Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If it ain't broke, replace it with something ill conceived and untested

Montgomery County, MD's school system has been looked to as a model and inspiration by other districts for good reason. Kids, teachers, and principals excel, stakeholders collaborate, and resources are allocated reasonably. One of the many things they are doing right is their teacher evaluation system, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), which prioritizes and fully funds and supports peer coaching for new and struggling teachers. The system is proven effective and is highly regarded, yet, as this WaPo blog posting details, it is unacceptable under Race to the Top rules because it does not include students' test scores as part of the evaluation. What stupidity. This has been coming down the line for a while--this article is from June 2011.

I think Race to the Top has some reasonable principles and many strengths. But there are parts of it that were not thought out well, or not done knowledgeably. This sort of outcome is idiocy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Outdoors Chicagoland: McHenry County Conservation District

This spring I've been applying myself to learning about the State of the Nature here in my native Chicagoland, as my experiences with nature--recreational, pedagogical, emotional--were mostly forged in the Bay Area in California, where I moved after high school and accidentally lived for fourteen years before returning to my hometown. I backcountry camped in Yosemite and Big Sur,  went hiking almost every summer weekend on Mount Tamalpais, and sought solace and solitude in walks up Twin Peaks and bike rides through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach. Mount Tam was particularly special to me.

So, I signed up for McHenry County Conservation District's Weekend of Restoration in April, taking place at Glacial Park. MCCD manages over 25,000 acres of open space, including the woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and oak savannahs that marked much of Illinois prior to European settlement. They provide outdoor recreation spaces, environmental education programs for children and adults, and hands-on opportunities for volunteers. Their mission is "to preserve, restore, and manage natural areas and open spaces for their intrinsic value and for the benefits to present and future generations."

We "camped" outside of this interns' bunkhouse, down a gravel road from the visitor's center. Nighttime wind, rain, and temperatures were chilly for the three-season tent I borrowed, especially the first night, but the days were perfect for working--low '60s, abundant sunshine.

Newly created kames, location based on local memory
Nippersink Creek's restored meandering curves

MCCD's restoration work is focused on removing or controlling invasive species and restoring the landscape to its pre white-settlers appearance. (The Weekend of Restoration  facilitators made a point to observe that what one considers a "restored state" is arbitrary and, in this case, ethnocentric, as, of course, Native Americans manipulated the landscape as well.) Settlers first came in the mid 1800s to farm; in the first half of the 20th  century, they got more ambitious with the expanse and extent of their cornfields, flattening out kames (hills formed from glacial deposits), straightening and damming creeks and rivers, and filling in wetlands with soil and
 thirsty invasive plants.

McHenry County staff have pieced together clues from ecological considerations, physics, and living memory about how the landscape used to look. From elderly folks who lived in the area as children, they learned hazel bushes grew in thickets and oak trees often grew nearby; so, our task for the Weekend of Restoration was to plant 300 oak and hazel bush saplings on a rise near a (newly restored) marsh.

The term "restoration" is in the weekend's title has two meanings, as the weekend is meant for  personal as well as ecological restoration. We learned as much about local history and folklore as we did about the local ecology and restoration methods, and there were readings, discussions, and activities meant to help us identify our personal connections to the area and the work we were doing. Also, the food was excellent.

We visited a beautifully preserved mid-19th century farmhouse on the property and learned about its history and restoration. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of the inside.
Regular ol' 19th c. farmhouses like this one are rare, as most have long been torn down
The first evening we went for a night walk, led by ecologist Tom Simpson. We walked among kames, through prairies and past marshes, as night took over and bugs and frogs started calling. We were standing next to Turtle Marsh, which, Tom was telling us, had in 2011 and 2012 been recovered from underneath farmers' fill and ringed with tree seedlings--when we heard a frog chirp or two. Tom fell silent for a moment, and then said, with reverence and emotion, that the frogs must have have discovered and recolonized the newly restored area--that this is the first time frogs had been heard here. It was a lovely moment.

Here is the new marsh. I know it doesn't look like much, but, in the eyes of those who had worked on it and the other MCCD faithfuls, it was a beautiful, treasured thing--and I have to say, that reverence was pretty catching. Our planting area is in the foreground.

Here we are walking to the site--the marsh is to the right of the photo.
Placing saplings next to holes
My first of many plantings

I have no personal or childhood connection to Illinois wetlands and prairies, and, while ecologically important, they are not terribly eye-catching--I mean, not the way Mount Tam is, or Yosemite, or Big Sur. So being around a group of people who loved this land, nurtured it, provided for it, and hoped for it as they would a child was personally and pedagogically helpful for me. I see so much more in these areas now, and I also know how very important to cultivating stewardship it is to help children and adults discover a strong, and in some ways private, personal connection.

There are more wondeful photos of this weekend on the event's Facebook page, here.

MCCD also has some pretty awesome sounding education programs--professional development for teachers as well as programs for schoolkids and families--on my list for further investigation.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Karen Lewis at City Club of Chicago talk today

I'll be live tweeting today as Karen Lewis addresses the City Club of Chicago at noon. Follow me @hear_k12. I'll be using #cityclubchi and #karenlewis.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

HEAR Chicago Talk heard and talked about; or, A Mad Attempt to Transform a Moth Into a Caterpillar

HEAR Chicago Talk 1.1 went off, pretty much without a hitch.

Here's the room where we had it.
Photo courtesy of Schubas

We had four presentations, starting and ending with questions. Mine was about the possibility of experiential learning in the local outdoors.

Yoli Maya Yeh, who teaches yoga in CPS schools, spoke about reducing violence among Chicago youth through yoga, meditation, and peace activities.

Kids gain valuable character, skills, and techniques from Peace Within YOUth

Ari Frede, founder of arts charter the Orange School, spoke about pedagogical underpinnings and everyday examples of giving children authentic choices in the classroom.

Christine Krumsee reminded us that the importance of reaching people through meaningful activities does not stop at age 18. She spoke about her work with Helping Hospitalized Veterans, an organization that brings crafts kits to veterans as a sort of informal art therapy. 

Photo from VA Maryland Health Care System

After each presentation, the audience had one minute to ask questions. As we got into the third and fourth presentations, audience questions started focusing more on connections among them, especially Yoli's and Christine's. That was unexpected and perfect.

The one-minute-question part is just questions, no answers. That way, questioners feel freer to ask wide, deep, or speculative questions--ones that can't be answered right away, but can be thought about--and presenters get more to chew on without the pressure of having all the answers. After the structured part of the evening was through, folks had plenty of time and opportunity to find each other and discuss the questions if they wished.

Following Christine's presentation was a brief open mic portion where audience members could chew for one minute on their own edu-questions; and then, people settled in for drinks and chats.

So--I think it worked! People ate and drank. Technical equipment operated. The presentations provoked thought and interest. People introduced themselves to others and traded contact information. I hope that with regular installments, HEAR Chicago Talk becomes a go-to place for educators and other communicators to reflect on their practices, articulate their goals, and trade and test ideas with others. The next one is September 18, y'all! Mark your calendars and contact me here or here if you're interested in presenting.

A reporter from Medill (Northwestern University) was there and wrote this cool little article (which content makes it clear to me that I must immediately work on articulate and pithy pitches about the format, the goal, and the reason for the not-Q-&-A part. Dear god).

True to the format of the evening I'm going to end with a question (well, several). Ironically, or something, really nothing presented was new by a longshot--rather the opposite. Learning through experience in the outdoors dates to the dawn of humans; yoga has been around for thousands of years; Dewey's work on student choice was done at the turn of the last century (as was Maria Montessori's); and Helping Hospitalized Vets was founded in 1971. What's happening here? Is the "innovation" actually the stuff that's not working: forcing kids to sit in seats all day, thoroughly separating out subjects, testing to the point that teaching and learning are punishing instead of transcendent activities?

Hey--what IS innovation when it comes to a timeless practice integral to every human society, anyway? And is wanting to transform it to be authentic, relevant, enjoyable, and equitable as naive as wanting to transform a moth back into a caterpillar?