Monday, September 28, 2009

Grade 6 Community Pool Party

Photos (top to bottom): Chiara (1), Adama (2/4), Yuki (3), Cedric, Adama & Yuki (5), Adama & Yoel (6), all the kids (7), Etienne (8), kids gather for Anouk's birthday (9).

We hope to gather the 6th grade students and families together every trimester for a social and swim party. It offers the kids a chance to play together as a whole group, and their parents an opportunity to become better acquainted. The aim, of course, is to promote a sense of community -- a felt sense of connection and shared purpose.

This first grade 6 community social was held at Club Atlantique, with most of the kids and families attending.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Beautiful Morning at Plage Ouakam


Definition of a perfect day: long morning dive, followed by an afternoon at home without obligations.

I went out for about four hours yesterday, long enough to get thoroughly exhausted and dehydrated. The water was calm, with a slight surge beneath the Mamelles cliffs, visibility good enough, varying from location to location, to perhaps 30 ft. The plankton and jellyfish were locally dense, and a heavy rain on Friday morning had debris drifting in areas.

There were many more folks hand-lining from shore, drawn, I suppose, by the ideal conditions. Two guys in wetsuits, snorkeling gear, spears and collection bags were poking around the base of the cliffs looking for something, abalone perhaps. A fisherman in a single-person piroque lay his net down in a wide arc. (A video clip shows this.)

I'm gradually becoming familiar with the area. The water along a south-facing cliff is rich with plants. The bluffs immediately below Phare de Mamelles (the lighthouse) drop steeply to about five meters, then gradually to maybe ten meters. The fish stocks there are abundant. Judging from the number of anchors left behind there, others recognize it as a rich area, too.

Enjoy the following video clips filmed during this dive:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Close Encounter at Plage Ouakam

At a depth of about twenty meters, I spotted the large black sea bass in a cave. Before it could get away, I sprinted into the cave and nabbed the sixty pound fish by the tail, gave it a bear hug, and clung on as best I could. The Great Fish fought wildly, but was no match. You see, I love the taste of fresh sea bass slow-smoked over the barbeque, lathered in my grandmother's secret sauce, served with steamed potatoes and snow peas. With this in mind, I wrestled the Great Fish to the surface.

I sensed the shark before I actually spotted it, a large black tip reef shark, some five meters from stem to stern, a vicious man-eating monster. I shouted at it underwater: Be gone you vicious man-eating monster. The Great Fish is mine. I love black sea bass slow-smoked over the barbeque lathered in my grandmother's secret sauce with steamed potatoes and snow peas.

The shark spun around, edged closer, and lunged at the Great Fish. With horror, I released the bass and backed away, saddened by the prospects of having to share my dinner with the shark.

We had mac and cheese for dinner that night, with steamed potatoes and snow peas.

For video footage of the incident, see West African Sea Bass and Black Tip Shark.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Doing History

Photos (top to bottom): photo1: grade 6 students -- Moussa, Sam, Awa, Chiara, Michael -- with the Lebanese Ambassador to Senegal; photo2: Miss Debra's homeroom following a walking field trip to Plage de Ouakam, where we met and chatted with Lebou fisherman Momodou Sarr (photo3); photo4: panel of guests whose families immigrated to Senegal from Lebanese early in the 20th century; graphic of the Lebanese diaspora.

Our current unit, The Scientist & the Historian, focuses on an understanding of the two disciplines guided by the following essential questions: what is science/history? what do scientists/historians do? what are their methods?

A curriculum which aims for understanding must offer a rich context, or place students in a position where they act as if they were scientists or historians. They must feel the role, experience it, and think like a scientist/historian.

The unit includes a series of activities in which students act as if they were scientists/historians. By example, students have been assigned to complete an oral history of a family member, ideally their oldest living relative. In addition, each of the two homerooms have been engaged in a mini-history, with Miss Debra's homeroom investigating the history of the Lebou people, and my homeroom investigating the history of the Lebanese community in Senegal.

Excerpts of the interview with the panel of Senegalese residents whose families immigrated from Lebanon (be aware that the hiss is attributed to the passing of a thunder storm): audio1 audio2 audio3 audio4 audio5 audio6 audio7

Excerpts of the interview with the Lebanese Ambassador: audio1 audio2

Defying Gravity

Photos (top to bottom): Cedric, Mahima, Sam, Michael, Alex, Allamagen, JC, Victor, Kevin, Cecile, Carlota, Ada.

Basketball players are tall. Volleyball players are tall. They have to be, for all the jumping they do. So doesn't it stand to reason that the taller you are the farther you'll jump? We tested this hypothesis in class. We plotted students' heights x the distance traveled in a standing broad jump, recording the best of three jumps. The results were sketchy, the scatter plot revealing a weak correlation, at best. So what else might be going on? Motivation, leg length, general fitness, technique, clothing, leg strength, practice/experience?

For the complete gallery of photos, see BOT at gallery1 gallery2.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Understanding 2: Multiple Points of Entry

Understanding implies a flexibility in the ways that we are able to use or apply a skill or concept. To explain something, in a form exactly as taught, like a tape recording, is not understanding. Practicing a skill by approaching it in multiple and varied ways over an extended period is necessary. Understanding is demonstrated through performance. You understand it because you can do it.

In class, we spent a week exploring the nature of understanding, through discussion, exercises, and observation. Students were then assigned to respond to four questions in writing. See understanding. The kids responses suggested that, in too many cases, the ideas remained abstract and on the surface. Some wrote that we understood something if we were able to explain it. Others said that we could assess understanding by giving a quiz or test.

Given the exercises that they had engaged in earlier in the week (the battery and bulb problem, the hole-in-the-Earth problem, and the seasons' problem), the use of the terms explain and quiz might be accurate. I wanted to capture their thinking/reasoning, and asked them to discuss and explain their ideas. They perceived that they were being quizzed. It was, however, very important that students see that a new pilot must be required to do more than pass a written test to demonstrate their competence to fly.

I opted to hover around the concept of understanding for another week, and approach it from several new angles, broadening the points of entry. (Note the following on-line references re entry points: Wiske; Wiley, see page 35; Perrone.) My students would act as if they were local experts on the topic, and enter other classrooms to share their learning. We would then spend the week preparing resources -- a poster and a video -- focusing on four aspects of understanding: what is it, how do we know when we have it, how do we get it, and how do we teach it?

While still in production, the video program, conceived in the style of Bill Nye, is important, as individual students discuss and demonstrate what it is that they understand -- skateboarding, basketball, reading, tying shoes, riding a bicycle. The film personalizes understanding in a way that is both fun and instructive.

In addition, students were daily shown video clips of people engaged in a particular activities (bicycle riding, juggling, gymnastics) and asked to assess each performer's understanding: Did they demonstrate understanding? How might they have acquired that understanding? Explain with multiple specific examples.

The kids' writing was consistently strong -- insightful and well-detailed. The notion that a person demonstrates their understanding through explanation was dropped, replaced with attention to the automaticity of sub-skills, and understanding as demonstrated through performance.

This is a BIG issue: Many of us talk about understanding, we use the term freely, as if by knowing about it we understand it. Not so. Teaching for understanding, and assessing for it, capturing student thinking, is slippery and subtle. What we get depends upon the nature of our questions, as we determine how far and in what directions understanding extends, where invention and conjecture begin to substitute for real understanding.

What do we do when our students do not understand what we teach? How do we respond? What if they are not interested or invested?

The immediate answer seems to be this: ensure that the entry points into a set of ideas are multiple and varied; aim for an internal representation that is multi-intellectual, formed from rich experience, as much as we are able to provide, given our resources.

Whether we're teaching the concept of gravity, riding a bicycle, or the nature of understanding, we begin by attending to basics, then those basics are applied in a broad, rich context. I believe what I lacked, in my initial plan, was this last piece. Then we must move on, continuing to apply the ideas in new contexts -- a study of science and history, water, geology, paleoanthropology, and early civilizations.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Note to Steve: Walking to School

I'm walking to and from school every morning and afternoon now, about thirty minutes each way. The walk has three aspects: something outward, something inward, and something from above: to listen, to breath, and to observe a third thing, which remains a bit of a mystery for now. It's an exercise in observing obstacles, patterns thereof, almost always the spinning of a formatory process, then returning to the aim, re-calibrating, developing a sense/taste of attention allocated in more than one direction.

The tendency to improvise, away from the aim, is frequent. I think, let it go, return to the aim, listen, breathe, begin again.

I have begun focusing on listening for a time, then turning to the breath, then putting them together, then awaken, return to listening.

I imagine listening as if through headphones, listening remotely from Carmel Valley, the sounds of Africa, the increasing volume of a car as it passes, the sound of birds, a THX quality IMAX landscape.

Inhale, then release it, observing it, with quality, continuously, to the next break in the sidewalk, or the next light pole, or the next street, small goals, points of reference, marking continuity across discrete distances, to there, then to there.

Marking time on aim x distance this way is very helpful.

There is nothing more important.

Teaching for Understanding: A Note to Parents

Teaching for understanding

That students understand the ideas we explore in class this year is an overarching goal, termed a throughline, for the 6th grade school year.

Teaching for understanding requires that concepts be applied in an unfamiliar context. By example, understanding the concept of gravity means being able to apply it to a variety of systems, be it the Earth, our solar system, or any body in space. Understanding implies that we are able to do more than simply replicate what we heard and saw in class. Learning that remains in the form of isolated facts will quickly decay. We need only look to our on experience in school. What do we remember, and why?

The application of a concept is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than knowing about it; actually piloting an aircraft is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than knowing about flight. As I said to the kids, imagine a person reads the book, How to do surgery. After they finish the book, they take a test on the information, and get an A, 100%. Do you want them operating on your mom? Why?

Knowing about something is much easier than doing it.

But how do we assess for understanding? How do we know if (or to what extent) a student understands a skill or concept?

Assessing understanding: The 5-point rubric

Most 6th graders understand how to ride a bicycle; they understand how to tie their shoes. How would we assess for understanding? We’d ask them to demonstrate it by riding a bicycle, or tying their shoes. Understanding must be practiced, and performed. The same is true for all skills and concepts we are studying: assessment must be ongoing, multiple, varied, and performed.

Miss Deb and I will use a 5-point rubric to assess a student’s understanding. In it’s most basic form, a score of

5 corresponds with a demonstration of full understanding;

4 indicates partial understanding, or that a student’s nearly mastered it, but may need to ask for a hint here and there;

3 indicates clear room for improvement, the clear need for further practice, or the inability to solve a problem without assistance;

1 and 2 are reserved for work that is either incomplete, or significantly below the standards for the student, or the grade level

Larger projects, as the masking-making activity we completed last week, are also assessed using a rubric, though whenever possible the categories and levels of achievement within categories are developed in collaboration with students. We ask: How shall we assess this project? What areas should we assess? What does a score of 5 look like in each area? Thus, the rubric is derived in advance of the project and guides student work (or so it is meant to).

A score of 6 often accompanies a project-based rubric. The score of 6 is higher than an American grade of A, and is assigned when the quality of work has gone well-beyond expectations of the teacher, the student, and/or the grade level. In the International Baccalaureate Program, this score is reserved for work that derives new knowledge. I have described a score of 6 as drawing a response of Ohhh, Woww! from classmates and teachers.

The Challenge: Converting a 5-point rubric to a percentage scale and letter grades

Being a part of the middle school, FOCUS reports grades on a percentage scale with letter grades. Thus the rub: converting a 5-point understanding-based rubric to a percentage. Were we using traditional tools of assessment – tests and quizzes – and calculating number correct to determine understanding, life would be easier. But, as said, our assessments are ongoing, multiple, varied, and performance-based.

Were we to stick with a 5-point scale without a correction factor, then a score of 5/5 (full understanding) would correspond with 100%, or the letter grade of A+; a score of 4/5 (minor room for improvement) would equal 80%, or a B-; and a score of 3/5 (need for further practice) would equal 60%, or a D-. The need for further practice is an accurate and respectful descriptor, but that it shows-up as a D- on FOCUS is a problem for everyone. Thus we add a two-part correction factor, which has proven very useful.

First, the 5-point scale is converted to a 10-point scale, and

a score of 5/5 becomes a 9/10, or 90% = A-

a score of 4/5 becomes an 8/10, or 80& = B-

a score of 3/7 becomes a 7/10, or 70% = C-

These are the scores you’ll see on FOCUS.

However, a second correction factor is added to the student’s overall grade average, which will not show up until trimester reports come out. This second correction lifts a student’s overall grade average one interval, or

an overall grade average of A- is lifted to a final grade of A

an overall grade average of B+ is lifted to a final grade of A-

and an overall grade average of B is lifted to a final grade of B+

This strategy has been well-received by parents in recent years, though it does require some getting used to. From my perspective, as my mom used to say, the proof’s in the pudding. It works, and allows us to continue assessing for understanding (and all that that implies) while paying respect to the need for reporting percentages and letter grades.

If you have any questions about this, I’d be happy to field your questions.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Understanding 1: What is it?

We've spent the past week in class exploring the nature of understanding (as opposed to knowing about something). That students understand the ideas we cover this year is an overarching understanding goal, or throughline, for the year. The intent here is review what we did last week, for the kids, their families, and anyone else with a similar interest. I offer up this line of inquiry for critique and comment.

What is understanding?
We began by viewing and discussing a series of video clips of former students playing musical instruments: Anna (cello), Gabe (piano), and Peter (violin). I asked: Do they understand their instruments? How do they demonstrate their understanding? How does the level of understanding vary between the three students?

We then viewed a clip from the PBS program From the Top at Carnegie Hall, featuring gifted young musicians from around the United States. In this particular segment, 12-year-old violinist Anna Lee performed, and we explored the same questions: Does she understand the violin? How does she demonstrate her understanding? How does her understanding compare to the other three children?

We moved to surfing, and I profiled 8th grade Caterina learning to surf in Monterey, California. Does she understand how to surf? Is she developing an understanding? What must she do to acquire an understanding of surfing? We then viewed a clip of professional big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton surfing at Teahupoo, Tahiti. Does Laird understand surfing? How does he demonstrate his understanding? How do you suppose he acquired that understanding?

We then turn to the students. What did they feel like they understood? Students responded to the following three questions, independently. Their responses were charted and are italics:

1. What is something that you understand, like riding a bike, tying your shoes, skateboarding, or snow skiing?
making pancakes, singing, riding a bicycle, cooking, reading, playing video games on Play Station 3, roller surfing, hiphop dancing, playing basketball, play baseball, horseback riding

2. How do you know you understand it?
I can do it with few errors, I love to do it/it's fun, I can show someone else how to do it, I learn from my mistakes, I've been doing it for a long time, I practice it a lot, I recognize a lucky accident, I can improve my own performance, I can do it in different ways, not just one way

3. How did you acquire that understanding?
lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of practice, I took a class, I had a coach who showed me how to do it and gave me lots of feedback, I tried hard and was serious about it, I really wanted to learn

This first lesson closed by referring back to our desire to teaching for understanding -- that we were after understanding this year, across the curriculum, and that teaching for an understanding of geology would require lots and lots of practice, and coaching with regular feedback.

The Battery & Bulb Problem
Students were introduced to the first of several tasks about which they would demonstrate their understanding (or lack their of). The first was the batteries & bulbs problem. Small groups were given three items -- a AA battery, a wire (stripped of insulation on both ends), and a flashlight-size bulb. Their task was simple (or so it seemed): using only these three things, they were to light the bulb. All students believed they could do it. After all, most had studied electricity in grade 4, some in grade 5, too.

The kids did what they could, some were unsuccessful, a few got mad and insisted that there must be a trick, or that the materials were flawed, a few lit the bulb, but none, upon probing, really knew what was going on. At best, they were trying replicate something they'd once seen in a picture or a demonstration. Note the following video clips from this activity:

The battery and bulbs activity comes from a remarkable video program entitled Minds of Our Own (see Minds). It's a must-see for all educators and parents. The program opens at Commencement at MIT. A sampling of graduates are asked to perform the same task as the kids, and almost none could do it. To paraphrase Harvard researcher Philip Sadler, everyone thinks they can do it, but very few can. The problem is this: If one cannot light a light bulb, then everything that follows from it has problems.

What do we really understand? How do we teach for understanding? How do we figure out if a student really understands something, anything, whether it's tying their shoes, riding a bicycle, or electricity. What is the consequence of not teaching for understanding?

The Hole in the Earth Problem
The hole in the Earth problem was drawn from Rosalind Driver's Children's Ideas in Science, a book that focuses on a wide variety of children's common misconceptions in science. Here's the problem: We bore a hole through the center of the Earth then drop a bowling ball in, or some very heavy ball. What happens to the ball?

We posed this question to ISD students in grades K, 3, 4, 6, 10 and 12. In the style of Minds of our Own and A Private Universe, students were encouraged to use markers and chart paper to explain and illustrate their ideas. We captured a few of the kids ideas on audiotape, available for your perusal through TeacherTube:

What we discovered was this: Not surprisingly, the Kinders lacked the vocabulary, the concepts, and the cognitive development to grasp the problem (as it was presented). The four 3rd graders we interviewed each believed that the ball would fall right through the planet and continue into space. The two grade 4 students had their own ideas. One of them, Gus, initially felt that the ball would incinerate (his term) due to the temperature of the Earth's interior. When I suggested that we ignore temperature, he went on to speculate that gravity would cause the ball to oscillate (my term) through the interior of the Earth until it stopped at the center -- a pretty sophisticated theory for one so young, not typical for his age.

My 6th graders had their own ideas, most taking into consideration some aspect/s of temperature, pressure and gravity, commensurate with their age, grade, and training/experience. They differed in their views of gravity, whether it pushed or pulled, and what was doing the pushing or pushing. They also differed in their views of whether the ball would accelerate toward the center of the Earth, or slow.

Our 10th grade victim was the first to consider more than one force acting upon the ball, and was the first to mention the concept of equilibrium. Still, it was a problem about which he was unfamiliar and uncertain.

Cloe, our senior, had taken physics in her junior year, and was quick to consider the problem in light of the forces acting on the ball -- gravity, inertia, acceleration.

The 6th graders sat-in on each interview, and we shared thoughts/observations after each, returning to the central questions: What do we really understand? How do we acquire that understanding? How do we check to see if someone really understands something? What are the obstacles to understanding?

What Causes Seasons on Earth?
The final thinking problem for students to gnaw over (in the context of this exploration of understanding) involved the seasons: What causes the changes of seasons on Earth? As with the battery and bulbs problem and electricity, most students have studied the seasons in their first five years of schooling, but would they be able to apply that knowledge to this question. Note the following video clip:

The misunderstanding of Earth's seasons is profiled nicely in A Private Universe, available for streaming at It's a classic. It opens at Harvard University, where graduates at commencement are asked about to explain the cause of seasonal change. 21 of the 23 students interviewed wrongly believed that the change in the seasons is due to the proximity of the Earth to the Sun, with sumer corresponding to the months when we're closer, and winter when we're further away. Not so.

The video goes on to profile a student in a 9th grade science classroom. Her ideas about the seasons were captured in interviews before and after a science unit was presented. Surprisingly -- certainly to the teacher -- the student's initial beliefs about bouncing light and the curlicue orbit of the Earth around the Sun were resilient, despite the teacher's best efforts.

Students were asked, in small groups, to consider the question of Earth's seasons and report out their ideas, as a springboard to these recurring questions: What do we really understand? Why must we teach for understanding? What is the consequence of not doing it? How do we teach for understanding? How do we figure out if a student really understands something, anything, whether it's tying their shoes, riding a bicycle, or electricity?

As you might expect, homework for the weekend asks students to respond to four questions:

1. What is understanding? How do we know when we understand something?
(HINT: Think riding a bike, or tying your shoes)

2. Why should we teach for understanding? Why is it important?

3. How do we teach for understanding? What must it include?
(HINT: Think riding a bike, or tying your shoes)

4. How do we assess for understanding? How do we check to see what students really understand?
(HINT: Think riding a bike, or tying your shoes)


It's Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, when Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, or indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured from dawn to sunset (from Wiki), the aim being to draw one's heart closer to God. The end of the fast is marked by the holiday of Korite, which takes place the morning after the sighting of the new moon. Fathers and sons go to the mosque to pray, then have a light meal of millet cereal with milk. A larger meal is served at midday, and in the afternoon people visit with friends and neighbors (from Holiday).

The month of Ramadan is a period of increased tension, particularly in the late afternoon, as motorists hurry home to break their fast. Serious traffic accidents are much more common during this time of year.

Crime is also up, a little, as people feel the need to prepare for Korite. This is particularly true along the Cornisch, the main north-south coastal road frequented by toubabs and expats, and the route I walk to school. That I'm predictable, following the Cornisch twice a day, with my over-the-shoulder satchel, makes me a target -- bait.

I've been pondering this while on my thirty-minute walk: How do I respond should I be confronted?

I've considered carrying a can of yellow spray paint. While I may lose my bag, I imagine coating the thieves with an easily identifiable layer of day-glow enamel paint. Clever, but perhaps too testosterone and fantasy-driven. Isn't it better to give it all up and step away. I can replace the laptop.

Dakar is a relatively safe place. Teranga -- hospitality -- is, in my experience, a reality. Crime is minimal, taking place almost entirely in the evening, and limited to petty theft. Still, there is a potential for violence, however slight.

As point of reference, there have been 19 homicides by shooting in Salinas, California thus far this year.

Whether by imagination, or accurate intuition, my little walk along the coast to/from school has changed, at least through Korite, two weeks away. The presence of gendarmerie cruising the Cornisch suggests that something is up.