Wednesday, November 17, 2010

PLENK2010 What Did I Learn?

PLENK2010 There seems to be some hand-wringing about what was learned from this PLENK MOOC. I don't believe that all can be known at this point. I am still reading some of the longer reports and intend to re-read much of the material. Every day new websites and applications are mentioned. There is just so much stuff out there.
I have been sharing with my community of teachers here, and one person is replying with gratitude for the information. Actually, that's not a bad return.
I intend to try new things and be more active on the www. There is so little time and so much to say within my little niche alone.
The course was a success as far as I was concerned. I got a lot out of it. Other people got a lot out of it. Some important networks were created. Some very interesting blogs were recognized, some created because of the course. Research data was gathered. Three cheers for everyone! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

#PLENK2010 Some Limits to Connectivity

Even where there is broadband, it may be as slow as dial-up is in the city. It may serve only 10% of the population. It may be outrageously expensive. It may be arbitrarily limited by the big-name carrier. Those who may need it most may not be able to afford a computer as well.
The online service may not be helpful enough. ...

PLENK2010 Serendipity in Learning

PLENK2010 You can join through Facebook or by logging in. Tell it what you are interested in, and it will send you pictures and articles about stuff. Oh no! I am interested in Everything. My dearest wish, when I was a child, was to live beside the library.

I'll bet you knew about it, eh?

PLENK2010 Education Controversy

PLENK2010 Where do you stand? Are you for Phonics? Or are you for Look-Say? Are you for Whole Language? How about Organic Development? I can tell you that each plays a part in learning to read, and they are not competing methods.
I have studied the Reading Recovery method which depends mostly on modelling for the learner. It was designed in New Zealand where they teach reading by phonics in Kindergarten. The Kindergarten teacher is to identify those children who will require RR classes in Grade 1. The RR book begins by telling the teacher, that if the child has not learned to read by the traditional methods, the RR teacher must teacher the RR student the sounds of the letters; you just can't get away from the Code.
Where the competition comes in is that the publishers of text-books want to sell their new lines of text books. If they can convince a school board that their texts provide the latest best methodology for teaching reading and that those old text books are so much trash, they get the sales.
How are new texts developed? How are curricula developed? Well, there is a lovely, and sometimes not so lovely, minuet among the publishing houses and the Ministries of Educations who approve the texts to be used in the classrooms. What should be on the curriculum? Well, what is in the available books? What should be in the new text? Well, what has been on the current curricula?
When I began teaching, I was surprised to find that the history text I was to teach from was the same one I studied when I was in that grade some fifteen years before. Were there no new texts? Then I learned why. The classroom book budget was just enough to buy one complete new set or to replace all of the worn-out/missing volumes from the old sets. The teachers usually chose to replace the missing volumes so that every child would have his own book in every subject. It was a system perfectly designed to preserve the status quo. Perfect for a world in which the Board Instruction to Teachers (one per school) outlined the Christian values to be taught, including modesty and frugality. A few years later frugality had fallen off the list.
And Look-Say? Well that was a system designed for teaching reading for the deaf for whom phonics does nothing. About the same time Dr. Seuss was commissioned to write some books using the Dolch List of Sight Words to compliment the new system, and voila a whole new way of teaching reading. Of course it works because there are some arbitrarily-spelled sight words that children have to learn, but you don't throw out the CODE. They are both needed. One without the other makes for an incomplete reader. But the controversy fueled sales!

PLENK2010 What Do You Know?

PLENK2010 Do you know what you know? If you are a teacher, you probably do know what you know. But many of your students may not be too sure of what they know.
I have found that there are are both children and adults who have no confidence in their own knowledge base. Sometimes they are perfectly right to doubt. When they graduate from Grade 12 and apply to university or community college, they are told that they are reading and performing at Grade 9 level and have to take some make-up courses.

Is it that we gallop through the text book without establishing a foundation in anything? When students are rushed along, absorbing only 50% of anything, they know nothing. That is all about money. The government will not allow the student extra years/time to learn, nor the teacher/school extra hours to teach.

Is it because we don't say to the student explicitly: "Right! You know this. Now you are ready for the next thing."? Is it because as teachers, we have our eye always on the curriculum and the huge body of knowledge yet to be learned. We need to take time to celebrate the real achievement of essential skills. Do you know what they are?

One little girl told me, "I don't want to take remedial reading. I want to learn to tell time." So I gathered some materials for teaching/testing telling time by the analog clock and checked her out. She did know how to tell time. But no one had told her that, so she did not trust her skill.

One woman joined the children in the remedial reading class in taking the "Sounds of the Alphabet" test. She was shaking with fear. She was right. She did not know all of the sounds, although she had graduated from high school. No one had taken the time to check and correct--a small point, but foundational. It, among other situational factors, had undermined her education.

It is not good enough to say 50%, 60%, 30% and leave it at that. When the mastery mark is 80% or 90%, you need to re-teach and re-test until the foundational skills are in place. You need to teach those who have mastered the skill to turn to the task of teaching the others to save time in the re-teaching.

It is not good enough to throw young energetic fresh teachers into a K-3 class with 20 kids unless she is thoroughly grounded in all of the reading and math foundational skills from university. Is she a reading and mathematics specialist? If she doesn't know ALL of the skills completely, hire an old teacher, who has had years of experience, and knows what the kids need. It is better to train that eager new teacher by having her teach Grade 5, and then 4, and then 3, and then 2, and then 1 and then K, until she knows all that the child needs to know, where they are coming from and where they are going. Then she is ready to take on that K-3 class.

This old philosophy of education had some value: Teach little, but teach it well. Now we teach a lot, but seemingly not the essentials, and not very well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

PLENK2010 What are you learning and teaching?

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, "If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years . ." 
The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast -- How long then?" Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years." "But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?" asked the student. "Thirty years," replied the Master. "But, I do not understand," said the disappointed student. "At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?" 
Replied the Master, "When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."
--quoted by Erica Goldson

This story has always made me think of the parable of the rich young seeker: Mark 10:17 'Good teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to have eternal life?' Mark 10:21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'You need one thing,' he said. 'Go and sell all your possessions. Give the money to poor people. Then you will have real wealth, in heaven. Then come! Follow me!'

Gaining wisdom as walking the talk of the Kingdom of Heaven is not a game. It is not a matter of Brownie points. It is what you develop in your head and in your heart. In both cases, the young men were "playing the game", not living the life.

The teacher has the responsibility to teach the skills, yes, but not as the goal--just as the tool--to aid learning, and making sense, and then to share.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PLENK2010 About Making Non Readers

PLENK2010 Have you seen this site?

I enjoyed the interview with Alfie Kohn.

PLENK2010 Making the Obvious Apparent

PLENK2010 Why do I consider my booklets unique? I am not writing about the usual things things that math books write about. My books do not have pages of drill exercises. There are lots of writers who have made those books. The problem I have seen, and write about, is the lack of comprehension of reading and writing word problems.
Most of the students I have encountered can and do learn to manipulate the numbers, but they don't really understand Algebra because they don't quite understand that it is a language, no matter how often we say "number sentence". They don't understand the grammar of "English sentence" either. Neither do their teachers unfortunately.
I have looked at many math texts for different grades, and various number-crunching methods are demonstrated and called "problem-solving", but NEVER have I seen a text show the lay-out that I was taught to use by my Grade 9 teacher half a century go.
I have asked people of various ages about this way of writing word problems, and there does seem to be a definite cut-off point before which it was formally taught and after which it was expected to be taught by the teacher but never explicitly mentioned by anyone: an open secret that became a closed secret.
The commercial writer of texts did not show the method and their test forms did not leave enough room for the full writing out of a complete word-problem solution nor were sufficient marks allotted to them. Consequently, as they became de-valued, less student and teacher time was paid to the art and now almost no students bother to tackle word problems. But what is the study of mathematics for, but to solve problems?
Another factor contributing to this "knowledge gap" is the subject silo: in high school as in university, each subject has its own dedicated staff of specialist teachers, even if the entire department is represented by one person. When these teachers talk about a "problem student' the discussion generally runs to the "Ain't It Awful" category rather than to the "what knowledge gaps have you observed?" category. The math and science teachers assume that the English teacher has covered everything so that the student can comprehend the text books and write essays, and they, perhaps not willing to tread on the others' toes, forebear to note "English" errors on "long" assignments. Perhaps also, they are at a loss to know what the knowledge/skill gap might be. The teacher of English, not being a specialist in mathematics or science forbears to remark on whatever "bad" writing they see in the others' classrooms. Yet, they are all missing a fundamental nexus of the CORE subjects. Regardless of how we think about what we have discovered, we follow the writing conventions determined by the Scientific Method of Problem Solving laid down by Sir Francis Bacon when we come to share that discovery; the English essay, the scientific experiment note, and the mathematics word problem solution are all laid out following that basic plan.
When my fellow Grade 9 students complained "Another essay! I don't even know where to start!" I wondered at their despair. I never had any trouble. I didn't even think about it. We had two years of lessons in writing essays in Grade 12 and 13. In those days, the last two years of high school WERE college-prep. Now they teach the formal essay in Grade 9 and expect the student to remember the details the rest of his life. They place it in Grade 9, I suppose, because so many students fall out in Grade 10.
It was not until I began to teach Grade 8 mathematics, science and English all together to an Adult Basic Education class that I saw why I had no trouble with high school myself. My mother had prepared me for Algebra by helping me with Grade 8 problems. "Mom, we don't do that in school!" "Maybe not, but bear with me. Let the unknown be x..." When she explained something to me, she always started with the background orientation. Her mother, although never published, had been a constant reader and essayist and poet. Although we had no scientists per se in our family, we came from a long line of farmers, who had the habit of observation and experimentation. The teachers in their high local schools were well read and well-trained. So I "naturally" internalized the pattern of writing that made book-learning easy.
Not everyone is so lucky. Furthermore, I firmly believe that it is the teacher's duty to make explicit these often-unexpressed understandings that create the scholar's culture upon which our economy now seems to rest.

Monday, November 8, 2010


PLENK2010 As you may have noticed, I have worked, even at the university level, with students who were not at the top of the class in high school. For whatever reason, they missed some foundational lessons. That is why I invented my colour-code for teaching grammar, and began writing my own booklets on how to write essays, word problems and such. J Chesney thought that my introduction to how to write a word problem in Grade 4, an examination of the difference between narrative and expository writing would be an interesting introduction to our consideration of Values and Issues in Education.

In talking to students I found that they really had no idea of how to tell the difference between a story and an essay. In a math word problem, they did not see the mathematics as a picture, and had no idea where to start or what to do. Furthermore, whatever they did come up with, they got no more credit for their work than if they had just figured or simplified a formula.

It is not enough to say: In Primary learn to read. In Elementary read to learn. The whole of Elementary and Secondary is about the Conventions of How We Write and How to Read the Writer's Meaning. That is the Obvious that the teacher is the make Apparent.

I tried to upload my jpeg. I wonder if you can see it? It is very tiny to fit the given space, and you can't enlarge it. So if you want to see the original, please let me know and I'll email it to you. Or if you have a better way...please teach me how to work this system.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

#PLENK2010 This week on Spark

PLENK2010 Jim notes that Spark on CBC1 seems to match our PLENK topics a lot. This weeks is on games and play, including in education. Go to to locate the Mp3 version for Spark 126 Nov 7 & 10, 2010.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

PLENK2010 Cognitive Misers

PLENK2010 I subscribe to Delancey Place. Every day I get an excerpt from an interesting book. Today's offering (Nov 4, 2010) is about cognitive miserliness: our tendency to jump to the obvious answer rather than the correct answer which takes a bit more work.

During the last score of years, few mathematics teachers bother teaching how to solve "word problems" or "story problems". When the commercial tests give only 1-3 marks for a word problem, and the teacher does not teach how to do them, the student ignores them: they are worth no more credits than a sample calculation.

But the complete story problem is a complete essay. It follows the pattern of a technical report, which format is that of the Scientific Method of Problem Solving, the nexus of English, Science and Mathematics in secondary school. No matter how we actually reason, the convention of way we write it out follows that design. And it is worth at least 8 to 10 marks. (And yes, I have a free lesson booklet on this and others for sale.)

Do check out Delancey Place. I think you will enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

PLENK2010 Information Overload Again

PLENK2010 Ever wonder why everything is so expensive? Especially why your wages don't cover your Death Pledge (mortgage)? Watch this series.

PLENK2010 The Drowning Student --Mortal Combat

PLENK2010 Years ago I was locked into Mortal combat with a kid and a class. Then I moved away for a few years. When I moved back, I met this kid in the public library. He greeted me and humbly apologized for being a real pain in the neck back in the day. He said the other boys had put him up to it. Fortunately, I had not been in mortal combat with him. At the end of every rough day I put it aside and started each new day fresh with constant optimism. Cock-eyed, eh?

There were a few other boys who pushed back at me, but usually for things I could address. They accused me of inventing the rules of Algebra, just to annoy them. I had 6000 years of history on my side there. But they were right, the rules were not laid out in their text books. They accused me of presenting "typical" math problems, and I said "Of course, they are typical. We present types of problems that they might find applicable in life or in further studies." End of argument. It was these students who inspired me to write booklets on those very things they needed to know to succeed in school.

Now the girls--they were just into power tripping. As I was not young and nubile I did not count in their world--not as a rival and not as a model. So they just wanted to distract the class back to paying attention to them. The wise students knew that the glory of these prima donnas would be very short.

Tom Daly does not have a blog, but I am sharing his newsletter with you with his permission.

Tom Daly speaks:

Today I want to talk about the other dynamic that sometimes defines our relationship with a drowning student.

This dynamic is called the "Mortal Combat."

Now, obviously, there may be a verbal battle in your classroom between you and a rabble rouser or two. But I wanted to talk about this dynamic because it often creeps into our classrooms and clouds our focus.

When I think about "mortal combat" in the classroom, I remember some of my tougher students, in which I had to continually dig in my heels and react to their increasingly creative efforts to derail my lessons.

How do you know your class dynamic is leaning toward mortal combat?

Well, if you feel an intense emotional reaction to strike back somehow, and you often go toe-to-toe with a student in a reactive way, then that dynamic falls under my idea of "mortal combat."

At this point, you might be thinking, "Where in the world did I get this idea of mortal combat?"

Well, if you are old enough to remember a certain popular video game from the early 1990's called "Mortal Combat," you are already tempted at this point to beat your chest and yell, "MORRRR-TALLLL COMMMM-BAAAAT!"

Of course, I'm not comparing our classrooms to a video game, and I'm obviously not talking about anything having to do with real violence.

But if you have ever been locked into a "Mortal Combat" with a student, you know just how draining and emotionally exhausting that can be.

What kind of student draws you into a "Mortal Combat"?

It could be:

> A silver-tongued class clown trying to undermine you with wisecracks.

> An agitator who tries to enlist other students to go off-task.

> A brilliant but bored student who isn't shy about saying whatever's on his or her mind.

> A failing kid who can't stop fidgeting.

> An emotional child who takes everything personally.

No matter what this student's profile, consider the fact that any mortal combat that ensues in your classroom is at least partly because of YOUR reaction to his behavior.

Now don't get me wrong - you must deal with serious disruptions right away. Again, if you find yourself continually digging in your heels, or if you feel an intense emotional reaction to strike back somehow, then you may have already helped create the Mortal Combat situation that is so counter-productive to your best
teaching efforts.

As I wrote in my book, "How to Turn Any Disruptive Child Into Your Best Student,"
sometimes it's wise to find ways to "drop the rope."

This is easier said than done, of course. Combative students are often crafty and, when you do go toe-to-toe with them in a reactive way, they will often just adjust their strategy to find another way to torment you.

So how can you escape this no-win situation?

In my next email I will discuss specific guidelines to help you, whether you and your student are locked in a "Mutual Truce" or a "Mutual Combat."

For now, at least know this:

We're going to have to get CREATIVE in a hurry!

I'll get into that in my next email.

Until then, at least recognize the part you might be playing in a "mortal combat" dynamic and how that could change.

Sometimes just recognizing a dynamic can help take away the emotional element and lead to an immediate breakthrough.

Think about it and I'll offer some specific help in my next email.

Talk soon,


P.S. Defusing possible "mortal combat" situations is one of the foundations of my book, "How to Turn Any Disruptive Child Into Your Best Student."

If you haven't yet picked up your copy, then click here to see what it's all about:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

PLENK2010 Information Overload

PLENK2010 My son was telling me that some scientists want to genetically modify human beings so that we can see ultraviolet light as bees and other insects do. I immediately saw it would change everything--it would end the world as we know it. "Oh, no. Do we have to?" I asked.

I think it is really good for teachers and other adults to go back into an environment where thy are learners. It has been very exciting meeting new people, new ideas, and practising new skills. But it is exhausting work. We need to be reminded that our students are working hard, too.

Today I had a wonderful experience using Skype to teach a small group in Jim's classroom far away in the Northwest Territories. I saw them. They saw me. Jim had prints outs of my pdfs and projects his slides on the classroom whiteboard, too. It worked out really well, and we're going to do it again.

We were expecting lots of things to go wrong, but they didn't. The technology was very good. Of course, we weren't expecting it to do too much, but it didn't break down, and it didn't get in the way. A much bigger class might pose a problem, but we'd figure that out. There may be a time, when we want to try Elluminate instead. Maybe blogging or whatever. We'll see. Maybe the students will have some interesting ideas.

But we would never even have met had we not signed up for this course. Thank you Stephen, and George and Rita. And thank you all of you wonderful people who are contributing to the success of this course.

Monday, November 1, 2010

PLENK2010 Soylent Green, Anyone?

PLENk2010 Canada’s National Farmers Union wants the Canada-EU trade deal scrapped. US farmers face the same assault by agribusiness and the biotech industry under S 510.

Epoch Times noted: “Under provisions in CETA [Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement], using saved seed could result in a farmer’s land, equipment, and crops being seized for alleged infringement of intellectual property rights attached to plant varieties owned by corporations such as Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and Bayer.

People take action when they see that politics affects the food on their plate.

PLENK2010 Ain't It Awful

PLENK2010 Ain't It Awful is one of those dysfunctional life-games that Eric Berne describes in his book Games People Play. It is fun to play but it solves no problems. It just makes people feel that they have participated in a team cohesion activity. We are so superior to those awful ones. Knowing about these games, and recognizing when one is in one, helps one to dis-engage from the Game and get real. Authenticity is one of those rare commodities that so many people are desperately seeking, and that others are running away from, eh?

#PLENK2010 Tea Party Drink Dirty OIl

PLENK In the category of Ain't It Awful: "The Tea Party movement, poised to help shift the U.S. legislature to the right and stymie President Obama's green agenda, has financial and organizational ties to Koch Industries, one of America's biggest processors of Alberta oil sands crude.
Congressional midterm elections on Tuesday could create a U.S. government less amenable to climate change action, partly a result of Tea Party influence.
That would likely bode well for Alberta's carbon-intensive oil sands industry, which has long worried that national greenhouse gas standards south of the border will reduce profits and restrict future growth."

Teaching is a political activity. If the object of a general education is to produce concerned citizens, they must be informed and critical thinkers.