Category Archives: Education

I spent 10 years in the classroom. You can bet your pencils that I think about education a lot. Interests: curriculum development; high school; middle school; school reform; ed tech; grace-based education; relational teaching.

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

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From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

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Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

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I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

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This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

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A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

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I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

We teach who we are.

Teaching isn’t as much about the what as it is about the who – who you are as a teacher is communicated more thoroughly than any ‘content’ in the lesson plan.

Source: Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

This is a great read. Had to share.

 

Why I mentor

As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.

I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.

When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.

But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened.  An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.

The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.

Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher.  My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.

My students rocked my world.  I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with  and for them. I grew up during that decade.  I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.

Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.

For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search.  I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.”  Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.

When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.

So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?

Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship. 

Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.

But many adults have.  The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived.  For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.

WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach.  This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.

Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.

 

Martin Gladwell on Higher Ed

I was stunned recently by three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, ReVisionist History, pertaining to higher education. He rips into rich colleges for leaving the poor behind. That’s gotta sting…..

Gladwell’s episodes present only his point of view, a potential downside to any podcast,  but their strength is in their novelty. Few public voices are willing to say “out loud” that the nuclear arms race in “amenities” within higher education may be immoral – genuinely, truly against the morals of a system that ought to care about the people who live in it. And while no systemic change comes from a dreamer yelling and shaking his fist at the sky — which is kind of how Gladwell comes across — systemic change will not happen unless someone first points out the problems. And it helps if the person doing the pointing is hella famous with a really big megaphone.

Episode Notes
1. “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” — Stunning storytelling gives this episode outsized impact. It’s a carrier for the message that there are 36K “poor smart kids” in the US *each year* who do not make it into college but  have the academic chops to do it. Aside from a moral argument about capitalism eating poor people because it can do that, this episode sets up an economic argument for helping poor kids reach their full potential — as a nation, we need all the capable, smart people we can get.

This episode fights against the myth that poor people have the same level of access that non-poor people do. Truth is,  as exemplified by  Carlos, they don’t. They’re held back by the ancillary effects of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of not having the social capital to know how to navigate the system. Lots of evidence out there that poor kids apply to far fewer colleges, rarely try attending good ones even if they get in, do not understand the financial aid process, and drop out of good colleges in higher numbers because of family disruptions or even just feeling massively out of place living with a bunch of rich kids. Campuses rarely address the cross-cultural disorientation of someone poor or working-class on a campus with kids who aren’t.

2. “Food Fight” — I would disagree with Gladwell’s assertion that private colleges are more at fault than public ones for leaving poor kids in the lurch. That said, the episode uses the quality of cafeteria food as a proxy for an institution’s financial priorities, acknowledging the dangerous waters of a consumer-driven higher education market. Give the people what they want, or they won’t come. Fine, but what if the “people” want you to spend money immorally? Should we consider investing in filet mignon instead of scholarships for poor kids an immoral choice? This is the question Gladwell presents as he compares Vassar to Bowdoin college. Vassar has chosen to buck the designer-college / rich kid college trend, so the cafeteria food is pretty bad. But a lot more poor kids are going to Vassar now…. and the leadership thinks it’s worth endangering their brand to do so.

I have a two gripes with this episode.

First, Gladwell is right to focus on private colleges, but that’s too easy of a target. I don’t think public and private institutions should be judged by such different standards here –not since states have slashed public funding for colleges so drastically that many public institutions rely on tuition revenue. Not when South Carolina (and Georgia and several other states) use lottery money or other public revenue as direct funding to students, who then select in-state colleges. Yes, private colleges in SC receive huge portions of their budget from SC Life and Hope scholarship money carried to them by the students they pursue, but state schools like Clemson also receive a vast sum of money from the same scholarship funds. While Clemson also gets millions more directly from the state — and I agree that our state colleges SHOULD be funded with a view toward improving education for SC residents — its focus isn’t on fixing SC education. Clemson wants to be rich and famous. Our flagship state institutions are fighting for prestige just like the top-tier private colleges.

Just like Bowdoin. It looks different when you’re talking about cafeteria food, but it’s the same disease.

In SC, the colleges on the front lines of education to the underserved are the state campuses of USC in rural areas, the HBCU schools, and the tech schools. Everyone else is going after the smart kid who has money to pay tuition. And the 2-yr colleges, as Gladwell pointed out, are horrifically underfunded.

[I recall Obama trying to bring light to the plight of community college funding early in his presidency and getting nowhere. Maybe it isn’t a federal problem to fix. But SC can’t even muster the political will to fix its damn roads, so there’s not much hope in my mind that the SC legislature will raise revenue to support Tri-Couty Tech either.]

Second – Who’s responsible for the amenities arms race in higher ed? Obviously it’s a joint problem. Parents let their kids buy a $25K/yr education and borrow the money for it. Colleges panic and are afraid to do what Vassar is doing – see financial aid as a moral issue, and force the colleges in their region to talk about it.

I’d like to think that as a society we would collectively agree to address this issue, but realistically, people with power (=money) rarely give up that power willingly, and especially when that would mean denying their own offspring a leg up in the world. Because that’s what money buys in higher education – if you have the money to get into the Ivys or top tier colleges, you’re going to take advantage of that because of the range of opportunities it will open for you later: networking, job promotions, rubbing shoulders with top academics and famous names (like Gladwell). Even in SC, going to Clemson (which will probably cost you at least $5K out of pocket these days unless you’re a Palmetto Scholar, and the net price cost is actually $16K) means you join a huge network of alumni who essentially run the Upstate, especially in business, engineering, and architecture.

So I don’t think we people are going to “fix” this ourselves. It will continue, and get worse, apart from external intervention. I don’t know what that intervention should be, but we can’t say Gladwell didn’t try to point out the harm this thinking does to many students who never get into college, and the loss that represents to their communities.

3. “My Little Hundred Million” – the episode in which Gladwell is flabbergasted by the president of Stanford. It’s pretty hilarious, actually. I appreciate that Gladwell isn’t trying to be a neutral observer here. His central theme is that decisions about money and funding are, at their core, moral choices when we’re in the realm of education.  So what does Stanford need with another hundred million?! Why are they still pursuing funding??

Gladwell demonstrates that a decent investment of philanthropy from someone of means into a middle-sized college in an “average” area can spark landmark improvements, far beyond the raw value of that money by itself. But at a Stanford or Princeton, it just gets thrown into the enormous endowment pile.

Gladwell’s Stanford point. A college with an endowment in the BILLIONS is not hampered IN ANY WAY from doing any research it wants to do.  But the effects of even a modest $10m gift to a medium or small school is huuuuuuge — Stanford is already helping pretty much every one it’s going to help. Glassboro State in New Jersey, the focus of this episode, is now helping hundreds more people in its region get credentials for engineering fields.

Some have criticized Gladwell’s argument here in noting that well-meaning but ill-informed donors do a lot of damage by giving big piles of money to colleges and tying their hands, forcing those colleges to start programs the region doesn’t need, or linking the money to a narrow cause which isn’t future-proof. But the donor at the heart of this episode funded a college in a highly populated area to start programs that are sorely needed both in NY/NJ/PA and across the nation. Win-win.

Imagine a rich Saudi prince gave Lander University, a small school in a small SC city away from the corridors of power, twenty million dollars to open an Islamic Studies department. Some might see this as donor meddling, the poster child for philanthropy gone wrong. But let’s consider that for a moment. Assuming the college officials weren’t stupid and set up expectations that the Saudi donor doesn’t control anything about the programming, what benefits might come of it?

Well, SC knows almost nothing about foreign cultures. It’s one of the biggest problems of the state. The Upstate does ok in the urban areas because of Michelin, BMW, etc, but that has zero effect on the rural areas. So there’s the possibility of greater human diversity within Greenwood Co, a perk in itself.

Are there jobs out there for people with knowledge of the Middle East? Um, yes! That would be a brilliant move for a small SC college — to anchor a program in a growing field. The State Department, the military branches, the CIA, and global business are all going to be looking for people with a rich understanding of Islamic culture. It’s not going to change anytime in the next century.

Now, if someone simply gave Lander money to start a program, it would probably be better for the state as a whole if Lander also got to pick the field, and select something more immediately beneficial to SC. Health care is obvious; advanced innovative manufacturing would be good too.

But Gladwell’s point is this: $100mil invested in SC’s education system would actually change lives. At Stanford or Princeton, it doesn’t. No more than Stanford is already doing cutting-edge work.


In short, I thought this was a brilliant trio of podcasts. Not perfect by any means. But brilliant.

If i were to poke at Gladwell …

– He glosses over the fact that every poor kid who gets into school is going to need a whole village of support behind him, or it’s a pyrrhic victory.
– He gets preachy. I generally agree with him, but moral outrage isn’t going to lay the groundwork for solving the problem by itself. (However, we’ve got to start somewhere, and too few people are even bothered by the moral travesty of feeding rich kids lobster while many other kids will never get close to the educational or social advantages of college.)
– He isn’t addressing what I think is the actual problem: the assumption that every intelligent person needs to go to college, that there are no viable alternatives for intelligent kids to gain personal enrichment and broadening experiences except by going to college. We don’t fund gap year programs; we don’t send poorer kids to Europe or even to other parts of the state. Generational poverty eats lives and traps them, stripping people of even the ability to imagine a better life for themselves.

All that aside, I hope Gladwell continues to prick our consciences with ReVisionist History. Go check out the podcast series.

Good read: “Blurred Lines: Professor, Engineer, Mother” – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Worth your time to read today. The question of “work/life balance” ought to occupy the thinking of all of us, but it seems especially thorny for mothers in professional careers. Some good thoughts here, though I’d like to read her suggestions for her specific context:

Sure, the game of life is easier to win when we segregate its facets and write rules for each in isolation. And it’s not that women refuse to segregate their personal and professional lives — though I would argue that no one should have to — it’s that many women simply can’t.

That was a personal realization that I believe is critically lacking in the way we mentor female students, particularly those in STEM fields. Those fields — prized for their logic and analytical approach to problem solving — often attempt to “solve” struggling students in the same way: The immediate mentor, statistically likely to be male, simply isn’t wired to experience the “all” in the same way as a woman. Moreover, the mentor, regardless of gender, has been incubated in an environment that rewards days spent hyper-focused on the technical dimensions of scholarship and student formation. The “all” that values the intersection between work and emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being is rarely confronted.

Frankly, we in higher education must do more to mentor the “all” in all of our students, regardless of gender — though I argue that this is especially critical for women. It is not just a matter of saying we are committed to mentoring the whole person.

Source: Blurred Lines: Professor, Engineer, Mother – The Chronicle of Higher Education

College writing: do we still need the essay?

With apologies to the writers of this essay, I think they’re on the wrong track.  Take a minute to read their full article.

We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.

Source: Colleges should invest more in teaching students how to write (essay)

The problem is this:

You can’t fix weak, disorganized, thoughtless writing without addressing the thinking that underlies it.  It’s the discipline of understanding ideas, organizing ideas, entering into dialogue with a much bigger conversation around your essay that’s the hard part.

I’ve taught writing for a long time now, to students ranging in age from 11 to 22. It’s hard work, but it isn’t inscrutable: shoddy thinking underlies shoddy writing.

Yes, students can and do pile on grammatical mistakes, bad syntax, and weak writing style. But if your focus as a writing instructor (or professor in any course) is merely to fix the surface-level mechanics of the English language, you’re missing the point.

In fact, pushing students to continue producing examples of a relatively outdated and irrelevant academic format of writing probably hurts them more than it helps them. Sure, the students headed into grad school will not escape the academic essay for a few more years, but only the tiny percentage of career academics and nonfiction essay writers benefit from repeated drilling of the essay format.

Am I arguing that writing is unimportant? Absolutely not.

I’m arguing that good thinking is important, and alongside it, strong communication skills: a simple, clear, crisp writing style and a grasp of fundamental grammatical usage.

But the communication skills break down when the underlying ideas do.

Points to consider:

  • The bulk of college students will not spend their lives in academic careers. Higher ed tenure track positions are becoming a thing of the past. At some point, the adjunctification of higher ed will be complete, and the few slots remaining for paid scholarship will be full for a long time. We don’t do students a service by assuming that educating them in history or English or whatever means teaching them to write like an academic expert in that discipline. Students should learn to model disciplinary thinking and understand the jargon, but multiple options for communicating ideas would prepare students better for the world they will work in.
  • Cognitive habits and abilities must be taught and practiced like any other skill set. Unless teachers in K-12 and higher education are proactively, intentionally, and directly teaching students to ask better questions, organize thinking, draw models of processes, and labor until their understanding is clear, students will not become “better writers” because we spend X amount of time on “writing instruction.”
  • New forms of literacy – and “multiliteracies” – have moved to the forefront. Have you watched YouTube lately? Participated in a discussion over on Medium? Picked up a textbook printed in the past 5 years? The way we process text+image+layout has changed the way we understand ideas, and that’s not a bad thing. [For more on multiliteracies, I recommend this research article by Cope & Kalantzis]
  • Writing instruction as a discipline needs to move forward into new approaches. Process writing at least gave us a start, but even that pedagogical basic seems lacking from most undergraduate writing assignment guidelines. Below I will mention a new DT approach I find intriguing.
  • We act as if college assignments exist to teach students to become professional writers. That’s not their purpose – not unless the student is aiming to make a living through writing. And even then, professional writers and journalists work with editors and collaborators to help them write the best possible novel/essay/article.  Only in the classroom do we expect students to handle the whole process by themselves, achieving mastery of each individual component. No one works that way.  Few are that skilled – nor should we expect that.

So what could make college-level writing better? Perhaps….

  1. Reframe writing assignments as wicked problems to be solved using creative methods and Design Thinking approaches. I got this idea from Carrie Leverenz and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Here’s her article, “Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing” (link opens PDF)
  2. Place students more in the center of the college classroom, offering them genuine responsibility to shape assignment structure, questions, and content. This idea scares many professors; I do understand the fear (remember, I’ve taught middle schoolers!). But without agency, students are merely cogs in a machine over which they have no control and thus no investment. Everything about our assessment-drunk educational system right now produces compliant, thoughtless students – not rigorous, challenging thinkers. As long as students feel like they’re playing a high-stakes game of pleasing the professor in order to earn a decent grade, they aren’t going to learn to write. And that’s our fault more than theirs. (We’re in charge of the grades.)
  3. Acknowledge 21st century communication shifts by requiring a variety of products for assessment. Want to assign an essay? Fine. But use other forms of communication and tools along the way — a sticky note “tree” to work out logical arrangement of ideas; a process map; a Prezi organizer for research; an oral presentation to the whole class of the core argument with opportunity for critique and feedback. Make your assignment – as a whole – multimodal and multigenre.
  4. Explain to students what you’re asking them to do, why the skills are important, and how the assignment fits into the overall structure of the course. Dr. Mary-Ann Winkles at UNLV is doing some amazing things with her Transparency in Teaching and Learning initiative. A very simple rubric asking faculty to clarify assignment purpose, goals, and assessment standards for any course assignment has made a huge difference at UNLV.
  5. Focus your instructional and grading attention on the underlying ideas from a student, less on grammar and style. Before a student has ironed out her ideas, it doesn’t really matter how many comma splices you find. Because the broken ideas are a worse problem than the bad grammar.  Students can get help pretty easily with grammar – the college writing lab should be staffed with people who can help. But really, the only person who can help a student fix her broken ideas is YOU, the professor. It’s your class, your subject area. Help students realize what they need to learn, point them to good sources, and hold the expectation that you won’t accept papers constructed with shoddy ideas.  And that means loosening your class structure so that you’ve got enough time to both assess where students are in their ideas and adjust your large-group instruction (modeling, lectures, discussions) to address the problems you’re seeing in this particular class.

Honestly, if students never wrote another academic essay, I wouldn’t care. But I would be sad if collectively the college classroom experience continued to polish the brass knobs on student writing while ignoring the catastrophic inability of students to understand and organize ideas.