Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category


This past weekend S and I were in Denver

for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).  This is one of the largest conferences I attend; AERA has something like 10,000 members, many of whom make presentations and attend sessions where they can talk about current issues in educational research and policy (among other things).

This year the meeting was particularly interesting (for people in the field of education, that is) because of upcoming changes in federal legislation related to education and because of the considerable national attention focused on the preparation and evaluation of teacher performance and student learning.  These are topics that I spend a lot of my professional life thinking about and the meeting provided me with a chance to hear from educational leaders who are hoping to influence those policies.

The trip also gave me a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues, visit the newly renovated Denver Art Museum

and eat out (too often and too much I am afraid!).  All of the food we had was great, especially the meals prepared by the friends we stayed with, of course.  Of the meals we had out, three stand out — both for the company and for the food.  First, we had a lovely dinner with our friends P, J, M and N at Duo, a neighborhood bistro in the rapidly developing and chic Highland neighborhood.  The Sweet Pea Fritters and the Halibut Carpaccio were particularly tasty.

We also had a great lunch at Bistro Vendrome on Larimer with P, K and T.  I loved my chicken salad sandwich (I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was very good) and the wine, a 2007  Champalou Vouvray imported by Kermit Lynch, was exceptional.  Finally, we met our friends J & M for brunch at Rioja, another place on Larimer that really lived up to it’s reputation as one of the best restaurants in Denver.

All in all, it was a good trip.  As usual, though, I am glad to be home.

*Note:  none of the photos in this entry are my own.

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Holiday thoughts

I have mixed feelings about the end of year holiday season.  I love the expressions of thanks and gratitude that people are encouraged to make, the way people think about how to make others happy, the gatherings of family and friends, the food, the festive decorations.

I particularly look forward to spending time with my family:  cooking and eating together, sipping wine and talking late into the night, running through my brother’s neighborhood in the cold mornings listening to old favorites on my iPod, reading to my nephew before bed, starting a new knitting project with my niece.

Yet, this time of year I am also constantly reminded of how fortunate I am.   On these short, cold days I shiver uncomfortably when I see homeless people bundled in sleeping bags under a bridge as I drive past in my heated car.  I remember some of my former middle and high school students who, over winter vacation, had one less warm meal to look forward to every day.  I think about the story I heard on the radio about people begging online for gifts of clothing or toys for their children this year.

In the short term, I try to do things that will make a small difference with donations of time or money to the Oregon Food Bank, the School BackPack Program or other worthy charities and services for people in need.

I also focus on my work preparing teachers and others who will work with young people in schools because I believe that is another way to promote change and make the world better for more people over the long term.

Of course people are not only in need over the holidays and the changes we need to make as a society won’t happen if people don’t think about them year round.  Maybe if we start now, during a time of year when we are encouraged to think about others, we will continue during the rest of the year, when our daily busy-ness makes it more of a challenge.

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Last week one of my heroes died.  Ted Sizer was an educator, author, school reformer, and the source of much of what inspired me in my own work in schools and with teachers.  That may seem like a funny start to a post about what keeps me going, but it actually makes sense.


My first teaching job (somewhat by accident) and my second (completely by design) were both at schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), the school reform network that Ted Sizer founded.  Connected by a set of Common Principles (there were originally nine, now there are ten), teachers and administrators in CES schools strive to help students do meaningful work, to develop equitable school practices that acknowledge and support all students, and to allow students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that honor both what has been learned and the uniqueness of the individual who has done the learning.


That is the context in which I learned to teach, and in which I developed my beliefs about what it means to be an educator.  Although I no longer teach in a CES school, those principles guide my work still.  I share them with my current students, and I keep them in mind when I plan and teach my university classes.

Talking about making schools better is popular these days and just about everyone has an opinion about what to do.  Ted Sizer’s opinion, and his work, represent what I think is a good start — one that respects teachers and what they know, that asks us to listen to our students and that places a value on meaningful learning that helps children develop into caring, thoughtful adults who can make society better for everyone.


I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about farmer, philosopher and environmentalist Wes Jackson that ended with this line:  “If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”  That’s how I think about my own efforts to change public schools for the better, and Ted Sizer’s life and work inspires me even though I know it’s a job that isn’t likely to be solved in a lifetime.


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On the edge

A few weeks ago I took some pictures of the edges of things that I was going to save for a post.  Other than the pictures, I wasn’t sure what the post would be about.  Now I know.


Even though I am on vacation I find myself reading the news online and this morning’s New York Times “Room for Debate” feature on the value of an education degree has me feeling particularly edgy.


As a person who has dedicated most of the last 20 + years of her life to teaching and to helping others become good teachers, I feel both offended and discouraged when I remember how many people think that “anyone” can be a good teacher with little or no preparation other than some knowledge of the content they plan to teach.


Most people who have spent time in the classroom as teachers know that teaching is complex, challenging, exhausting (on some days), and exhilarating (on others).  Not everyone can do it well, and pretty much anyone, in my opinion, can benefit from participating in a thoughtful, well-conceived teacher education program that provides opportunities for developing pedagogical skill, deepening content knowledge, building relationships with colleagues and students, and that includes occasions for extended reflection.


No one would consent to going to a doctor who knew biology but had no medical degree, or a lawyer who knew history but not how to practice law.  At a time when so many people seem so concerned with the quality (and, sadly often, the quantity) of the American system of education, it dismays me that they also seem intent on arguing that teachers do not need the specialized knowledge that will enable them to meet the needs of the diverse students in their classrooms.


And with that, I think it is time for a walk on the beach.


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My primary reason for coming to Maine and New Hampshire this week is to help lead a summer course for middle and high school science teachers.  A course like this wouldn’t be complete without at least one field trip, so today we headed north from Durham into the White Mountains.

Our first stop was in Madison, NH, the site of the appropriately named, and hugely surprising, Madison Boulder.


Even though everyone stops to read the sign posted at the beginning of the short trail that leads to the boulder, no one is really prepared for its immense size.


Without something for scale, a picture can’t do it justice.


It is really quite large!  It is believed to have been carried about two miles by a glacial ice sheet as much as a mile thick.

Returning to our luxury coach we continued north.  The traffic in North Conway was thick, as you might expect on a sunny summer afternoon, but once we were through the downtown area the road to Mt. Washington was clear.  We arrived at the base of the auto road at about 3:30.


While it is possible to drive your own car to the top, we traveled in stages operated by the Mt. Washington Stage Line.


Stage drivers are experienced, careful, and know a lot about the mountain. They confidently provide passengers with information about Mt Washington’s geology, geography, biology and human history.

After slowing several times to take in some incredible views (the sun was shining at the base of the mountain and on the valleys and hills that surround it) we pulled off the road at an elevation of about 4000 feet.


From there, the view across the Great Gulf was pretty spectacular, as were the low-hanging clouds.

One of my favorite things about Mt. Washington is that as you drive up the auto road you pass through four different ecological zones.  Each 1000 feet of altitude is roughly the equivalent of traveling 250 miles north.  At 4000 feet you have entered an area called the krummholz (or “twisted tree”) zone, where trees are stunted and twisted by the force of the year-round winds.

you my also notice that all of these trees' branches grow out of only one side of the tree

Once you reach the top of the mountain you are in the alpine zone where the soils are so poor and the winds so strong that trees can no longer survive.  If you wanted to see the alpine zone at sea level, you would need to travel as far north as Labrador, Canada.


Arriving at the end of the auto road, the first feature the stage driver points out is the following sign (the chain in the left of the picture is needed to keep the building from blowing away):


The stages then travel the last few yards to the parking lot beside the summit building, which houses a museum, a small gift shop, a snack bar, and the Mount Washington Observatory.



As you can see, the top of the mountain was “in the clouds” while we were there.


People aren’t the only mammals at the top.


After spending some time observing the geology and wildlife and touring the observatory, the group gathered for the obligatory group picture.


To make a great day even more memorable, on the way home we saw two moose from the bus.

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