Sunday, November 27, 2011

Music (sort of) and the Brain: On Fingernails and Chalkboards

If you're anything like me, the mere act of reading the words "fingernails" and "chalkboard" in the same sentence makes you cringe.  Personally, I find the most detestable sound to be that of squeaky styrofoam.

My nightmares consist entirely of 11-16.
(Table from Halpern et al.)
I applaud those brave scientists who venture to study such horrific sounds.  Back in 1986, Halpern et al. (PDF) conducted research regarding what aspects of awful sounds contribute most to our aversions. 20 years later, Randolph Blake of that et al. was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (interview) by The Society For Improbable Research for their work.  Evidently, this recognition in 2006 of research that "first makes people laugh, then makes them think," inspired a wave of further ugly-sound studies.  In 2008, Kumar et al. (abstract) "addressed the question of what aspects of the auditory representation of such sounds are associated with judgments of unpleasantness," and Cox (abstract) seemed to negate a small part of Halpern and Blake's work while reaffirming some other parts.  Within the past month, Reuter et al. (abstract) landed an interview on NPR to talk about their recently presented work on the subject.

I'll spare you the squeaky styrofoam and other sounds because I'm such a nice guy, but listen to this:

Classically torturous.  But what is it about that sound that makes it hurt our ears so?  You should reason that the frequencies that make up this sound must play a major part, and you might reason that psychology and physiology could play roles, as well.  Let's begin with frequency, since it's most easily tested.  Since people generally describe very highly pitched sounds as more irritating than sounds in a speaking or singing range, a reasonable hypothesis would be that if one removed high frequencies from this sound, it would sound better...well, less awful.

Better, yes.  Best? Maybe.  Let's try the opposite and remove the low frequencies.

Ouch.  What about middle frequencies?

According to both the 1986 and 2011 research, people would most likely find this final sample to be the least unpleasant.  Their determined ranges were slightly different, and I used a sort of median of the two, but the effect essentially stands.

The psychological aspect is interesting but not surprising.  Reuter and his partner Oehler experimented with telling some subjects that a sound, such as fingernails on a chalkboard, was a part of a contemporary musical composition.  Subjects reported a preference for the sounds when they were thought to be musical over when they knew the source. However, measurements of skin conductance indicated that subjects responded with equal distaste, regardless of the perceived source.  This reestablishes the results of a very similar study in 1975 by D.J. Ely using skin potential.

It has also been hypothesized (I haven't yet found confirmation) in these studies that the shape of our auditory canal is such that this middling range of frequencies (about 2-5kHz) is amplified relative to higher and lower frequencies, presumably to aid in hearing people speak.  It seems possible then that even if we were to dislike high and middle frequencies of an ugly sound equally, removing that which is internally amplified thereby removes more total unpleasant sound than removing that which is not amplified.  I propose that the next logical study of this material would attempt to determine the truth of this amplification and then factor the degree of amplification into a comparison of frequency removals, thus determining if there are frequencies that we dislike more than others for no discernable reason.

There are at least two valuable directions that further research could go.  Halpern et al. compared their results to warning calls of macaque monkeys, suggesting zoological, anthropological, and even evolutionary knowledge to be gained from increased understanding of the acoustical properties of animal-generated sounds (Cox's work opposed this theory).  Reuter et al. have suggested that their research could be applied to the commercial arena—perhaps vacuums or other items could be designed to more efficiently sound less unpleasant.  While writing this post, the world's most sensitive smoke alarm went off in my family's house and I couldn't help but wonder if they could be made less irritating with an innovative application of this type of knowledge.  A combination of these studies even suggests that hearing aids could be designed to cut out the most displeasing frequencies of only unpleasant audio.

Of course, musicians will find a way to apply any additional acoustic knowledge to their work.  Therefore, this is totally relevant to my blog.

I lament that there doesn't seem to be a complete, published paper by Reuter et al., at least not yet (but I couldn't wait any longer).  I have no way to draw further information from their raw data or even determine how they decided what frequency range qualified as that which the ear is most sensitive to — I assumed they cited some other work, but in my search of all of their cited work, nothing seems to present such research.  They presented their work in a 15 minute session at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego on November third. (Edit: I asked Dr. Reuter about this and received a response, which I discuss in my next post.)
Cox, Trevor J. (2008). Scraping sounds and disgusting noises Applied Acoustics, 69 (12), 1195-1204 DOI: 10.1016/j.apacoust.2007.11.004

Halpern, D.L., Blake R., and Hillenbrand J. (1986). Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound. Perception & psychophysics, 39 (2), 77-80 PMID: 3725541

Kumar, S., Forster, H., Bailey, P., and Griffiths, T. (2008). Mapping unpleasantness of sounds to their auditory representation The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 124 (6) DOI: 10.1121/1.3006380

Reuter,  Christoph, and Michael Oehler (2011). Psychoacoustics of chalkboard squeaking. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130 (4), 2545

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Church, State, and the Ambiguity of Banquets

When a school endorses, even tacitly, a religious viewpoint, they send a message of coercion to students and the community.  This is a tribalistic coercion, one that religious institutions thrive upon — those who aren't inclined to be chastised, embarrassed, or shunned are alternatively inclined to feign agreement with others.  This is why religion and government must be completely separated.  If you doubt this notion, or wish for further background on my thoughts, please read my previous post on school-sponsored prayer.

At our soccer banquet a few weeks ago, just before the event officially began, the head coach was speaking to a parent and I was standing nearby.  They turned to me and asked if I would deliver the opening prayer.
"Isn't this a school-sponsored event?" I asked.  They looked puzzled.  "If this is officially a school-sponsored event, that would be illegal."

"Well, the school didn't arrange this, we organized it ourselves," said the parent.  The banquet was hosted by a local church.

I don't remember my next statement as clearly, but the question of organization did punch a dart-sized hole in the sails of my argument.  "I understand, but I'm still not sure if we can do that," I responded, referring to the entire group being led in prayer.

Upon hearing the head coach's next statement, my heart sunk and my blood boiled: "It doesn't matter anyway, we're doing it."  They walked away.

I did nothing and the prayer was led by one of our players.  While irrelevant, he spoke well and thoughtfully.  More relevantly, he did not ramble about Jesus, but otherwise spoke directly and explicitly to God.
Lee v. Weisman is of vital importance here.  The Supreme Court determined that a school-endorsed, even nonsectarian, prayer at a public high school graduation ceremony is unconstitutional.  The decision uses strong language in opposition to such school endorsement (emphasis always mine):
The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, which guarantees at a minimum that a government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise...
...supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting.
However, there are aspects of the decision that indicate it does not apply 100% to such athletic banquet situations:
Petitioners' argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary."
Lee's decision that prayers should be given and his selection of the religious participant are choices attributable to the State. Moreover, through the pamphlet and his advice that the prayers be nonsectarian, he directed and controlled the prayers' content.
While our banquet had no pamphlet, no direct control over the prayer, no clergy involved, and is surely considered more voluntary than graduation, the wording regarding pressure and coercion seem to readily apply.  Maybe there's more...

Ah, yes, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.  As a conclusion to a debacle in which a school district twisted themselves into knots in order to support an invocation at their football games (the prayer was argued to be "student-led," and "private speech,"), the Supreme Court decided that even at this extracurricular, athletic event, and even with a student-body-elected student speaker, such endorsed prayer is unconstitutional. Some choice quotes:
The second part of the District’s argument–that there is no coercion here because attendance at an extracurricular event, unlike a graduation ceremony, is voluntary–is unpersuasive. For some students, such as cheerleaders, members of the band, and the team members themselves, attendance at football games is mandated, sometimes for class credit. The District’s argument also minimizes the immense social pressure, or truly genuine desire, felt by many students to be involved in the extracurricular event that is American high school football.... The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual.
...the District has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is not acceptable.
There isn't much in this decision that can't be argued applies completely to our banquet, but there is a catch in the use of the term, "official,"
A conclusion that the message is not “private speech” is also established by factors beyond the policy’s text, including the official setting in which the invocation is delivered....
Where is the "official" line drawn?  At administrative endorsement?  At a coach's introduction?  At some degree of involuntary attendance?

A few days after our banquet, I spoke to our Athletic Director.  We had a very good discussion regarding the gray areas involved, as well as the nature of our community and, frankly, the desire to retain quality coaches.  We both agreed that if a significant challenge to this prayer were to be made, it would be much more effective if a student or parent initiated it.  A court might even say that as a teacher, I am above the kind of social pressure discussed in the cases above, and therefore am not harmed and have no standing to complain.  Ultimately, however, in a community where invocations are expected, challenges aren't made, and retainment of key coaches may depend on their ability to run banquets as they please, what student would dare step up?  Perhaps I should try to convince Jessica Ahlquist to move here and join the soccer team.

In the end...I hope it's the end...the AD spoke to the Superintendent and decided to send an email to all head coaches.  He asked that instead of inviting prayer, they lead a "moment of reflection" instead.  While the ardent crusader of principles in me is tempted to dig into Wallace v. Jaffree and the possibly contradictory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act in Illinois, I'm satisfied for now...

...and a little nervous about our spring soccer season.  I've had no contact with the head soccer coach since that email was sent.

Performance Incentives Part 2

There is a very unique individual on our soccer team.  He works fairly hard and has made notable improvements, but he is, quite frankly, most likely completely unable to reach the skill level of the next least capable player on our team.  Not for many years.  There seems to be a disconnect between what his brain intends and what his muscles do in response that I would call impossible to ignore.  His movements are jerky and awkward, far beyond the point of a lanky teenager after an extreme growth spurt.  His head jostles, tilted, when he runs.  Furthermore, he has a brand of humor and interpersonal skills that initially left his teammates speechless.  When he began the season without speaking much, it seemed reasonable to hypothesize about where he fits on the autistic spectrum, but he soon opened up and became less inhibited than almost any other player.  I do not have the adequate training to postulate what makes his mind so different than that of his peers, but it's very clearly different.

The funny thing is that while he has a Gifted Individualized Education Plan (GIEP), he doesn't have any other IEP stuff or diagnosis of any sort of mental variation from the norm.  Side note; while he's considered gifted, he isn't taking any honors classes...but I don't know how common that is.  I've spoken to his guidance counselor and have information from his nurse as well.  His parents, I'm told, have some similar social characteristics.

I'll admit to having a debatably unfair curiosity about the psychology (and perhaps neurology) of this player (and perhaps his parents), but I don't want that to detract from a point I'd like to make about incentives.

This student very likely receives an "advanced" rating in most categories tested by the state, and because of that, the school has no incentive to seek clarity in their understanding of his psychology.  To clarify, a school has three possible incentives to evaluate a student for an IEP or any other form of support:

1) Parents' request.  Federal law requires that schools thoroughly follow through on these.  In this student's case, this hasn't happened and probably never will.
2) Inadequate state test scores.  As discussed in Performance Incentives Part 1, schools invest a lot of energy and resources into these students.  In this case, this incentive doesn't exist because his tests are fine.
3) Righteousness.  Alas, there isn't much room for this when higher priorities (test scores, dangerous behavioral issues, maintaining a safe environment, addressing abusive situations) exist.

The third possible incentive is one that understandably ranks low in priority, and that is the crux of the point I'm making.  If "test scores" could be removed from the list of things that trump a righteous moral obligation to understand every student well enough to prepare them as well as possible for their adult lives, schools would be more capable of providing their best support to every student.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Performance Incentives Part 1

The school at which I work is currently in "warning" status; we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year.  This fact has our administration breathing down our necks to make sure we implement strategies in all of our classes to boost students' reading scores (primarily).  Allow me to adjust my tone — enabling teachers to help students develop important skills in ways that don't impede teachers' own class' learning requirements is a good thing, but I'm obviously bitter about the effects of standardized testing.

Part of this push to improve scores has been a discussion of student motivation.  I remember joking about making patterns with the answer sheet bubbles with my friends when I was in high school, and I probably knew a person or two who followed through.  Many students simply don't care.  With theory and research behind them, our administration considers it wise to offer incentives to the junior class based on their overall performance.  If we make AYP, perhaps the school could open up another part of campus for these students to eat their lunches next year, or perhaps we could allow them more freedoms during their study halls.

Taking another step back from students and their test scores, let's consider how schools are encouraged to produce better test scores.  Mostly thanks to No Child Left Behind, this encouragement comes in the way of threats to things that schools would prefer to maintain.  The message sent is that if scores don't improve, the state will first take away a school's ability to make decisions, then a school's administrators' jobs, and then a school's teachers' jobs.

Positive and negative reinforcement are terms that differ in their lay and scientific meanings.  In lay terms, positive reinforcement means saying, "Good job," and negative reinforcement means giving a spanking.  In the scientific terminology of that which I've read, positive reinforcement means providing the addition of something to a subject's experience, such as, "Good job, have a cookie."  Negative reinforcement means removing something from a subject's experience, such as, "Bad job, I'm taking away your toys."  According to these definitions, positive reinforcement could even mean, "Bad job, have a kick in the shin," and negative reinforcement could mean, "Good job, I'll now remove those pebbles from your shoes."  As far as I know, psychological research consistently demonstrates that positive reinforcement (adding something) is more effective than negative reinforcement (taking away something).

Given this background, I present to you conclusive evidence that politicians do not understand the things they need to in order to properly make decisions about education:

Schools attempt to incentivize good performance from students with positive reinforcement, as research and theory indicate they should.  The government attempts to incentivize good performance from schools with negative reinforcement, as nothing but illogical thinking indicates they should.  Therefore, people should recognize that educational policy-makers in government are incompetent.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm Not As Cool As I Pretend To Be

I follow several other teachers' blogs, one of which is also by a first-year teacher, and find myself at this point amazed that they can regularly blog AND teach successfully.

I guess I'm just not that cool, hence the fact that I haven't published a post since school started.  I do, however, have some things in the works.  One post is on some terrible research, one is on some odd higher education happenings in the UK, and a couple are on edu-philosophical mind-wanderings.

Meanwhile, during an unusually work-free Sunday afternoon, I'll describe how things have been:

They started out hectic.  I went to school daily for about three weeks prior to the beginning of school, but simply didn't know the right questions to ask and wound up swamped with papers and having no clue about how to truly function.  The first week of school was a whirlwind.

It's funny, I did go through the semester of student teaching which prompted this blog, but it still somehow was lightyears easier than my first year of solo teaching.  I've been assigned, as every new teacher is, a veteran teacher as a mentor.  Mrs. W is great, but does so much work that I avoid asking her questions as long as possible for fear of being a pest.  I shouldn't do that, but I do.

I've also been coaching soccer.  I'm assisting a head coach that has been around the proverbial block, and coaching the JV team mostly on my own.  The other coach is smart, experienced, principled, and deserving of respect, but we've had a couple of uncomfortable clashes nonetheless.  I once made him quite angry by talking to a possibly-injured player and a parent in order to quell a misunderstanding and defend this coach's trainer-recommended decision to not allow this student to play during this particular game.  I've also been routinely dumbstruck by his insistence on my getting every JV player almost-equal playing time due to such a practice being seemingly antithetical to his espoused principles.

I'll probably write about this in detail later, but as I see things there is a balance between "providing playing experience" and "selecting for team success" that must be struck at every level of sporting play.  It just seems that this coach and I disagree in practice on where the balance is struck for JV, even though we agree in principle.

I've finally got myself organized enough to be able to breathe (which I'll only remember to do if it's on a to-do list).  Thanks for keeping up, folks.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Vi Hart Is Amazing

Watch Vi Hart's newest video; it's about what sound is and what our ears and brains do to make us hear.  This is material that I've discussed in Music and the Brain: A Primer and Music and the Brain: A Phenomenon, so here's to hoping that the combination of the two of us will help you master the basics of sound.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Get Lectured by Robert Zatorre

I've blogged about some great research that, with others, Robert Zatorre of McGill was involved in. Rice University recorded a guest lecture by him and kindly put it on YouTube for the rest of the world. He begins to talk about the research that I discussed at 31:40 (and gets to the nitty gritty graphs and images at 37:53), but the whole talk is good.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Alternative Education and A Teaching Action You Should Want to Copy

By sheer serendipity, I've just met a teacher of the local [small] city's alternative school.  I have to share (paraphrased) one of his stories:
When these high school students act like little kids, I tell them, "If you're going to act like elementary schoolers, I'll treat you like elementary schoolers."  One day they were all throwing their pencils into the ceiling to get them stuck and I said that to them.  The next day I put a crayon on each of their desks instead of letting them use pencils.  "Remember yesterday?" I said, "If you want to act like a kid, you'll get treated like one."  They used crayons all day.  It worked.  No more pencils in ceilings.

Alternative education has an interesting title.  Alternative to what?  The useless answer is, "alternative to the mainstream school system," but what it ultimately means is, "alternative to a system that gives students inadequate feedback and personal focus."

You may have read my thoughts on individualized education (particularly on the prevalence of IEP's), but I haven't yet mentioned an idea that could improve things dramatically, "[Why] Alternative Education Needs to Go Mainstream."  Click that link to visit Liz Dwyer's discussion of the notion and what Sir Ken Robinson says about it.  An excerpt:
[Sir Robinson] also debunked [at a conference] the myth that students who drop out are reacting to the system as a whole: "For any student, the classroom they sit in is the education system and that's what they're dropping out of."  But the kids who get into quality alternative programs fall in love with learning because they're getting an individualized experience—and the support they need to address particular life challenges, like being a teen mom or being homeless.
(The end of that excerpt reminds me of a friend who conducted research on students who had dropped out of school and found that most of the girls who experienced both dropping out and becoming a teen mom were not pregnant until after they had already dropped out.  Hmm...perhaps a topic for another day.)

In the ideal world of modern educational philosophy, every student would have an IEP.  In my ideal world, every school would have a student-teacher ratio that enables proper individualized attention for every student, time built into the day for tutoring and schoolwork sessions, and an environment that encourages stronger student-teacher connections.  Funny, that's what good alternative education provides.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Religious Music in School

I hope people google the exact title I've given this post and then read this, because I have a simple idea that solves everything, and that not enough public school choral directors do.

Just like that.

The Problems

  • Teachers are obligated, by virtue of the Establishment Clause, to neither promote nor inhibit religion or spirituality.  In the particular case of [public school] choral music, communities have disagreements about whether religious music should be taught.  Is a teacher promoting religion if he/she compels students to sing the words, "in nomine Dei...Amen," to a captive audience?  Is a teacher inhibiting religion if she/he avoids all mentions or references to any god during a holiday concert?
  • Choral directors can easily develop a habit of overcorrection in response to complaints from parents if they cannot persuasively and swiftly quell unrest.  Some directors choose to never perform religious music.
  • Some directors do take the opportunity provided by their position to attempt to influence families toward their religion of choice by overemphasizing and predominantly selecting particular religious music.  I've seen this happen.

The Vital Information

  • Religious music, particularly that of Catholic nature, has had an undeniable impact on the development of western music.  Since performing music is a very effective way to learn about music, never performing religious music is akin to never viewing religious works of art in Art History class or never discussing the Protestant reformation in World History.
  • In accordance with the above reasoning, the National Association for Music Education states clearly, "The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience."
  • There is a robust legal guide that all teachers should be aware of: The Lemon Test.  This is a test established by the U.S. Supreme Court that, if met by a decision or situation, almost guarantees that no violation of the principle of separation of church and state has occurred.  According to this test, an action is acceptable if it (1) has a secular purpose, (2) has a primarily secular effect, and (3) avoids excessive entanglement with religion.

The Solution

Choral directors should always explicitly determine the academic and musical benefits of teaching a particular song.  They must do this for themselves when selecting the music, and they must explain it to students as well (especially if asked).  If the benefits do not meet the Lemon Test, or if they are redundant relative to another selection, the song should be put aside.

This simple habit does everything necessary.  It prevents the promotion or inhibition of religion, it prepares a director with explanations that meet community or administrative demands, and it guarantees the inclusion of educationally beneficial secular music.  Beyond that which is necessary, it also helps teachers meet curriculum guidelines, it helps to balance the educational emphases of a program, and it provides students with an awareness of what they are meant to be learning.

You're welcome.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Being Offensive -- On Another Blog

In a fiery rage (as fiery as it could be while awaiting BBQ ribs) on Independence Day, I wrote a post that doesn't really fit into the theme of this blog.  Fortunately, a fellow blogger accepted it as a guest post!

In line with the blog title, Apatheist or Apathyist?, it took a little while for her to muster up the inspiration to publish the post.  I maintain that the subject matter is still relevant, so please, enjoy and comment here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blogging Fail / Brief Update

It's been FAR too long since my last post.  July has been busy, so here are some updates:

  • I got a job.
  • I submitted a guest post to another blog and it should be posted soon.
  • There is some new music psychology research that I'll be discussing.
  • There's also some really bad research that I might write about.
  • Those aren't my only ideas, there are some educationally focused posts in the works.

So I must now move (again to a nearby state) — these last weeks of July will be the busiest.  I'll be back on track soon, everyone.  Thanks for sticking with me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Online Content Filters

I've been drafting this post for a long time.  There's so much information and so much debate about the automatic filtering of internet content at school; I simply couldn't condense the information into a worthwhile post.

I'm going to, instead, explore some conversations and observations that I've had as well as explore a little bit of idealism.

The inspiration for this post began, as one would expect, with me supervising students in a computer lab and witnessing them have their research blocked incessantly.  I really do mean "without cessation"; there were a number of students who simply gave up researching their chosen entrepreneur because every website they tried to go to was blocked.

Consider two situations: in a computer lab that a teacher is monitoring, and in which every monitor is visible, (1) a student is confronted with unblocked inappropriate material, and (2) a student is unable to continue their research due to blocked appropriate material.

In situation (1), the teacher is able to instruct the student to close the browser window or turn off the monitor, and has the power of disciplinary action if the student resists doing so or repeats the offense intentionally or indiscriminately.  In situation (2), the teacher is able to do nothing but say, "Sorry, try another website."

Given the choice, I would much rather monitor students and have the ability to take action if needed than be rendered useless by a filter.

After this particular experience, I began talking to colleagues and students about content filters, and almost all of them were frustrated to some degree.  Some schools have tried to take steps to at least make the internet more accessible to teachers, but the response to those attempts have been tepid.

I should mention that most public schools are required to implement a filter due to having received federal funding for their computers.  I am trying to address the roots of these issues, not attack all principals.

Most interestingly, I was a sub at a private school within whose technical team I had contacts.  This school does not receive federal funding for technology and does not wish to spend their own funds on a filter.  They are a rather small school and are confident in the effectiveness of teacher monitoring.

I did this during a planning period on a school computer.  Twitter is blocked seemingly everywhere else.

I spoke to some of the students at that school and gleaned some insightful commentary.  The consensus seemed to be that the size of their school played a large role in the success of content monitoring, as did the environment and the type of students there.  They thought that some schools would definitely need automatic filtering, but that theirs doesn't.  One student stated that the rule there is, "Pretty much, 'Don't look at porn for 8 hours,' it's not that difficult."

My favorite discovery there, however, was that while there is no filter whatsoever, the students think that there is.  One even claimed to have been blocked by it in the past.  I did not tell them the truth, though I'm sure I looked a little surprised when I first heard a student say, "I think we have a great filter.  It doesn't block too much, but does keep students safe."

If falsehood and trickery were more reliable, I would be tempted to say that it seems the right lie is the perfect solution!

I thought I was done there, but after proof-reading this post, it seems weak in the knees — like I need to inject a little bit more thought-provoking fuel.  How about this to top it off: What truly qualifies as inappropriate material, and is it at all reasonable to expect automation to handle its monitoring better than teachers?

I skimmed some research that found these materials got passed every filter that the author tested:

1. Cocaine prices in major cities
2. Porn from several dozen servers
3. Live computer virus
4. Terrorist Handbook
5. Bomb Building Handbook
6. Getting high with household chemicals

They also found that websites relating to the American Red Cross, Yellowstone National Park, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (among others) were often blocked.

That all seems pretty poignant to me, while at the same time, a poll at Edutopia represents the thinking that pornography is the most harmful type of internet content.  Based on my experiences with violent photos being searched for and found on a filtered system, I think our considerations should be deeper than that.

Ultimately, and idealistically, where do our priorities lie?  Will a student be more emotionally harmed by being scolded for searching for violent photos or by being able to research drug prevention in various cities?  Will a student benefit more from never being witness to a female nipple, or from being able to research breast cancer?

I'm not sure if it's getting harder to teach our students, but I am seeing hints that it's getting harder to let our students learn.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Three Stories of School-Sponsored Prayer

Dear Citizens of the USA,

The separation of church and state is a vital concept that is used to protect the secular foundation of our government.  Having (and applying) a secular government prevents abuse of religious power and prevents discrimination of many kinds.  Any attempt to infuse governmental agencies with religious agendas, motivations, or exemptions is an affront against this vital concept and all of those whom it protects.

Since the 60's, courts have consistently ruled against school-sponsored prayer at graduations and otherwise.

At a high school in Louisiana, the traditional Christian prayer at graduation was challenged by a graduating atheist, Damon Fowler.  He pointed out the illegality of the prayer and the superintendent agreed and removed it from the program.  The remainder of this story plays out as a complete debacle, with educators and community members directly insulting Damon and presenting themselves as clueless about American law and philosophy.

Importantly, at the graduation rehearsal the night before, the student who was to lead a moment of silence also led a Christian prayer, specifically stating, "I would like to give thanks to the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  At graduation, almost identical events took place.

(For the record, the atheist community pulled together to fund a scholarship for Damon, who has been disowned. Organized by Hemant Mehta, they raised over $30,000.  Awesome.)

In the most kind terms I can possibly muster, the way that this played out, with its moments of silence and its no-approval-needed student speeches, presents us with the question of exactly what qualifies as endorsement by a school.  It seems currently (barely) legal for a school to say, "We won't require speeches to be approved ahead of time, and students can therefore say whatever they want and we won't get in the way."  However, when it is completely clear that a student is going to lead an audience in prayer, it is transitively clear that anyone in the audience who is not a part of that tradition will be singled out and likely considered inferior to the majority.  When a school does nothing to prevent such things, doesn't that seem to endorse the discriminatory viewpoints involved?  Yes, it does.

I attended a high school in a rather conservative and Christian area for one year.  I was involved in choir, of course.  The choral department hosted an annual banquet toward the end of the year for its students and their families.  I heard that a friend's father, a pastor, had been asked to lead the prayer at the banquet.  Knowing that since this was to be a school-sponsored event such a prayer would be illegal, but also knowing that the faculty involved wouldn't be receptive to any discussion, I went to the principal.  I brought him printouts of Supreme Court decisions to prove my point and within days, the prayer was cancelled.  I had disappointed a number of friends but had done the right thing.

Alas, as the event approached, I heard through the grapevine that one of my religious friends intended to stand at her table and lead the audience in a prayer.  I would be shocked if the choral faculty did not also know about this ahead of time.  At the banquet, she stood and led prayer, and I watched a room of bowed heads speak their "Amen."

What if, at Damon's school, a Muslim student had spontaneously led a prayer?  She could have said, "I would like to give thanks to Allah, the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  How would the school administration have reacted?  What if a Buddhist had spoken?  A Wiccan?

I now daydream of what could of been had I asked that question in high school before the banquet.  My friend would have stood and led a Christian prayer, and I would have promptly stood to introduce a Jewish friend to lead the audience in prayer.  Immediately after that prayer, I would have introduced a Muslim friend to lead a prayer.  Immediately after that, I would have introduced a Buddhist friend to lead a prayer, one accompanied by Tibetan chant that we would've played from a boom box.

I can't imagine how the audience would have reacted, but I feel like that's what it takes to actually make a point.  I suspect the news media would have been engrossed in such a story.  Unfortunately, I did not have such a collection of friends of various faiths, nor the guts to do what needed to be done.

A similar story is occurring in Texas right now.  This one went to court and the agnostic family of plaintiffs won, but then the ruling was overturned yesterday at a federal appeals court.

Update: This Texas graduation was reportedly rife with prayer. This serves as a poignant, though frustrating, example of why this entanglement of school and religion must stop.

When governmental agencies present a message, such as by a speaker they select, that is religious in nature or purpose, they are separating the recipients of the message into those who agree and those who do not agree.  When such a separation is created in the minds of the people there is at best an implication, at worst a declaration, that those who are not included in the group of agreement are inferior citizens and people.  Such presentations imbue the government with religious perspective that by its very nature divides a people against each other.

In more straightforward terms; every time a school sponsors a prayer, even if it is non-denominational, every non-religious citizen and I are being sent the message that we are inferior to those who agree with the beliefs presented.  This is abhorrent and should cease immediately.

Monday, May 30, 2011

More Funny Stories / Inspirational Stories / An Update

(If you haven't already seen my first set of funny stories, check it out, too.)

1. In addition to "Mr. Bowtie," "The Bow Tie Guy," "Metal Guy," and "Mr. Ninja," I am apparently also called "The Pirate Guy."  A group of 10th graders at one school seems to have come up with that due to my long hair and ear piercings.  As thrilling as it would be to magically meet an old-fashioned pirate, meeting one who wears a bow tie would suitably fulfill my life.  Furthermore, I was recently talking to a student at "Pirate Guy" school about how she knew a lot of students at "Ninja Guy" school.  I told her that a couple students their call me "Mr. Ninja" and she said, "Those are my friends!"  Hm.  Small world.

2. I got asked to prom.  No, really.  Yes, by a student.  There are times when, after discovering that singing is my primary musical focus, students convince me to sing something for them.  On this day I had a class split into two adjacent rooms so that they'd have enough computers to use, and while singing for one room, those in the other came to the door to listen.  One of those girls, just before leaving class said, "Mr. Duval, I haven't found a date for prom yet and I think you would be perfect."  Stunned, wary, and unavoidably flattered, I said "No thanks, I'm afraid I can't do that.  Good luck."  It's really too bad I couldn't sing this well when I in high school.

3. I was in a cafeteria walking by a table of students that had just had a class with me.  One girl asked me where I was from and then, "Did you fly?" whilst comically flapping her arms like little wings.  "Yes, but I had to flap a lot faster than that," I said.  That joke earned laughs and led to her repeating the gesture each time she saw me that day (which was often, due to an assembly), which I responded to with direct imitation.  Plenty of other students laughed when their sub flapped his arms awkwardly in the halls.

4. At the same table, a student asked a question more ridiculous than the classic "Are you smart?"  This one asked, "Are you old?"

5. I'm not sure if this counts as "funny":  I was substituting for a middle school when I was confronted with some questions that I never expect to hear again...multiple times.  In one class, a student walked in and said to me, "You're creepy." Another soon asked, "Are you famous?"  I said "No, have you seen me on TV or something?" and the student's response was, "You look like a serial killer."  In a later class of a different grade, I was told, "You look creepy."  As if this weren't enough, the next day (in a new, hopefully less frightening bow tie), I was walking through the front door of the building and a girl whispered to her friend, "He's scary," as I walked by.  Such things have never happened at any other school or at that school again since that 24-hour series.

6. The second time subbing for a particular high school was filled with unexpected and flattering praise.  Just before a first period study hall began, a student that was in my class the previous week walked in and flat-out yelped with glee when he saw me.  Hmm.  Other students were also quite pleased (though not quite as vocal) to see me.  Yes, this happens to plenty of good subs, but I was particularly surprised to see this my second day in a school.  During a fire drill later in the day another teacher said, "Hey, you're that sub they keep talking about."  I am?  Apparently so.  Reputations spread quickly at that place.

7. Particularly after singing, I have had a number of students talk to me about becoming music majors.  I love opportunities to talk to students about finding and pursuing their passion(s).

8. There have been two incredible days this semester.  The first was when two music teachers had subs; I for band, and a non-musician for choir.  I had the chance to give input to a couple choirs and wound up conducting a few pieces.  The students and I all had so much fun because they responded to my suggestions, critiques, and conducting gestures.  That kind of ensembleship (pretend that's a word) is what makes music education unlike anything else, and it absolutely made my week.  The second was when I was subbing for a [different] choir teacher and worked with a wonderfully receptive choir.  I just talked about it, though I neglected to mention the amazingly inspirational moment at the end of that day; about five students walked to me and shook my hand as they were leaving class.  I couldn't believe it.  To any students out there, if you want to make a teacher feel appreciated, do that — shake your teacher's hand and say, "Thank you."

Finally, an update.  I've moved to a nearby state for the summer to a place where I can practice piano incessantly, attempt to accomplish a lot of my self-assigned "summer reading list," and apply for a lot of jobs.  I'll continue to blog, as I have a few in the draft phase and fully expect to find other research and current events to discuss.

A portion of my list.  I've yet to purchase a few.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Brief Revolutionary Thought

Today I was discussing with a fellow educator and friend the differences between an inner-city school district that we know and other districts we've worked in.  I ended up making an analogy that I think works incredibly well, and I want to make sure I've recorded it for reference and remembrance.

Foundational to the philosophy of the United States' government is the idea that the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed.  Instead of power being seized and enforced by force or inheritance, it is granted only voluntarily by the people as a group.  This bottom-up idea was, while not entirely new, revolutionary when applied.

Education is not much different.  The value of education can only be transferred to those who consent to be educated.  People have tried, and most of our educational system is built around this old method, to educate by force.  Yes, knowledge can be gained when it is forced, but such a case is analogous to order gained by force; it isn't nearly as legitimate and valuable as that gained by consent.

I experienced the success of a class that consented to be educated today.  I worked with a choir that, while done with their performances for the year, was so receptive that they let me "experiment" with vocal warmups, which we did for 30+ minutes!  I taught them a few vowel symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, about some vowel modification, about diphthongs, and more, because they consented to be educated.  It was awesome.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

This Is Not About Osama bin Laden

Now that the dust has begun to settle...

I'll get my own opinion out of the way first: I do not celebrate death, but I'll admit that I don't particularly mind that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Having disclosed that, please join me in letting go all of the arguments that you've given or heard about whether this killing was right or wrong, and allow me to introduce an educational perspective.

I've only subbed for one class during which students brought up bin Laden's death, but the brief time the subject was in the air was almost enlightening.

"See, there he is," one student said to his neighbors while gesturing toward his computer screen.

"Eww" and, "That's fake," were the responses, while a faint laughter spread among those nearby.

When I looked, I saw a photo of bin Laden's head with wounds of all types; a gunshot, bruises, dirt rashes, scrapes, and crude lacerations. Fresh blood was strewn about his face and embedded in his scars — there was a prominent gash from the bullet's impact. The photo was, of course, a fake, but one that someone had put a fair amount of effort into.

"Close that," I promptly said.

The student did and I reminded him to focus on a project he had to do. I can't at this point remember exactly what the next student said, but it carried a clear message of, "We're still giddy that he's dead. We're the victors and deserve to revel in his suffering and death."

His tone invited me to comment, with hopes that I would agree and the implication that I would be unpatriotic if I didn't. I firmly insisted that I would not discuss such a sensitive issue while in the role of a teacher and managed to stifle their desire to continue talking about it, as well. To my pleasure, it did not come up again and no more computer screens strayed from Microsoft Word that period.

We are perpetuating a cultural viewpoint from which an immutable line is drawn between black and white. This line is drawn between "us" and "them." In determining whether this murder was "good" or "bad," all that these students felt they needed to consider was whether the victim was with us or against us. This ethnocentrism is so powerful that looking at a gruesome photograph of a gunshot victim was a boost to victorious pride; I don't think they even felt like they were looking at a human.

When bin Laden's death, and the related unquestioned hatred, is at the forefront of my mind, I am not worried about whether those who wish us death will be further inflamed, I am not thinking about how 9/11 victims' family members could potentially find relief in justice, I am trying to think of a time in human history when the idea that "we" are always right no matter what has done anything but usurp cultural progress.

When 13 year-old students find joy in another's blood, and I can reasonably attribute their reaction to a culturally ingrained line dividing black from white, we are not teaching the next generation to be any better than ours, we are teaching them to hate.

I want to think that if I were to ask any of my friends or colleagues, "Do you want your children to grow up thinking that unquestioned hatred is acceptable?" they would answer, "No, of course not."

(Related: A post by a friend and new blogger about bin Laden and a post by Jonah Lehrer about revenge.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Music and the Brain: Music Processing ≠ Speech Processing

ResearchBlogging.orgMusicians describe music using much the same syntactical terminology as others do for language.  Music has periods that are like sentences, sections like paragraphs, expositions like introductions, codas like conclusions, questions and answers like a conversation, and parallelism like many quality works of prose.  The syntax of music has so many similarities to that of language that it almost goes without saying that our brains surely process the music and speech in the same way...

My world has been shattered!  This week I learned of two new studies that diverge from the past decade's prevailing evidence that our brains process speech and music in almost indistinguishable ways.  (I wonder if we've been experiencing some degree of confirmation bias. (That was just an excuse to link to a great recent article by Jonah Lehrer. (This is just an excuse to embed a tertiary pair of parentheses!)))

The bad news is that I don't have access to the full text of these articles, so I won't be able to analyze the science as much as the simplified conclusions.  The good news is that this post won't be as long as it otherwise would've been.  The other good news is that other bloggers have discussed these articles in enough detail (and the abstracts themselves are well enough written) that I can still talk about them.

Victoria Williamson (in the blogroll) introduces us to research by Rogalsky et al. in her post, Music and Language – not as much overlap as we thought? These authors used fMRI to monitor the brains of subjects as they listened to meaningless yet grammatically sound sentences, meaningless scrambled sentences, and basic novel melodies.  Comparing the meaningless sentence processing to the melody processing revealed that "sentences elicited more ventrolateral (lower and outer) activation, whereas the melodies elicited a more dorsomedial (upper and inner) pattern" in the temporal lobe.  Yes, there was also overlap* in the auditory cortex (a region of the temporal lobe), but that is attributable to the primary processing of sound.

*Additional data even demonstrated that within that overlap, patterns of speech and music processing were still distinct, yet I strongly suspect this is due to the differences in acoustical properties between the melodic sounds played and the spoken voice.

The final information gained from the neurological processing of scrambled sentences furthered their support for the argument that "basic hierarchical processing for music and speech recruits distinct cortical networks."  Vicky words it well:
The authors conclude that the distinguishable patterns of activity likely reflect the different auditory features present in speech and music: Also, the fact that while language is largely dependent on grammar, music is more dependent on pitch and rhythmic contours. Finally, the 'end game' of language and music are fundamentally different; the former is to derive combinatorial semantic representations and the latter is to drive acoustic recognition and perhaps emotional modulation.
(Sorry, that's a slightly modified quote because I think she made a typo.)

Alas, I have a criticism (one which may have been addressed in the full text).  What if a basic melody isn't the best correlate to a sentence?  My suspicion is that the syntax of a chord progression is much more analogous to the syntax of a sentence.  Perhaps the differences found in hierarchical processing would be less pronounced, or different, if harmony were compared instead of melody.

Another set of researchers (also in California) seem to have been simultaneously trying to answer one of the questions that Rogalsky's research begs.  Parker Tichko (also in the blogroll), this time, frames the work best:
Previous research proposed that whether an auditory stimulus is perceived as music or speech is assumed to be a result of its acoustic properties.  Thus many studies focused on decoding, or reverse-engineering, the acoustic components of speech and music.  However, recent research has proposed that music and speech might be processed differently on a neural level, suggesting that it is not necessarily the acoustic properties of auditory stimulus that result in the perception of music or speech, but rather independent neural correlates.
In this, Deutsch et al.'s, research, the authors played a trick on their subjects.  I'll gloss over the details, but they essentially played a recording of a sentence and then repeated a part of it ten times (sometimes in a modified set, sometimes unmodified) and asked their subjects to rate whether the sounds were more like speech or song.


It's amazing how much the voice sounds like it is singing by the end of that, isn't it?  It came as no surprise to read that the authors' survey revealed agreement among their subjects.  Interestingly, they sometimes had a subject repeat the phrase after listening to it ten times, and they usually sung it back.  Strikingly, that singing was closer in precision to a musically notated approximation of the original.  This suggests that as this voice's speech began to sound like song, the importance of pitch and rhythm became so strong that the recording eventually sounded more musically imperfect then the subject's own rendition!

So, who wants to see the results of fMRI while a subject is listening to such a speech-to-song illusion?  I DO.

Corianne Rogalsky, Feng Rong, Kourosh Saberi, and Gregory Hickok (2011). Functional Anatomy of Language and Music Perception: Temporal and Structural Factors Investigated Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging The Journal Of Neuroscience : 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.4515-10.2011

Diana Deutsch, Trevor Henthorn, and Rachael Lapidis (2011). Illusory Transformation From Speech To Song Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129 (4), 2245-2252: 10.1121/1.3562174

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Funny Stories!

1.  A very hungry English class was instructed to write an extended metaphor for life (in imitation of a Seinfeld quote).  The topic of conversation had just been about tacos, so a student asked if she could write about hot sauce as a metaphor for life.  "Sure!" I said.  "Flavorful in its initial impact, but prompt to strike with spice and pain?"  "Something like that," she responded, "keep going."  Knowing she'd write down whatever she could, I fired off a paragraph's worth of hot sauce = life prose, which left the class almost stupefied.  Needless to say, almost all of the work turned in was written about food.

2.  Soon after speaking to Mrs. D about some ridiculously frustrating events for her, I was her sub.  With these students in particular, I've made a habit of instructing them to draw something silly on the back of quizzes when they've finished and are waiting for others.  I've asked them to draw various things from their favorite animal to their favorite architectural structure.  On this day I recommended they draw "SuperD____ saving the middle school from aliens!"  The results were fantastic, as were the laughs from Mrs. D when she saw them.  The most memorable had her fighting off a space-duck with the power of the whole note.  Win.

3.  Some music theory students were making jokes near the beginning of class and one of them mumbled something about life and a box of chocolates.  Someone then said, "Sure, life is like a box of chocolates, but I'm allergic."  Laughter erupted.  Also, the "someone" was me.

4.  It was "Parents Day" at a middle school.  My class was in the library working on a project — many students were on computers.  One student was distracted by her iPad and I walked up behind her and said, "Remember, you have to have something turned in today.  I'd like you to focus."  She nodded and smiled and I started to walk away but she didn't make any move toward her computer.  I placed my hand near her keyboard and leaned in a little.  "You need to do some research.  Get started," I said, more firmly. She looked a little puzzled this time, turned around more, and pointed to a "Parents Day" sticker on her shirt.  She pointed to the boy next to her and said, "I'm his mom."

5.  In a jazz band rehearsal there were some missing students, including a soloist for one piece.  During the vamp in that section, sans solo, I called for a "cowbell solo!"  The cowbell player just hit it louder.  Hmm...the humor of that doesn't quite translate to paper, does it?  Well...we could all use more cowbell.

6.  I've allowed students to call me by a few different titles, such as the famous "Mr. Bowtie."  I was at a high school walking swiftly by a classroom during lunch when a student shouted, "Mr. Ninja!"  I stopped and took a few slow steps back until I could see in the class again.  "Yeah, you're Mr. Ninja," she said.  "I am?"  Apparently she first called me that many weeks prior after something that happened in Biology, but I don't remember it at all.  I guess I'm a ninja...who wears a bow tie.

I'd almost forgotten that my readers like hearing funny stories, and I should let you know that these were somehow the only things I could think of from recent weeks even though I'm sure funnier stuff has happened.  Consider this an expression of my intention to included more, and funnier, events like these in my future posts.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Music and the Brain: When it Fails

You're probably not "tone deaf."  While an argument about semantics isn't particularly important right now, I must point out that if you can tell the difference between a person saying, "The sky is falling." and "The sky is falling?" you can differentiate pitch (a major marker of inflection) and are not what I would call "tone deaf."

There are, however, people who are deaf to rhythm or melody.  There are people who can hear and recall sounds as well as anyone, except when listening to music cannot process it as expected.  The condition of amusia encompasses these anomalies and is just beginning to be defined, understood, and researched.

I intend to expand upon the topic of amusia with discussions of the relevant research, but there's a lot of research to read and I would like first to introduce readers to some quotes that paint a fascinating picture of amusical minds and moments.

In Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia," he tells us that Che Guevara was rhythm-deaf, which was made worse by a stroke.  He also recounts a quote about a former singer who "complained of hearing 'a screeching car' whenever he heard music."  He then talks about a personal and temporary amusical event:
I was...listening to a Chopin ballade on the radio when a strange alteration of the music occured.  The beautiful piano tones started to lose their pitch and their character and were reduced, within a couple of minutes, to a sort of toneless banging with an unpleasant metallic reverberation, as if the ballade were being played with a hammer on sheet metal.
After a similar experience weeks later, he identified that this was an effect of a migraine aura.  Next, a quote from Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography:
Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds...The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.
Sacks' incredible background provides him with even more stories, each about a different type of amusical experience.  One of them reminds me of a spoken sound bite in a Chumbawamba song in which a band member says, "I only recognize two tunes, Silent Night and God Save the Queen, and I only know which is which because one of them everyone stands up for."  It seems that's neurologically possible.

My thoughts, based on my limited readings on amusia, are centered around which neural connections may be malfunctioning.  As pointed out in Music and the Brain: A Primer, there are a lot of areas in the brain involved in processing music.  I have not discussed as much the importance of the communication between these areas.  These testimonials regarding amusia seem to demonstrate that while the basic processes can stand alone successfully, the conceptualization of music doesn't materialize when there is an error of communication between two or more areas.

While it is always a loss to individuals when their brain is incapable of processing something that a normal brain can, the potential scientific insights are profound.  Studies of amusia will teach us much about how parts of the brain communicate with each other and what causes these anomalies in the first place.

If you still wonder if you have a diagnosable amusia, go take this test.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The message and impact of the title of this post tends to be what echos in my head when I hear people complain about how our education system is a failure.  What is it that makes everyone see failure?  As far as I can tell, most of such conclusions are the resulting stew of this recipe:

Perception of S****y Education
Prep time: 18-40 years.

2 cups imperfect memory
1 cup nostalgia
1 carcass of media criticism
1/2 tablespoon observation of current trends
(optional) A dash of self-importance
(optional) Children

Boil water and the carcass of media criticism in a large pot.  Place imperfect memory in a bowl and slowly stir in nostalgia.  When properly mixed, this combination will taste bitterly of "kids have it easy these days."  Add this mixture to the stew and spice with observation of current trends.  For an extra kick, add self-importance and...wait...don't eat the children.  But I'm told that if you have some, people will take your stew more seriously.  Simmer until done.

(I should elaborate on "media criticism."  I mean criticism by the media of education, not criticism of the media from anywhere.  Reports on education are overwhelmingly negative because that is the material that newspeople can best use to get attention.  The effect of this is demonstrated by the results of the PDK/Gallup poll which support the conclusion that, "Differences between how Americans view their local schools versus the nation’s schools suggests that Americans like the schools they know but are much less positive about public education in general.")

The difficult part of having the distaste for this stew that I do is that I tend to agree with the conclusion — just virtually none of the premises.  Education should be improved and thus requires reform.  My road to that conclusion is based first on the never-ending desire to improve learning and thereby society, second on the idea that everyone is capable of great achievement, and third on observation that an inadequate number of people gain contribution toward achievement by current schooling.

If you've read old posts of mine, you are likely familiar with my struggle about how students are marched through schooling (see 9/17, 10/1311/24, and especially 12/2).  I don't have all the answers, but I do know a couple of things:

1) The U.S. education system is not in a dire state of apocalyptic failure relative to other countries.  This article defends against such alarmism quite well.
2) Raising standards and standardly testing standards with standardized tests is an abominable excuse for "reform."  Legitimate ideas truly cut down to the core.  A friend just shared with me this video featuring Sir Ken Robinson (and if you click that link you'll know exactly as much about him as I do now), and I think it's a fantastic example of what real reform means.  He says a lot of the same things that I would, so I'll let him do the talking:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wisconsin Fail

One of the first jobs I applied for was in Wisconsin, and I had applied just days before the battle over union rights (read the latest) became national news.

Since the day Governor Walker's legislation "passed" (in quotes because Republican actions were illegal and are being challenged), there has been a flood of job opportunities for me in that state. Quite simply, teachers are leaving left and right. But guess what? I have absolutely no interest in teaching in Wisconsin unless this bill is removed.

Flippin' idiots.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

How Substitute Teaching Should Work: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

I'm employed by many districts and I'm certified to work for any of their schools.  All told, I'm signed up to sub for 53 schools in my area, and that doesn't count the many other districts that a regional substitute service has me signed up for.

That's ridiculous.  Instead of having, say, 200 substitutes haphazardly signed up for 50 schools, couldn't we have 3 signed up for each school as full time, and 50 others available for per diem emergencies?

Every school has different standards of scheduling, discipline, teacher duties, and more.  There is no way I'm going to remember exactly what each school does, and there's no way I'll be provided with every bit of that information every day I teach.  I don't even remember which front door is unlocked at the beginning of the day at each school I've worked at.

I'm imagining a system in which I would work for one district and focus on, for example, their High School and their Middle School.  I would be the first (or one of the first, given multiple employees in the same position) to be called to sub and I would be exquisitely prepared.  If I were not needed to sub for a day, I would go to the school anyway and complete other work.  I would be there for any emergency coverage needed as well as a number of other things.

My proposal for the role of full time substitute teachers:

Job Description:  Full time substitutes will proactively keep up-to-date with the curricula of the subjects for which they are assigned as a primary substitute.  They will insure that they understand the material at least as well as the students so that they can introduce new material and answer questions, though they are not expected to be as expert in every subject as the dedicated classroom teachers are.  They will interact daily with students.  They will take part in school-wide events and event planning (if time permits).  They will keep up-to-date on changes in school rules and policies.  They will retain, and update as necessary, emergency plans and materials for all classes of their assigned subjects.

Full time substitutes will be expected to contribute knowledge, experience, and perspective to each class, student, or school community with which they work.  They will make themselves available for emergency coverage, exam proctoring, and other similar needs (especially those unforeseen).  They will serve as one-on-one tutors for students, especially for their assigned subjects of focus.  They will be a primary resource for per diem substitutes and guest teachers when they are needed in the school.  When possible, they will co-teach lessons as arranged with a classroom teacher.

Full time substitutes must be certified highly qualified teachers.  They must be personable, motivated, and flexible.

Benefits:  Full time substitutes will be salaried employees with standard benefits.  They will receive space to work and store materials as well as a network account and the same building access as classroom teachers.

Acknowledged Issues:  Implementing a system in which a few full time substitutes are the primary substitutes of a district and are thus provided with a salary and benefits would be significantly more costly than working only with per diem substitutes.

Advantages:  Students would benefit greatly from this system, as wasted days and time would be much more rare.  They would benefit from the perspective and tutelage of another highly qualified teacher for every subject they study.  Administrators and secretaries would benefit from this system by having the amount of substitute-related paperwork and oversight dramatically reduced.  An automated substitute-calling system would very likely no longer be needed and the job of calling substitutes personally would be minimal compared to what it is for the completely per diem system.  Payroll, too, would have the burden of quantity lifted.

As it was pointed out to me in the comment section of Part 1, there are at least some private schools that do something like this.  I have yet to find out more details about those systems.

A reminder again that this idea is a seedling.  Thus, I am quite open to critique, questions, and input.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Zatorre Talks About His Dopamine Research

This is an audio clip of an interview with Robert Zatorre about his research on the involvement of dopamine in pleasurable experience of listening to music.  Thanks to the great Mind Over Music blog for passing this on.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How Substitute Teaching Should Work: Part 1

I've barely been a sub for two months and there's this seedling of an idea growing in my mind.  Substitute teaching should be a full-time job and a truly integral part of education.  It should be done by those with the skills to actually contribute to a variety of curricula, and those who sub should be compensated more like non-substitute teachers.

I'm not just bitter that I get paid per diem and don't have any benefits or security to speak of, and the last thing that I'm doing is diminishing the value of classroom teachers (that's how I'll refer to the full-time teachers of the current system).  I'm convinced, perhaps naïvely, that there is a better way to use subs.

First, a glance at the current system: substitute teachers are like freelancers.  We get hired by as many school districts as we choose to (and that choose us, of course) and then accept or deny jobs as they are offered to us (by phone or online).  We get paid a predetermined amount for each day (or half) that we work and receive no benefits or contract of any kind.  In the state in which I work, substitute teachers must meet the same "highly qualified educator" status as classroom teachers — we must be certified.  There is also a system for "guest teachers" here that allows non-certified individuals to sub if there is such a need.

Letters from superintendents insist that we are "an integral part of education," but we are not.  A typical day for a sub goes like this: A sub will arrive at a school, sign in, and find their classroom.  They will search for lesson plans on the teacher's desk and usually find something that tells them what classes they will teach, where rosters can be found, and what movie to play or worksheet to complete for each class.  They will welcome the students, go through attendance, and babysit them while they do a worksheet or watch a movie.  They will read a book whenever they can and between classes.  They will either sit uncomfortably in the faculty room during lunch or avoid others and eat in their room.  They will write down any disciplinary issues or deviations from the lesson plans for the teacher, sign out at the office, and go home to search for another job.

I fear that this paragraph will sound haughty, but I think I do good work and am willing to compare myself in this way to other subs.  This is how a typical day goes for me: I sign in, find lesson plans, find emergency materials and forms, find rosters, and identify the books that the students are working from.  I'll read the lesson plans multiple times, then learn what I can about the material being studied, and think hard about what I could do with each class if they run out of work.  I welcome the students, go through attendance, and then do what the lesson plans ask.  I will go through the worksheets myself to make sure I understand the material, watch the movie with the students, and learn the relevant rubric for a class project.  I will seek out opportunities to help students and get to know them to some degree (which I also find helps immensely to keep them focused).  In my spare time, I'll read from their textbook or other materials so that I can be even more helpful as the day progresses.  I will briefly lecture on material that students are having difficulty with.  I will take detailed notes about questions I couldn't answer, disappointing or laudable behavior, any lecturing I did, and deviations from plans.  I clean and organize what I can in the room without disrupting anything too much (some teachers like a messy desk, I won't change that but I'll make sure everything ends where it began), say "hi" to any students that I see that I've taught before on the way out, offer to the office to do anything else they need, and sign out (to, of course, go home and search for another job).

There are many other subs who go this extra mile, as well, but it is surely not the standard expectation of classroom teachers or administrators.  I'm convinced that with some changes, the effort and care that those like me put into this role could be taken advantage of and used to significantly contribute to students' educations.

I propose a system in which substitute teaching is a full-time job on par with being a classroom teacher.  Details to come in Part 2...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Musical Ode to the Brain

I don't think there is a Symphony of Science production that I have not enjoyed (I think it's the best use of auto-tuning I've ever heard), but this latest one seems particularly relevant to the subject matter of this blog.

I always love hearing Carl Sagan speak, and I am particularly happy about the inclusion of Oliver Sacks in this video (he wrote Musicophilia, which I highly recommend to everyone).