Seating assignments and Excel

I neither assign students to seats, nor do I allow them to choose their own. They do not choose their own because if they have free choice, they always choose the same seats, and I don't want them to do that. I want them to sit in different seats every time next to different people. I think I've seen research that changing perspectives makes learning more effective, but even if it's not true, I want them to be breaking habits in my class, not 'settling in' as it were. Back in the day when I had my desks in a big circle, I used to make every other kid get up and move four or six seats one direction or the other, and sometimes repeat that during the lesson.

So how do I do this without assigning seats? I use Excel to assign each student to a random seat every day. I have put numbers on the desks and then I have this Excel sheet:

The numbers in column D are generated by the 'rand()' formula, which assigns a random number from 0 to 1. On the version I use with my classes, those numbers are white so the students can't see them. Wanda Washington does not have a number by her name because she always sits in seat 22 for whatever reason. (In one class, I have a group of brand new EAL students who need to sit together and in the front; in another class, a student requested to always sit in the front.)

To seat them randomly, I choose the boxes with the random numbers and names but not the seat numbers, starting with D3 and ending with B25 and then hit Sort (either way, it doesn't matter). Excel then sorts those rows by the randomly generated number in column D and reassigns a random number, so I can hit 'Sort' five times in a row and get a new seating assignment each time.

I have been doing this for two years now, even with my Diploma students (grades 11-12). Here's what I like about it:

  1. Every class start off with a little game. My younger students enjoy that, and the grade 7 girls talk about it being 'their day' if they are together for a period or two.

  2. I can break up cliques without calling attention to them. I have an expectation that all students should be able to work with all students, so I can do quick-shares or small groups based on the random seating and off they go.

  3. If I want to keep those groups intact for a while, I just save those seats.

  4. While some seating assignments might not be optimal for some kids, it's only for a period, and I reserve the right to make additional switches as needed.

  5. I move the desks around to fit the activity and still use the system as the desks are numbered.

  6. Dealing with randomness is a life skill.

  7. The students get it. Last year, the random seats got high marks from my Diploma students, saying that they benefitted from moving seats but were too complacent to do it themselves.

As far as drawbacks go, the only one I can see is if I don't want Wanda Washington's static position to be noticed. It would be good to find a way to keep her within a set of seats randomly so she's moving but not completely freely. Last year I had a student who needed to sit up front but I couldn't isolate him, so I would just keep hitting Sort until he was in one of the optimal seats. It would also be possible to have a subset of students sorted in a group of consecutive seats.

Anyway, that's what I do.


quote: the despair of possibility

"This is the despair of possibility. Possibility appears to the self ever greater and greater, more and more things become possible, because nothing becomes actual. At last it is as if everything were possible." Søren Kierkegaard

quoted in The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley.

image created at RedKid.net.


Bookpost: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

One of my Diploma students wanted to do his Extended Essay on Hamlet, and after some discussion decided to focus on Claudius as a political figure. After doing some background reading, he came across a reference to Claudius as a Machiavellian character, and after a bit more reading decided to look at Machiavelli as a possible source for Shakespeare in characterizing Claudius as one element of his essay. I haven't read The Prince since I was an undergraduate, so I thought I'd give it a go.

First of all, the new translation by Peter Constantine is very readable, much crisper than I remember from twenty years ago. Second, I checked the BBC4 In Our Time archive, and sure enough they did a show on Machiavelli, which gave me a lot of useful context for the reading. And then I tucked into the little red book.

The Prince is an advice manual for a prince about the best way to gain, maintain and fortify power in a state. It is about power for its own sake, which makes a lot of sense if the target audience is autocrats, which it is. He uses history -- both ancient and recent -- as support for his position, identifying relatively successful and unsuccessful leaders and explaining why things fared the way they did.

What struck me is how well it is structured. Machiavelli makes assertions, supports them with historical and contemporary evidence, then moves to the next point. It is a model of the kind of writing I ask my students to do. The evidence is easily detailed enough to be convincing (although the details of the King of France's incursions into Italy may not hold the 21st century reader's attention as it did for those who lived through it). His transitions are marvelous.

As for the content, well, I don't know. His central idea is that a leader ought to do whatever it takes to remain in power, and I'm not very sympathetic with that position. My culture sees its leaders as public servants. I see freedom as an inalienable right, not something a prince might do to keep people placated so they don't overthrow him. On one hand, holding him to moral standards created in the eighteenth century doesn't make sense; and on the other, his position is also a challenge to the medieval concept that a good king is a good man, which we all find laughable at this point. (Right?)

Aside from this, he has some compelling ideas. One has to do with being pragmatic -- accepting the world as it is, not as it should be. He writes in the chapter entitled 'Concerning Things For Which Men, And Especially Princes, Are Praised Or Blamed:'
As my intention is to write something useful for discerning minds, I find it more fitting to seek the truth of the matter rather than imaginary conceptions. Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or heard of, because how one lives and one ought to live are so far apart that he that spurns what is actually done for what ought to be done will achieve ruin rather than his own preservation.

For me as a teacher, there is some wisdom there. Yes, I want to teach ideals, but I also need to prepare students for reality. Virtues are important, but you need the right one in the right situation. However, it is possible to be realistic without being cynical, which I think Machiavelli pulls off here.

So am I advocating for a Machiavelli for Teachers? Not in the slightest. Well, maybe in the slightest, but not much further than that. His famous maxim 'It is far safer to be feared than loved,' is of course true for teachers if safety is the teacher's biggest concern (and it would be better to replace 'feared' with 'respected'); equally true for teachers is his addition that being hated is disastrous. And his general point that an excess of kindness can end up being a problem is certainly applicable as well.

But in general, Machiavelli is interested in power for its own sake, and good teachers are only interested in authority or respect to the degree that it is necessary to help kids learn. Likewise, Machiavelli sees human nature as basically evil, and the prince is necessary to keep that in check. While a teacher might see the flaws in humanity at large, seeing their students as basically evil is fundamentally inconsistent with the basic concept of education.

So in the end, I'm glad I read it. It got me thinking about the nature of pwoer and morality, and that's never a bad thing. And I am convinced that Claudius is a Machiavellian.


Remembering 7th grade

I make an effort  to remember myself at the age of my students. This can be difficult: most of us have either romanticized our own past through nostalgia or wishful thinking or we have blocked it out because it was a painful or awkward part of our lives. Digging past all that has been a part of my success as a high school teacher.

I have taught grades 10-12 almost every year, so my memories and experiences with those grades are fairly fixed, although my observations of and interactions with students will sometimes trigger something new. But since I am teaching grade 7 this year for the first time, I took a day at the beginning of the year to try to recall my own life as a grade 7 student growing up in Los Angeles County.

In general, it was a transitional year for me. I was interested in girls but could not express that interest out of fear of rejection and mockery. I was sexually naïve but was confronted by a boy and girl in Social Studies describing the illicit acts they performed on each other in the toilets, a girl I had known since kindergarten getting pregnant and pornography being passed around in classes.

I started getting in trouble, both at home and at school. I was interested in being independent, and while my parents allowed me a lot of leeway, I sometimes overstepped my boundaries. (I got brought home in a police car (the first time of several, I'm afraid) for hitchhiking back from the beach.) At school, I got into a few fights, but I built up a socially advantageous reputation and discovered that getting into trouble wasn't very troubling. (My parents didn't allow me to be paddled, so I had in-school suspensions which were only slightly duller than going to class.) I discovered the joy of being a class clown but rarely got in trouble for it.

Academically, grade 7 was not great. I have almost no memory of science, not even my teacher's name or face. Language Arts seemed to be mostly the questions at the end of the story (in complete sentences) and vocabulary quizzes. The only thing I remember about Social Studies is a large-scale assignment I didn't understand. Reading was OK because I tested higher than the modals and so I was allowed to read whatever I wanted and do book reports that nobody read. I liked math. The teacher had a personality that filled the room and he didn't put up with any nonsense. He was passionate about math. When he taught us proportions, he said it would be the most useful thing we would ever learn and didn't stop teaching the principle and its applications until we all got it. (And he was right -- I still use proportions all the time.) His enthusiasm and clarity were unfortunately rare for me.

While my academic classes didn't do much for me, I did a lot of learning. For the science fair, I did an experiment for measuring yeast interaction with different fluids using bottles and balloons which I found enjoyable and rewarding. I loved the practical aspects of Journalism and discovered the joys of photography. Perhaps most significantly,my middle school was incredibly diverse, both ethnically and economically. Operating socially in the school required me to negotiate cultural differences, assess complex interactions and avoid awkward or even dangerous gaffes. I cannot remember the diversity or the resultant issues ever being discussed byt the school or in classes, but I managed to equip myself for a degree of social success in grade 8. Those skills are still with me.

So how has this reflection helped me as a grade 7 teacher?

  • Every day I need to do something active and compelling. I never want to bore kids like I was bored.

  • I need to be like that math teacher, motivating through my own force of personality and enthusiasm for the subject.

  • The sense of confusion about what to do with an assignment or keeping track of assignments requires some support -- breaking large assignments down into smaller steps and providing models to follow.

  • I don't comment on students' experiments with socializing, especially flirting or whatnot. It's cute as hell, but they need the space to try it out without my interference (or anybody else's).

  • I can give students some models and some language for coping with their shifting social realities, including the loss of innocence that is a part of the age. This requires me to know their social realities.

  • I need to under-react to naughtiness (but not meanness). And the threat of negative consequences is not a great motivator: positive reinforcement and a space of inclusion is much better.
Does anyone else reflect on themselves as students? Do you picture yourself in your own class? How has it affected your teaching?


Bookpost: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard figures large in my literary and intellectual life. When I was about 13, at a point when I had decided that reading was not for me, I found Hombre on my father's shelf and read it in a weekend and then again. Looking back, I can see I fell hard for the archetypal antihero and that spare, mythical style. I read everything I could find by Leonard, but thanks to a knowing librarian it also became a gateway to many great crime writers and eventually to novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I have reread Hombre probably a dozen times and have often recommended it to students.

This collection was released in 2004. Most of the thirty stories in this collection have that same mythic quality to them, being about men (mostly -- some boys and women as well) forced to survive in the barren setting of the Arizona wilderness, negotiating between various cultural elements. Leonard positions his protagonists between the conventional detachment of the American world, the guttural instinct of the Apache world and the moral chaos of the outlaw. A perfect example is 'Trouble at Rindo's Station.' The protagonist is Ross Corsen, a former reservation manager forced out by the dishonesty of the government agent. He and the other whites are attacked by an Apache renegade and successfully escape through personal bravery but also by playing the renegade off of the legitimate Apache chief, the corrupt Americans and a pair of stagecoach robbers. Corsen is marginalized by the 'legitimate' whites because of his contact with the Apaches, but that contact is the source of his strength, a common element of the characters in these stories. Part of the pleasure of the collection is watching how the outsider-as-savior plays out again and again, and how Leonard over time complicates and develops the archetypes into more interesting and thoughtful iterations.

The historical value of these stories adds to the pleasure of them. Most of the stories were written in the 1950s as Leonard developed his skills as a writer. They were for inexpensive magazines, and they have that wonderful relentlessness typical of pulp writing that can still be seen in his writing. The last three stories were written later, and there is a self-awareness to them that reflects a different attitude toward the genre, a more overt expression of the social values of the late 20th century and more complexity in the narrative voice that is easily recognizable to readers of his novels.

For myself, I grew up in the American West, and I visited my grandparents in Tucson every spring break. My grandfather was a Son of the Golden West or something like that, and he encouraged in me an appreciation of the environment where these stories take place. I now live a long way from the settings of these novels, both geographically and culturally. But as I search for the elements of American culture I wish to pass on to my sons, the mythology of cowboy culture is attractive. The ethos of the lone gunman; the need to adapt to the environment; the anti-heroic stance of the white man who understands and respects the Apache: these elements of these stories resonate with me and define a part of my identity as an American.


Analysis of an non-literary text

My grade 10s (MYP5s) are in the middle of the advertising unit; they submitted their analyses of ads Monday and I'm about to introduce an ad pitch oral assignment. (More on that later.) This week, I'm asking them to do an analysis of a text about advertising.

I have two reasons for doing this, and the first is pragmatic: most of these students will take the IB Diploma Literature and Language course next year which will require them to do non-fiction linguistic analysis, especially in the area of Language and Mass Media. So they need to build some skills in this area.

The second reason is that everyone needs these skills. We all need to be able to grasp the main idea of a text and be able to explain how language is used to communicate that idea and both advance and obscure the biases of the writer. We assume that the language study that happens with poetic analysis will transfer to the study of non-literary texts, but in my experience it does not, especially as the techniques used in non-literary prose are different, both subtly and overtly, from those used in literary texts.

(I know I'm throwing 'literary' and 'non-literary' around, and these are problematic terms. I would like to see the boundary between them broken down so that texts are texts with different expectations and whatnot, but my students don't see it that way, and I'm guessing most of us don't either.)

My original plan was for them to find articles and other texts to analyze. I started the unit by having my students do a link dump: search for articles and other texts about advertising, including ethics, techniques, its place in culture, criticisms, etc. I anticipated a rich list with loads of different resources.

This was a failure. What I got back was the first ten hits off of Google and a lot of encyclopedic sites -- not actually Wikipedia, but Wikipedia clones. (I had said specifically that Wikipedia would be a good place to look for links.) I clearly didn't give enough information to get what I wanted, but we did have a good conversation about the things they found and how to find more specific information.

So I found three texts with specific points of view and clear language use issues: one from CNN.com, one from Entrepreneur, and some song lyrics. Each week, during the second half of a double period, I set them on reading the text and responding to it fairly informally. I provided this as a prompt:

Read the text (linked). Create a forum post about your response. Aim for +/- 200 words. You should deal with one or more of the following questions:

  • What is the main point of the text, and how does the author make that point?

  • Does the text show a bias? If so, what is it, and where do you see that bias?

  • How would you describe the language of the text? Why do you think the author used that kind of language?

Once you post your forum post you can only edit it for a short time, so think and check before you post.

Their responses were in a Moodle Q&A Forum: they can read each other's posts, but only after they post first. The idea was to create a class-wide source of ideas about the articles to allow for some collaboration in the planning process. These were fairly successful and drove some thoughtful and detailed discussions in the forum discussions and subsequent class discussions. This has become one of my models for tech-driven collaboration: having the planning stages done more publicly so individual students can craft their work based on that collective thinking and recording.

The assignment for the advertising text review gives them a number of questions and techniques to look at and it is fairly limited in length. Part of that is because of time limits, and part of it is to encourage tight, focused writing. I really want them to get down to the most important issues and not waffle on about the content.

Today we had in-class draft-check time and the results were rough but in the right neighborhood. They were asking detailed questions both of me and of each other.

A few thoughts of reflection:

  1. I thought about modeling this myself, but the forum writing was a model from themselves and each other. My comments on the forum gave them a sense of confidence about which ideas were more specific and focused rather than generalizations.

  2. A few of the students had an instinct about what mattered in the language of the texts but not the technical language for describing it. Encouraging that instinctive response to language (both with literature and otherwise) and developing that into an analysis has become an important strategy as I help students find and express their own readings of texts.


Work More and Better

Last Friday, I saw a tweet suggesting a project based on Woody Guthrie's New Years Rulins, 1943. I dug many of the list items, but it was that first resolution that struck me, making it into my little notebook and niggling at me throughout the day. Friday evening I sat down and wrote out a poem and worked on it between outings on Saturday. Saturday night I recorded it.

What I learned from the process:
  • I have written quite a lot in the past, but recently I've felt too busy with kids, work and other projects to do anything. It felt great to do this.

  • The revision process involved here is worth showing to my students. Next time I do this I will save drafts.

  • I have never recorded myself reading a poem before, but Tom O'Bedlam's Spoken Verse inspired me. I did about five takes, changing the poem slightly each time after hearing something differently from the speakers that I didn't hear from within my own head when reading out loud.

  • I need to get a microphone.

So here it is:

Work More and Better

Around me
are objects
I've left
as I think
and read
and discuss --
about work,
its meaning
and satisfactions,
the symbolism
and the significance,
and ideology,
defining roles,
making lists,
and philosophizing.

But not now.

For now it is time to work.

Time to do to clean to cook to make to write to fix to build
to create to refine.
Time to use fingers and backs and hands and feet and faces and mouths and minds? even minds.
It is time.

Time to suffer (yes, suffer)
Blisters and backaches and strained eyes and twisted ankles
but more than that
we suffer as the cake doesn't rise, the colors don't match, the cut's not straight, the words don't fit--
we suffer as dreams become a broken mess
and we start all over again.

It is time to expose our ideas to the light
and see if they have any shine.

(But are you prepared -- should you learn before you do?)

Yes, now we are ready to work:
we learn as we work as we learn as we work --
and the notion creates a thing
and the thing creates a notion
and so it goes and goes.

So let us invoke the rolled-up sleeves, the bony fingers, noses and grindstones, shoulders and wheels,
And then let's get on with it.

For now it is time to work.


Philosophies of education

Last week, someone asked me to explain my philosophy of education. So here it is:

I don't have one.

I have dozens. And some of them conflict with each other.

I believe in open-ended learning, and I believe that most students benefit from clearly defined objectives. I believe in whole language, and I believe in teaching standard register and usage. I believe in collaboration through technology, and I believe in the power of listening to one's own voice. And on it goes.

Basically, I am committed to learning, especially (but not limited to) learning about language and its use. The details are 'the hobgoblins of little minds.'

Too often, educators take a position about learning that becomes axiomatic. We have good intentions, but we end up in camps, solidified with jargon and the unifying power of a commonly held idea defined by an opposing idea.

Dogmatism -- even when advancing positions I basically believe in -- is an enemy to education.

And I suppose that is my philosophy of education.


an advertising unit & modeling for students

I'm doing a unit on advertising. I want students to apply the same analytical techniques we've used with literature on mass media, and so the unit includes some formal analysis, some response to texts and a chance to design and pitch an advertising campaign. It's a popular unit and more relevant now as many of my current grade 10s will take the IB Diploma Literature and Language course.

I use the association model for understanding how modern advertising works, and I condensed it into this slide show, which seems to be simple enough to get a quick understanding but detailed enough to be widely useful:

I also have some reference material about the language of advertising specifically.

I modelled some analysis of advertisements, both print and video clips, and then they worked through some ads in small groups, presenting their analysis for class discussion. Then they start to work on the formal analytical assignment. Last week, I was going to give them time to look for ads and start planning their paragraphs, and they asked for a model. So we went through the process together, planning on the white board and writing a paragraph on the Smartboard, which I posted on the class website.

A couple of observations about the process:

  1. Most of what I am doing is responding to their requests for information. I go through the initial presentation fairly quickly, but they are hungry for me to model specific skills and processes and then have supervised practice and development of their own ideas. I am teaching from the front (or rather the keyboard), partially because the field of knowledge is quite new to them, but it is on demand from them rather than set by me beforehand.

  2. After I had done the writing and answered questions, we had fifteen minutes for them to look at ads and show me what they were thinking about. They looked at each other's ads and told what they thought of them, for better or worse. They were able to identify the techniques for each other and identify whether or not they met the demands of the assignment; eavesdropping on those conversations as I moved around the room allowed me to assess their learning as well if not better than a more formal assessment would.


Music + writing

With my grade 7 English class, I had planned to have them do forum posts on the last week's reading. However, we discovered that the network was down. I had about 35 minutes with nothing planned. So I told them to put their heads down for the rest of the period.

Not really.

We've been reading The Giver, and it had mentioned that the Giver was able to hear music (as Jonas could see color). So I asked them to do a quick-write on why music was so important,. and while they did that I opened itunes, went through my library and made a folder of ten songs that I thought had distinct emotional values and that I was confident they were not familiar with. (With one exception, I was right.) We did a quick discussion of their quick-writes, and then I played about 2 minutes of each song and asked them to write down words and phrases about what they heard, what it made them feel, what it helped them think about associations, etc. After each clip, we talked about the music and they shared their impressions.

It was maybe the best lesson of the last few weeks. There responses were insightful and thoughtful, often poetic. They moved their hands to show how the music moved and talked about colors and shapes, feelings and movement. I wish I had recorded them. (But if I had -- if I made a big deal out of this -- would it have been as successful?) I have done something like this before and it has fallen flat, but I have always done it with older students who see music as key in their identity, and they have had trouble letting that go and hearing the music rather than judging it. It also helps that in the first half of the double lesson we had been having a very emotionally charged talk about how we deal with the realization that very bad things happen in the world, again in relationship to The Giver.

Anyway, here's the playlist:

1. Rachmaninoff Vespers, movement 1:

2. X, 'The Hungry Wolf'

3. Phillip Glass, 'Opening'

4. Jonsi, 'Go Do'

5. Nina Simone, 'Sinnerman'

6. The Ramones, 'Blitzkrieg Bop'

7. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 'Abantwana Basethempeleni'

8. Tom Waits, 'Innocent When You Dream'

9. Billie Holiday, 'I Loves You Porgy'

10. Edith Piaf, 'Non je ne regrette rien'


Education, technology and consumerism

Don't get me wrong: I am an enthusastic user of technology in learning. I won't go through my bona fides, but for the last fifteen years I have been using the internet and other media to give my students better access to a greater range of voices and the opportunity to find their own voices.

However, I am concerned that in our enthusiasm for technology in learning, we may be advancing the consumerist culture and an increased focus on acquisition. As we value the newest technology and reward early adapters, we tie the virtues of learning to the virtues of spending. The corporations that produce these technologies sometimes market themselves as benevolent entities concerned with making the world a better place; educators can reinforce that marketing, unwittingly or otherwise, through their own enthusiasm for the technology. In our excitement about new media literacies, we fail to reinforce the inquisition and evaluation of more traditional media literacy.

In addition, most of the social networking sites that serve us so well have a consumerist function. Students think of Facebook as a utility for their benefit, not fully cognizant of the data being gathered about them as consumers and potential consumers and the degree to which their use of the 'Like' button is a form of marketing. (I was fascinated by the Social Network film, which on the surface seemed highly critical of the founder of Facebook, but essentially reinforced the 'Facebook as social utility' concept by  repeatedly observing that he wasn't in it for the money.) The same can be said for Google and Twitter, of course. (After all, haven't I 'marketed' this blog on Twitter?) As we encourage students to use these sites to communicate and learn, we are plunging them into the world of consumerism.

I am not arguing for the abandonment of technology. But talking to students about social networking sites last week I realized they have no idea how they worked. And as I thought about that, I noticed that I have two glowing corporate icons sitting on my desk, and they are always there, lit up, when students are present. Would I put a glowing soft drink icon in my classroom? And I considered how I allow phones to be flashed around in class because they have educational functions. It got me thinking.

I would like to emphasize to students how much they can do and learn and create with very little technology, and what is available from libraries and other sources. I want to talk to them about the business plans of the internet services they use, how they as consumers fit into those plans and how they can be savvy users. I want to model doing more with less, celebrating the process and output while downplaying the niftiness of the gadgets. I want them to maximize use while minimizing consumption.


Are schools communities?

I was catching up on my podcasts, listening to Start the Week from BBC4 from January 17. They were discussing the need for moral judgements in civic discussions, and historian Eric Hobsbawm said this (10:29):
It's an old problem…: the problem between community and society. Once you stop having a traditional community which is a so-to-speak human sized unit in which you think you know at least everybody who belongs to it and in which a certain amount of consensus is possible.

How big can a school be and still be a learning community? When, merely because of the number of people involved rather than the disposition of the stakeholders, does it become an institution?

I taught at a suburban high school in Southern California with 3,000 students. There were members of staff I didn't know, let alone students; standardization and pre-made decisions seemed necessary just to keep all of those students in the right place and at the right time. If we look at the governing institutions of the district or even the state as they create and mandate learning objectives and even more detailed curricular material, the situation becomes hopeless.

What can a teacher do? The teacher carves out of this society a community within the classroom. Within those walls students should find a refuge from being treated as a number. Within those walls students should have a voice. Within those walls (and hopefully those walls are metaphoric as the wider community becomes the learning space) people belong.

In my last years at that school, I taught in a history/English team that had that kind of atmosphere. We had one-on-one interviews with students twice a year, gave opportunities for authentic learning, brought in guest speakers and required more of them then the standard class ... it was a team in the real sense of the word. Those students belonged to us, and we belonged to them. The experiences we had with those kids are among the finest I've had in my life. I'm still in touch with dozens of them more than a decade later.

In essence, if it takes a village, well, most of our students don't really have one. Most schools can't serve that function, and the increased centralization of education decreases the personal attention students receive as learners. The most essential function I serve as a teacher is to create and maintain a community that we, students and teachers, all belong to. The school may not be able to do it, but I can.