Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Whole New World

Last month, I mentioned how sometimes people will fight against something and by so doing cause what they were trying to avoid in the first place. Here is a similar example, this time of people arguing against something and thus making the point they were arguing against.

At East High School in Salt Lake City (yes, THE East High School), they are putting on a bilingual production of Aladdin. I think it's a great idea. Basically, half the school is Caucasian, one quarter Hispanic, and the rest other minorities. The problem is that only the white kids try out for the theater, until now.

They are coming together. They are all happy to have met people they didn't know before. They're helping each other with their languages. What a great story, too. Aladdin is all about not trying to be something you're not but loving others for what they are. Maybe next year they'll do a bilingual Romeo and Juliet.

The point I made in the first paragraph comes from the comments on the story. The more people complain about this production, the more their own xenophobia is apparent, thus reinforcing the need for such a production. Most of the first comments were people saying this was a bad thing, though it is balancing out with supporting comments as the day goes on. Some commenters claim this is a ploy to encourage acceptance of illegal aliens. One asks that we stop catering to minorities and accept each other without bringing race and culture into the conversation. Another asserts that a bilingual production won't help the Hispanic kids learn English, which is the global language of business and science. Two commenters unfold the logical fallacy that if we do things in Spanish, we'll have to start doing things in many other languages as well.

First, who knows if the Hispanic kids are illegal or not? Second, who cares? They may very well have been born here, and whether they were or were not, they likely have little choice but to live where their parents are. These are children we're talking about. How messed up is the request that we accept each other without talking about our races and cultures? If the acceptance only goes one way, from minority to majority, that is actually a request that minorities reject their own race and culture with an out where the majority doesn't have to accept anyone that's different.

When it comes to learning languages, I don't think we need to worry about whether or not the Hispanic kids are learning English. They've grown up here; they know the language. They weren't ignoring the theater because they don't know the language but because there was simply a cultural barrier that needed to be broken. It has now been broken.

It's the white kids who are less likely to know another language, like the joke (not actually a joke) that if you know two languages you're bilingual, three languages you're trilingual, and one language you're American. Learning a second (or third) language helps one understand his or own language better. And talk about the language of science being English, except that many of the terms we use come from Latin, upon which Spanish is based. A firm grasp of a Romance language makes Latin a lot easier.

I think it would be great if the slippery slope argument came true when it was put forward that if we allow Spanish, we'd have to do things in countless other languages. Okay, let's do it then. Let's mix in Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, and Russian. We're still arguing about Spanish, when there are all these other languages that millions (even billions) of other people are speaking. We're not at risk of having the issues that China and India have with hundreds of languages swirled all over the place causing communication issues. English is already common, in spite of how poor of a language it is; we just need to add on a few more to spice things up.

The bigger question is one of culture, not language. Language happens to often be the piece that starts someone off into a better understanding of other cultures. Is there a better way to build cultural understanding than our children sharing language and song in a production about not trying to change yourself to impress others?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Improving Teaching by Understanding How People Learn

A colleague recommended a book he's been reading, “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School” by the National Research Council.

In the introductory chapter, they give some important concepts for teaching based on an understanding of how people learn. The main points:
  • student initial knowledge and conceptions provide a foundation for further learning

  • frequent formative assessment encourages metacognition and leads to deeper learning

  • need to teach education students to help their students recognize and replace incorrect preconceptions

  • in-depth coverage of fewer topics is better than superficial coverage in many topics

  • to be an effective teacher, you need to have done in-depth study yourself

  • assessment must test at the level teaching occurs, that is deep testing for deep teaching (students will do poorly on superficial testing if they've been taught for deep understanding)

  • metacognition needs to be planned into the curriculum
The whole book is graciously provided online for free. See the complete table of contents.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Student Government or Start a School?

Someone has to plan parties. Otherwise they either wouldn't happen or would be very poorly organized. So there is a place for student government in college, but it should be renamed to reflect that limitation.

High school is all about being popular, so it makes sense that student government there would be structured around popular kids maintaining their popularity monopoly. It just doesn't translate to the college level.

College is a great equalizer. It's a time to regress to the mean. Ultra popular kids will find they really aren't that much more special than everyone else (big fish in little pond becomes little fish in big pond). Shy kids will break out of their shell. All that is really needed at this point is someone to throw a few big university-wide parties and several small department-sized parties to bring everyone together.

A recent article in the paper at USU regarding approval ratings of various facets of student government there focuses mainly on the fact that approval ratings are up, because they put on some great concerts this year. That's as it should be.

Just a couple months ago, there was another article about how student government was restructuring compensation for their officers, since as of halfway through the school year, they had put themselves $80,000 in the hole. I'm okay with someone who's bad at math putting on a big party, because the worst they're likely to do is go over budget by a few thousand dollars or run out of ice cream halfway through the party. The problem is when they start stepping out of their party zone to push for new buildings or try to influence academic programs, both of which they've also been doing over the past couple years. Major capital investments and toying with academics are just something they shouldn't be allowed to play with.

I'm not saying that there are no students that could contribute in a meaningful way to the university community or even do awesome things around the world. There are many who can and do. The people who will do these amazing things, however, are not likely to run for office, since they recognize its party-planner role. My dad was Business Senator about 40 years ago, so no offense, Padre, if you're reading this; maybe leave a comment if things were much different back then than they are now. From my own experience about 10 years ago as VP of one of the chapters of ACM on campus, we did get decent turnout to some great educational sessions on a variety of topics, but the billiards and pizza party at the end of the year got a lot bigger turnout than the demos on Flash or ASP.

To drive the point home, check out this video by current president Tyler Tolson, encouraging students to run for office. His point is basically that you get paid to eat dinner with university administrators and students follow you around campus (unless their shoe comes off like the dude on the far left at 1:01).

Compare that to Casey Allred, also an undergraduate student, who has created a non-profit organization, Effect International, and built a school in India with more on the way.

What do you do in your spare time? Throw a party? Rid the world of illiteracy? Choose what works for you, but be honest about it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Problems in Student Teaching

This week is WGU's semi-annual academic meetings. We're almost getting too big for the conference center we've been meeting at, with about 700 people attending.

Today one of the presenters talked about a particularly difficult problem facing the teacher education programs. An important component of licensure is student teaching, and true to form, WGU has a different term for it: demonstration teaching. Regardless of what you call it, placing students in schools is becoming more difficult, and I imagine it's the same for schools across the country.

With the economy down, people are out of work, so they go back to school to either be better positioned to find a job now or to at least find a better job when the big recovery happens, so enrollments are up. Budgets in the states are down, so teachers are laid off, meaning there are fewer classrooms in which the increased number of teacher candidates can be placed.

Add in the pressures of NCLB, and a whole new challenge appears. In schools that are struggling to maintain AYP, teachers may decline to take on a student teacher because of the extra burden it imposes and the chance it could cause problems for their students' scores. For failing schools, well, it's not really an option to student teach at a failing school.

Unfortunately, I don't know what the solutions are. A change to NCLB seems like a good place to start.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Know Your Bill of Rights

While it is rare these days to have to assert one's rights as guaranteed by the Third Amendment, it's probably important to know what's in it. This is mainly to reduce the extent to which you look like a fool when you mix it up with one of the more commonly cited amendments.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sending Mixed Signals?

We're heading up to go skiing at Beaver Mountain with the family tonight, which is always fun. Starting to get ready reminded me of the mixed signals Utah State sends when it comes to winter activities on campus. I love sledding on Old Main Hill, and ice blocking in the summer is also fun.

The student association lists sledding down the hill as an important campus tradition.

Then there's this video put out by the university highlighting the winter recreation close by campus. The whole video is great. Jump to 2:38 for video of people sledding on Old Main, and at 3:01, it blows me away what the dude does while skiing down the hill.

Just don't tell the risk management office what you're doing or you'll be severely warned about how dangerous it is.

I just wonder which way they want it. Is it a dangerous activity that the university should warn us to avoid or an advertisement to attract students to USU? I, for one, am receiving mixed signals.