The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Hauben’s “Above the Standard” is Timely, Poignant, and Beautiful

The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it's designated place.
The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it’s designated place. No metaphors there, certainly.

I rarely think of contemporary fine art as engaging or inspiring, let alone speaking to something real and relevant in society. Too much post-modernism perhaps. But Ari Hauben‘s solo art show ABOVE THE STANDARD recently set me straight on the gritty power of art in today’s modern world. From his site:

ABOVE THE STANDARD (an education in the art of Mr. Hauben) is a solo art show created by Ari Hauben, an artist and Boston Public School art teacher, which responds to the detrimental effects of the increasingly standardized and mechanized worlds of education and society.

Hauben investigates this theme through installations and artwork created from the very things we usually associate with standard education: desks, tests, grades, etc. In addition this examination will lead the public through different styles of Hauben’s multimedia works which cover a broad spectrum of topics, styles, and materials that reflect his creative response to working “above the standards” and the positive outcome that can occur when operating outside these confines in all aspects of society.

Much of the floor is made of the infamous Scantron answer sheets, placing visitors literally "above the standard".
Much of the floor is made of the Scantron bubble sheets, placing visitors literally “above the standard”.

For example, Hauben’s show includes mixed media paintings on canvas made of the infamous Scantron multiple-choice answer sheets, and installations that depict children either being molded into conformity or playfully casting it aside. In many parts of the gallery, visitors are literally “above the standard” while walking on multiple choice bubble sheets.

(For some reason, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” kept playing in my head…)

In addition to the artwork that criticizes the increasing standardization of education, Hauben’s show includes a blend of street and pop art works depicting inspirational figures such as Sally Ride, made on intricate mathematical equations and complex scientific texts. In this way he also shows the beautiful power of education to uplift and explore, if we let it.

The show is especially personal to Hauben, as in addition to working as a practicing artist, he is also a Boston Public art teacher at a high school for students with learning disabilities. As an urban public school teacher myself, I’m not sure how he finds the time, but I am inspired by his example!

The gallery hosting ABOVE THE STANDARD is in a converted space at 50 Melcher St in Fort Point. Walk east from South Station on Spring St, across the bridge into Southie. Take the first right after the bridge onto Melcher St. The gallery is on the left hand side, just before you reach A Street.

The show was originally to close on June 1, but Hauben has extended it through June 15th. Thursday and Friday 5-10pm, Saturday 12-6pm, Sunday 12-5pm.

For those interested in the politics that are ravaging our public schools, or just seeing some great and relevant art, I definitely recommend stopping by.

If you go, be sure to add the name of your favorite teacher to the giant chalkboard wall:

Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.
Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.

Love it.



Pardon the Disruption – We Just Love Each Other

As posted by me this morning on the Boston Teacher Residency blog:

If you were at a certain bar and grill on Boylston Street in Back Bay last Friday night, you may have noticed a large group of constantly-smiling people who had apparently transformed a significant fraction of the underground bar into their own eight-hour raucous dance party. You would have noticed that said party continued to exude warmth regardless of incredulous stares and even the slightly awkward attempts by others to join in. You would have heard vigorous debates on race as a social construct and multidimensional n-branes as a fundamental building block of spacetime. And you would have heard a lot of overpowering laughter, swelling repeatedly like a tidal wave trying to drown the room in our good times.

Um, yeah, so that was us. A bunch of urban public school teachers in training. Hi. Allow me to attempt to explain our exuberance in disrupting your regularly scheduled evening at the bar.

The context for our party was a desperate, pent-up need to have a great time after what I can only lightly characterize as “a rough week.” We explored (many of us for the first time) how ugly, pervasive, and seemingly inescapable some of the injustices in the world are. We all lived out multiple examples of how none of us, no matter how committed we are to social justice or how much we have suffered or studied, are immune from the very systemic biases we are trying to correct. All in all, it was a painful and emotionally raw week in many ways. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we were asking ourselves, “In spite of all this, what is it that gives us hope? What makes us think we can do this?”

I heard many good answers to that question in class, but I saw a great answer to that question in what happened after class: that in the face of the darkness of the moment, our unconscious response was love.

In retrospect, I think now about how we were easily the most diverse group in the room, on so many levels: race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational background, family dynamics, where we grew up, how we talk, and so many others. We were such an obvious grab-bag of different kinds of people together. And we were positively radiating a lot of love for each other and having an amazing time, oblivious to how anyone else was looking at us. Say what you will about our sense of decorum, but no one could have been in that bar and not felt the love.

In Language, Power and Democracy class we talked about creating “Islands of Decency” and “Pockets of Hope.” Perhaps few of the people who observed us on Friday would consciously frame it in these terms. But as a group I think that we are a pretty awesome Island of Decency and Pocket of Hope ourselves—just in who we are and how we treat each other. Maybe someone who saw us will remember our faces laughing and dancing together—and internalize a small kernel of what humanity could be like if we tried. If that vague memory of us changes even one action by one person for the better, then we did some good for the world just by showing it how much we can love each other.

I am forced to an unavoidably cheesy but logically inescapable conclusion: that we can succeed in this endeavor by making a moral choice to believe in love and living our lives like we mean it. Maybe this is how we can make the impossible possible.



Why Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics

Link: Why Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics

… while at the same time we complain that not enough STEM professionals are connecting with the classroom.

On the one hand, I do very much believe that teaching is a profession in and of its own right, and superb content knowledge does not necessarily a good teacher make. However, I’m also very interested to find out how much of the rhetoric that teacher’s unions use is an accurate defense of a noble profession versus how much is self-inflated protective bullshit.

An engineer investigates this and more over the next few years, stay tuned to this blog…



NPR: “Is Teach For America Failing?”

Gary Rubinstein was recently interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More, ostensibly due to the kerfuffle caused by his highly controversial blog post lambasting the nonprofit service organization Teach For America.

Yeah.

So, I think it’s time to re-post one of the rants I originally posted on Feb 4, 2012 to my previous blog, The Very Spring and Root. Note that there are comments and discussion on the original blog thread that unveil new points and help to clarify the original content a bit.

Here it is:

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons. On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves. Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations. Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals. By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain. As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators.

Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education. By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field! Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize? I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals. If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist? I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits?

The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America. In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.

Addendum 1: If your goal is not actually to become an educator for longer than a brief stint (or you are not at least entering the profession with the intent to make a good faith effort to try to stay), then the above reasoning will not apply as well. In that case, I would urge you to consider very carefully how and whom you are actually helping.

Addendum 2: I make no pretense of knowing what teaching is like. I have yet to teach a single hour in a single classroom. So, I am well aware that my opinions on this and other educational issues may change and grow with my experience. That’s called life. In the meanwhile, I’ll perform the best analysis I can with the information I have.



Wendy Kopp: The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers – WSJ.com

Aside  Comment

Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America and Teach for All, recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that I thought was actually very cogent and balanced: Wendy Kopp: The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers – WSJ.com. I note that she (seems to) make the important distinction between data-driven methods to inform instruction versus standardized testing to make high-stakes career decisions for teachers.

[polite applause].

 



Arne On Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests

Below is my comment on an article posted to the Ed.gov blog entitled “Arne on Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests“. There was much in the comment stream about how muchc teachers should make, comparisons to other professions, and the value of an education degree.

As a professional engineer in the process of (voluntarily) transforming into a K-12 educator, I hope I can add a hybrid perspective.

As a aerospace research engineer (federal), I started at $43,500 and advanced to roughly $80,000 in five years. This is not because of some arbitrary euro-centric preference, it is because of simple supply and demand. At the level of STEM understanding required to ensure our national security, economic vigor, modern infrastructure, and quality of life, there are simply not enough young people moving into the ranks to replace those retiring. Engineers, not defined by their degree but by those who can think creatively, rigorously analyze a system, and synthesize new innovations, are in very short supply; the demand for such people in our modern world is very high. I do not think I could say the same about literature. No disrespect intended, as I love literature and fully see its value in society, but the simple fact is that the skillset is not required in as large quantities right now.

I am aware that switching to a career education will probably mean a pay cut of 50-60%. This concerns me, but is not stopping me – I am, alas, a stubborn idealist. But for the general case, consider those who are similarly prepared as I am. Should those well-trained as engineers and scientists have to choose between a world of creative application of their talents, probable advancement, and job security, versus a world of low-pay, advancement and security based solely on tenure, and declining respect and creative freedom? If not, how can we structure education such that this comparison is more favorable? Because that is the comparison being made by graduates versus other professions.

Teaching *is* a profession, and a important one – indeed, the *most* important one, since it feeds all of the others. But it is also a unique one – unlike medicine, law, or engineering, proficiency in the subject matter and theory of practice are not enough to be effective. What gets missed in that analogy is that, while a surgeon with more training and experience will probably perform a better surgery, a teacher with more training and experience will not necessarily prompt better learning. I think we all have personal experiences to attest to that. What is unique about this profession is this: That children learn from people they love. They learn when the material is engaging and relevant. They learn when they can apply their own initiative and correlate it to success. Some of that can be taught, some if it can’t.

There is no way that an education major with a credential in math or science can bring as much content knowledge to the table as I can. Does that make me a better potential teacher? Not necessarily. Not by a long shot.

Teaching is a noble calling because it is the *only* one which directly professionalizes the intersection of people and ideas. This goes above and beyond subject matter competency. We should be reaching out to those in all fields who have these qualities, and incentivizing their consideration of teaching as a profession. Make it *the* selective pathway, an honor; that beyond their excellence in science, math, literature, history, theatre, engineering, or language, they also exhibit the much more in-demand talent than any of these of being able to connect their ideas with people. And then pay them commensurate to the field from which you plucked them.

Can performance in this quality be measured by standardized testing? Not in isolation no, and such a proposition is yet another dangerous deterrent to those in more open fields. But rote subject matter competency *is* important, when combined with the assurance that the student has developed the creative and analytical capacity to apply it. Know the equation – but also write a paragraph on why these quantities are related in this way. Know the scientific principle – but also explain to me what we know about the universe as a result. Know the name of the artistic movement – but also tell the world around you what we as a society failed to learn from it.

Does that require more time and resources? Definitely. But I think it is what is required for an increasingly knowledge-based world, one increasingly dependent on technologies, systems, and social structures which did not exist when the present education system was created. So that also means change, which in turn means both pain and opportunity. But if we fail in this, the whole nation fails. Education is too central a pillar to a strong republic; no such republic can hope to stand long with this pillar strained or broken.



Letter of Intent, Draft 3

Here is another take on my previously posted draft letter of intent. Thanks to Vihangi, Amy, Aleks, and Julia for the proofreads and feedback.

I seek to join Teach for America in order to directly address our nation’s most dire of inequities: the disparity in the quality of accessible education across social demographics. I know that through Teach For America, I cannot directly ease poverty or fix broken families. I can, however, enable these students to break out of the prison of social class, to which they have been relegated by fate and forgotten by their nation. In a world of systemic racial and socio-economic divides, quality education is the only equalizer – the only pathway that can empower individuals of any background to reach their potentials.

As the successful child of immigrants to this country, I have truly lived the American Dream. Yet, I know that I was fortunate to have been born under two very serendipitous circumstances. My parents were educated and were likely headed for successful careers before coming here; and while my family has never been what I would term wealthy, neither have I ever been in need of the foundations on which individual merit can actually build success. Many students across our nation lack even these basic elements – such as stable families, freedom from hunger and violence, and a supportive community. As my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I realize that it is time for me to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me to achieve.

As a NASA research engineer, I have been honored to work with some of the world’s most creative, passionate, and intelligent people on the cutting-edge engineering challenges of today: energy, environment, transportation, and exploration. Addressing these challenges requires viewing science as something much grander and more beautiful than a dry sequence of memorized facts. Science is applied curiosity – powered by wonder, and expressed through the language of mathematics. I intend to instill this perspective by setting a personal example of hardworking grit and a curious mind. I would also make full use of my experience to bring an array of practical applications to the forefront of my pedagogy.

As an engineer, I know that any credible metric of success must be rooted in quantifiable results. However, in addition to increasing performance on standardized exams, there are qualities which are far more critical to our nation’s scientific competitiveness. The true test of the scientist is to apply creative innovation to solving challenging, integrated problems. Evidence of these qualities in my students would be my personal metric of success. I would strive daily to cultivate them in my students by incorporating critical thinking, oral and written communication, and creative design in my lessons and grading metrics to the greatest degree possible. I know that an integrated, creative, and applied approach to science and mathematics will inspire the individual success of my students and provide them with opportunities to meet the local, national, and global technical challenges of tomorrow.



New Data on TFA

Education Week recently posted the results of a study by Phi Delta Kappan on Teach for America and the nebulous debate over teacher retention. The article pretty much speaks for itself, so I’m not going to rehash anything here. Some surprising findings for both sides of the raging argument.

The one paragraph I’d just like to quote, however, reemphasizes why I just don’t care about the debate one way or the other:

These findings show that Teach For America teachers are far from being exclusively short-term in their intentions or actions. Some appear to use the program as a path to an extended career in teaching. They may choose TFA as a way to bypass longer preparation programs, licensing requirements, or the bureaucratic obstacles associated with landing a teaching job, especially in a large, urban district. They also may have wanted the status and camaraderie that come with becoming TFA corps members. Whatever their reasons, it seems clear that a considerable proportion of those in the sample expected to make a longer-term commitment to teaching from the start.

(Emphasis mine.)




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