Saturday, May 30, 2015

Help is Here - In appreciation of my friend Steve Dafilou

Today I went to school to go to the dedication of a bench in memory of my friend and colleague Steve Dafilou who died today, last year.  I spoke some impromptu remarks which I've tried to remember and improve on below. 

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Steve and I had a lot in common.  We shared a birthday.  We both went to Big 10 schools.  We both married women named Lori.  We both were probably louder than we needed be.  There were other ways in which we were not alike.  I teach History.  Steve taught Math.   I am a very abstract person.  I really do think theoretically first most of the time and then try to use the theory to solve my problem.  Steve was imminently practical.  When my daughter was born, she was a real pain.  She couldn't breast feed and she took forever to fall asleep.  Our nights were hellish adventures of futilely trying to get a latch and failing, then heating up and feeding the stored breast milk while pumping the next batch, then cleaning the equipment and trying to get Lenny to fall back asleep and then doing it all again two hours later.  I was a zombie and Lori wasn't much better.  One day she brought Lenny up to school and left her there, I'm not sure why.  Maybe she needed to take a nap.  Lenny was fussing and Steve took her out of my arms and plopped her on his belly and within seconds she was asleep.  I was floored.  In the best of times, I can barely keep my life together.  As a sleep deprived new father in my second year on the job, I was a mess.  By this point, I knew Steve had two daughters (I would eventually teach them both) and had seen them around school.  I knew he was a great parent.

"Steve," I asked, "what's the secret?  How am I going to do this?  I've read 75 parenting books and they all say something different!"

And Steve looked down at my sleeping daughter, and he looked up at me and said, "the creamy white stuff is better than clear, greasy stuff."

He was talking, of course, about butt cream, what you put on the kid to keep her from getting diaper rash.  And this was absolutely, typical Steve.  He saw a struggling new parent and tossed him a practical lifeline.  He gave me a concrete lifeline, one thing I could do that day that would make my daughter's life and mine, a little bit better.  I watched Steve do this with scores of Math students and advisees over the years.  There would be kids, scores of kids, kids struggling  not just with one concept or a particular problem, but with whole sections of Math, and School, and Life.    And Steve would toss them a lifeline of one specific thing they could do right then to make things a little better.  And the next day another one.  And another one.  Until soon they weren't struggling anymore.  

As long as there teachers in our buildings who will do that, Steve will be here.  I think he will be here for a long, long time. 

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So that's what I said.  Or something like that it.  But I wanted to add two things. 

 First, my friend Charlie spoke beautifully about how Steve's whole life was the school and that was true. And Steve's brother spoke beautifully about how Steve's whole life was his family and that was true, too.  And those of that knew Steve knew also that his whole life was tied to his synagogue, that is when he wasn't busy having his whole life be the Philadelphia Folk Festival.  That's four lives that he crammed into forty-something years.    I think I probably have more room in my life for another life or two. 

Second, Steve had a sign on his door, and on the sign was a phrase, and it's on the bench, too.  It says "Help is here."  Next year, I'm going to hang a sign on my door.  It's going to say "Help is here."  Not everybody has a door, or a classroom, or an office.  But I think everybody has a place where they can hang a sign, even if it's just in their minds or on their hearts.   Do me a favor, dear reader, and hang a sign that says "help is here" in memory and appreciation of my friend Steve Dafilou. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cursive, Council, and Curricular priorities

Yesterday, the Philadelphia City Council had the School Reform Commission in to hold budget hearings.  However,  instead of figuring out to raise the millions the school district needs to operate next year at something approaching a minimal level, City Councillors fixated on whether or not cursive was being taught in school.  I kid you not. 

First off, let's think about why city council is getting into the weeds on the elementary education.  They're doing it because, um, I'm thinking.  Quite frankly, I have no idea.  When board members at my school join the board, they get very firm training about what they should and should not do.  One of the things they should not do is get involved in curricular decisions.  Money decisions are fair game.  Things like whether or not every classroom gets a smartboard or should we shift to 1:1 laptops are board level decisions, they require funding commitments and long term financial planning.   Which math curriculum we use is not a board level decision.  So why is city council discussing cursive?  Why knows?

More alarming, however, were the justifications city council members  used  for cursive.  (You can read them here)  I'm the last person to get on the technofuturist bandwagon, but why exactly do I need to be able to sign my name?   I already use virtual signatures for many transactions.  Pretty soon biometric scanning is going to make signatures obsolete.  So why do kids need to learn cursive?  There are some studies that show some benefits to cursive, but they are hardly rigorous.  (In one frequently cited study, students in 2nd 4th, and 6th grade wrote more by hand than on a keyboard.  I have been unable to determine whether students primarily wrote by hand or on a keyboard prior to the test or even find the original article, I did find something about handwriting and dyslexic students that might be where this idea came from).    And couldn't the money that's used to teach cursive be used for things like laptops, or libraries, or, I don't know, a nurse in every school? 

Another pet topic was civics because of low turnout in the mayoral primary last week.  You want to increase voter turnout?  How about doing things that make it easier to vote, like extended hours, easy mail-in voting, same day registration, electronic balloting, etc.  But you know what high turn out might mean?  A city council without most of these folks concerned about cursive on it. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

To read and think, question and dream.

There was a lot of reaction to the ALT-Schools announcement.  Tim Burke weighed in.  Lots of other folks too.  One of the best essays I read is worth quoting at length.   The highlights are mine. 


There’s a new attempt to solve education sweeping in from the West. Perhaps you read about the $100 million round of venture capital money that was announced for ALT-Schools last week. We’re going to see a few of these, perhaps many, over the next few years as technology firms and startups attempt to apply methods from Silicon Valley, such as The Lean Startup or Agile development, to teaching and learning. I am sharply reminded of my own arrogance when I entered the field of education from the dot com industry over a dozen years ago. What I failed to appreciate then, and see missing in these new approaches, is an authentic understanding of what education is for; what it promises and what its failure would mean.

School is actually a conservative enterprise. It is the passing on of what’s best in humanity’s pursuit to understand and control nature and ourselves. Old-sounding values like sportsmanship, integrity, and empathy can’t be easily replaced by new ones like problem seeking and problem solving; the former represent the hard-won wisdom of humans trying to live in an ever-changing world, where simple solutions are only simple in appearance, and complex situations aren’t reducible to lesser ones that can be easily answered. We pass on values like integrity and loyalty because we know through millennia of experience that inculcating these values in our young people provides ballast to their lives and fixed stars by which to guide their choices.

[The postmodernist in me shudders a bit at the fixed stars point.  No star is permanently fixed, of course, nor are values necessarily fixed, but I'll take it because I love the ballast line that precedes it. -dls]

The Economist this week warns of the coming of deep learning, strong AI (artificial intelligence). The British paper is not alone, but is joined by leading technologists such as Gates, Musk, and others, all telling us that we should worry for middle class jobs, and that professional fields such as law and medicine will no longer be pathways to financial security. I think they are probably correct in the long term, but am not clear on the timing.  Let’s assume they are close and that human intelligence will be surpassed by a machine before our kindergarten students graduate college, and that before today’s youngest students are 30, there won’t be a job they can do that a machine won’t do better. What should we do?  [Technofuturists are chronically wrong about stuff like this, but it's a thought experiment, so I'll give it to you -dls]

Should we still teach foreign languages when Skype calls will be interpreted in real-time better than a professional translator? Should we teach music skills when there are already player pianos that surpass the concert pianist? Should we teach finance, literature, political science, psychology, biology, engineering, pottery, web development, history, game design, agriculture, architecture, etc. when an artificially intelligent system surpasses humans in each domain? What will be left for humans to do once we’ve been surpassed by machines in our ability to critique, synthesize, analyze, or create?

I don’t know.

I do think that the work of being a young person will remain relatively the same: to understand their world, to know themselves, to know who we are as a people and how we came to this point, and to have the character, curiosity, and compassion to explore the possible prudently but courageously.

[Now if you look at the above list of fields and compare them to the list of things that will be relatively the same, some things on the list of fields, like web development and finance, are not like other things, like history or biology.  Just sayin'. -dls]

What should schools do? We should continue to teach, to mentor, and to help young people find their bearings in the world, make sense of the data, separate the signal from the noise; we should inspire them to read and think, to question and dream. We should try things, but remain rooted firmly in the things that matter most to a life well lived.

[Okay we are veering dangerously close to Delores Umbridge territory here, this vein of conservatism could be used to challenge ethnic studies and other of the "new" interdisciplinary fields.  I think they are going to pass the "read and think, question and dream" test, but you can bet that I'll be carefully laying the groundwork for that going forward.   Also, I'll be using "read and think, question and dream" a lot in the coming months and years.] 

As much as we all love to bitch about administrators, my boss wrote the above in a letter to parents this past week.  It's good to know somebody has my back.    Who is a lucky guy?  This guy!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

20,000! (and you should still Boycott ISTE)

20,000 page views. Withywindle claims he accounts for half of them. I'm pretty sure Spam Bots account for the other half. I started back in April of 2013. It took me until September 2014 to hit the 10,000 page view mark. It looks like I'm picking up the pace a bit in terms of readership as I doubled my total page views in about half the time it took me to get to 10,000.   My most popular post is still #Boycott ISTE and it's still true.  ISTE is in Philly this year and I won't be going unless I somehow get a press pass and then I'll live blog it in all it's commercialized horror.  I should note that ISTE now has a code of conduct (it didn't at the time I wrote the original post) but the other criticisms remain true.  This year the registration fee is $464 if you register now.  Compare that to $164 for ASA.  That's almost three times as much for a lot less value. 

In other news, I was calling out David Brooks way before it was cool.  

Also, I'm pretty sure Tom Brady missed the week we did Watergate in US since 1933.  Something about a trip to the White House and a ring.  He might have been using the golem voice when he told me he wasn't coming to class that week.