Tag Archives: education blather

Looking back at 2013

I’m lagging a bit behind other folks this year in looking at what’s been going on in 2013, and, well, I guess that’s just the way things are these days.

So. 2013. A lot of stuff happened in 2013.

Professionally, I continue to see what it takes to recover in a school setting after several years of poor management. It takes a long time for a school community to renew itself after these circumstances, but it can happen. I took some interesting literacy classes focusing on the work of a major theorist in the field (Regie Routman) and found further support for the integration of neuroscience and education. Primarily, such linkages don’t come from “brain-based learning” techniques but through right brain resonances between teacher-student and student-student. I’ve also come to the conclusion that a certain degree of grammar understanding is key to developing higher level comprehension skills.

I’ve also developed a passionate dislike for high-stakes assessment and what prioritizing that does to a community of learners. Make no mistake, I think a single assessment and standards are necessary. But prioritizing tests and test-taking as the highest priority to the exclusion of the acquisition of other, necessary learning crashes and burns horribly. We are losing huge chunks of kids as a result of this test-driven culture. And that’s a rant in and of itself.

On the writing front, I’ve had some mixed successes. Several anthologies I’ve been in are doing reasonably well. I sold two books, a full length novel and a novella, to a small press. I brought out two independently published books and am working on more in that series. But I’ve not had the time to more aggressively pursue writing to the degree I want to do it. Emotions around the day jobbe, the fatigue of not only the day jobbe but the commute (80+ miles round trip each day) and the inability to keep on burning the candle at both ends have all interfered.

Mocha did spectacularly well (in my opinion) at this year’s show in September. She placed well and showed that she is particularly strong in Trail classes. Right now, though, she’s sidelined with a mild lameness that is tied into neck and shoulder muscle spasms. Light work seems to be helping, along with some massage techniques.

Skiing–um, well, no snow so far this year. I’m not enthused about skiing in low snow conditions and so the snow dances continue.

Personally–well, we’re looking at some huge changes ahead. Good changes, but scary, dramatic, and they’ve involved a lot of planning and worrying and agonizing. More on that later.

At least I seem to be reasonably healthy at the moment. It took most of the year to regain my flexibility from a hip muscle strain. My gut is still cranky but it’s settling, enough to give me hope that these upcoming changes will make it even happier. It’s amazing what ten minutes of yoga a day will do. My knees are making creaky and stiff noises at me, but I’m beginning to think that’s a sign that one particular pair of shoes have reached the end of their useful life, or else that I need to do something different for urban sidewalk hikes.

And so I march slowly into 2014, cautiously hoping that good things are coming. Just not sure about that.

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A rainy April Saturday–horse and union stuff

The brief flirtation with warm and sunny here in PDX went wandering off the past few days. Being as it’s a set of spring storms, though, the weather fronts come through as intense showers rather than anything that can last for hours (except up at work, where the cold driving rain seemed to go on all afternoon). Last night I took advantage of the time and the relatively mild early evening to finish off waxing skis and getting them loaded up for skiing on Sunday. It’s nicer to scrape skis with the garage door open, and it’s almost like being outside.

Today was about seven hours of Pre-RA meetings–preliminary introduction to the various issues we’re going to discuss at the OEA Representative Assembly (the governing body of the Oregon Education Association–teacher union stuff, IOW). It’s my second year doing this, and it’s somewhat like watching sausage being made. I’m watching some future political careers develop, and it’s…interesting in the mix. But–controversial and sobering stuff. We’re balancing our own budget and talking priorities. Arguing over various procedural situations. Looking at a loss of 500 members next year–ouch, that could very well include me.

Yeah. Makes the recent brief flirtation with the idea of Something New even more of a wistful dream.

Afterward, I jumped in the car and drove out to the barn. It’d been light showers out there with heavy rain and lots of puddles at some point. The indoor had good footing but was a little slick, and fortunately I had the place to myself. I threw the snaffle on Mocha, hopped up in the Crates, and we went for a good hard forward schooling ride.

March and April with The Girl are times where I really can’t expect much except mileage from schooling. She’s very distractable, even when she’s not in heat, and quite goofy for her (which is more like mildly goofy in most horses, except that she can get goofy at speed.  Um. Not Fun). I tried her back in the full bridle with the romal last week, and she was pushy, difficult, and not listening. But…the pony stallion is now getting worked in preparation for driving this summer, and she was in full heat, so….

This afternoon was about mileage. The latigo leather reins on my Western snaffle setup are seven feet long, and I cross them over her shoulders.  If I need to, I can flick the dangling length of rein from one side over to pop her on the other–pretty easy flick for me, a move I’ve practiced from childhood. It’s broad, flat, and stings a little, but tends to make more noise than anything else.  The crossing of the reins means that if I want to kick her up to a long two-point extended canter set, I can get her started, pop up in my stirrups, brace my hands on her neck, and off we go. She likes these canter sets, especially in spring, and I just plain like doing them in this bridle set.  The latigo leather has just the right mix of flexibility and thickness in my hands. It takes a lot less pressure to establish contact because it has a bit of signal to it and carries a little bit of its own weight. Gregg introduced me to these reins and I love them to death.

Galloping or extended canter work is also pretty nice in the Crates Reiner. I just dropped my heels hard, got up, and let her go, pushing her into the steady rhythm. Mocha was on edge and wound up after a set of countercanter, tempi changes where I really started asking her to come back to me and not speed up, two tracks, and random direction changes at the trot and canter.

We’re not doing a lot of arena loops just yet. Eventually, we’ll get to the point where we do these canter sets between fussy work, especially as she gets back into the romal and we have to work on the more precise control of the curb. Then she’ll rack up a bit of canter time, including speeding up and slowing down the canter in preparation for large fast circles and small slow circles. What I’m doing right now is just straightforward fitness sets, shooting for a fast, extended, rhythmic canter or lope with me in two-point. Once we get back into the romal, I’ll sit down and we’ll do them like that. I don’t tend to do this sort of work in winter because of footing and other issues–but once spring hits, it’s a lot more canter sets.

It was nice doing the canter sets this afternoon, hitting that smooth extended canter, hands resting on Mocha’s withers, feet braced against the broad Western stirrups, balancing on my legs and working on my leg strength as well as hers. Mocha sprung along smoothly, snorting in her rhythmic highblower pattern (strong exhales matching her hind footfalls, the mark of a horse moving efficiently at canter or gallop). Just sending her forward, seeking a steady, consistent movement. Cantering in two-point also does wonders for the hamstrings.  Just sayin’.

Then drop down to walk, switch directions, long rein big swinging walk to air up, then pick it up in the other direction.

The canter sets work not only for fitness but they discharges Mocha’s tension after a bit of fussy collection work. She has little patience for this type of collection work in the spring, but she needs the work during this season as well.  I finally discovered that letting her blow off her pent-up tension afterwards with a good hard extended canter in both directions not only led to a horse who didn’t get as sore, but she was a lot less fussy about the collected work if she knew that we were likely to have the hard canter sets as part of our final routine. So we do a lot of canter work after the bending, flexing, and collection schooling.

Finally, we took advantage of a break between showers to hack out along the road. She got a bit anxious about the big puddle–bigger than she had ever seen before–and we spent a bit of time splashing through it at walk and trot. Then we ambled down the road and back. Coming back, we took the big puddle at a trot and she calculated, trotted in two strides, then popped off a respectable jump across the deepest section of the puddle, neat as can be.

And afterwards, after a nice roll, she had a good hard grooming while she relaxed and mooched treats. It’s nice to have a horse who likes to get out and do stuff, and Mocha is one who definitely likes to go and to work.

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On Writing and Teaching Writing–Part One

This is the beginning of a series.  Today is just a rough consolidation of various thoughts I’ve had over the years about teaching writing and how it affects my own writing process.  I apologize in advance because I’m dashing this off before dedicating some time to copyedit revisions on Netwalker Uprising and then running up the Mountain to do flooding prevention on a rental as well as a quick photo shoot of the Sandy River in flood before going to the Day Jobbe….so it may be discombobulated.  However, this is laying the groundwork for the series.

Anyway.  One concern I’ve had over the past eight years of teaching is that, while there has been a slow but steady improvement in test scores in the areas of reading and writing (in spite of what reform rhetoric would have you believe), there has NOT been a matching improvement in writing.  One study that came out in the state of Oregon several years ago flat out stated that test scores in writing have been static for thirty years.

Why is this happening?  We’re now requiring a more rigorous program in reading and math, to the degree that kindergarten curricula don’t resemble what they did thirty years ago.  Why isn’t writing showing a similar improvement?

I have several theories.  First of all, back about 20-30 years ago, a study came out asserting that teaching grammar did not improve writing quality.  My reaction to that study when I read it was somewhat unprintable (My Masters project focused on a specific writing remediation technique that my group’s adviser was testing out; it was my assigned job in the group to do the lit review and write that section of the paper).  I won’t go into the problems with that study but let’s just say that in general education it got picked up and applied, especially at the K-8 level.  Special ed was an entirely different proposition.  Sped does not agree, and there are many excellent studies which demonstrate the need for grammar and conventions instruction along with other means of writing remediation.  If you want to look them up, I suggest starting with Karen Harris and Steve Graham’s work in Self-Regulated Strategy Development (University of Kansas and University of Nebraska both have excellent linkage and materials).  Cognitive Strategy Instruction is another keyword.

Secondly, many (but not all, definitely not all, I do know some fine writers in this group!)  K-8 teachers admit to an uneasy relationship with writing.  It’s my thesis that in order to teach writing, you need to be comfortable with the process of writing. Doesn’t mean you have to be a professional-level writer or be selling your writing, but you do need to be able to write clearly, concisely, and correctly (I dearly enjoy the exceptions to the rule and had a lovely discussion with another teacher yesterday where we agreed that the use of the Oxford comma would have clarified a murky phrase in a news story affecting our building).

Thirdly, most consultants who teach teachers about writing can’t write narrative to save their lives.  They can’t write creative nonfiction, and their technical work product, while grammatically correct, isn’t written to clarify understanding.  It attacks understanding and buries it under snowdrifts of jargon.  The moments when they seek clarification are painful because they then trend toward the cutesy end of the swimming pool, complete with perky fontage. There are good consultants out there but again, many of them trend toward a special education background and they tend to minimize the ky00t.

Add all this together and you get major problems.

That’s it for now; must do other stuff.  Let me know if you want more of the same….

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The growing problem with background knowledge in our schools points to a growing equity crisis

This morning’s blog scan kicked up a couple of interesting data points that I highlighted in my Facebook feed.

First, a link to an article in The Atlantic about Finland’s school success, which is the current rage in education reform debate:


Go read it, to acquire the needed prior knowledge for this discussion (unless you’re a teacher or school reform activist already, in which case you’re already aware of the issue).

In summary, Finland focused on equity.  That’s a key.

Second piece: this article about a longer school day:


Again, go read, because I’m just going to do a quick summary: one side says longer hours for content enhancement, the other says afterschool programs for enrichment.

Okay.  Taking these two pieces into account, I’m going to build on the mixture of these two articles.

One problem other teachers and I are seeing (amongst others, but this is a big one) in today’s student population is a lack of wide-ranging, prior knowledge (or background knowledge for those not in the educational buzzword circuit) about the world in general.  Eight years of an increasingly intense focus on the need for performing well on high-stakes assessments of reading and math has narrowed instruction to the degree that students do not get the degree of exposure to general information about the world and the society around them that they used to get in elementary and middle schools.  Add the current economic problems which have led to many parents needing to work multiple jobs as they struggle to provide for a family as the economy crashes around them, and even the families who have tried to provide enrichment for their kids can no longer provide this background knowledge.  Schools used to pick up this enrichment gap for those with low incomes but with the increasing focus on meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) on high-stakes assessment, the focus has become primarily reading and math, especially in those early grades where in the past skill acquisition and foundation building in many areas, including fine motor skills, social skills, citizenship skills, and general exposure to the arts were provided.

We’re seeing the results now.  It ain’t pretty.

Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.

Part of my job involves the administration of academic diagnostic assessments, specifically a particular battery of tests known as The Woodcock Johnson III NU Tests of Achievement.  The WJ III Achievement battery is a normed (that means it’s been tested on a large number of subgroups, racial, cultural, gender and economic) and updated regularly.  It’s considered to be a valid and reliable measure of student academic achievement (that is, results are consistent and it measures what it’s supposed to measure).  But…it still requires a certain degree of prior knowledge.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed, over eight years of administering this battery to students with similar levels of academic specific learning disabilities (that is, disabilities in reading, writing and math):

Students are scoring lower on basic information we take for granted they should know at this age about how the world works.

I’m not talking complicated stuff.  I’m talking things like the order of the months and days of the week (being deliberately vague here because otherwise I give away test specifics).  Things that used to be considered as the basics of civic knowledge.  Questions which assume a certain degree of knowledge about science and social studies that middle school students should have.

Why is this happening?  The usual culprit that gets blamed is overdependence on technology.  But technology can’t explain away everything.  One advantage I have now is that I have worked with some families long enough to see the changes imposed on otherwise strong, supportive, enrichment-oriented families by the economy.  The family that had the time to build external background knowledge in their child with learning problems by enrolling them in summer classes or taking them on expeditions now can’t because there’s no money for such things and the school doesn’t have money to provide that exposure, either.  The family that had time to work with a child struggling with reading or math facts at home, or assist with homework, now doesn’t have the time to do that because parents are busy working multiple jobs.  The family that otherwise would provide guidance about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior and that The Hangover is not an appropriate middle school movie isn’t there to do it (Seriously.  I have had students ask if we could watch it at school.  Headdesk.  Headdesk.  Headdesk.  And this is from kids whose families I KNOW would be mortified if they knew what their kid was saying).

I’m rambling now, and I need to get going on other things since this is an informal blog post and not a full, formal argument.  I’ll probably come back to this issue again formally, if not here then somewhere else.  But I see a huge crisis coming toward us in education that we are as of yet not willing to admit to in the US, and it is the degree to which more and more students, even from what we would call “good families,” are suffering from this contraction of student background knowledge because we aren’t providing it in the schools and fewer families are able to provide it for their students.  The affluent students get it.  But this contraction within the schools cuts off opportunities for the less-affluent…and leads to the further decline of the middle class and a growing socioeconomic stratification of our population.

More on this at a future date.

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