle. Pretty cool. I wanted the cover for protection but I really enjoy how it feels when I hold it to read. So for those who want the feel of a book, buy a cover.

Downloading books to the Kindle is a piece of cake. You find the book that you want and then just order it. Many books are free but New York Times book list books and ones like those normally cost $9.99. Since I've had this device only about a week and a half, I have not explored too far--I've been reading! But I did download the "Three Men in a Boat" from the Gutenberg project, a program to digitalize all books that are past the copyright dates. They are all free but my survey has been limited to just a few places so far.

At the moment, I believe that the Kindle could be an amazing device for schools. Textbooks, reading books, library books would be much, much cheaper for schools to supply to their students. But as I did in the seventies, I can see many applications in everyday life for a Kindle. Let me take it to my boat and look up maintenance projects where I can hold the Kindle and look at the project in hand. However, my main thoughts are to go to the boat, get comfortable and read. A quiet place to enjoy my reading.

I'll have more to say about the Kindle as I become more familiar with it. I'm still just a beginner. But it is exciting. And to the lady teacher in Harrison, New York who understood I did not fathom how to read using the phonics method, taught me another way to read, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You must have been an amazing teacher. And to those who designed and invented the Kindle, you also have my gratitude. Everlasting.

Have you thanked a teacher lately?