Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Train Station - Part II


         Victor’s head swung away from his makeshift pillow and slammed down against the armrest as the train fell back onto the tracks. Pain blossomed in his head and bright spots swelled across his eyes like tiny white fireworks. He shut his eyelids but the spots grew brighter. A trickle of blood warmed the back of his neck.
         “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” spat Trish senselessly. Her phone fumbled in her hands, thick fingers frantically jabbing at the flat screen. “It’s not going through. It’s not going through.”
         The passengers on the train car began to panic. Some made useless attempts to call friends and family. A couple near the front helped an older woman back into her seat. A few others moved luggage out of the way to join the older man that had been heading toward the next car.
         “Is this a terrorist attack?” Tanya asked Trish who had given up on her phone.
         “I don’t know. I have no idea what just happened. Are we even moving still?”
         The windows revealed nothing but darkness.
         “Yeah,” said a hoarse voice, “we’re still moving.”
         The women looked down at Victor who was still lying across the passenger seats holding his head with bloodied hands.
         “Woah, you’re bleeding pretty bad,” said Tanya.
         “I know. I hit my head.”
         “Somebody’s gotta go up there and get some help back here,” said Trish, her eyes growing with concern as she stared at the young man.
         “No,” said Victor loudly, a jolt of fresh pain drawing new colors across his field of vision. “No, there’s something out there. We need to get off this train as soon as possible.”
         “We can’t get off the train if it’s still moving,” said Tanya.
         A wave of shrill cries washed over the tense train car. Almost synchronously the passengers turned their heads toward the door ahead. The cries died away, leaving only their heavy breathing to mask the silence.
         “Look, I can’t just stand here waiting for something to happen,” said the older man in the isle. “I’m going over to see what the hell is going on. If some of you want to tag along, that’s fine by me.”
         The man looked around to see if anyone would join him. The couple that had been helping the older woman looked at one another. They got up and stood behind him. In the end, two others also tagged along and the quintet hurried through the junction into the following car.
         Tanya and Trish watched the door close behind the determined group. They moved over to help Victor get up.
         “We gotta stop the bleeding,” said Tanya.
         They fished a white t-shirt out of Victor’s gym bag and used it to apply pressure to the back of his head. The car gently swayed from left to right as it rolled along, making Victor feel like he was swimming. Relentlessly, rain pounded the roof of the train.
         A loud bang rang through the cabin. The door to the train car ahead of them seemed to rattle on its hinges. Someone in the car shrieked.
         All eyes were glued to the front door. Sounds, like those of a scuffle, wafted back as if they had been ghosts living on that section of track and only now the train passed through them for all to hear once more. The passengers thought of the party of five that had just stepped through those doors in search of answers. The ominous scuffling continued.
         The door rattled again. This time its hinges fought hard against the bolts that bound them. Another loud bang echoed through the car. The metal door bent inward toward the frightened passengers.
         “Holy…” Trish could not find the words. Fear gripped her skin like a dozen cold, clammy hands.
         The door banged and bent again, twisting away from the frame but still held in place by its hinges and handle. A few in the cabin screamed. Someone began to cry.
         “We need to get out, now,” said Victor, attempting to raise himself up. The pain in his head was subsiding, but the bleeding persisted.
         Tanya looked at him, indecisive. Her friend had not stopped muttering, eyes transfixed on the twisted door.
         Another loud bang and the door’s top hinges came off. Darkness peered through from the other side.
         “Come on, guys. Let’s go,” said Victor. He tried to sound urgent, but part of him just wanted to cry. He was scared.
         Victor grabbed the phone he had been charging and shoved it into his front pocket. He couldn’t think of anything in his bag he needed and left it lying on the seat.
         “Let’s go, Trish. Come on,” said Victor.
         He tugged Trish’s arm gently and she followed, still gazing towards the twisted metal that bulged as if a vacuum sucked it in. Tanya followed her friend. The trio ran to the other side and opened the door leading into the last train car. As they closed it behind them, they peered back once more just in time to see the metal frame on the other side burst open with a clang. Fighting the urge to turn around and keep running, they watched, curiosity gripping them.
         A tall, dark figure, like that of a man’s, approached. It wore no clothing, but none of its features were visible, only darkness. The figure walked slowly, its body turning as if looking around, but it had no eyes and no face, just more darkness.  As it moved into the train car the lights in the cabin waned, being drained of their energy. This figure was the night. The night had come to life, and it seemed the Night had come to take it.


(End of Part II of IV)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Round and Round and Beyond: A Journey in Science Education


            Two years ago I got word of my acceptance to a fellowship experience few have had. Not quite a Fellowship of the Rings, but definitely one filled with adventures, high and low. I began this adventure into the workings of STEM education at the federal level a lowly hobbit knowing only one thing: if I were asked to attribute whatever success I had as a science educator to one specific strategy it would be my purposeful pursuit of appropriately meaningful relationships with my students. Now, nearing the end of this wild journey, I’m only more convinced of that.
            I had a marvelous experience working with some really smart folk on a document that attempted to summarize some of the research on noncognitive factors that contribute to persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In other words, we tried to summarize what makes people—young students in particular—decide to study science or math or engineering. What gets young people committed to STEM fields and what factors contribute to their choosing to pursue a STEM career? No silver bullet exists in response, but existing research does provide direction.
            People make decisions to pursue careers in STEM because of interest (Duh!). But what influences interest? In middle school I had a dynamic civics teacher. She taught me almost everything I knew about government before I came to DC. (That says a lot). Yet, I did not choose to pursue political science, history, or economics as a major. The career decision-making process is a long one filled with a ton of inputs that span a lifetime. Because it is a complex process, one program just won’t do it.
            A child’s interest in STEM is influenced by a variety of things. First of all, they need to be exposed to STEM early. If they don’t know cool science exists they won’t develop interest. Sadly, at the elementary level, it is not uncommon to hear teachers put off science lessons until the end of the day, and even then, children might just get a few minutes of subpar curriculum. The fault does not necessarily lie solely on the educator. These often amazing teachers take a variety of preparatory courses on early childhood development and teaching strategies, not to mention learning about all the subjects they teach. The way the system is currently set up, one cannot expect elementary teachers to be experts in all of STEM.
            Self-efficacy also influences interest. Self-efficacy refers to someone’s perceived ability to accomplish something. The emphasis is on “perceived.” A person of high skill and ability in a particular area may have low confidence about being successful on a task related to that area. The higher your self-efficacy in STEM, the more likely you are to develop interest and therefore make goals and decisions that lead you towards a STEM career. But self-efficacy is a complex beast, which develops from a variety of sources.
            The lessons educators provide their student must be challenging but achievable in order to contribute positively to a child’s self-efficacy. Overly challenging assignments or ridiculously easy tasks don’t help children develop self-efficacy in STEM. And what one student may find easy, another may find challenging—in other words, teachers must develop personalized learning pathways. Furthermore, students develop self-efficacy (or lack of self-efficacy) based on how they perceive others like them succeeding in STEM fields.  For example, if a child associates herself with a particular minority group and encounters others from that group succeeding in a STEM field, she may develop the confidence that she, too, can be successful: “If she/he can do it, then so can I!” In addition, verbal encouragement can do a lot to motivate children and boost their confidence in their abilities.
            Only meaningful relationships with students allow educators to traverse these behavioral labyrinths that positively impact the children they’re responsible for. How can educators design personalized learning experiences if little time is spent sitting with students one-on-one to gauge children’s unique thought processes and academic skills? How can educators who haven’t spent time talking to students know what groups they associate themselves with in order to recruit successful representatives from those groups to present positive role modeling? How do educators provide proper verbal encouragement in a young person’s life unless they walk alongside young people?
            These questions seem to place great burdens on the educator. Granted, none of these tasks are accomplished easily. But the education system can be tweaked and worked to relieve the burden and make more room for teachers to be successful: smaller classes, more time for preparation and analysis, significant and relevant professional development, better networks with informal educators and professors from higher education institutions, a positive culture of STEM and STEM careers. Is this asking for a lot? Is it realistic?
            So my current journey comes to a close, but a new one begins. STEM education will also be a central part of it. A variety of complex factors led me on this path, some of which I’ve discussed earlier, but there are many more (e.g. peer influence, parental guidance, perceived barriers…the list goes on). The fact that no easy trick exists to get kids excited and pursuing STEM pleases me. It means that children could never be treated as mindless robots forced through a system that assumes participation will yield definite results. Let me correct that…perhaps students may be dealt with that way, but widespread results will not follow. Results will follow when there are dedicated people committed to doing whatever it takes to set children on a positive trajectory, be it STEM or not.


* I must add that many of the factors referred to in this post are a result of good research by a variety of people including Bandura, Dweck, Gibbs, Lent, Piaget, Tai and many others. For a full list of references feel free to make contact. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Grammar? Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo Dat: Common Core and Contemporary Communication

      Text-messages. E-mails. Commercials. Blogs. Music. Mobile-App Advertisements. The overwhelming majority of language children encounter everyday looks nothing like what often gets taught in Language Arts classes. Form letters, five-paragraph essays, and metered poetry have little to do with what matters to a lot of people. In truth, many Americans go entire careers without the need to fashion a professional letter or write a ten-page essay. Jobs like web-design, computer programming, and sales all deal with language, but none truly requires mastery of iambic pentameter.
     Please, don't misunderstand me. A few years ago, I could not fathom enjoying the process of rewording split infinitives or adjusting dangling participles, let alone knowing what those are. Sitting down with a couple of friends of mine, who happen to be grammar-buffs, birthed in me a new paradigm: rather than hinder my writing, the rules of grammar sets it free. But this brings up a question: Why didn't I learn those conventions when I was in school?
     My ninth-grade English teacher dyed her short-cropped hair red, wore glasses, and sported long, cotton dresses everyday. That's all I remember about her. Solitary neurons weakly firing across distant synapses vaguely remind me she may have also tried teaching me about compound sentences, subject-predicate relationships, and other such things. Despite my clear interest in literature and language, I struggled to engage. (In her defense: She also encouraged me to continue writing poetry, although my interest had begun beforehand.)
     The Common Core English Language Arts Standards propound the continued teaching of grammatical conventions, and rightly so, but the forms by which teachers require these of students should include contemporary formats. Perhaps, students should be prompted to "tweet" from the perspective of a classic heroine, or design a website for an imaginary corporation. They can caption photos for a classroom Pinterest account, or contribute to a student-generated blog. The idea is to engage students where they're at--in their context. Although student privacy may be a concern in some of these cases, many of the resources mentioned give users significant control of what the public can see. Let us take advantage of the increasing web-capabilities of schools.
     My ideas are not new. (Perhaps I shouldn't word that so bluntly.) Recently, Lorna Collier said something similar in the Council Chronicle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her article, "Changes in Writing Instruction - the Challenge and the Promise," depicts how technology has changed the way people communicate and makes the case that we cannot predict how communication may continue to change in the coming years. She encourages educators to teach students to think about how to use the conventions of writing to communicate with particular audiences, instead of adhering to formulaic templates.
    In conclusion...I will dread posting this because I suspect some of you will be copyediting this essay while you read. ("See, so much for your fancy blog grammar-boy!") Nevertheless, I hope I've clearly communicated the message: Grammar rules! (pun-intended) But can we make its learning more engaging by placing it in our students' context?