Friday, November 28, 2008


I'm just finishing up the "School-to-Career Transitions" chapter in our text Understanding Youth. I'm trying to work through a couple of thoughts that seem to contradict each other.

First off, in UY we read about the importance of career-development education being woven through curricular starting at a young age up through high school (and probably beyond). As I read the chapter, I found myself nodding in agreement. The school where I currently teach ends up centering a lot of curriculum around career paths: our 6th graders study the human body and go through a "grand rounds" as though they were MD's, our 7th graders produce documentary films and design cities, and our 8th graders learn how to fly a plane. These are just a few examples. Our students often get to meet professionals in these fields, while the projects gives students a taste of what the work might be like. I have no evidence to show that this method is better than others. But since each project usually requires a culminating performance of some kind, all of our students remain fairly engaged throughout the process.

On the other hand, I began thinking about a book I read by Eric Gutstein, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics. He critiques the National Council Teacher of Mathematics Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989) which submits "mathematically literate workers" as one of its goals. His major criticisms are that this goal serves the needs of profit accumulation, does not question whose needs this goal serves, and means different things for different students in our socially-stratified world (some kids will need calculus and beyond for their careers, others will need little more than basic arithmetic).

So my questions are: How do we get kids thinking about school having meaning for their life beyond high school and about how they want to prepare themselves for their possible career paths? And at the same time, teach them to be critical consumers of the the biases and values inherent in career development education? (Do my questions even make sense???) I'm going to be mulling this one over for a while...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Post-Conference Buzz: Layered Curriculum

I just attended NSTA (National Science Teacher's Association) regional conference. I went to some amazing sessions that has put my head in a spin. In particular I learned about something called "Layered Curriculum," which I believe was proposed by Dr. Kathie Nunley. What I loved about this model was that it put together so many other theories that I've learned about and have been trying to implement/toying with implementing: brain-based education, Bloom's taxonomy, differentiation, and there's probably some other stuff I'm leaving out.

I'm going to summarize some of the key points here, in case readers are interested but also to help me remember!! (I never seem to be prepared at conferences; I always find myself writing notes on the backs of scraps of paper...) First off, before trying to teach using layered curriculum, it is important to educate students about how the brain learns best. (Here, I recommend John Medina's Brain Rules or Eric Jensen's Brain in Mind. The conference presenters, Kirsten Smith, Ron Bonnstetter, and another guy who's name I've forgotten(!), all from Nebraska, also recommend A Student's Brain by Kathie Nunley.) Some of the relevant key points are that all brains are wired differently, we like to explore, we don't like boring things, we need to repeat things to remember them, and we need exercise and sleep to keep our minds healthy. The conference presenters also recommended giving kids a learning styles test called VARK (visual, auditory, read/write, kinesthetic--supposedly at one's fingertips on the web).

Once students understand some of the basic brain rules and know something about how their brain is (like their learning style) they are prepared for their first unit of curriculum. Each unit is broken down in to three layers: Layer C is about remembering and understanding; Layer B, applying and analyzing; and Layer A evaluating and creating (you can see the Bloom's taxonomy-ishness here...). Students are given a variety of activities in each layer. Some sample curriculum I've looked at assign each activity a number of points and you are required to earn a certain number of points in each layer before moving on. Often, one of the activities is listening to a teacher lecture, but students could opt instead to read from a book, research on the internet, or watch a movie to get the same information (especially for layer C).

The teachers who presented had different methods for assessment, but both seemed to give an oral assessment to each kid when they finished a layer. There were also layer quizes, unit tests, and term tests (some of which was teacher choice, some district rules).

I'm super jazzed and excited to implement in my own classroom, but also really nervous. This is my third year teaching math and science at the middle school level, and I'm not sure I have the resources to provide the meaningful array that the teacher-presenters did. Now that I'm also in grad school part-time, I'm also not sure I have the time right now to take this on. I wonder if this is something I could try during my student teaching next year... Anyway, my plan is to do some serious investigating and planning this winter break. My plan is to try at least two units this year, so I can go into next year with some experience under my belt.

If you're interested in learning more, here are two websites to check out:,, and

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Leaving a Record

I was reading Amy's post in response to an NYTimes article on Obama during his teaching days at University of Chicago. As I was looking for that article, I ran across Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart by Jodi Kantor, also in the NYTimes. I've been percolating on a quote from the article. In explaining why Obama had not published anything as a college professor, a colleague of Obama's surmised that Obama was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically. This idea, of course, is not new. But as I venture into my first blogging experience, I've started to wonder if I'm ever going to regret any of what I post here...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Teacher Tenure

I just read Amy's post on Michelle Rhee and was reminded of an article I read also in the New York Times on the chancellor of D.C public schools ("A School Chief Takes On Tenure, Stirring a Fight" in the New York Times). I haven't read Amy's article and don't know Rhee's position on test scores, but I'm in agreement with Rhee that teacher tenure isn't good for students. Having only worked in private schools, I have no direct experience with teacher tenure, but I can only predict that it disincentivizes teacher excellence and innovation. I can't think of any other job or sector where after three years one can garner job security (nearly) regardless of performance. I can appreciate that tenure can be a mechanism for preventing unfair treatment and dismissals of teachers. But surely, tenure is not the only mechanism for this. In a tenureless world, there would have to be regular and meaningful performance reviews with opportunities for professional growth and avenues for recourse when dismissal is unfair. But perhaps I'll feel differently about teacher tenure when I'm a public school teacher...

Exponential Growth

In my 7th grade algebra class we just watched the short video "World Population" put out by Population Connection ( My students loved it. This is the first time I've watched it with students. The video shows a world map of white dots each of which represent one million people. A clock ticks as the years go by starting from 1 A.D. all the way to projections in 2030 A.D. As the years advance you see the number of dots increasing to represent population growth. My students could not stop talking about how the population was growing, where it was growing, and when it was growing. They were clearly taken aback by the sudden explosion in population in the last decade. After watching the movie, they had no problem identifying that population growth most closely fits an exponential model. I highly recommend this video!

Importance of Meaning

I had this interesting experience teaching graphing to my 7th graders. I've been revamping my 7th grade algebra curriculum. For a couple of weeks now, we have been graphing some "real-life" of at least life-like data that have required my students to work with all kinds of numbers: from the very large to the very small, as well as decimals and fractions, and not just nice, even numbers like in our text book. They have displayed impressive flexibility as problem solvers as they try to figure out appropriate scales to graph these numbers. Just the other day I asked them to fill in a table and graph seven points that fit the rule y=3x+1. With their tables correctly filled out, they struggled to graph the integer coordinates. I saw several graphs set up with inconsistent scales--a problem I thought we had gotten over a while back. I have to say, I was pretty stumped. Perhaps it was the negative coordinates that gave them trouble. But I'm tempted to say that it was the abstract nature of the problem. Did the problem lack meaning, therefore making it more difficult to accomplish? This is an idea that I will be ruminating on...

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I've started this blog as a meditation on teaching and education. I hope you can find something here that sparks a thought or feeling. I welcome your comments--they will be my vehicle for deeper reflection. Enjoy!