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Dec 18, 2008

Ode to simplicity

Svetlana, Gleb, Prosha and I took a walk in the snow – a mile, maybe a mile and a half. It was one of those experiences that take you back in time. Cold air on my face, squeaking snow, and a white, colorless plain around us: I always miss the stark austerity of winter, the white and black, without color, without much detail. It puts me at ease, and resets my mind into a state of balance and clarity. My craving for simplicity comes from a similar source. I dislike unneeded complications, excess of detail, layers and additions. Things should be simple, elegant, and dependable.

Here is an example of an unnecessary complicated process. To place student teachers, we ask them where they want to go. Most just need a geographic area, but some want a specific building or even a specific teacher. We collect all this information from 300+ students (thank God, electronically), sort it, filter it, and send to individual school districts. A district HR person then sorts these requests, clears them with the district's authorities, and passes them on to building principals. Then each of the overworked, distracted principals will have to take these requests, think about matching them, then talk to each teacher, and send a confirmation to the district. The district then approves a match, and lets us know. We, in turn, create a confirmation letter and send it to our student.

What's wrong with this picture? - Almost everything. First, there are too many steps, which take a lot of time to complete. Second, there are bottlenecks for information flows. Marita, our student teaching coordinator cannot process all requests at the same time. Each district cannot do it fast either. Everyone tends to lose track of their requests. Building principals are tasked with an additional work which they tend to put off, because very often, other things are higher on their list. Is it working? Yes; we have never left a single student not placed somewhere. But it is not simple, not elegant, and not snow-like. The process takes too many steps, too many decisions, most of them unnecessary. It involves too many points of information transfer.

Essentially, two people should find each other – the host teacher and the student teacher. They are the primary players in this game. The only reason we won't allow students to find their own placement is that it is too intrusive for the life of schools. There are also three parties to give consent to the match: UNC, the building principal, and the district. In some cases, it is     just the principal and us. But it is clear that people who should just have the power of consent, are also involved in passing the information to each other. Moving information is not the same thing as giving approval, and it does not have to go together. And this confusion is what creates the friction in the system.

What we should do is use matchmaking software, where people look for each other by certain criteria: location, grade level, perhaps even teaching philosophy. The three parties approving the match can actually give their permission in advance. For example, a teacher needs to be cleared to post his or her profile. A UNC student can only select a host room under some criteria, known in advance. We do not have a stake in knowing too much about the process, and certainly don't gain anything by passing a lot of information.

Of course, there is some distance from an idea to reality. But once it's done, it is going to be so clean, so white, like snow. I am looking forward to it. Peace.

Dec 14, 2008

The grading season

It is this time of the year, when our kind spends hours and hours over student papers, portfolios, and exams. As I school director, I get to teach only one class, which brought me only 90 pages of single-spaced text to read. I am on page 52 out of 90 right now. But I remember times when my end of semester load included 4300 pages of undergraduate writing, to be read, commented on and graded in three of four days. People who don't do this kind of work, cannot imagine how hard it is to focus on student papers, to force oneself to understand the points, and to provide intelligent feedback. It is harder to remain compassionate, to avoid getting irritated by the same silly errors and platitudes, and to remain an even-handed and fair grader. At least this time, I am working on doctoral students' papers. Doc students are all competent writers, and good thinkers. Someone before me graded their awkward, badly written, choppy papers in high school and college, so I can enjoy the good writing and thinking they produce now. Writing and thinking are complex, slowly developing skills. If you ever doubt it, pull out your own freshman paper, and read it.

There does not seem to be any way to make grading more efficient or less time consuming. Not sure about others, but at the end of semester, I always feel guilty about not providing enough feedback before, not reading enough drafts, not spending enough time on students. Grading is exhausting, no matter what you do; there is never less of it, nor it ever gets done as thoroughly as one would wish.

It is also not very gratifying. Students who do well tend to ascribe their success to their own efforts and own smarts. Those who do poorly tend to blame us, and find our grading unfair, prejudiced, or sloppy. Neither group reads the comments produced by our hurting brains late at night. But we chose to avoid acknowledging this sad fact: grading is still teaching and we try to be helpful anyway. So friends and colleagues slaving over student papers, I am with you, I feel for you, and thank you for your hidden, unglamorous Sisyphean labor.

It is easier when you reflect on how much students actually progressed from when you first met them in class. Education is still a highly inexact, wasteful, and amateurish enterprise. Yet somehow it works, and people visibly learn something useful. It is less visible in the span of one class, but is very obvious when you compare, for example a freshman with a senior in college. Whatever we do with them must be somewhat effective. That's the mystery for today. The grades are due on Wednesday 5 PM. Happy grading.

Dec 6, 2008

The Year of the Bear

One of the highlights of my week was the gift wrapping party, organized by Susan and Jenni. A few early childhood students and some faculty first collected Christmas gift for children, and then wrapped them. Parents who lack the money for the holiday can just get these, so kids do not left without a gift. It felt great, and we had much fun. I must confess, a part of me immediately started to worry: not enough students are involved, and how can we make these important experiences available to more of the future teachers. Well, Susan set me straight – you cannot always focus on improvements; you must be able to appreciate what we are doing right.

And she is right, of course. Many people have some professional deformations. For example, school teachers tend to explain everything to everyone, sometimes the simplest things, and do it at length. Administrators like me tend to look for improvements, and therefore focus on problems to be solved. But it is also important to appreciate and acknowledge what we have accomplished, and continue doing right. There is the deep reason for the Thanksgiving Day to exist. It is a chance to appreciate what we have, so it is not all about complaining and improving. For example, it was just so gratifying to see over a hundred elementary and early childhood students at their student teaching orientation meeting. Sharp, cool, and prepared, they will become someone's favorite teacher, and change many lives. We just completed a complicated multi-stage program revision and transition – not without screw-up, but also without any major disasters. The first Early Childhood cohort will student-teach in the Spring. The first Secondary Postbac cohort will do the same. Our Longmont Reading cohort will wrap up this Summer; an LDE cohort will start in January. And all our existing programs are strong and growing. We just hired two more good people, and will try to hire two more. I am deeply grateful to all our faculty and staff for making all of this possible.

And then there is the gift-wrapping party. It is perhaps the most important of all developments. Our first step was to become a professional community that can work well together. The next challenge is to become a community that has a larger purpose beyond simply professional one. We are strong enough to take on more. We can give our students the best of all gifts – an opportunity and the ability to give. We also need to remember, that many people have very hard time right now, and for the time being, we are more or less safe from the recession. We still have jobs, and those are good, secure jobs. It's our turn to help. This is why I think we should focus on our nascent Bear Hug project, elect its governing board, create some plans, and generally get it moving.

Therefore, by the authority given to me or usurped, I declare 2009 the Year of the Bear, contrary to the Chinese calendar assigning it to Ox.