Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Place v 3.0

Well I've been here for a while already so, it seems kind of late to be talking about this now but I suppose I can do so anyway. I suppose I did it without telling a lot of people what was up. I decided to move out of Shim Gwang Sa for a lot of reasons, many of which I will not get into. Suffice it to say that I started to realize that living as a monk was not exactly creating the type of social life I needed or wanted. So, I got a place that is now technically outside of the town of Boston but allows me to get downtown considerably faster. The area is called Davis Square and it's on the edge of Somerville near the Tufts University campus.

The area is pretty good for my culinary obsessions. There are at least three Indian restaurants within walking distance. One is literally around the corner. Add to that a choice barbecue joint, and a couple of Tibetan and Thai places and you can start to get an idea how much trouble I'm in. This is not all however. There's a butcher, a farmers' market, a kitchen supply store, and an Indian grocer (which happens to be closer than the Indian restaurant) as well.

Kind of the sad thing is that in conjunction with my failure to post I've not had much chance for taking advantage of the benefits all of this provides. It has only been this week that I've done any cooking and it has of course been a lot of Indian food and a key lime pie. (I hope there is at least a little laughing and a little cringing when I say that.) I still have a bit to do to get used to my kitchen. That's something that just seems to be the norm every time I move. Every cabinet, every stove, every space seems to have a different feel to it and requires some adjusting.

This morning was kind of exciting. I was baking the pie rather early hoping to have it done before I had to leave for work this morning. Well, the smoke alarm went off. It seems that the oven needs some cleaning or something. Anyway, I was a little worried because I thought I had probably pissed somebody off. Fortunately nobody noticed. Lucked out.

I'm still studying the sword. In fact I just learned my 20th form a couple days ago. With the assistance of a friend I found a nice little spot nearby where I can practice. It's on this abandoned railroad behind an abandoned warehouse. It's this big trashed up place filled with pigeons and I train next to these to big rusty water tanks next to an overpass. It's pretty secluded which is nice so I don't get harrassed by people going by. But I enjoy the environment itself because it kind of makes me feel like a martial artist in a movie. You know the one: where the hero is training in secret to sharpen up his skills for when he's going to break into the bad guy's compound and rescue his girlfriend, little brother, and the sacred artifact that gives him magical martial arts powers.

The sad thing is that somehow I seem to have failed in some way to achieve one of my major goals of moving. I thought I'd have more free time and opportunity for socializing. This is overall I suppose technically true. But at the same time I find myself working for the school more with my time off which makes me feel like I'm not any better off. Ah well. What can I do?

Zones of Learning

Following is a little piece I wrote for my company newsletter. Kinda lame? Maybe.

According to the educational theorist Lev Vygotsky learning occurs in what has been called the “zone of proximal development” or ZPD. This zone refers to the relationship between a student’s current level of ability and a proposed direction of development. For our boys learning in the ZPD means being engaged in activities that are difficult enough that abilities must grow to accomplish them. At the same time, tasks should be easy enough that students can experience success. By working in the ZPD students can make efficient progress because they are both challenged and reinforced for their exertions.

Although this idea is pretty straight forward, the ZPD is not always an easy thing to find for students and teachers on Penikese Island. Because many of our students have missed out on school for one reason or another, they are frequently behind in their academic skills. Students are usually very aware of this and often feel a great deal of shame when asked to perform feats of scholarship that fall a certain level below that accomplished by their peers. Rather than feel this shame boys will often refuse to participate in school work especially when they believe that the teacher is treating them like they are “dumb.” This can complicate a teacher’s attempts to discover a student’s ZPD and can effectively make that zone smaller.

The story of Randy makes a good example of how with certain students the zone can seem to disappear completely. Randy came to us having ditched a lot of school and spending time in programs with little or no classroom learning. As a result he had fallen significantly behind in his math skills. Although he was of the age to be in 9th grade his math level was more consistent with 5th or 6th grade. Randy was given instruction and work appropriate to his ability level but would at times run into problems that were novel or confusing in some way. Whenever this happened, Randy would feel too ashamed to ask for help and would instead start yelling at the teacher. When the teacher figured out that the difficulty of the math was resulting in this behavior he offered the student an opportunity to review earlier math concepts and develop automaticity in areas that would make the current work less difficult. Again, Randy refused to do work that was easier in order to protect his self-esteem from the implication that he was “dumb.” On Penikese teachers acquire the challenge of finding ways to help students make academic progress despite limitations imposed by the boys’ preexisting perceptions, expectations, and emotional situations. It is among our goals to use this process in school as an instrument for helping students make progress in their overall treatment.

There is another zone of effective teaching that can be diminished on Penikese. In accordance with state and district requirements and with a desire to help our students pass the MCAS and obtain high school diplomas, our curriculum seeks to satisfy the goals of the Massachusetts Learning Frameworks. However, we can see from our students’ failures in other school settings that the Frameworks themselves are inadequate enticement for our boys to exert themselves in learning these skills. As a consequence, Penikese teachers work hard to find ways of meeting state goals in ways that have valence for our students. In other words the zone we try to work in is the overlap between student interests and the requirements of the Frameworks.

Unfortunately our students often come to us with a form of tunnel vision and have difficulty finding interest in any but a narrow range of things in life, let alone school. It has been known for Penikese Island teachers to prepare elaborate lessons loaded with learning opportunities that meet Frameworks goals that die in the classroom due to student apathy. Sometimes teachers create lessons with aspects that are so engaging that the real learning goals are frustrated. A recent example of this involved a teacher’s attempt to use Play-Doh in a lesson about fractions. The modeling material itself was so interesting to the students that they failed to engage in the math lesson preferring to create objects from their imaginations.

In spite of the difficulties Penikese teachers strive to meet these challenges and provide engaging and effective learning experiences for our students. We hope that in doing so we can enlarge our students’ zones of learning. As we succeed minds will grow and our boys lives will obtain chances for greater satisfaction.