Posts Tagged ‘education’

This is a review of The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin.

The problem with this book is that the author has an extremely limited and mechanistic notion of how our minds work.

You assume that this book will help you to deal with the complexity and volume of information, stimuli, expectations, tasks that can feel overwhelming, but it is actually more like a collection of magazine articles on how to organize information, and not how to “organize” your mind in any way to limit, or set priorities on the amount of “information” you should be organizing in the first place.

The problem is that our minds do not simply process information, like computers. We are social creatures, we are cultural creatures, we have highly sensitive psychological and emotional processing, and this book leaves all that out.

If we are feeling overwhelmed by information, the solution is not more information, on how to categorize it.

The only useful thing in this book are his tips (which are straight from airport how-to-organize books), which boil down to, write things down and organize your home and office so you can find things easily. The one thing I found useful is how switching from one task to another, or making decisions on what to keep and what to throw away, takes a lot of mental effort, so it’s better to keep on one task at at time.

Some of his tips are goofy – like, in the last chapter, the numbering system for interstate highways, such as “One- and two-digit highway numbers less than 100 identify major routes that cross state lines,” that will supposedly help you navigate (p 371).

He also devotes quite a bit of space to reasoning errors, where we make decisions that seem rational but are actually based on a misperception of the facts, all of which I’ve read elsewhere. He also has a lot of household organizing tips that are not going to be worthwhile for most people, and are found in books on organizing your home or office, if that’s what you want.

Because this book was written when it was, the issue of electronic information is huge. There is no way to deal with all the information we are confronted with now. You have to step back and think about how to limit it, without letting others limit it for you – as he does, when he enthuses about Reddit.

His understanding is demonstrated in his description of the rise of civilization, stating that all humans did was “procreate and survive” until 10,000 years ago, and that literature arose from accounting (p 13), because writing did. Literature is much older, from ancient oral traditions that are essential to our humanity. To me, this is the interesting question: before writing, for most of human time, we kept all we needed in our minds. So, why not look to art, to literature, to non-literate cultures? To truly “organize our minds.”

Another mistake is when he states that new knowledge can stave off Alzheimer’s disease (p 19). No, not new information – new ways of thinking, new kinds of activities. Learning more facts in some area you are already familiar with does nothing, you have to learn a whole new thing, like ping pong or music or social dancing.

He does touch on the human element in how we think, but barely, and it is not coherent. We function well when we feel like we matter, that we have some control over our lives, that others think highly of us. So human relationships and leadership that empowers members of the group are more critical than your filing system, but he calls this “communications (and) competent and ethically-based authority,” as if it’s one more system for organizing a company or the Army; even though his examples of success actually involve giving authority and autonomy to those at lower levels.

I compulsively read this entire book, because it was intriguing to me how he talks about “the organized mind” as if it is simply information management. This is not the only author I’ve read with this limited approach to success. It’s been helpful to me to define what it is that’s missing in this approach, to define what it is that really is at play, in people or organizations that function well. I believe those elements are going to be defined through the exposition of more and more subtle and sophisticated cognitive science, coming full circle to what great artists and leaders have understood and communicated since humans became human.

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A Still Life by Henri Matisse

The very beautiful still-life paintings by Ms. Love’s Fifth Grade class in 2015. I’ve been meaning to put these up for a while. The students first learned about color mixing. They did these paintings in one session, painting from still lifes set up with colored cloths and fruit. They are done with tempera paint on canvas board (just because the teacher had some she wanted to get used!).img_2132smallimg_2133smallimg_2134smallimg_2135smallimg_2136smallimg_2137smallimg_2138smallimg_2139smallimg_2140smallimg_2141smallimg_2142smallimg_2143smallimg_2144smallimg_2145smallimg_2146smallimg_2147smallimg_2148smallimg_2149smallimg_2150smallimg_2151smallimg_2152small

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Live performance of A Fairy Tale

Live performance of A Fairy Tale, November 2015

Here is the script for A Fairy Tale, which I wrote and directed in November, 2015. The longer you’ve lived in Sitka, and the more visioning sessions you have attended, the more it will speak to you. But I imagine there are other arty towns with similar experiences.

And here is a link to a recording, by our own local KCAW Raven Radio.

A Fairy Tale


SAM, a resident of an island town in southeastern Alaska

DR. SMITH, a consultant

SAM’s wife or husband (SAM and DR. SMITH characters could be male or female)

(Airport noise of jets landing and taking off, flight announcement, etc.)

SAM: Dr. Smith? Hello! I’m Sam. Glad you could make it. Did you have a nice flight?

DR. SMITH: Oh, yes! great flight. . . Who are all these people on the plane with me? They seem like a happy bunch.

SAM: Oh, consultants. Those are all consultants. In hospital management, community development, city planning, garbage disposal, you know. But yeah, we have a lot of consultants coming in now.

DR. SMITH: Oh right, related to your – problem.

SAM: Well actually, they come here to learn from us, instead of coming to help. – and (in a confidential voice) none of them are experts in fairy magic.

DR. SMITH: Well you can’t blame them. Very few of us have what it takes to become a Fairy Magic Consultant.

SAM: Of course! Well, I’ll fill you in on our pedi-bus ride into town. (They go outside)

Ok just hop in on the seat, you pedal, right, like that. (bike chain noises)

DR. SMITH: Thanks – I think I have it – (They pedal)

(panting) . . . . What’s that palace, on the mountainside? The one that looks like a Disney castle?

SAM: Oh, that would be our public library. (seagull noises)

DR. SMITH: And my gosh, you have some kind of docks here! And the tall ships!

SAM: Uh huh – we can dock nine cruise ships at a time. Although now, we use them for the tall ships and cedar canoes the kids build. (sound of sea chanteys)

DR. SMITH: Ok now maybe you had better fill me in, on the nature of your problem, and why you’ve called me.

SAM: Right. So, you know all the community visioning, and nonprofit planning, strategic planning, and master plans that nonprofits and communities write, that end up gathering dust?

DR. SMITH: Yes –

SAM: Well – the Visioning Fairy got mad, and made a whole bunch of them – come true. (ominous music) Let’s get off the bus here.

DR. SMITH: So this must be your downtown! (noise of boots and voices) Uh – what is that large group of young people coming toward us, all wearing Xtra Tuff boots?

SAM: Oh shoot – the Interns – we’d better go down this alley – They’re nice and all, but – there’s just so many of them, and they all want to help! We actually have to lock our doors now, or they get in, and alphabetize your books, or clean the litterbox, or – throw away the trans-fat-containing food in your fridge –

DR. SMITH: Ok, so that’s your problem.

SAM: Actually – I guess I leave my door open. It’s actually kind of nice. Some of them do windows.

DR. SMITH: Well ok. . . What an – interesting – lamp post –

SAM: That’s actually an artist. These piles of free cupcakes, and the people talking to themselves, (sound of person talking to him/herself) are also artist installations.

DR. SMITH: (mouth full of cupcake) Hmph good cupcakes . ..

SAM: And the writers! – so many writers – there’s a novel out every month! and books of personal essays every other day. So the bookstore had to expand to take up the whole side of the street. And on the other side, all these cafes (sound of cafe as they enter) because of the writers taking up space. That was why they had to establish the colony. They have a writers’ colony on Mt. Verstovia. They live on tea, hummus and whiskey, all locally produced, of course. Lowers voice: they may be reproducing. (cafe sounds fade as they leave) (sound of banjo playing old timey)

DR. SMITH: That was one fine cupcake. . . Is that coming from that bar?

SAM: Well it’s kind of a bar, but people are mostly getting high on old timey music and rap. (someone is rapping to the banjo music) The one down the street is a little more hard core – they have pool tables and Sacred Harp on Friday nights.

DR. SMITH: Ok now I get it. With all this arts and culture and multiplying writers, your economy must be terrible.

SAM: – Actually, with the tidal-energy-powered kale greenhouses, and of course the sustainable widget factory, oh and the state Legislature, at the other end of the tunnel at Baranof, the economy is great – (sound of kids chatting)

DR. SMITH: So are the schools the problem? I see an awful lot of kids who aren’t in school.

SAM: Well, they are in school. All they have is arts, culture, math and science, and boatbuilding, English, fishing, hunting, computer science, and – well I guess it’s a lot of stuff! (sound of kids talking in Tlingit and Tagalog) And they are all bilingual. Plus Saxon is trending at the moment. (sound of child reciting Beowulf)

oh and they all go to Yale, and major in Music Performance.

DR. SMITH: So, that must be the problem! How do you get a job with that!

SAM: Well – it turns out that’s what’s in demand in high tech. And the kids built us a tram, and a zipline, too, that’s fun. And everybody lives in tiny houses. They’re so cute.

DR. SMITH: So – what’s the problem?

SAM: That’s the problem. There is no problem!


SAM: We’re so hard up for problems, the elementary school has taken on World Peace! And they are close to solving it! Do you know the last time I smelled cigarette smoke? Or had somebody’s dog poop in my yard, Or – made myself sick eating junk food! The stores stopped carrying it because it wasn’t selling. Or, I just get nostalgic for an ill-tempered, ignorant rant, once in a while.

DR. SMITH: Ok, now I think I get it. So when you are dealing with fairies, the first recourse is usually to your state fairies.

SAM: You mean the Marine Highway System? Which now runs on solar, by the way.

DR. SMITH: No, State Fairies. Like in Canada you have the Provincial Fairies. But because of budget cuts, they are in Passive Management now. But – as you may know, with the rise of social media, most of our work in the Fairy field is now in Troll Management.

SAM: Troll Management? You mean fisheries?

DR. SMITH: Very funny. So I think I may be able to call – Donald Trump. But I think we can get you back so you’re comfortable again – get people to stop talking to each other, to stop listening, to forget about all this healthy stuff, arts, culture. Back to stink! Back to greed! To polarized discourse!

SAM: Fantastic! But just for a while, right?

(sound of phone being dialed)

DR. SMITH: Seriously? I’ve already got him on the phone: Donald? Hey, yeah! Smith here! I’ve got a great deal for you! – You’re on your way?

SAM: No – no – wait! Wait! Stop!!! (fades out)

(sound effect – a pop, or harp arpeggio, something like that)

SAM: (wakes up) What a crazy dream!

WIFE/HUSBAND: Oh good honey you’re awake. There’s just time to have a little kale before we go to the community composting and arts festival planning meeting!

SAM: Yeeeeeees!!

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In case you are wondering, as many are, what the heck is this Common Core stuff anyway, here are some links to blogs with a crash course in their history, and what is not right with them.

A lot of the confusion is due to the Common Core State Standards organization itself, which has inaccurate information on their website. Much confusion is due to really bad curriculum labeled as Common Core – which is simply bad curriculum and doesn’t have much if anything to do with the new standards. But there is now a new kind of bad curriculum, which mindlessly follows the Standards, clause by clause, as if you can teach grammar one day and comprehension the next.

Recently too there has been confusing criticism, coming from the Tea Party and far-right political groups, of the Common Core State Standards, and the Obama administration’s education program, not only for federal overreach (which is, indeed, one of the biggest problems with the current federal education policy), but also for what used to be called Secular Humanism in curriculum. Their issue is that public schools teach kids that our country is not perfect, that the world was not created 6000 years ago, and that Muslims and gay people are ok. This has nothing to do with the Common Core State Standards.

There is also confusion from radio and magazine pieces labeling good classroom practice as Common Core, when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

Here’s an article about the NPR (National Public Radio) problem with covering Common Core: http://www.current.org/2014/09/gates-funding-spurs-doubts-over-pubmedias-impartiality-in-education-reporting/

I had wondered, about some articles I heard on NPR that made no sense – where what teachers were doing and said they liked about the Common Core, are not actually in the Standards. You should definitely take a look at the Standards themselves.

I heard a story recently about how Bill Gates was having similar problems with his work in Africa, where they are starting to learn that you don’t swoop in from above and fix things. You need to talk to people on the ground, find out what the problem is, work with others.

This is a good story, about the Gates involvement: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html

But here is what I think is the best summary I have seen of the problems with the Common Core State Standards: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/17/four-common-core-flimflams/

Even though Alaska did not adopt the Common Core State Standards, we actually did. Look at the Alaska State Standards and the Common Core side by side. That was one interesting thing Alaska State Rep. Reinbold had in her recent slide show – the certification from our Commissioner of Education to federal DOE, certifying that the Alaska Standards are “virtually identical” to Common Core – which they had to be to get a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

One more article, a speech by Diane Ravitch, who rocks. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/18/everything-you-need-to-know-about-common-core-ravitch/

And, my Common Core essay.

Sitka’s district leadership is gung ho on Common Core/Alaska State Standards, as are I bet most administrators around the country. As far as teachers, you’ll find a range of opinions, from being profoundly insulted, to eager for guidance. A big problem is that the Standards are very poorly written and hard to interpret, which causes stress when teachers are being judged by how well they get the kids to pass the tests based on them.

The premise of the Common Core is seductive, to administrators, politicians, and even some teachers – the notion that all you need is a list, you teach everything on the list, you’re good to go. Unfortunately, learning doesn’t work that way. Teaching is an art.

I got to see the Houghton Mifflin program for middle school (Sitka schools are looking at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks). They reduce English to mindless test practice. The entirety of the workbook for the year consists of “close reading,” which, as in the Common Core, means taking a short, mediocre piece of writing, and finding particular sentences and words in it. Far from requiring analysis or critical thinking, it requires no thinking at all.

But as for the tests, one teacher told me she saw sample questions and it made her cry, knowing her lower-ability kids would not be able to do it. Bad as the standards are, the real crime is that they were written as a template for practicing for new, harder tests.

The CCSS are poorly written, hard to interpret, and students (schools, and teachers) will be judged on the tests based on them, so there’s more confusion and fear than anything. That is probably why one English teacher is actually WANTING a curriculum that will hit all the Standards, as a safety net. That’s my sense, also, with the District.

Tonight I heard that some teachers are saying they won’t be teaching anything not in the standards. This is really short changing their students.

So it’s a big, old, entrenched problem – the federal requirements for testing (driving the frenzy for curriculum that will prepare students for the tests) are top-down and have nothing to do with improving schools. Our schools are pretty good, and potentially could be even better. Common Core and all the testing is so expensive, not transparent, and so obviously stupid, that this paradoxically might mark a change in the tide, and we can get back to pursuing excellence in education, by doing things we know work – instead of spending millions on things that do not, and in fact diminish the quality of our schools.

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What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards are lists of what students should be able to do, in each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade, in English and Math. They are endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, but privately funded and developed. Released in 2010, they have been adopted by 48 states.

While consistent standards is a good idea, the Common Core State Standards are not very well done, in English or in Math. The authors were not experts in education, wrote them in only six months, the standards were never field tested, and there is no mechanism for fixing various problems with them. But, they are no worse than most previous standards.

The problem is that they are part of “standards-based reform,” an approach to education based on high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, 14 of the 24 Common Core authors are from standardized testing organizations.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, in force since 2002, made federal funding contingent on raising test scores every year, for a 100% pass rate in 2014.

In order to get a waiver (and federal funding), 40 states, including Alaska, had to sign on to the Common Core State Standards; more teacher evaluations; more charter schools; and new, harder tests, that must be taken electronically.

According to our district superintendent, the Sitka School District is looking at spending 1.6 million dollars for these mandates in the waiver: new curriculum, hiring extra personnel for teacher evaluation, and equipment for the online testing. The state of Alaska paid $25 million dollars last summer, for the new tests.

The waiver requires that by 2017 half of a teacher’s evaulation be based on students’ test scores, even though the teacher’s influence on student test scores – from 1 to 14% – is so small it can’t be separated from other factors. Why would we create such an incentive for teachers to focus on test scores, and to avoid low-performing students?

A study by the Carnegie Corporation predicts that the new, harder, Common Core tests will double the high school drop out rate. And, the new tests have to be taken on line, which has resulted in expense and logistical problems.

We already know that high-stakes standardized testing does not improve education, and there is no reason to think that harder tests, new standards, or teacher evaluation will do anything, either.

So why are we doing what doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, standards-based reform has been the American approach to education for 30 years. It is based on an obsolete model of learning: that education is the passive transfer of information, so the teacher just has to know the material, nothing more.

But a good teacher is not an information delivery system – she is more like a coach. Think about the great teachers you have had. Even if it’s the state capitals, or biology, it takes a good teacher to help kids get it. A good teacher has a fairly sophisticated set of leadership, psychology, and people skills, in addition to a mastery of her subject.

Standards-based reform does not expect – or allow – teachers to develop these skills. It is an attempt to fix education from the top down, without addressing the way learning actually works. That is why standards-based reform, educational technology, and MOOCs, among other initiatives, have been failures.

So why is it being promoted at every level of public education? Some is because teachers, as a class, have never had much status in America. Some of it is a sincere belief that this approach could work: Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and promoting Common Core State Standards, in the stated belief that the market can fix education: with common standards, industry can compete to create the best products.

Indeed, standards-based reform is very good for business: the K-12 ed tech market was $8.4 billion in 2014, up from 7.9 billion just the year before. Charter school companies, consultants, and hardware suppliers also make healthy profits.

Since we are up against an entrenched paradigm, and substantial commercial interests, what can we do at the local level? We can ask for evidence that what we spend will improve education. Testing does not improve education. Small class size in early elementary, on the other hand, is proven to result in higher graduation rates.We can encourage our district to involve the teacher workforce in designing improvements.

As education scholar Dr. Yang Zhao said in his talk, there are models everywhere, around the world, around the country, here in Sitka, for programs that work. We can just copy what works, whether it’s integrating art, or the way a particular teacher gets kids excited about algebra.

What if it’s the law, as it is, to spend our money on more teacher evaluations, new tests, new, unproven curriculum? Well, last I checked, this is a democracy. We can stand with our districts to press the legislature, the state board of education, and our Congress to roll back the focus on testing.

The Common Core State Standards could serve, for now, as a minimum, with modifications for their documented deficiencies. There is no reason to get new curriculum that is “aligned.” For one thing, the new standards are not that different from the old ones. But the main reason is that the Common Core State Standards were written expressly as a template for standardized tests, and the last thing we should be doing is desigining curriculum around tests. That is the heart of the problem with standards-based reform.

If you just have to test, first figure out why. If it’s to make sure a school is good, you certainly don’t have to test every kid, every year. Standardized tests provide no information a teacher can’t get (and doesn’t already have) using such tools as the “quiz” and “class assignments.”

Instead we can build on existing curriculum, and improve it based on sound teaching practice – integrating the arts, field trips, inquiry, and science – none of which is in the Common Core.

We need standards, and evaluation, that are based on what we really believe students should be able to do, not going by what some small D.C. testing group decided.

We can focus on teaching as the highly skilled craft it can and should be. Not preparing kids for taking a test, but preparing them for life and citizenship, through an education rich in content, that fosters a love of learning.

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October 17 2014 Literature Circle 7th grade #2

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Click here for this material as a pdf file: 2 Huck handout 2

You can’t get around Mark Twain’s use of the N-word. Here is an interesting article about how one teacher approached the topic in her classroom.

Rebecca_poulson@hotmail.com 747-3448

This week, read chapters 17-30, and write a paragraph, based on the discussion or your own ideas. Mark parts (by noting page numbers in your notebook) that stand out.

Discussion: today we shared our research into:

Mark Twain’s biography and dates

Jim Crow laws

The Civil War (overview, dates)

history of banning of the book

log rafts and steamboats – economy of the Mississippi River in 1840

slavery in the American south before the Civil War

a map of the Mississippi River from around this time – it can be a print out or in a book or hand drawn – from Hannibal, Missouri to the Louisiana border

the picaresque novel – what it is, some examples

what kind of clothes did people wear in that place and time (Mississippi River around 1840)

public education in this place and time

Then we went briefly over the action so far, though I thought we had 20 minutes more than we really did.

Things in the book, some things we talked about:

What a bloody cataclysm the Civil War was, and the assassination of Lincoln, how the Civil War and the abolition of slavery might have affected Mark Twain’s view of antebellum (pre-Civil War) south of his youth

1840 a time of westward growth for the US

How some people were ok with slavery

Tom’s fantasies – Tom is considered “smart” and seems to be rich compared to others in the town, but seems kind of dangerous

Huck’s intelligence – he is a very skilled liar, and faking his own death is expertly done, but considers himself less intelligent than Tom Sawyer

being free on the river – how easy it must have been to “borrow” food, easy to live

The author does not seem to think much of Christians trying to reform others

Already twice Huck’s been nearly killed

Rank some of the characters on a scale of good to evil – is his father just a loser? or evil? the robbers? Miss Watson?

How the woman he tries to fool into thinking he’s a girl sees through it, but then makes up her own story for him

Already Huck’s played several mean tricks on Jim

Huck’s and Jim’s superstitions

The book is a picaresque novel, where the action is a series of adventures as the hero moves through space and time. One thing we might write about, after we finish reading the book, is how a particular adventure fits into the book.

For the middle third of the book, all of the above and:

Are some parts just for humor, to lighten it up, and not part of the overall thrust of the book?

Death – tally up the people Huck sees die, and the deaths that occur he doesn’t witness



Evil and cruelty

Conscience/morality – how Huck is developing, or is he.


The places, societies, worlds? of each adventure

How does this section compare to the first


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October 10 2014 Literature Circle 7th grade #1

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Click here for this material as a pdf file: 1 Huck handout 1.

This week, read chapters 1-16 – which is a third of the book. We can see if that’s too much, or about right – it’s 110 pages in my edition.

As you’re reading, use sticky notes to mark passages that stand out to you, whether because they are strong, or make you feel uncomfortable, or whatever. You can mark a few then pick the one you want to talk about.

Also, look up at least one new word and bring that in.

For next time, each person will do a little bit of research into one of the following topics (we’ll assign each person one). It does not have to be in depth, just a little to informally share with the group.

Mark Twain’s biography and dates

Jim Crow laws

The Civil War (overview, dates)

history of banning of the book

log rafts and steamboats – economy of the Mississippi River in 1840

slavery in the American south before the Civil War

bring in a map of the Mississippi River from around this time – it can be a print out or in a book or hand drawn – from Hannibal, Missouri to the Louisiana border

the picaresque novel – what it is, some examples

what kind of clothes did people wear in that place and time (Mississippi River around 1840) – if you can, bring in a book or a print out, or just describe

public education in this place and time

A few things you might notice, after you read the first part of the book:

Is Tom a psycho or what? How his fantasies of life-and-death adventures relate to Huck’s real ones

Huck’s ignorance, innocence, and intelligence

Being free on the river

Systems of belief – Christianity, superstition, Tom’s fantasy life, Huck’s

The Author’s attitude toward the various characters

Playing the trick on Jim, and the description of slave society: does it feel affectionate, or just yucky?

Huck’s knowledge of the river and the environment and his practical abilities

Excitement and danger – how does the author make things thrilling

What does Huck want/need?

How do you think it would feel to read this book if your ancestors had been enslaved?

How is the way Huck is treated in the book compare to Jim’s treatment (as a character). Huck grows and changes – could Jim? Does Huck seem believable? Any of the other characters?

Notice how the author is using characters, landscape and incident to create a whole

How important are relationships in this book?

The way characters are fleshed out, the way they interact, the way relationships change (or not).

Huck’s innocent morality, compared to the morals of others in the book

The book is a picaresque novel, where the action is a series of adventures as the hero moves through space and time. One thing we might write about, after we finish reading the book, is how a particular adventure fits into the book.

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