Popular Posts

Friday, October 11, 2013


How do you command your ship during a vicious Pacific Ocean storm off the California coast so that you avoid contact with other ships attempting to navigate the same storm? And how do you do this with radar down, white spray lashing at your face like hot pellets from monster waves dead ahead and men missing from your radar detection spaces? Such was the challenge for Lt. Stephen Wheatley, Officer-of-the-Deck of USS Latner, DD-952, a Forrest Sherman class destroyer, during a horrendous storm off Catalina Island at the end of the Cold War in 1990. Wheatley was under the Captain's Night Orders to report all unknown surface contacts, known as "Skunks," to him when within three nautical miles. But events,weather and loss of focus intervened. The result was Latner came into "extremis," the situation where any maneuvering by one of two ships will result in collision. The resulting events were tragic for one wandering engine man on board Latner and devastating for Wheatley, who then faced a most contentious general court-martial, a military legal process than can result in dismissal from the service, or more dire, in death. "I'll kill the sonofabitch," thought Wheatley about the prosecutor. Wheatley's misadventure leads to his search for personal redemption and reclaiming his professional bearing. His is the story of The Caine Mutiny and The Poseidon Adventure. "You'll all be killed!" urges his new love interest as Wheatley sets off from a pier on San Francisco for a Pacific Target range where a former troop carrier is about to be deep-sixed by the Navy. Absolute Bearing is now an Amazon.com selection. Read Excerpts from Chapter One in subsequent blogs.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boston First Responders

First responders rushed toward danger at 4 hours, 4 minutes and 45 seconds after the beginning of the Boston Marathon on a much celebrated Patriots Day.

The bombers had detonated two vicious devices designed to maim human beings and, indeed, what medical personnel from local hospitals found was carnage unseen since their days in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Theirs is the courage not merely of a profession, a badge, a uniform, but of character, of strong moral courage and dedication to protecting all of us who sometimes take their service for granted.

But there were other immediate responders.  The managers, wait staff and bartenders of a new restaurant to Boylston Street, Forum, were at what we now call “ground zero.”  One of the staff was looking out the window toward the green mail box and, without hearing anything, saw a ball of orange/yellow flame and his mouth was soon filled with the grit of devastation.

All Forum employees did what professional first responders do, they went to the danger, to the devastation, toward those in terrible need.  When told by local police to evacuate, they refused and proceeded to tend to the wounded, some of whom had been sitting out on their patio for a bird’s eye view of those strong, determined, goal-driven men and women who were finishing perhaps their first marathon, the dream of a life-time.
The crew of the restaurant as well as others who were ambulatory after the blast rushed to help, taking off belts to act as tourniquets which, in many cases probably saved people from bleeding to death.  Nearby Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzhi Lu lay wounded and dying.  

It’s hard for those of us who watched story unfold on television to imagine what these first responders saw and the bravery they showed in the face of these terrorist acts.   As so many of us thought following 9/11, maybe there are other bombs to be set off?

But, almost mindless of their own safety, these men and women of Boston (police, fire, EMS, medics) gathered about the sick, the severely injured and the dying to offer comfort and assistance as we hope that we would were we on the spot. 

They held victims in their hands, stroking faces, smoothing their hair and telling them, as best they could with all the hope they could muster, that they would survive to live another day, to enjoy Spring as it continued to bloom in all its effulgence.

The warmth of a hand, face and body is that human touch that forever binds us one to another.  This is the blessing of community, of togetherness of our humanity.  These are the relationships that say we are of one family.

We must, in this day and age of world-wide terrorism be prepared to do what all the professionals, bystanders and men and women of Forum restaurant did--go to the carnage and be a human presence of comfort and care for people who might very well be facing their last moments on earth, who might be taking their final breaths, who might be taking a last few seconds glance at the great blue sky above, usually so representative of the infinite possibilities of life in America.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Atlanta Outrage

Two years ago while working in an Atlanta suburban elementary school to foster inquiry-based instruction and curricula, I heard stories about cheating on standardized test within the city school system.  There was no proof, only rumors at that time.

Now, according to Michael Winerip in The New York Times (3/30/13) 35 school personnel have been indicted for doing just that: cheating on standardized test scores.

What were clues?  “. . .extraordinary increases in test scores from one year to the next, along with a high number of erasures on answering sheets from wrong to right.” (p. A13)

Here’s how it worked.  Students in elementary and middle schools took the high stakes tests in reading and math.  Some did well and others posted enough wrong answers to indicate sub-par achievement.  These scores were subsequently changed to indicate performances at norm or above.

How?  Teachers closeted themselves in rooms without windows and erased the incorrect responses and penciled in the correct answers.  All the while school administrators were standing guard at the door.  Principals even wore gloves while handling the test papers.

Results?  Many schools posted scores that met or exceeding given norms, showing their students to be proficient when they were not.

Principals were rewarded. Teachers received tenure and bonuses. Those whose schools failed suffered consequences, many losing their jobs.  “Low score---out the door,” noted one involved teacher.  You can imagine the psychological pressures on teachers and administrators. 

How did this happen?  The allegations are that leadership, including the Superintendent, so insisted upon superior performance, with “no excuses,” that cheating proliferated.

 The practice supposedly began in 2004.  Said one involved teacher, “The cheating had been going on so long, we considered it part of our job.”  That was the norm, test score sheets, erasers, closed doors and protective gloves.

What’s sad is that the district took these means to boost students’ performance,  giving all a false sense of achievement, especially the students.

The outrage is that district leadership has thereby cheated its students out of the instructional work needed to learn how to read, write and compute satisfactorily.

The further outrage is that these leaders and teachers garnered for themselves all of the kudos, while their children suffered.  “Look at us!” they proclaimed.  “Our students performed at or above their grade levels!  They’ve improved so dramatically!  We must be doing something right!”  NOT.

They cheated the kids out of their anticipated growth had the district taught them the basics as they should have done.  The leadership gave up on the kids and said to themselves, “The only way to get these children to succeed is to cheat!”

Shame on them!

High expectations are splendid and they certainly are what we need in order to ensure that all students, regardless of SES, talent, learning abilities and the like, succeed. 

Honest educators about the land are working with determination, skill, art, research and persistence to ensure that all children succeed to the best of their ability.  The record of KIPP schools and others (P21 districts, for example) attest to our successes with all students.

We want all kids to grow up to be curious, and to pursue meaningful inquiries in all their classes.  But we’ll never get there so long as high stakes tests are the measurement for teachers’ and administrators’ performance.

In some districts standardized tests are counting 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.  Here in NYC it may be 20%.  State legislators might take a lesson from Atlanta about the over-riding impact of high stakes testing and their detrimental effects on some of our students.

Leaders should foster amongst all educators the alternative means of observing students’ growth in 21st century skills: inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative thinking.  We do see such growth in kindergarten teachers observing and tracking students’ growth in asking good questions; sixth and eighth grade teachers monitoring students’ abilities to think critically; and high school teachers who challenge students to create their own math problems, and  to analyze data in literature and physics classes.  (See How Do We Know They’re Getting Better? Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8: www.morecuriousminds.com

Students need to be able to ask good questions, think analytically and creatively, to be entrepreneurs and innovators.  In order to achieve these goals we need to buckle down and ensure that all our children can read, write and compute skillfully.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Newtown, Our Town

Newtown,  Our Town

Newtown, Connecticut is all America.

We grieve for our lost children and their teachers.

But in those first grade classrooms, we see what America can mean, not in death, but in the lives of joy and hope reflected here. 

Robbie Parker spoke of his daughter Emilie as “bright, creative and very loving, adding “I am proud to be her father.”

Donna Soto, mother of Vicki, told us she expected Vicki would do exactly as she did, shield her first graders from the gunman, telling him that they were in the gym.  For that she lost her life.

Dawn Hochsprung, the principal, ran out of her office attempting to tackle the shooter.  She lost her life together with five other educators, all women.

Mr. Parker urged us not to let this tragedy “turn into something that defines us.”

And how do we wish to be defined, we Americans who suffer with all of Newtown and who are appalled at the loss of life?

We shall be defined by the courage of the educators who gave their lives for the sake of their children.

“Greater love has no one than this, that she lay down her life for others.”

And we can be defined by the children.  President Obama quoted Jesus’ saying, “Let the little children come to me. . .For such belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This is the essence of Heaven, the bright, creative,  loving and innocent spirits of Emilie and her classmates--the joy of being alive, having fun on the playground swooping down the turning slides,  playing Hide ‘n Seek, house, school and being fearless astronauts on Mars.

Noted theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once observed that “The individual faces the eternal in every moment and in every action of his life.”  

And what is this “eternal” if not the life reflected in the playfulness of children, their eagerness to explore, to discover and to find out? We see the “eternal” in every child’s curiosity about new stories, colorful, strange rocks or animals, and wondrous displays on an iPad.  We see the “eternal” in their holding hands with each other as they faced danger, being together with playmates, then and now.

What is the “eternal” if not the dedication, love, sacrifice and courage of adults who serve others, who work tirelessly so that they can grow, develop into their fullest potential? 
And we see the “eternal” in every parent’s loving her children, leading them off on a new adventure, to explore, discover and continue to wonder.

In our sorrow, we can remember Emilie, all her playmates, Vicki, and Dawn and learn from them, learn to see newer worlds of hope, faith and love in their lives.

Poet William Blake challenged us 

“To see a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

The Eternal is reflected in the wild flower and the grain of sand just as it is in Emilie’s joyfulness and Vicki’s total love and devotion to those she called her children.

Yes, Newtown is Our Town.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lincoln, Language and Liberty

Go see “Lincoln.”

You will view superb actors bringing to life one of the most monumental struggles in American history--that concerning the abolition of slavery.

Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies the almost severe gravity of having to lead a country during the worst war in our history--a civil war-- all the while showing his humanity in the prosecution thereof.

Sally Field, according to an NPR interview with Bob Edwards, noted that during the filming all major characters stayed within character during the entire shoot.  And she is heart-wrenching at times fighting for the life of her oldest child, Robert.

A real surprise is James Spader, unrecognizable from “Boston Legal,” as the head lobbyist, the one who dashes from the House of Representatives floor to the White House with a most consequential note to the President during the day of the vote.  We surely see how lobbying became the all-entrenched force it is today on K Street with votes back in 1865 being bought, and needed Democratic (!) supporters being bribed for a good cause.

But the character that stands out in my mind is one Thaddeus Stevens, he a congressman and long-time abolitionist, played superbly by Tommy Lee Jones.  Stevens had long advocated full rights for Negroes prior to the vote, but on that date i Lincoln needed him to be full-throated in his advocacy of equal rights under existing law.  Almost to deny that he advocated that ultimately blacks would have the right to vote as citizens.  Remember that privilege was reserved at the time for white men.

In a most dramatic moment you can see Stevens mulling over the conflict in his mind--between full rights as citizens or only those within current law.  His final pronouncement leads to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress and, subsequently, ratification by three quarters of the states.

Upon reflection I am struck by  the overwhelming power of language in our country to guarantee, or to secure for generations, the liberty so necessary for the welfare of the country, for the preservation of the union.

The Thirteenth Amendment reads, in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Here we see the power of language for what did “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” mean in 1865?  Surely they referred to the condition experienced by those brought unwillingly to our shores, many of whom fought during this conflict.

But today do these words have any bearing on us, as citizens, as educators?

You might be as surprised as I was to learn that in 1996 a high school student in Rye Neck School District (NY) filed suit claiming that the school’s requirement to perform 40 hours of community service constituted “involuntary servitude.”  The plaintiff also claimed, using the Fourteenth Amendment, that such service violated his parents’ right to educate him in accordance with their own philosophy and priorities.

How would you have ruled on that decision? (http://csl.sog.unc.edu/node/1238)

Notice also how many famous Supreme Court cases come down to interpretations of language:  “separate but equal. . . corporation/person. . . speech. . . regulate interstate commerce. . .the right to bear arms. . .to  peaceably assemble. . .the establishment of religion” and so on.

What Thaddeus Stevens could not articulate in order to get the amendment through the House was his very strong belief in the rights of  all men to vote and to establish relationships of their choosing.

Notice that in our last election how that right to vote was challenged in many states with laws requiring voter identification and other means.  In other words, we cannot take our liberties for granted.

What Lincoln, Stevens and the others portrayed in this film is the sometimes sausage-making process necessary to pursue lofty ideals, the right of all men and women to live lives of self-determination toward the pursuit of happiness.

Tommy Lee Jones said about his role:  “Politics and government was conducted with language through oratory. People had to speak their minds rather than insinuate them.”

Language matters deeply and we see it during election cycles when words are carelessly and mindlessly hurled around and toward various candidates in order to persuade, often words or claims without any basis in fact whatsoever.
Words matter as they affect people’s well-being and, perhaps, their survival.

Go see the movie. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Teacher Evaluation and Students' Progress

Teachers in Chicago, Newark (NJ)  and all across America are being asked to accept new systems of evaluation.  Here in New York City the use of standardized tests for this purpose will constitute forty percent of their total evaluation, with principal observations and other data comprising the remaining sixty percent.
Part of the impetus for such use of these kinds of measures stems from President Obama’s Race-to-the-Top competitions where there have been certain criteria specified in order to succeed in this process, one of them including a most appropriate emphasis on improving education in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM programs.  Another criterion has been the desire to show how we will hold teachers (and I trust administrators) accountable for their work. 
Teachers are not protesting the need nor logic for their being held accountable.  No, they justly protest having from twenty-five to forty percent of their professional evaluation based upon measures scored with a one-time, bubble-test or Scantron sheet.  Why?
These tests were not designed for the purposes assessing teacher competence. They are all-too brief snapshots of students’ knowledge at one moment.
And, what they measure is important but it’s not the be all and end all.
No, what we should be looking at are ways of assessing students long-term growth in what schools say they are all about.  Each school mission statement contains statements like these:
“We hold high academic standards for all students and expect each will become a responsible citizen of our American democracy.
We want all students to dream, achieve and contribute to a global society.”
On a more specific basis there is one school district (Greenwich, CT)  that paints a portrait of the graduate that calls for her, assuming content knowledge, “to pose and pursue substantive questions” and then engage in the problem solving, critical thinking and ethical behavior required.
To become responsible, active contributors to our society we need students to exhibit what we now call 21st century skills and capacities--inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative, reflective thought, leadership, collaborative skills and skillful use of technology.  
Also within the Race-to-the-Top program Secretary Duncan is his much needed call for alternative means of assessing students’ growth, ones that do not rely upon standardized tests.
Isn’t it reasonable that we should as educators develop these alternative means of observing, monitoring and drawing conclusions about students’ getting better at posing good questions, engaging in scientific reasoning, thinking critically and creatively and using technology?    Knowing Newton’s three laws of motion, themes within Charlotte’s Web and how to prove triangles congruent are important, but we need more than this kind of declarative and skill knowledge to become responsible citizens who can think, discern fact from fiction and create a plan for their own and others’ improvement.
How do we do this?
We use all of the long term, reliable and direct means available through teacher observations; students’ journals posted on  Google Docs, Groups/Plus, Moodle, Edmodo, wikis; performance tests; traditional assessments, interviews and metacognitive reflections.
We can observe Lorraine Radford’s kindergarten students in West Vancouver, BC, growing from making statements about fish--”That’s a clown fish”--in September to asking in April during a unit of The Oceans--”Do you think that anglerfish think humans are fish sometimes?”   Notice the growth from observing and stating facts (as most kindergartners do) to being able to ask a question that puts the questioner into the mind of the anglerfish.  Lorraine monitors students’ asking more and increasingly complex questions using tried and true means of keeping accurate notes during class and posting them to each student’s spread sheet on her computer.
We can observe eighth grade students in Catalina Foothills (AZ) growing from being what their teacher Patricia Burrows calls a “Cookie Cutter A” student, one who recites what the teacher wants to hear, to one who can critique  Animal Farm using analogical reasoning in written essays by comparing Napoleon in the story to Stalin and Hitler.  Critical thinking involves this kind of reasoning together with asking good questions about sources, evidence, definitions and bias.
Educators across the land know how to do this by using their own and district frameworks like those within Project 21 schools (like Catalina Foothills), focused as they are upon critical thinking as one element in educating for 21st century skills. (See CFSD  rubrics:  http://www.cfsd16.org/public/_century/centMain.aspx)

The key will be to convince educators that these skills are indeed necessary, that we can observe and monitor students’ performance progress therein and then communicate such results to parents, use them for our own teacher inquiry study groups and for our own professional development .
Having background knowledge about plate tectonics, the Civil War and Shakespeare’s major characters is important.  But students need to know how to apply such information in our globalized world that changes with ever increasing acceleration.  And we need to know how well they are doing at becoming active, responsible citizens who can contribute to our American democracy and the globalized society.
There is, indeed, “value added” in being able to establish alternative, reliable and valid ways of assessing students’ development and academic progress.

John Barell
Author: How Do We Know They’re Getting Better?  Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8.