Professional development/Race to Nowhere

Today we participated in an intense professional development (PD) program and worked on our preparation for NEASC accreditation. NEASC work is often frustrating but often useful as well (more on that later). Today’s PD was quite interesting. The main part of the day’s program opened with “Where Good Ideas Come From,” a great video by Steven Johnson. Drop whatever you’re doing right now, click on that link, and watch the entire four-minute video…

…So now you know why “chance favors the connected mind.” Keep that in mind, no matter what organization(s) you’re a part of. I think I’ll show it to my students.

After that video, as well as other more-or-less related introductory material, we split up into small groups to participate in parallel sessions in which various “professional learning communities” presented progress reports. (You have to keep up with the current jargon, you know.) I chose to attend sessions on Metco, mathematical discussions, and iPads. All were well worth it:

  • The Metco presentation was the first time I had heard a report on the entire program, K–12. The central question, how to improve Metco students’ success in math, was of course relevant and important.
  • The “mathematical discussions” presentation concerned a project in fourth and fifth grades revolving around Suzanne Chapin’s work, which was reported to result in “increase in civility and logical thinking.” Because the presentation consisted almost entirely of video shot in real classrooms, the findings were powerful and convincing; “they’re articulate and they try to use precise language” was the observation of one teacher.
  • Finally, the iPad presentation concerned a pilot project in which an entire class of seventh-graders have been given iPads for second semester to use in science, social studies, and English/language arts. While I teach none of those subjects, the relevance to me is that I was recently approved for participating in an iPad project of my own for one month in Algebra II. So stay tuned for my results and my comparison with what I saw in the report from the seventh-grade teachers.

In the afternoon we watched the film Race to Nowhere and discussed it in small groups. This “documentary,” in the style of Michael Moore, is definitely worth seeing despite its obvious biases. It makes a strong case that our students are being stressed out and pressured to focus entirely on a race to attend the most prestigious colleges. That is certainly true for many students in Weston. But I have several problems with the film: math teachers are always the bad guys (too much math homework drives a girl to suicide???); scenes of black students in Oakland were obviously edited in, probably in response to the otherwise white-suburban bias; scenes from The Blue School in New York City made unfounded generalizations about all other schools; the film claims that 95% of American high-school students cheat, which seems unbelievably high; they also claim that American schools aren’t preparing independent thinkers, which strikes me as a gross over-generalization. Almost everything in the movie is worth thinking and talking about, but I wish it had been more balanced.

Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV, Teaching & Learning, Weston