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Just Do It. Really

Recently, I got my inbox at work down to zero.  This remarkable feat happened for the first time after about a year and a half in my job where I get a considerable amount of email.  I kept the inbox at zero for about a week before it started creeping back up.  I’ve thought very carefully about how this happened and I think there are two key issues at play:  not observing the 2 minute rule and allowing my inbox to serve as a to-do list.

In David Allen’s Getting Things Donehe advises that any item that will take less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately.  There are undoubtedly a few items in my inbox that would take two minutes to complete and a fair number that would only take 10.  I leave them in my inbox and let them be reminders.  As a result, I spend a great deal of time scrolling through the inbox looking for an item of this makeshift to-do list and try to locate an item that will 1) take the appropriate amount of time based on how much time I have, 2) can be done at this current time (i.e. not trying to fix a projector in the middle of a class), and 3) that I feel like doing.

Interestingly, as I thought about this, I realized that I had a remarkably similar realization several years ago in my post Inbox Zero – a week later.  Maybe the second time is a charm?

A Whole Year

It has been a whole year since my last post.  A Whole Year!  Where did that year go?

I was looking hard for a job while finishing graduate school.  I found a job.  I graduated.  My husband and I found a new apartment.  I substitute taught for a month.  I started the new job.  Since then, I’ve been working 10-14 hours a day.  There’s  a lot to get done every day.  On her blog, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long, but the years are short.”   How very true.  This is how it has been a whole year since I have posted a single thing on this blog.

Last Thursday, my husband said, “…you’re hard to schedule with.”  He said it in a really casual way, like, “we need bread,” or “let’s watch the Olympics.”  So I decided to commit to taking all of Saturday and Sunday off.  We went to brunch, bought groceries, visited the Home Depot to look at closet organizing systems.  I made stew for dinner, took a nap, and read a book.  Tonight we’re going to the movies.  The last time all these things happened in one weekend what quite a while ago.  Now he’s reading and I opened up my laptop to look at this blog.

And I realized it has been a whole year.

One of the things that I loved about graduate school was the ability to read and think deeply about education and to share those thoughts with others; I had the time – nay the obligation – to go this as a student.  I realize today how much I miss that.  So, while those long days are going by, I hope that I’ll be back here soon with a real post.   For now, I’m going to the movies.

Merit Pay and Cholesterol

I’m working on a paper about whether merit pay has any place in independent schools.   Before I write the paper, I need to figure out what I actually think, so I’ve been reading a lot about merit pay and education.  As I read everything from randomized, controlled studies to blogs, I keep getting hit with comparisons of merit pay in education to other careers.  I think I’ve hit on the one that really puts it in perspective for me: my cholesterol.

I have high cholesterol, which one might consider an overall indicator of my health.  What if my doctor got merit pay based on my cholesterol level?

What tools does my doctor have to improve my health as measured by my cholesterol level?

  • Expertise: My doctor can try to impress upon me the importance of lower my cholesterol, my risks, and what I should do.
  • Face Time and Teaching:  My doctor can meet with me to share her expertise and tell me exactly what I need to do, what to eat or not eat, how much exercise I should consider.
  • Medication: My doctor can prescribe any number of medications for reduction of cholesterol.
  • Assessment: My doctor can test my cholesterol periodically to see if I have made progress.
  • Reinforcement/Punishment: My doctor can praise me when I do what she asks and she can rebuke me when I don’t.  Depending on how health insurance works in the future, I may pay more if my cholesterol levels stay high.

What does my doctor have to overcome?

  • My genes: Pretty much everyone in my family has high cholesterol. I’ve had cousins who had high cholesterol in elementary school.  There’s a good chance that there are some genetic forces at work that neither my doctor nor I can control.
  • My beliefs: I believe that there’s little I can do for my cholesterol.  I have a lot of reasons.  People in my family don’t tend to have heart disease in spite of our lipid counts. We do tend to have weird and uncomfortable side effects when we take statin drugs.  We don’t tend to see lower cholesterol as a result of regular exercise.  We don’t generally eat high-cholesterol foods.  Based on these trends, I tend to believe that efforts to lower my cholesterol through prescriptions, diet, and exercise will fail.  Carol Dweck would probably say I have a fixed mindset about my cholesterol.
  • My non-compliance: When I’m actually at an appointment with my doctor, I generally refuse to accept Lipitor or similar medications.  I will however, usually agree to something else that is supposed to lower my cholesterol, like taking fish oil.  Right now I am supposed to be taking fish oil every day.  I haven’t taken fish oil at all since two days after I last promised to start doing it.

Is it fair to measure my doctor’s effectiveness based on my cholesterol level?  No!

With all the tools and expertise that she has, my doctor cannot ultimately control my cholesterol.  If you want to know how good she is, you’d probably need to sit in the exam room and watch her have these conversations and ask me if I thought she was effective.  Simply looking at my number doesn’t tell you anything about her efforts, only about my actions.  I like my doctor a lot; she’s attentive and funny.  She cares a lot about my health. She tries hard to get me to take the measures listed above.  She knows when to push a little harder, like at the beginning of the summer when I have more time to exercise and cook healthy meals.  She knows when to let it lie, like when I’m in the office because of a nasty case of food poisoning.   My total cholesterol count of 290 doesn’t tell you any of this.  If you judged her based on it, you’d do her a huge disservice.

So, hopefully this metaphor makes sense.  Teachers have expertise, face time, teaching tools, homework, parent conferences, stickers, praise, assessments, and grades in their toolbox for helping students learn.   But they have to overcome factors like learning differences, individual motivation, home life, student stress, cultural biases about the value of education, and the value students place on the rewards available to teachers in order to “achieve” which is then measured by a students’ scores on a single day.

I’m still not sure how I feel about some kind of merit pay for teachers, but I understand how I feel about using standardized test scores as the only component of determining teacher effectiveness.  What do you think?  Share your thoughts about this metaphor, your experience with merit pay, or how your school measures about teacher effectiveness. Leave comments about my cholesterol and lipitor out of it, please.

NC vs NY – defining “crowded” and more

I love North Carolina. I grew up there and lived there my entire life until last August. Then I, with my husband and our cat, moved to New York. We live in graduate housing at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. I now also love New York.  I love Central Park and seeing people playing chess and dominoes on the sidewalk.  I love being able to sit in a restaurant and not understand the conversation at the next table because it is in Chinese or Arabic or Dutch.  I love that practically any item of food can be delivered to my apartment at almost any hour of the day.

My two loves are fairly different, but lovely in their own way.  Having had my first visit back to NC since moving to NY, I share the following points of interest for your consideration:

  1. In NC, “crowded” means waiting for a table in a restaurant or needing to park in the second row.  In NY, “crowded” means you have no choice but to be in physical contact with three strangers on the subway.
  2. In NC, a small apartment is under 750 square feet.  In NY, a small apartment is a closet.  That you share with a friend.
  3. In NC, a dog that pees on the sidewalk is a bad dog.  In NY, a dog that pees on the sidewalk has no choice.
  4. In NC, “underground” is were you bury things.  In NY, underground is where you spend substantial portions of your time.
  5. In NC, walking 1.5 miles is exercise.  In NY, walking 1.5 miles is getting groceries.
  6. In NC, not having a car is extremely problematic.  In NY, not having a car is a blessed relief from dealing with alternate side parking rules.
  7. In NC, a street sweeper is a novelty in a children’s book.  In NY, a street sweeps is a thing outside the window that terrifies the cat.

Now, my fellow New Yorkers, please explain one thing to me:  How is it that I can by any one of 500 types of cheese at my beloved Westside Market, but Mexican Restaurants sprinkle Parmesan on my Enchiladas instead of using Queso Blanco or Asadero?

Are your students threatened?

One of my homework assignments this holiday was to read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, currently Dean of the School of Education at Stanford and previous Provost of Columbia University.   The book focuses on stereotype threat and how students are effected by it.  If you teach, you need to read this book.

Steele served on a minority retention committee while a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  There he saw that African-American students were under-performing based on their SAT scores as compared to other groups.   He describes experiments he and his colleagues did to try to understand what was causing certain college students to under-perform.  Through clear prose, he explains how he and others discovered stereotype threat was responsible for this disturbing trend.

When do students suffer from stereotype threat?  When poor performance would confirm a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  Steel uses many examples including female math students, white sprinters, minority students and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.   The anxiety induced by wanting to disprove a stereotype or fearing confirming that stereotype actually changes the patterns of activity in the brain and results in poorer performance than the individual would have on that task without the threat.   Stereotype threat has a real and measurable impact on performance, physiology, and emotional well-being.

So, ask yourself, who in my classroom might be under stereotype threat?   Not limited to race or gender, stereotype threat can be based anything that  makes someone a minority in the room.  Fortunately, there are many small and inexpensive interventions that can help mitigate stereotype threat.  The studies in the book are fascinating; I have had the opportunity to read many of them in my coursework.  Small things like normalizing struggle, development of a growth mindset, and values affirmation can reduce the impact of stereotype threat in a surprisingly long-lasting way.

Chances are there is someone in your classroom experiencing stereotype threat.  You owe it to them to read Whistling Vivaldi.