Monday, November 24, 2014



Three perceptive student insights from the Harkness table in the Agora.

1) Civinomix

During our long, meandering, pursue-every-tangent, explore-every-alley discussion of the Constitution - students observed how often we would raise an issue, and how quickly hands would fly up to try to resolve it.  Economic regulation.  Gerrymandering.  The punctuation of the 2nd Amendment.  Students have answers - and policies - for everything.  Matters came to a head when we ended up talking about moralistic health legislation - like former NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on Big Gulps.  The Devil’s Advocate is always in attendance for these discussions, so it doesn’t take long for every viewpoint you might anticipate to surface - ‘it’s none of the governments business’ and ‘if government is going to pay for health care, then gov’t has a right to have a say in things that make people unhealthy.’  At some point, perhaps when the welter of opinions came to a head, Julia Cassidy interjected this apercu:  “You know, sometimes you just have to live.”

For me, it was a conversation altering insight.  I believe Julia was articulating two ideas, and I called attention to both of them.  At one immediate level, I think Julia was suggesting that sometimes people just need to be left to make their own decisions and live with the consequences.  In this sense, she was chiming in agains the paternalist state - and we would encounter similar points of view when talking about single parenthood or the 4th Amendment and the Edward Snowden and the NSA.  But at another level, I think Julia was also suggesting that maybe trying to craft a solution - a planned or regulated or expert or state solution - for everything isn’t necessarily the way to go.  Maybe some things have to evolve organically without planning intervention.  It was a daring discovery, a daring suggestion.  I think it just came to her - and as she reflects further she will probably modify it according to cases.  But we held it up in class as a touchstone - a reminder not to turn into Plato’s philosopher kings.  Thank you again - Julia - for a dose of humility and perspective that will be valuable the rest of the year.

2) U.S. History

We finished Reconstruction (the Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow regime in the South, arguing that segregation was perfectly consistent with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, because separate trolley cars etc. were “separate but equal;” Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896) and moved onto what I like to call the Age of Mark Twain - wherein we tackle the demise of the American Indians (from Little Bighorn to Wounded Knee); 19th century immigration (the Know Nothings!); and the economic titans of the Gilded Age (field trip to Newport?).

When studying immigration, we always start by detailing all the reasons immigrants came here (economic, religious, political) - and all the reasons some Americans resented them (economic, religious, cultural, racial).  We spend a lot of time on the economic reasons - because it reveals so much about our era.  We use the expansion of the railroads in the west as a prime example - especially because it knits together so many themes of our study.   (“They had to drive the Indians off the land to build the railroads; and lots of immigrants came to work building the railroads; and the railroads ended up shipping the goods that made the Gilded Age titans rich and demonstrated the growth of the American middle class.”)

So what about those immigrants?  Whether they were Chinese or Irish they worked n the railroads because it represented an opportunity unavailable back home.  But they worked cheap - displacing American workers, or lowering their wages.  And therein lay the conflict.  (A conflict rearing its head again today…?)  It’s clear why working class Americans resented the low wages the immigrants brought to the RRs.  But to fully understand the growth of the American economy during the Gilded Age, we want to detail who benefits from those low wages.  (Yes, we sneak some economics into 6th grade.  Just wait - Karl Marx is coming too!)  This is a thought experiment.

So who benefits?  The immigrant workers themselves.  Check.  The RR owners.  Check.  Who else?  Tick, tick, tick…  What are the RRs shipping?  Goods!  Consumer goods.  So the companies back east in N.Y. and Chicago (and everywhere else) that ship goods everywhere - they benefit if they can build more RRs faster and cheaper.  And the stores they ship to and that sell the goods benefit.  And the people who buy the goods - consumers! - they benefit.  (And their kitchens are nicer, too. Welcome to the middle class.)  Anybody else?  Tick, tick, tick.  Do the RRs just ship goods…?  No.  Passengers!  They ride on the RR.  And they benefit too.

Whereupon Leo Rosenbaum jumps out of his seat and puts it all together:  “Oh, I get it.  It’s a Win, Win, Win, Win situation!!!!”  Right you are Leo.  (And welcome to Economics class.)  Obviously Leo left the American workers (some of whom were ex-slaves, and some of whom were ex-Confederate soldiers) whose wages were halved out of his summation.  But he sure put the complex taxonomy together as pithy as it could be.

And if we were to ask, “Why were the low wages paid to immigrant RR workers a ‘Win, Win, Win, Win’ situation?” on an assessment - I think most students would be able to tell you an awful lot about the growth of the American economy during the Gilded Age.   That’s how we do in the Agora.  (Thank you, Leo.)

3) Economics

So we’re learning about market share.  And regulation.  And taxes.  All in preparation for the (now completed) micro-economics papers.  (And there were some doozies.  If you want to know how the NYTimes has adapted and built up a brand new revenue model premised on digital subscribers; or how JCPenney has floundered in the face of competition from Nordstrom’s and - you’ve come to the right place.  Just ask.)

It’s a free for all as we try to acquire as much vocabulary and economic terminology and concepts as we can before diving into the deep end with the first assignment.  And somehow, the war on drugs comes up.  (I think it was from one of those articles about the high price of limes - because of supply restrictions attributed to the drug wars in Mexico.)  We talked about the standard issues that come up with drugs.  Why some drugs are illegal and some aren’t.  Are these policies consistent.  The federalism/supremacy clause issues that come into play when states try to legalize economic behavior that the Federal government has decided is illegal.  The lost tax revenue resulting from the black market.  All of this is good and keeps students’ minds whirling and keeps the discussion lively and stimulating and fills up their notebooks.

Whereupon Julia turned the tables on us again and dared to ask, “Can the drug wars actually benefit the economy?”  Whoah.  What could she have meant?  We had already demonstrated that the drug trade could help the economy - if it was legal and regulated and taxed.  We had already demonstrated that the illegality of the drug trade hurt the economy - lost tax revenue, violence, families disrupted, lives ruined, public expense of fighting the drug war.  So how could the violent competition of drug gangs and cartels help the economy?

There doesn’t have to be a logical, satisfactory answer for this to be a great question.  It shows me that students are not taking everything at face value.  That they are always circling and checking a layer here or a layer there and thinking outside the box.  This question showed me the logic and method of Civinomix class is working.  In order to consider the value or measure the impact of some actual or proposed law or regulation or new policy, you have to try anticipate what might happen next - both the things you want or hope or expect - and those you don’t - or can’t guess.  You have to be imaginative.  You have to ask questions you didn’t walk in anticipating you would ask.

This is what it means to be a student in Civinomix.  And hopefully a researcher or scholar or scientist or hypothesizer.  Or legislator or policy maker 0r academic or expert or think tanker.  Bravo again, Julia, for asking what no one would ask.

(And I wish there was time and space to detail apercus from all 48 students in the Agora.)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Jean-Georges TerraCycle Memos

"With every job that must be done there is an element of fun, you find the fun and SNAP, the job's a game." -- Mary Poppins
That's what we did.

Memo #1
The thing that stuck out to me the most in the way we worked on Thursday was the way we organized the room. Not that we organized it, but that we organized it in an organized way. We tried to clear the entrance as much as we could. We got the idea from the kitchen article. The kitchen was designed to so that it was easy to move throughout the room, and there was a lot of space by the commonly used areas, so we tried to replicate this idea into our TerraCycle sorting room. This was very helpful to the way we worked because it provided a much more movement friendly room. I wish we had been able to find a better system for washing the bags, because we would go through them a lot faster than V and T could clean them up, so there were a lot of bags in the hallway just sitting there. This was not helpful, because it blocked the entrance to the TerraCycle sorting room, which is used very frequently. We also organized the room so that it was a lot easier to sort in the future, such as moving all the plastic bag boxes nest to each other, or putting the unsorted material in one section, while moving all the boxes to the other.
Another thing that we did that was very helpful was to change the boxes of the sorted materials. A lot of the boxes were overflowing, so we switched them with bigger boxes. This is helpful in two ways. The first being that we don’t have to send it off so often, which means that we don’t have to go through the process of printing the labels, weighing the boxes, transporting them, etc. as much. The second reason is the more obvious one. Having bigger boxes means that the sorted materials do not overflow, so there is less mess on the ground, therefore making more space in the room.
                  The third thing that I noticed was the work ethic of everybody. L, L, and W worked really hard to finish stacking the dairy tubs, and got almost a week’s worth of dairy done in one class period. S, W, R, and A worked really hard to organize and sort the TerraCycle in the sorting room, and we emptied a lot of bags, and organized the room very efficiently. Finally, T and V worked on cleaning out the bags. Not one of the bags had any little bit of anything left in them after being cleaned out. I don’t think our motivation was just to impress anyone, otherwise we would have just sorted as much as we could. Our motivation was to make the room accessible for all of our purposes, and very easy to clean in the future.

Memo #2
Last week while Mr. Coffey was away we had a free period to work on sorting TerraCycle in the TerraCycle room. When the day started, the room was a mess. The bags of TerraCycle were piled up in the center of the room and the bins that we were sorting into were lazily put in various random positions around the room for us to put TerraCycle into.

When we began sorting we realized that our current system for sorting TerraCycle was not going to work. During the course of the period we (the sorters: R, A, S, and W) began to shift where we put the bags and where the sorting bins were located so that we could sort more efficiently. For example, we tend to get lots of bags containing a good amount of chip bags and energy bar wrappers in them (two separate brigades) and their bins were on opposite ends of the room. We moved the bins to where they were right next to each other and as soon as we did that everything sped up. 

We also had several bins that were currently just bags and we tended to confuse them with the bags that we needed to sort and if we didn't do that they would get very full very quickly. That day we took all of those bag-bins away and replaced them with large cardboard boxes that we can easily ship off when they are full. Also this allows us to toss things from across the room from where we were sorting into their correct bin (which was a lot of fun and we usually made the shot).

Memo #3
We almost finished the whole trash mountain! (except the day after it got bigger the next day) I have found out that if we focus hard we can get so much done. I am proud that non of us goofed off. I am proud of everyone for doing that. The one thing that I might add is that whoever is smashing the cell phones to stop because they might not be able to be sent. I think that we might need to buy some latex gloves because when I used mine I was much more helpful because I was not scared to touch the trash. Because we were so productive we got rid of all the fruit flies. My trap did work a little bit. I caught about 50 flies. The yogurt tubs are going past very fast I am happy that we are getting all of the cups are going fast.
I think that we did a good job sorting the trash inside and sorting the yogurt outside. L, L and W finished one weeks worth of sorting yogurt outside. Inside most all of the trash was sorted.

Memo #4
While Mr. C was away, we were broken up to sort in groups. R, A, S, T, and W attacked the pile while W, L and L went up and sorted out yogurt cups. I think that the three main reasons we worked so well were first because we had music, it was cold (so we wanted to get it done faster) and because we added creativity to the sorting. A quote from Mary Poppins is "with every job that must be done there is an element of fun, you find the fun and SNAP, the job's a game." That's what we did. For the yogurt containers that needed to be smashed, we threw them all in one bin while one person danced on them like they were making wine. The other Containers, we were not so creative, we stacked them, while bobbing to the music. With all of these things put into play, our morale stayed high, and we got a whole lot done.

Memo #5
When Mr. Coffey wasn’t here we sorted out the terracycle and got a lot done with the amount of time we had. Everyone picked their selected area so that four people would be sorting or cleaning the pile of trash. I began to clean our bags that we use to carry the trash out of the room because a lot of them were filthy and had yogurt stuck inside them so they had to get cleaned.
                  V and T cleaned out the bags with a hose and sponge but we only had dish soap to clean out the bags so what we did was to fill the bags with ice cold water and then put soap in it and wipe the stain with a sponge.  Doing this means we had to put the bags outside to dry but we didn’t have much space to let the dry so they were put on the patio to dry. We didn’t finish but I don’t think we could even put all the bags onto the patio and have enough room.
                  V couldn’t continue because her hands were getting numb from cleaning the bags in the cold water so T had to do all of the work from then on and by the time it got close to finishing we had gotten half the bags cleaned but none of them were dry yet so we moved the bags from the patio so they don’t blow away overnight. We put them in the basement and disposed of the worst bags and put back the rest. 

Memo #6
Last Thursday we did sorting the entire time. I feel like we were very productive with our time. I actually thought that we were the most productive we have ever been. W, L, and L did a great job when it came to getting the yogurt in the dairy tubs, and the rest of the group did a great job with their work indoors despite the fruit flies.  

Memo #7
So, on Thursday, I feel that making a schedule beforehand really helped as well as setting a goal for ourselves. Before we got started, we communicated to each other that we would have 4 people in the room sorting, 2 outside washing bags, and three outside sorting the milk containers. We emailed back and forth until we ended up with that solid idea and by doing that, we could get right to work on Thursday. Since Mr. Coffey told us to have a before and after picture and that we should keep track of how many we would finish in a certain amount of time, we set a goal for ourselves. We were sure to have a significant impact on the pile in the middle of the floor, we wanted to get as many boxes packed as possible, and we wanted to get the milk containers sorted, and the bags all cleaned out. With V and T on the bags, they finished those quickly and efficiently with the hose and a bottle of soap. They were also accompanied by some music so they had some motivation. A, S, R, and W were in the room sorting as fast as possible and cheering when we finished each bag. We worked as groups sometimes and worked individually other times and altogether, we were a sorting machine with a dent in the pile in about 30 minutes. We were throwing things across the room as well which may seem nonproductive but when we made them (which was usually) it went a lot quicker. We also passed different pieces to each other so we could easily place it in the boxes next to us. Alright, then outside, L and L and W were sorting as well and I wasn’t as involved with that part, but I do know they made a significant impact on the box by packing in what they had sorted and doing it quickly. Mrs. B wasn't a huge part because I feel we did a lot just by ourselves by setting a goal and having a schedule ready beforehand. We were very responsible and ready to work from the beginning. 

Memo #8
The day was productive because we divided the jobs evenly, we made it so that the workspace was easier to move around and the pepole in the sorting room focused on an area insted of floating around doing this and that. 

The increased maneuverability of the spaces made us more productive because we could move faster, so that we could sort more in the same amount of time. Another reason increased maneuverability helped us sort faster was because when we needed to move to put a piece of TerraCycle in the correct place the other pepole sorting did not have to stop and move out of the aisle.

Dividing the jobs evenly helps because they aren't too many pepole in one place. For instance if they were too many people in the sorting room than we would have decreased maneuverability and that would be bad for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph. If they were too many pepole sorting the dariy tubs than the dariy tubs would be sorted just as fast if we had divided it evenly but there would less than the optimal amount in the TerraCycle sorting room. 

Memo #9
Mainly what we did last week was a lot of work. 4 people went off to sort in the big room, 3 people sorted on the deck, and T and V washed bags, returned them to the main building, and picked up terracycle from the classrooms. The work was hard (it was cold out and our hands were numb from the icy water, also we kept touching moldy yogurt) kind of like sweat shop work. We cleaned most of the bags and the ones that weren’t washed were sorted into a box of dirty bags.
            The things we did to make it quicker that definitely worked were: didn’t all work in one place, didn’t put talkative people with talkative people, when someone didn’t have something to do we gave them something to do, etc.
Okay so the reason this worked better than usual is because while our class can be efficient as a group we are so much like siblings we get easily distracted by each other. L and L are giving each other piggy back rides. A and S are bickering. W and W are messing around. It’s just how it is. So pairing up groups for different tasks are better and work well, we aren’t falling on top of each other.
Also we worked with people we are good with, for instance V was put with T who (for some reason) makes sure V works and stays on task. L, W,  and Lee were outside sorting the dairy tubs and they got a crap load of work done, and W, S, A, and R sorted the big room and well, they got a lot done. Putting us in groups with good chemistry had made work a lot harder, better, faster, and stronger.

The Best NYT Article I Ever Sent

Or, From Cheaper by the Dozen to Jean-Georges Restaurant

Dispatches from the World of TerraCycle

So anyone reading this probably knows that the 8th Graders at Sabot at Stony Point have been asked to take over the TerraCycle project for the school.  We have folded it into the curriculum for the 8th Grade Civics and Economics class.

The objectives are multiple here.  The school and parents were happy to have a burgeoning volunteer activity taken off their hands.  And yet they wanted to see it sustained.  (All contributions to all things green remain valued and should be preserved and expanded.)  They also hoped that TerraCycle could prove to be of clear pedagogic value - an example of an Economics class running it's own business.

So where's the pedagogy?  At SSP the value here, too, is manifold.  Running your own business is clearly valuable - and the 8th Graders will learn a ton about this - making decisions, keeping track of costs, communicating, adapting and refining their strategies and methods, trying to acquire and return more TerraCycle - trying to make more money.  They'll also practice skills not unique to business - making decisions as a group; mastering communications methods (like e-mail and social media w/in a finite group); diplomacy; adjusting communications for audience and tone; learning how to decide or prioritize among multiplying hypotheses or new ideas; how to delegate responsibility to get tasks done and work efficiently.

They'll also have the opportunity to develop learning "habits of mind" - qualities not unique to SSP - but perhaps uniquely noted, praised, and analyzed at SSP.

And there's also the opportunity to learn some real world micro- and macro-ecomomics via TerraCycle.  Not only vocabulary about capital and supply and demand and labor markets - but also understanding dynamics like zero- and non-zero sum games, how wealth is created, the Law of Unintended Consequences, and creative destruction.

So how has it gone?  In a word...  Gradually.

Coming to terms w/ the demands of Terracycle has been far more demanding and time-consuming than anticipated.  Some of that is because of the regular quantity of Terracycle donated.  (Kudos to the community.)  And part of that is the result of a group of nine enterprising 8th graders learning to make decisions and work together.  Efficiently.

This is a story about discovering efficiency.

In September it seemed like Terracycle was occupying 100% of our time.  There was nary a moment to do Economics - let alone Civics.  (In past years we have led w/ a deep unit on the Constitution.  Now coming in December...)  I have told the students that we need to ratchet the ratio of Terracycle to academic work down - from 90/10 to 70/30 to 50/50 to 30/70 to 10/90.  Right now I'd say we're down to 70/30.  (We have spent some time reading some stimulating economics articles and discussing them.)  I don't know if we'll ever get to 10/90.  We'll see.

How to ratchet the ratio down?  We need to get more efficient.  I began by telling them about Frank Gilbreth and Cheaper by the Dozen.  Sadly, no one in the 8th grade was familiar w/ the book - it was one of my two favorite books as a child - which certainly makes me feel like a Golden Ager.  The premise of that charming book was the parents' attempt to use the principles of scientific factory management to running their large, unwieldly family.  This didn't make the Gilbreths martinets.  It was their regular job.  The early chapters of Cheaper by the Dozen introduce the reader to the principles of labor and time saving analysis - how to lay bricks faster by arranging your materials smarter and choosing the optimum order of task steps; how to organize a factory more efficiently, by laying out materials and supply rationally, reducing the amount of time squandered by workers walking here and there; I remember Frank G. even discovering it's faster to button your shirt from the bottom up.

That's what they needed  - a dose of scientific management.  (Next year - we'll be sure to read these early chapters together first.)  I introduced these notions and then suggested they start doing what 'real businesses' do - start collecting data.  How long does it take to sort a TC bag?  How many bags can 2 or 4 or 8 people sort in a 60-minute or even a 15-minute period?  What's the optimum # of people to be working in the tiny basement TC room at any one time?  I encouraged them to start keeping track of this information - and posting it on Edmodo - our on-line communication and information warehouse resource.  And they did.

The week I went away I fretted about how "efficient" they would be while supervised by a substitute.  Ideally they would step up as mature 8th graders - and demonstrate their independence and responsibility and maturity and commitment.  But - this was not the only possibility...

As is my wont, I still thought of them as I rode the Gettysburg bus reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on my iPhone.  And what should fall into my lap but an unsolicited one page spread in the Dining section of the NYT - a photo of a re-organized kitchen at a restaurant in New York City, w/ a scant two paragraphs of explanatory text.  You can see the picture below and read the article yourself here.

This photograph seemed perfect.  An example of how a restaurant re-organized its kitchen to increase its ability to serve tables - serve the food hot in a co-ordinated fashion - and clear tables for the next wave of diners.

The truth is, I share and post stuff like this all the time - in all my classes.  Sometimes it's very pointed and assigned - and we study it.  Sometimes it's just for supplementary reference.  And sometimes it's just for optional provocation.  It's not required.  It's just available.

I sent this one on to the 8s w/ the brief admonition - 'see if you can use this to think about how to use the principles of scientific management to organize the TC room and increase your efficiency.'  In all honesty, I didn't even know if they would all look at it.

Well I got back - and they did me in spades.  Not only did they chatter a little via e-mail and Edmodo about the photograph - when I got back I got a glowing report.  From the substitute.  From their own proud self report.  (Edmodo documented their new sorting efficiency numbers.)  And from my own adoring eyes.

They used the Jean-Georges photo to completely re-think how they arranged the TC room and the sorting process.  You can peruse these two before and after photos - posted by a student in the class on Edmodo - to see how things changed.  No longer did they dump the unsorted TC bags into what they had deemed Mt. TerraCycle.  Now they have organized large cardboard boxes around the perimeter of the room - each one labelled and associated w/ a specific TC brigade (yogurt containters; old shoes; discarded cell phones; etc.).  Now when they sort - they just take a new bag and work their way around the perimter tossing a bag's contents into the relevant cardboard depositories.  They tell me it now takes less than 10 minutes to sort a single TC bag.


Two quick, pedagogical observations:

i) Not every shared article produces these results.  I would even say I'm not very good at predicting or anticipating which shared article will strike gold.  This photo from the Times was just a quick one-off Tweeted from the bus.

ii) I doubt I need to spill much ink emphasizing that the lesson learned from this serendipitous exercise is much, much better learned given that it came after 6 weeks struggle, a lesson devised and discovered solely by the students (a little teacher provocation notwithstanding).  I've had the Gilbreths' strictures in my bones since I first encountered them in 4th grade.  It was all I could do not to say, "Here, why don't you do it this way?   You'll get a lot more done, and done faster" - back in September.  But that's not exactly the constructivist way, is it?  We all recognize that the lesson discovered this way will have legs - (perhaps more than one of them will retain a little of the Gilbreths' efficiency mantras - or Jean-Georges's re-design - as they make their way in the world) - and is worth the sacrifice of some Economics vocabulary, or the opportunity to study how a bill becomes a law in the state legislature.

I asked the students to share w/ me their insights from the day's work w/out me.  (This is actually a typical assignment in Civinimox this year, what the students have come to know as a TerraCycle memo.)  I was planning on quoting judiciously from them but upon review I think it's better to make the entire trove available.  I will post subsequently the TerraCycle memos in their entirety so you can see how the students self-report their own achievement.

Once again - I remain proud of them for taking on this year long responsibility - and embracing it w/ such good nature and gusto.  We'll see how well we can keep cranking some pedagogic value out of the exercise.  Thanks to Cheaper by the Dozen and Jean-Georges restaurant, I think we just did.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


I can't say enough about my new 6th grade.  I'll guess I'll just quote Mr. Slinger (from Kevin Henkes's Lily's Purple Plastic Purse): "Wow.  That's about all I can say is, Wow."

One of the tasks of 6th grade is learning how to read a textbook.  Not our favorite thing to have to master - but necessary all the same.  Even if we eschew textbooks - students still need to have to know how to get something out of them.  Our choice - Joy Hakim's History of US - makes things interesting.  It is much easier and pleasanter to read - but it can sometimes be difficult for a 6th grader to figure what's actually happened - what the facts are - from amidst the user-friendly discussion and plentiful sidebars.

But that's what class is for.  Our first unit is always Reconstruction.  This has also been challenging - if also rewarding - for 6th grade classes - because in addition to mastering a series of facts - What is the 14th Amendment?; Who is Andrew Johnson?; What are the "black codes?"; What is Jim Crow? - they also have to string them together causally.  Of course this ultimately makes the details easier to understand - when one thing leads to another then it all eventually stitches together - once you understand it.  But it's a new, demanding task for many 6th graders to stitch and knit that much information together.  That's what we have class for.

This year - by a quirk of the progression of the schedule - I was away for a week - just days after they had grappled w/ their first set of Reconstruction chapters.  In fact - the 6th grade discusssed the second set of chapters - the most complicated chapters - in which they learn of President Johnson's failure to support aggressive Recon efforts and of the black codes that emerged in every Southern state - in just one day.  One day!  (Some other classes have taken 3 days to work their way through this and make sense of how the parts fit together.)  But they only had one.

Still - as I went away - it felt like they had enough of an understanding to attempt a valuable - if challenging - exercise - the Thaddeus Stevens speech.  Stevens is the Radical Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who didn't accept President Johnson's vetoes, who authored the 14th Amendment (the equal protection Amendment) to try to use Federal power to undo the black codes and force the Southern states to grant freed black citizens equality.  (Yes - he was played by Tommie Lee Jones in Spielberg's Lincoln film.)

While I was away I asked them to write Thaddeus Stevens' speech convincing the House of Representatives (and the states at large) to ratify the 14th Amendment.  A useful exercise because it asks students to explain why the black codes and Johnson's vetoes caused the next act in Reconstruction; it requires them to use and wield details; it challenges them to ape and tell the story from a given historical actor's perspective.  This is what History is for.  This is a classic example of demonstrating learning and understanding by doing and applying.

But it would be the very first real full-fledged bona fide writing assignment they would do for me - and I wasn't there.  Who knows how it would turn out?

The students didn't seem phased by the assignment.  I left them specific instructions - and on the following Thursday, proctored by a former SSP L.A. teacher, they wrote their speeches.

When I got back - [actually when I plumbed my e-mail] - I was stunned.  Normally when I have an especially good example of student work - (or unexpectedly or progressively strong work from a specific student) - I like to share it w/ faculty members and especially, Irene.  But this trove?  I wanted to share all of them!  Not only were they all good.  They were all that good.  It was a stunningly strong performance across the board.

They all nailed the story.  They all made the approrpiate references - quoting the Declaration of Independence.  They all knew their black codes - citing examples specifically.  They all brought in something extra - like the prohibition on bills of attainder.  (This last impressive bit of legal legerdemain required a small bit of refinement - as I hadn't actually shown them the provision in the Constitution where bills of attainder are specifically denied to the states.)  But think on it:  How many 6th graders do you know who have the Constitutional scholar's effrontery to throw no bill of attainder at the Southern states to tell them why their black codes are illegal?  (Well, you each know one...And I know 12!)

But that is not all, oh no that is not all.

Yes, I gave them all As.  (Which I've always aspired to do - but never get to do.)  As well as meanginful, detailed feedback.  But the differences among their papers were marginal - marginal compared to the differences I usually see in both projects and assessments.  It remains a remarkable achievement.

But we still had to cover the most tempestuous moment of the Reconstruction unit: the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  We quickly covered the technical basics of impeachment.  (Ask any of them.)  But for context - we talked about Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton - the two presidents who came closest to impeachment.

They were fascinated by Watergate - but that was not the main event.  (I even abandoned the pretense that we might not know if Nixon was guilty or would have been impeached.  We do.  He was.  He would have.)  Clinton was trickier - but the sparks flew.  I managed to explain why he was impeached w/out exposing or sharing any sordid details.  But they jumped on the question of whether the grounds provided justified impeachment.  This was highly relevant to our - eventual - discussion of Andrew Johnson because he too was tried on a specious pretext (violating The Tenure of Office Act - which was itself later ruled unconstitutional) masking the House's real displeasure.  Most of the class determined that lying to a grand jury - perjury - was a pertinent enough crime to impeach a president - no matter what he was lying about.  But more than one student did offer a strident defense of President Clinton and his privacy.  Obviously they didn't really have enough information to provide definitive answers.  But it only took a little to set them off - and oh how quickly and how far they ran w/ it.  It was a thrilling and energetic class debate.  I didn't need to say a word - I only had to keep order.  W/ limited information, these students were able to extrapolate and argue theory and detail - argue abstractly, point to clauses in the Constitution, and try to cite recent relevant examples.  I am certain they could have kept going if we didn't have to pull the plug to get to the next class. 

Yes, we did talk about the Johnson trial properly.  The next class period.  They were very absorbed by the question of whether you could - whether you should - impeach someone in opposition to their policies - not because they've committed a crime.  And that, of course, is why we allow two and three class periods to discuss some material.  Sometimes to make sense of it.  Sometimes to make hay of it. It sure looks like this 6th grade is going to be doing some threshing.

A Collegial Conversation

Something that worked - surprisingly well - w/ the 7th Grade.

We're studying Muhammad - the founding and the spread of Islam.  It's what we do in the first trimester.  To take a break from perhaps a surfeit of Socratic discussion - I gave them a small research assignment.  Having read about Muhammad's ambivalent attitudes towards women - I let them loose researching some aspect of Islamic attitudes towards women.  Some chose to parse Muhammad's own writings and legacy.  Some chose to learn more about how subsequent Islamic clerics and leaders - in different places - have interpreted - or re-interpreted - Muhammad's legacy.  And some chose to focus on modern conflicts over women's rights and women's dress - in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the United States.

At SSP I like to give students the chance to both write or organize the fruits of their research - and also to present it to their class.  Technically they are mastering two separate skill sets - research and organization; and presentation.  But it's also nice - if everyone has mastered what I like to call sub-topics - for everyone to have the opportunity to learn from everyone else.  It increases the mass of learning in the class.  (A version of constructing - and sharing - and thus building our own knowledge.)

The trouble is that w/ 15 loquacious students - who also like to ask questions - inviting them each to present in sequence can take more than a week.  This is valuable were research to be a big deal, twice-a-year thing - but a problem if we want this kind of quick and dirty research to be a normal, no-big-deal, routine thing.  How to solve that?

I tried something new this time.  Rather than asking every single student to present - and giving them each two grades (one for project, one for presentation) - instead I wondered if they could present and teach each other in a more collegial fashion - and more efficiently.  I grouped people w/ similar topics - e.g. all the students who broke down the taxonomy of Islamic dress (burqa, chador; etc.) - and asked if they could choose a lead presenter - and permit each of the other researchers to supplement the presentation.  During Q&A anyone could field answers.  In essence it was a group presentation - even though they didn't plan and organize as a group.

We led the day w/ a student who had researched Muhammad's own writings.  She took us through the basic overview of Muhammad's pros and cons on women's rights - w/ textual references.  Her presentation occasioned lively discussion.  And she was followed by three other students who also shared good textual evidence.  None of these students made their full presentation.  Instead each one zoomed to the material they had that didn't overlap but supplemented and extended our understanding of the initial textual record on women's rights in Islam.

I really wasn't entirely sure if this group could handle the maturity demands of what I was asking them to do.  Would some of them feel gypped?  Would some not understand or be able to adapt and curtail the oxygen consumption they are normally accustomed to when they have the floor?  Would they be able to wait calmly for the next opportunity (most likely on another day) to present?

And I'm happy to report that the experiment appears to have worked.  We didn't actually get all the presentations in yet.  (But they are all posted on Edmodo - so anyone can learn from any of them anytime.)  But the students adapted well to the experiment - in all phases.  The student I called upon first rallied and presented well.  The students who followed her all seemed to understand what to focus on.  They adapted and were able to avoid repeating what we had already heard before.  Some didn't even choose to stand up at the board to supplement.  They were able to share their slivers of supplementary expertise sitting down at our modifed Harkness table - just as one might see at a committee or board or seminar meeting.  All students were able to pay attention and glean new understanding - and when they asked a question more than one student was empowered to answer it.  It was true learning as a group - and it was far more efficient - (and a little bit more sophisticated) - than what we've done before.

We closed the first period w/ a stand alone presentation on women's rights in Israel.  Israel is something we will cover in far more depth in the 2nd trimester - but this student was interested - there is a relevant tie - it provides a much different contrast than most of the Islamic countries - so I let him go after the topic.  This student attacked his project w/ gusto and prepared a fabulous first slide chart listing the attitudes and policies of Israel's different religious groups (secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox) on two vexed and different questions - women serving in the military, and women's roles in prayer and church and synagogue.  The class was fascinated.  (Most of them, understandably, know very little about the Israeli context.)  It was a perfect example of making a relevant connective comparison - and whetting their appetites for our later deeper dive into understanding Israel.

We actually have more presentations to come.  But I am gratified and enthused that this technique should be one we can follow over the course of the year.  Everyone will be able to present more than once (and refine their technique) even if they don't each present every time.  We will all learn more - faster.  Best of all - their adaptive command of this "collegial" technique should allow us to do more regular, offhand research - more often, more regularly, more 'normally.'  Onward...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Will Wonders Never Cease

Lo and behold the worksheet worked!

1) So the 8th grade spent the second half of the second trimester studying the two gay marriage cases to be argued before the Supreme Court.  (Hollingsworth vs. Perry; U.S. vs. Windsor)  We started by contemplating the purpose of marriage - its development as an institution - using some deductive reasoning to try to understand how the institution of marriage upholds civilization.  (A tricky thing to do as marriage is one of those 'institutions' an 8th grader would take for granted.  Hard to imagine what it might be like w/out it.)  This was valuable as most 8th graders are viscerally and passionately supportive of gay marriage.  At the very least, we wanted to make sure why anyone would resist change at too passionate a pace.  We answered the question of how someone could be supportive and empathetic to gays - and still be resistant to gay marriage.  Students were engaged and required little encouragement to offer their opinions.  They learned willingly.

2) All well and good - and then we dived into the cases at hand.  This mostly entailed using press accounts explaining the cases, their background, and also some commentary anticipating the Supreme Court's options in analyzing the two cases.  The 8th grade Civics students were well versed in the Constitution from the fall - particularly specific clauses that would turn out to be important here, like the full faith and credit clause (to be found in Article IV) - so I assumed that studying current cases - in action! - would be an excellent way to utilize the Constitution, to show it as a living, breathing entity.  And an excellent way to expand from the learning platform we established in the fall.  But the class began to bifurcate here - some students still attentively interested, others waning in the fog of details.  And the details came quickly.  Names, dates, precedents, and lots of legal mumbo jumbo to be sure.

I like to use New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles because those are papers I read every day - so I am up to date on daily nuances in cases like these - and I have access to a full range of editorial opinion.  (In this case, I also shared articles from the Atlantic - and even the New York Review of Books.)  One might ask if it's worth also sharing material from other sources - perhaps more middle school friendly sources.  A legitimate question.  But I think it's worth expecting high standards of our 8th graders here.  I really think that to be prepared for high school one should be able to read a NYT article or commentary and make sense of it on his/her own.  And of course we also do pause to explore and break down some of the material in the articles together - determining what is salient and what less so.

3) Students were also asked to pause here and prepare 6-person presentations on both cases.  I gave them ten days and this allowed each student to specialize in some aspect of the cases - and then the new information gleaned was shared with all - theoretically making the whole class smarter and well-informed.  But again we were treated to presentations of bifurcated quality - some thorough and probing, but many incomplete, shallow, or even slap-dash.

4) Finally - before completing our study - I treated the 8th graders to presentations on two important background cases - the two essential precedent-setting cases without which there would be no question of gay marriage before our Supreme Court: Loving vs. Virginia, which legalized inter-racial marriage in 1967; and Lawrence vs. Texas, which de-criminalized homosexual sexual activity across the United States in 2003.  They found this material compelling, gaining a clear understanding of how it takes historical progress to get where we are today.  (This was not difficult, they having previously covered similar ground w/ Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Ed. as 6th graders.)  Many of the students found this material a valuable intellectual extension and embraced details like understanding the dissents in the cases.

5) And so onto the final assessment to crown our study of gay marriage in preparation for the historic argument and decision before the Supreme Court.  Typically one would want to have a class debate at this point.  Give the students time to prepare, establish a formal protocol, and then let 'em have it out.  I elected not to do that.  Mainly because I feared the discrepancies in preparation and contributions from too many members of the class.  Such a question is always there when you contemplate a group activity like a class debate - but in this case I read the 8th graders as being largely unmotivated at this point (their exhausting high school application process over) and I did not want to waste the class time or preparation time on an exercise that seemed unlikely to advance our understanding of the issue or the cases.

To be even franker their lack of motivation was a little dis-spiriting.  In a cavalier moment I might even have said I was "tired of teaching them."  Of course this is not really true - but one must allow for moments of disillusion.  Before sucking it up and going back to the drawing board.

[And in their defense, not only had they just completed the months long high school application - they had also just completed their months long VJAS projects in science class.  Such are the travails of a middle school student - and a middle school teacher - weathering the waxing and waning fortunes of enthusiasm and motivation.  Who among us doesn't remember the vaunted Senior Slump among high school students entering the back half of their senior year?]

I elected instead to assign them the task of writing their own debate dialogues - individually.

6) But before giving them that assignment - I gave them a worksheet.  A worksheet?  Yes - a worksheet.

Do I believe in worksheets?  Certainly not.  They're usually make-work assigned by teachers trying to fill time.  Very un-Sabot.  Very.

Yet I assigned it anyway.  A mere 9 questions written by me - one with important sub-parts.

The purpose of the worksheet?  Review.  In the truest sense of the word.  A worksheet to ensure that everyone was cognizant of and possessed the same elementary understandings - cases, principals, principles, clauses - necessary to composing the dialogue.

It had become clear that the class - as a whole - was not as consistently well versed as I expected them to be - as they needed to be - to complete the unit.  Such a worksheet should in all honesty be "easy" for well-prepared students - and provide real work - useful, valuable, review work - but work just the same - for students who had been slacking.

Of course I asked myself - why had the unit not progressed as I had hoped/anticipated?  Was it my fault?  Did I not teach it constructivist enough?  Did I make it boring by emphasizing too much - or too arcane - Constitutional detail??  Was it their fault?  A simple case of 8th graders checking out in the second half of the year?

Whatever the reason - it was still my responsibility to diagnose and adapt and try to achieve the unit's objectives.

Was the worksheet punitive?  Not really.  The questions were carefully chosen. They were not meant to be "hard."  They were meant to be useful.  Nothing was on there just to fill space.  The worksheet was actually designed to make sure a student knew the bare minimum to be able to discuss the ins and outs of the two gay marriage cases.  (As a worksheet should?)

Now here's the critical move - the element that, in retrospect, I think made the exercise click.  I told students that the worksheet was not only required - but that every question must be answered accurately.  I told them that I would be reviewing the worksheets carefully - not to earn a grade - but for bare minimum accuracy up and down the 9 questions.  I told them that receiving the final dialogue assignment was conditional upon completing the worksheet accurately.

(The original reason for these requirements was to make sure the students who most needed to benefit from the worksheet would do so.  What good would it do to assign and let the strong students slave over it and the less motivated students turn in more sloppy work?)

I expected it would take students no more than one class period to answer the questions on the worksheet.  I gave them the worksheet - and they tasked away over it - and were not able to complete it in one sitting.

Several students did send me the completed version that night.  (Good.)  But no one's first attempt was accurate 1 to 9.  (Question 5 - the one with the sub-parts - proved to be especially daunting.  It required students to list the four different constitutional provisions already used in previous cases to render either Proposition 8 or the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and to explain - in one sentence - how each clause rendered legislation unconstitutional.)

What followed was an interesting and unexpectedly valuable exercise.  I gave students instant feedback and further responses trickled in over the course of the next ten days.  Some students got right on it and nailed down the missing details in a a day or two.  Others spent more than a week before they had finally iced every niggling specific.

A psychologist might call that feedback and response.  But what impressed me is that I didn't get any sour grapes from anyone about being so demanding.  Everyone had something still to learn and clarify.  And some students had a lot - but they learned it.  They really did.  Some attacked it with more alacrity than others.  But they did it.  They didn't cheat or over-rely on stock answers cribbed from someone else's approved paper.  They engaged in dialogue with me.  They maintained good cheer.  And they learned.

Why hadn't they learned it all before?  I still haven't figured that out for sure.  Perhaps I never will.  Those four constitutional provisions from Question 5?  They were all in the PowerPoint presentations the 12 of them had given 3 weeks earlier.

This question will still plague me.  But I am pleased to report that the worksheets worked!  The dialogues the students eventually turned in were uniformly better than I expected - two weeks earlier - they could possibly be.  Despite themselves - or despite me - or despite the material - all twelve 8th grade students demonstrated a conversance and understanding of the due process and equal protection clauses, of the salience of the 10th Amendment and our year-long celebration of federalism, and even of the mysterious full faith and credit clause.  They showed a respect and sensitivity for the arguments on both sides of the issue.  They were able to simply and easily cite material from the different secondary sources we shared.  (Some went further than that.)  They showed an easy facility w/ Loving and Lawrence.  And - unsurprisingly - they larded their dialogues with wit and spirited touches.

The work on display in the dialogues corresponded strongly with the quality of work I hoped students would attain when we started the unit 8 weeks earlier.  It was work that 3/4 of them would not have been capable of producing the day I handed out the worksheet. There is no doubt in my mind the worksheet was the difference.  The e-mail and personal exchanges with students - the required attention to detail - resulting in clear, actual, demonstrable understanding - all paid off.

Against all my pedagogical instincts - the worksheet worked.

[As noted previously - Blogger confoundingly won't let me post sample files in the blog - not even PDFs.  When we get around to having our own teacher websites - I can share both the worksheet and sample dialogues if you're curious.]

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Relevance as February Wanes

A couple of quick updates from the week's early headlines...

The 8th graders are studying the legality of gay marriage in the United States in anticipation of next month's landmark cases to be argued before the Supreme Court (Hollandsworth vs. Perry; U.S. vs. Windsor).  They have learned the background of both cases - Proposition 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage Act from the Clinton era) - and even the deep background of how we got here (Loving vs. Virginia; Lawrence vs. Texas).  As they are well aware, our culture and our nation have moved very quickly on this issue in the last 15 years.  Today's headlines tell us that Republican leaders are moving quickly, too...

Republicans Sign Brief in Support of Gay Marriage

The 7th Graders have just finished their quick tour of highlightes in Islamic history from the death of Muhammad (632 C.E.) to the end of the Ottoman Empire (1923).  These highlights included: the Sunni-Shiite split; the Islamic conquests; the Ummayad and Abbasid Empires; the Golden Age of Islam; Saladin and the Crusades; the Ottoman Empire; and the great Turkish modernizer, Kemal Ataturk.  No sooner had we learned about Ataturk - and his remarkable revolution to modernity in Turkey - banning the fez and the veil and turban; changing the alphabet and dramatically increasing literacy rates - no sooner had we introduced the notion of the Lexus and the Olive Tree - how societies manage the tension inherent in transitioning from traditional mores and values to modern, rational, Western, technological, pluralist values - then we see this story on yesterday's front page...

Turks Debate Modest Dress Set for Takeoff

And for the 6th graders?  Slimmer pickings.  We have just begun a new unit which will take us to the eve of WW II.  We have grappled w/ the Spanish-American War - adding to our arsenal of -isms - isolationism, interventionism, expansionism, imperialism.  And appraised Teddy Roosevelt, paying especial attention to how his Great White Fleet exemplified his famous slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."  The 6s were quite taken with T.R.'s can-do mentality, his perseverance and energy.  (Who isn't?)  In fact, David Brooks concluded his column in today's paper - suggesting how President Obama might transcend party differences and partisan ideologies - by emulating no less than Teddy Roosevelt...

My dream Obama wouldn’t be just one gladiator in the zero-sum budget wars. He’d transform the sequester fight by changing the categories that undergird it. He’d possess the primary ingredient of political greatness: imagination. The great presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, see situations differently. They ask different questions. History pivots around their terms. 

Our Second Adolescence

The lesson:  We try to keep things relevant in the History classroom in the Pool House.  And hopefully we succeed.