Sunday, November 2, 2014

Remember to Let Him Go

My father could recite Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He learned the poem from his mother during childhood in the 1930’s in a household where storytelling and songs were a source of learning and entertainment, prior to the advent of television. He had a gift for hearing and remembering and storytelling. The powerful part of this gift was his application of the stories he knew to everyday life.

In 1955, my parents bought their first home at 48 Eaton Road, Bordentown, New Jersey. In 1968, I was born into their family as their fourth child. I’ve been reflecting today on that house and its location, and I realize that I never thanked my parents for choosing the house they did. New Jersey is densely populated and industrial in many places. My home town, however, is shouldered by the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek, a tributary to which flowed like an artery a couple of hundred yards behind my house: Thornton Creek.

Most of my childhood, I existed between the banks of that creek. Even in the winter, I stepped on its surface, peering through the ice into deep, clear pools. I can still feel the surface of the ice with my cheek. During the spring, summer, and fall, I walked the creek, eventually with hip-wader boots I bought with paper route money. I often had a bucket or two in hand, and sometimes a net. I was on the lookout for minnows, frogs, snakes, turtles, all creatures of the woods, as we called the narrow strip of green space between streets. As crowded as my neighborhood seemed sometimes, I almost always had the quarter-mile stretch of creek between Thorntown Lane and Charles Bossert Drive all to myself. Later I would learn that I was sloshing in the footsteps of an earlier “owner” of the creek, Joseph Bonaparte (Napolean’s brother).

I took playing in the creek for granted then, but looking back in time, I now believe that my escape into the quiet, green, and vital space encouraged me and helped me make sense of life. It was all by hand by sight and touch and concentration, and the noise of life washed away with the sometimes thin and sometimes voluminous flow of the water over white, brown, and gray rocks and pebbles and sediment. Looking at my hands now, it’s hard to imagine them in youth through a few inches of water, but I do see them. I see and feel them in the chill of the creek, groping the edges of a large and flat rock and deciding how to best leverage and slowly lift it.  Setting it sideways, I wait as the brown cloud of dregs swirls and lightens to reveal the creatures hiding under the rock, perhaps a crayfish or salamander. And then the challenge to trap it with my hands, no matter the animal. Once I leaned over and watched a foot long gray American Eel resting on the creek’s bed for so long that my leg fell asleep while I moved my hands closer and closer until I grabbed and tossed it into my three-gallon bucket.

When my dad came home from work, I showed him my eel and he told me the story of the eel and how this fish had been born South of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea and had swum into the Delaware Bay up through the river into the tides of Crosswicks Creek, arriving at our creek. Dad got out the volume of our family’s encyclopedia set that contained information about American Eels, and we figured by the size of the eel that it was probably seven or eight years old, just about my age at the time. We were on the patio of our house. In the summer, my dad had a habit of taking off his work shirt and drinking a beer out back in his t-shirt before dinner.

The cool of the evening was finally starting to grow from the shade as he said, “That eel will be happier when you remember to let him go, Matthew. He has to someday find his way back to the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the sea where he was born so that he can start his own family. He can rest here tonight, but I promise he’ll thank you when you let him go."

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Early the next morning, I found the impatient eel already traveling in the dew-soaked grass toward the creek. I went down ahead of him to the creek for a fresh bucket of water and came back to give him a more comfortable ride to its bank. Before tilting the bucket low enough in the current for the eel to escape, I wished him a safe journey and imagined the towns and people he would pass on his way, gray and silent and quick. I prayed that he would make it home, and I let him go.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Feedback Doesn't Have To Be Scary

Growing up in New Jersey during the 1970’s and 80’s was great. One of the benefits of living there is that no matter where you live, you are really very close to the beach or Jersey Shore, as we referred to it. Annually, my parents would rent the same house on the same street in Ship Bottom. My parents would put a down payment on the house every fall and save all year long for the vacation to come. We loved everything about the Jersey Shore: the white beach and blue-green surf, the ice cream parlors and beach shops, and the sturdy boardwalks and amusement piers that dash the coast.  Yes, there was a lot to do on our trips, but beginning in the mid 1970’s my brothers and sister and I began an extreme nagging campaign for Dad to take us to the haunted house on the Brigantine Pier. We began the campaign each spring as the pier’s commercials started airing on local television. My dad resisted the nagging. The Brigantine Pier was indirectly about an hour away from our beach house, but that didn’t matter to us. Admission was $22.50  in 1978 for five of us. With inflation, that would be $82.10 today, but that didn’t matter to us. The line outside the castle would take hours to negotiate for the momentary thrill, but that didn’t matter to us either. What mattered most is that we would be terrified.

Finally, my dad acquiesced, and Brigantine was horrifying, as promised. Even my dad jerked backwards and nearly knocked me down when a blood-soaked, cleaver-wielding kook in a white butcher's apron seemed to come within inches of touching his arm. A haunted house is an assault on our senses, our primary and most involuntary source of feedback. During the dark places, we lose use of senses and have to guess based on what we hear or feel as feedback to believe what is happening. I have a visceral memory of gripping my sister’s hand in a black-dark hallway of the house where squeaking sounds permeated the air and “hairy,” rubbery, invisible “rats” tickled our sunburned legs. I still get a chill. In all haunted houses, sudden and close movements from human or mannequin fiends challenge our sense of space and instigate a fight or flight response: sensory overload. But we live and thrive and learn from the use of our senses and the feedback they provide, so they can't be ignored. I think that’s why haunted houses are so scary.

So if you decided to read this blog, you are probably wondering by now what a haunted house in New Jersey has to do with feedback for student learning. I would submit that feedback of all kinds is such a lifeline for the growing mind that negative or counterproductive feedback for student work has the same horrifying impact on learning as a haunted house has on its visitors. I believe that ineffective feedback slows students down at best and causes them to quit at its worst.

I really hope Grant Wiggins won’t mind the poetic license I’m taking with his piece, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback from 2012, but when I read this piece I couldn’t help but have nightmares about the pretty scary job I did in providing feedback to students when I was teaching English a couple of  decades ago. I’m even more afraid when I see those same practices persisting today in spite of all the reform efforts around teaching and learning that have taken place since the 1990’s. In Grant Wiggins’s piece, he provides seven conditions for feedback for growth. That’s appealing. Sometimes, however, in order to catalyze improvement, we need to know the why behind the reasons to improve. The reasons are not always a glass-half-full, so to speak. I’ve heard that it’s important to confront some of the brutal issues or horrors around a practice. More time spent on feedback and improved feedback practices promote quality learning; simultaneously, abandoning the scary practices of feedback should at least reduce negative results.

I’m assuming that haunted house designers have one goal: create as much senseless fear as possible in participants. They backwards map the house from this target and provide inconsistent and relentless unproductive feedback. I would also submit that no teacher starts the school year with the goal of creating senseless fear – or possibly apathy – in students through untimely and inconsistent feedback. Intentions aside, this image has become a caricature of the educational process.  Proper feedback for student work should be timely, consistent, and oriented to students’ learning goals for the course. 

With scary feedback, students are unclear about the goals for a learning task. The teacher assigns a “project,” writing prompt, reading assignment, or math practice without articulating up front what goals are for students. In this case, the goal for the student is simply to complete the work and see what happens. It’s like getting in line for the haunted house with the goal of just making it through. According to Wiggins, “Learners are often unclear about the specific goal of a task or lesson, so it is crucial to remind them about the goal and the criteria by which they should self-assess.” Haunted houses are often frightening because the passenger is forced to keep walking and negotiating the course, although the way ahead is unclear and the feedback coming from his senses is opaque at best. The best thing to do in this case is to duck and run if possible. Wiggins suggests that feedback should be tangible and noticeable for the learner if it is to be productive. For example, why observe several students give speeches as an assignment with minimal feedback opportunities from the teacher when they can readily video their own speeches repeatedly for self and peer assessment?

Another tactic, telling a student he has written a “weak paper,” is a dreadful thing to do. It is a useless form of feedback with awful consequences. It evokes the same fight or flight response as the screaming ghoul in a haunted house because it is neither actionable nor user-friendly. I’ll bet, however, that anyone reading this blog – unless you have been very lucky – has received feedback like this at least once. Feedback should be criterion referenced base on the articulated learning goal for the work. A student’s score on one criterion should communicate implicitly the “how to” of improving current or future work. Writing a pejorative comment on a child’s paper is malpractice, and it’s scary.

      Another source of negative feedback is “overwhelming feedback.” Like the loud and overlapping shrieks emitting from the crevices of a haunted house, overwhelming feedback is neither actionable nor user-friendly. Denny Wolfe, the professor who taught my teaching methods class when I was an undergraduate stated it this way: “The more you cover, the less the student will uncover.” In other words, the more red marks you put on a child’s writing, the less he will learn from it. A few choice pieces of actionable feedback will result in the student “uncovering” learning from your insights. 

I’ll admit that in writing this blog entry, I’m probably employing some of the same bad practices for feedback that I’m complaining about. My goal is not guilt or accusation, however, it is to demonstrate how pointless and harmful some of our most entrenched grading and “feedback” practices appear to be. Shouldn’t the goal of feedback be to make students smarter? Students must be challenged; there is no doubt about it. They should be challenged and motivated to learn and grow and to develop a growth mindset. Appropriate feedback appeals to the human desire for autonomy in setting goals and selecting tools for improved performance. It also guides mastery and aligns with the learner’s purpose for truly engaging with the work at hand. Consider Daniel Pink’s take on best practices in compensating and reinforcing effort with higher order work as presented in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

It is never too late to start a new instructional practice, especially when you know that one you are using is harmful. Consider the guilt and hesitation that 19th century physicians confronted when they realized that washing their hands would kill germs and reduce patient mortality rates. They first had to admit that by not washing their hands, they had harmed patients in the past. We now take the practice of hand washing for granted. If you have been providing haunted and scary feedback to students, abandon it and start over by replacing your past strategies with what you really know will work. If personal hygiene evolved, why can’t instructional practices?


The haunted house at Brigantine is gone. It closed in 1984 and later burned to nothing. All that is left of the pier are stubby posts protruding from the surf. There is no foundation on which to build it again, and yet millions of visitors carry hair-raising memories of the place. It’s funny, but because of the way our minds work as children, we felt a involuntary impulse to go through it, much like students as captive audiences for schools and classes. Submission to the call to tour the ghost infested mansion had be daunting; it was a haunted house. A student’s submission of work to a teacher doesn’t have to be so. It can be positive. It can and should be an opportunity, a foundation, for learning and growth.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Bring Back that Loving Feeling!

            A few nights ago, my wife and I were doing some work, and she excitedly pulled up a video on YouTube that one of her former students created. The video by Tim Schauer, How I Met Your Mather, is brilliant. The 2014 First Prize Winner in Dartmouth’s Math-O-Vision contest, the goal of the production is to tell a creative, four-minute story that shows the math that fills our world.



            Watching the video, it is clear to me that Tim knows and loves math and is able to communicate his understanding with a creative flare that engages the viewer and invites critical thinking and discussion about abstract math in the concrete world. Further, the concise tale of unrequited love is one to which we can all relate. Beyond the obvious and comical fatal attraction satire designed to draw us into the story, Tim’s collaborator and the story’s protagonist, Michael Balaban, tells a cathartic tale of woe. We all have an early joy of learning. Pre-schoolers and kindergartners seem to thrive in their busy, hands-on environments. They make, they play, and they discover while they soak up basic skills. Engagement is the norm.

            As children make their way through school, however, boredom creeps in. A national survey of over 600,000 students conducted by Gallup in 2013 indicates that 54% of U.S. students are engaged in school. Data from the survey reflects involvement and enthusiasm at higher levels in 5th grade than in 12th grade. One has to ask why this is the case. Upon closer analysis of the information provided by the survey, my takeaway is that it is not about a lack of friendship or even a dearth of teachers who are able to get their kids excited about the future. For me, one engagement item out of seven really jumps out as the worst. Only thirty-one percent of the students surveyed strongly agreed that in the last seven days they had received praise for doing good schoolwork. Tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders have the lowest scores on this item. The following hyperlink is an excerpt from Education Week.


            What a shameful story of unrequited love! Indeed, this story is the story told in How I Met Your Mather, and it all boils down to assessment. From my vantage point, in spite of the narrow test-prep environment foisted on school systems through misguided reform efforts, teachers find ways to make learning meaningful by encouraging creativity and critical thinking in their students. They expand the curriculum, tapping into student’s personal experiences and inviting them to collaborate to solve problems. Every child should meet and “know” math on his or her terms: true love. After all, mathematics is a human construct! To know math is to love math. The fundamentals of Algebra, for example, have been with us for at least 4,000 years. Apparently, ancient Babylonians in love with math explored and recorded their findings with equations that simply illustrated the beauty of abstract balance. I can only imagine Al-Khwarizmi  visiting us from 800 AD and sitting down to take a modern test to find out whether he can do “good work” in mathematics.

            As ingenious as How I Met Your Mather is, the students who created it will still be required to sit individually to work through a diminishing assessment to find out whether they “know” math while passing through all the gates we have established as important to our nation for global competitiveness. If I haven’t made my case for the imbalance in this approach, I will offer Yong Zhao’s research on math test scores vs. math confidence to share insight into how nations like the U.S. continue to dominate the world’s entrepreneurial stage. Sadly, the efforts we make to improve our students’ results on “seductive” measures like the TIMSS and PISA only erode the economy-driving creativity, confidence, and love of learning our students build with their teachers.


Consider a question from Trilling and Fadel's Twenty-First Century Skills: Life for Learning in Our Times. Think about your own life and those times when you have had a ‘peak’ learning experience. What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful and engaging? Were you doing “good work”? Are you remembering a challenging and supportive teacher? How about relevant materials, resources, and choices? Did technology play a role? Was there a real-world problem to solve creatively? For a moment in time, you loved learning and learning loved you back; then comes the test on what you “know” and the love is diminished or lost.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Single Garment: The Teacher’s Relationship

I’ll never forget my first day of high school as a ninth grader in 1982. It was a lesson on relationships. My first class was Physical Education. Our teacher called attendance. On hollering my name, she paused, cringed, and asked if I was of the “infamous Haas family.” To make a long story short, my family was a lower-middle class family staking a claim in a neighborhood where we may not have initially fit. We were what we used to call “blue collar” and made do without a lot of the resources or priorities that our neighbors had.

            My PE teacher was just the first to scratch me from her roll. Two other teachers had me removed from their classes later that day based on familiarity with my family and the challenges of previous years with other Haases. I don’t blame them, but at the time, I certainly felt expendable as a student.

            One person seemed to want me that day: Herb Conaway, a Social Studies Teacher and the Track and Cross Country Running Coach. He caught me in the hall on my way to the cafeteria for lunch. I didn’t know then that Coach Conaway graduated from this same high school with my mom in 1952. I didn’t know that he had joined the service and was a national-class sprinter for the Army and in college in his youth.  I didn’t know he would become my best-friend and mentor.

All I knew was that he was the first adult to smile at me all day.

“I missed you at pre-conditioning for Cross Country at the beginning of August, Matt.”

This brought silence from me. I knew about pre-conditioning from the school’s summer newsletter, but I didn’t want to participate.

“No matter, you can get in shape before the first meet.”

I was staring at my shoes to avoid his eyes, “I’m not running, Coach Conaway.”

“Why not?” He now positioned his hand on my shoulder.

“I don’t know.” It was hard to shrug my shoulder with his hand kindly gripping me. I tried.

“Well, if you don’t know why not, then I’ll tell you why.” He was grinning, “Because I say so. Here is your permission slip. You can miss practice today, but you miss another, and you will do extra work.”

Suddenly I didn’t want to disappoint Coach Conaway. We had met only one time a few years before when he showed up at an elementary and middle school track meet sponsored by the local track club. I had signed up without training because some of my friends were running in the meet. I placed second in the mile. Pleased with myself, I walked off the track smiling. Coach Conaway hopped over the infield fence surrounding the football field and track. He was smiling too. He told me he was Herb Conaway and asked me if I was Jim and Joan Haas’s son Matt.

“Yeah,” I replied. If had known that Coach Conaway was going to become one of the most important people in my life, I would have answered with a little more enthusiasm.

“Well, you sure had a good race,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“You could have won, though Matt. You were back 10 seconds or so at the half-mile. You just relaxed on that, as complacent as can be.”
 
I didn’t know what the word “complacent” meant at the time, so I thanked him and ran off to find my friends. Little did I know that he would use that word to test me and shape my character in the years to come. Coach Conaway built my work ethic; he built my confidence in myself and what I could do on the track and in school.

Yesterday, January 20, 2014, as I reflected on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, I thought about his words during “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” in 1967, a year before I was born and when Coach Conaway would have been the age I am now. He said…

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. 
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

Beside my father, Coach Conaway was by far the most important man in my life. He knew about my family and the struggles we had. He gave me a chance. When I spent time with him, I felt smart and supported. He asked me tough questions. He told me stories about his childhood. He let me know when he was proud of me and when he was disappointed, and I always came back for more.  He got the best out of me. He helped me go on to college, and when I became an English teacher and wrestling and track coach with my first job, I emulated his approach. Later, as an assistant principal and principal, I tried to be like Coach Conaway in building relationships and striving to help students and teachers find the best in themselves. As an assistant superintendent, I am always looking for Herb Conaway in the teachers we hire and develop. I seek him out when I walk through schools, observing teachers as they build caring relationships with students.

Whether they know it or not, teachers who take time to build relationships with students and invest in them are giving and receiving a precious gift. They fortify the young people they teach and coach, and they strengthen themselves as well. In fact, as we are all connected, we are all enhanced and made greater as one garment. I picture that garment as new school clothes, an athletic uniform, a dream coat, a graduation gown.