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Sunday
Sep112005

Balancing Work and Life: The Climb to Eagle Mountain

eaglemt.jpgOne of my best buddies, Cary G., and I took a couple days this week to head to Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore to hike what passes for mountains around here. We conquered Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point. At 2301 feet, this may not seem like much of a challenge to those of you from less vertically-challenged states like Colorado or Alaska, but we felt the five hours spent on rough trails to get to the top and back was pretty good for a couple of old guys.

The trip itself, of course, was an excuse to have long manly talks about kids, careers, politics, books, movies, and writing. And yes, the subject of women came up a time or two. We’ve been friends long enough that most of our stories are not new, but all the more enjoyable for the re-telling and embellishment. It’s wonderful how past adventures get more dangerous and past loves get more beautiful the further they recede into the past. We are both settling into our role as long-winded geezers very nicely, thank you.

One topic that seemed to be new this year, however, was how we were both attempting to (and are both confounded by) trying to establish some balance between our work and our personal lives. While we both have day jobs, we also do a good deal of writing, consulting, volunteering, and other sideline work that seems nearly as consuming as the day job. We marvel at friends and relatives who work only to earn the money they need to pursue hobbies, and wonder if they’ve made a better choice than we have.

This certainly hit home when I opened my e-mail this morning after being gone a few days. Over two hundred messages with very few of them being spam. (The shoemaker’s elves once again failed to appear!) There were questions regarding school business, of course, columns to be edited, the fall school media conference I am chairing, state technology issues, national library discussions, updates on upcoming events at which I will be speaking, and even about Kiwanis and Lake Association events. I’ve been replying to e-mail now for about three hours, and still have the toughest knot of about a dozen replies yet to go. It’s nearly lunchtime, the sun is shining, the boat beckons, the lawn needs mowing, and I feel like I already need a nap.

In a very real sense, I am very fortunate since my “work” gives me genuine satisfaction. Giving up a beautiful Sunday morning, to take care of business isn’t as painful as it sounds. (It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else.)

And I know I am not alone in finding that work spills out of work hours, especially among educators. It’s the rare teacher, librarian or techie who doesn’t carry home papers to grade, books to read, professional journals to skim, or software to learn. Most professional organizations rely heavily on volunteers who do things for the good of the group on their own time. I get plenty of business e-mail sent by other professionals either late at night or early in the morning.

So what is the secret to balancing one’s work and leisure time? What parameters do you set for yourself? Should you count work that you enjoy as play? Does all work and no play really make Jack a dull boy? Should a person be able to take a few days off to go hiking knowing that the e-mail won’t get answered in a timely manner? Or is it egotistical to think the world can’t get along without you just fine for a couple days?

Let me know. I could use some help.

Wednesday
Sep072005

Does AASL need to lead a movement for “consideration” policies?

I have always been so thankful that ALA/AASL and their local affiliates once led the charge for all school boards to adopt formal “reconsideration” policies and procedures to be used when educational materials have been challenged.

I know in our district, simply asking a parent, teacher or community fill out a form that begins an official process after s/he objects to a book or other resource has really separated those with a genuine concern from those without. We have kept many books available to kids that would not be there had not a reconsideration policy been in place. And that there is a mechanism for books that don’t meet true “community standards” to be seriously discussed and dealt with.

I have used this same policy when there has been a request to block a website as well. The requestor has to go through the same process as if s/he were challenging a book.

Lately, however, I’ve been hearing about a different “intellectual freedom” threat - the capricious blocking of websites without any due process in place for making the decision to do so. And equally troubling, there seems to be no official recourse in many districts for a teacher, librarian, parent or student to challenge a decision made to block a particular site.

While CIPA’s guidelines for what should be filtered are often broadly interpreted, they can (and in my mind, should) be very narrowly interpreted if one truly believes in the concept of intellectual freedom. Sites to be blocked to meet CIPA guidelines must be “obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” Reading that, it seems to me that the law covers only sites of prurient interest or that are illegal. “Harmful to minors” is so vague that it is meaningless. Choices of all other sites to be blocked are left to the individual district.

If a district has chosen to block sites about evolution, games, webblogs, hate groups, birth control, homosexuality, web-based e-mail, or who knows what, does ALA/AASL offer language that could be included in board policy to challenge this blocking? In other words, is there a formal “consideration” process that a district can and should adopt that would keep control of website access out of the hands of a single individual or small group in a school? Where, like with a book challenge, a standing committee of a variety of stakeholders would review the material that a teacher wants access to, and then makes a recommendation to the school board for a final disposition ruling?

Perhaps there is and I just don’t know about it. I’d be grateful if someone would educate me about this. If there isn’t, what ALA/AASL committee ought to tackling the issue?

Does your school have language in its board policy for a method of challenging the blocking of web sites? Is so, I’d like knowing about it.

Wednesday
Sep072005

Testing - online by ‘09

Our great state of Minnesota is exploring putting all state tests online. (Online by ‘09 -rah, rah, rah!) The debate is beginning among educators whether this is a particularly good thing for student workstation time, bandwidth, training, etc. to be used for considerable periods of time during the school to accomplish this goal. It’s a terrific “allocation of scarce resource” question, and perhaps not as simple as it seems on first blush.

Our district is just starting online testing this year using NWEA’s MAPS tests. I am sold on this use of technology for testing for two reasons:

1. Since the tests are online, they can adjust to the student taking the test. As students get questions correct, the questions get more difficult. As students miss questions, the questions get easier. This allows us to see not just how the middle range of students are doing, but the very high and low performing kids as well. A “RIT” score is generated which can then be used to actually measure growth during a time period, say from fall testing to spring testing - not just look at how a student scores against a national norm. (The leveling also decreases frustration and boredom for our best and struggling kids.)

2. The scores of individual students are available immediately. This means a classroom teacher can (theoretically) use them to group students and provide differentiated instruction during the school year.

In other words, the technology is being used for genuine educational purposes, not just because of cost, convenience, or coolness.

I don’t know if the tests being proposed by our state take advantage of the technology. Will they simply be a standard, non-adjusting, norm or criterion referenced tests? Will the scores be immediately useful to teachers? If not, I’d lobby for paper and pencil tests and better use of technology for instructional purposes, such a project-based learning.

We are already learning that providing all students (at least grades 2-10) access to a relatively high-powered computer with good bandwidth for 140 minutes of over a two-week testing window will be a challenge for some buildings in our district. Using wireless labs is not recommended by NWEA. Even if the state gives us money for additional workstations and more Internet connectivity (I am not holding my breath), we don’t have the physical space (for labs) and electrical grid to support more test-taking areas at present. Hmmm, building classrooms now for the sake of online test-taking? I don’t think so.

A number of folks have raised concerns over the seeming shift of emphasis in technology use in districts from creating learning opportunities to running administrative applications. Funding right now seems to be making this an “either/or” situation. I see the indirect benefits to kids of a well-administered district; but my heart is with the direct benefits I see to kids when they become engaged in learning because it’s their fingers on the keyboard.

Experiences with online testing? Can we have both efficient administration and exciting learning opportunities?
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2 Comments »

Our system has done two “online” tests, both are in the implementation stage. U.S. History EOY has been the last two year, Biology EOY began last year. We have no data back yet, mostly because they want the test to run three years before they really begin reporting the data. In the case of the history test, after the MC part, they write out answers to 4 essay questions. The US history teachers feel it would be more effective writing them in class rather than the lab.

In both cases it is a BIG problem. The library had to partially shut down for two weeks during the practice test and the read test. In a lab setup it was/is hard to provide the kind of test taking practices, ie not looking at another person’s test. We had network glitches all over.

The History teachers all feel that it would be more effective done in the classroom.

Comment by Deborah Stafford — September 8, 2005 @ 4:34 am

The NWEA tests have about a 3 week time window for both fall and spring. In our K-3 school, we have five 3 third grade classes. Each test is about an hour for the students taking the tests and a half-hour setup time. 1.5 hours times 5 classes times 2 tests (reading and math) times 2 times a year (fall and spring) = 30 hours of lost lab use time by all other students, and 4 hours of lost instructional time per student taking the tests. With limited resources, this is tough.

Can we demonstrate that student achievement has increased with the taking of these tests? How are teachers using the data collected? I can’t say I have an answer for either. The rush to these tests has somewhat left these 2 questions unanswered, and our district is rushing to catch up and answer them. Hmmmm.

Comment by John Dyer — October 6, 2005 @ 10:48 pm