John Mahar's Blog

Education, Spanish, Travel, Poems, Bonnaroo reports, and more.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015

Wednesday December 16th, Laura watched Asa while Lahla and I went out to dinner at the Crown and Goose, an English pub/restaurant in the Old City area of Knoxville. Frog and Toad's Dixie Quartet, a jazz quintet (it would suck to be that fifth guy, right?) led by a guy, Jason Thompson, who played baritone sax for Gran Torino, was playing Christmas music. About half way through our meal, they played Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas is Coming" and it made our night. They slowed the tempo slightly and the lead guy played an additional alto sax part that was so perfect now it makes me think something is missing when I hear the original. One of our favorite Christmas songs, performed by a band we have gone to see many times, and we were right in front of them eating some wintry comfort food. 

It was nice to get a moment like that in the midst of a hectic holiday season. Asa has been doing what toddlers do--from singing Jingle Bells (with some words missing) to throwing a tantrum so he could play Unca-Avery's guitar, to saying, "Hi daddy, it's me, Asa." As if maybe I didn't recognize him? The tantrums are increasing, I guess, but it's been a great year. Asa learned to sleep on his own, eat on his own, go up and down stairs on his own...and now want to do everything on his own and when he can't has a fit. 

It's been a good year for me, too, as far as learning and progressing on my dissertation. Last spring I wrote the proposal, and since then I've drafted three and a half (of five) chapters and have a couple of those more or less revised. I have some nice evidence to support a kind of road map for adult learning that the field has very little of, so I'm excited to share that with the academic world as soon as I get a few other projects done. Like the rest of my dissertation! 

In June, Lahla and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in Asheville and continue to learn and grow in love. We had some nice meals at our favorite spots: Chai Pani and Cúrate, and spent a little time at Santé as well. It was our first time away from Asa, and mainly we talked about him the whole time. He had fun staying with Nonna and PopPop. We're having a lot of fun with Asa and marvel together at his development. 

We wish you all the best in the new year!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The "Intuitive" Side of Academia

Every now and then I read something that shows me the, um, intuitive side of academia. By intuitive I mean, "duh," anyone could have told you that without ever having entered the halls of a university. The topic of a chapter I read recently was called "Effective Classrooms." It turns out that in "effective classrooms," students share responsibility with the teacher for their learning, students learn relative to what they knew before, student talk is valued, students receive feedback on their work, students apply their learning to new situations, students develop good work habits, students value learning, students have positive relationships with their teachers, and the environment of the classroom feels safe.

[Hmmm, so ineffective classrooms require no student responsibility, students somehow manage to learn with no relation to prior knowledge, teachers ignore or suppress student talk, teachers don't give feedback, students keep their new knowledge stuck right there in the four walls of the classroom, students use crappy work habits, they hate learning, hate their teacher, and feel unsafe.]

So, this is "what we know" about effective classrooms. So if you're a teacher, you just need to make all that stuff happen, and your classroom will be effective! Bam! Now we've got this education thing figured out! So to get students to value learning, I just convince them what they're learning is valuable, right? Ok, no problem.

"Listen, Johnny," (a fake student), "learning the quadratic equation is valuable because the state legislature decided that you all have to take algebra so we can compete in the global economy. What that means is that you won't ever get to work in a near-by factory with strong union wages because the factories all went overseas and you will have to go to college and learn this again in a required gen-ed course that more than likely won't be of use to you beyond the general problem-solving skills you might learn that could be learned much more effectively if we discussed an actual local problem that had immediate, rather than abstract, relevance to your life."

I suppose there are some people who could read the chapter and learn something: people who make education policy. You know the old saying, "Those who can, do; those who understand, teach; and those that can't do and don't understand make laws about education." There is a chance that if policy-makers read what I consider to be totally obvious, they might see it as revolutionary. And it would be, for them. But the problem with chapters like "Effective Classrooms" is that it would probably do more harm than good if policy-makers read it. Suddenly they would write legislation that penalized teachers if they did not make students value learning. The relationship between the legislature and teachers is one of higher level and lower-level bureaucrats. This is problematic because, on average, teachers are better educated than state legislators. (Particularly in regards to education!)

Since legislators feel like they can control teachers, but not students, policies are written that often require a magic wand. So they make a law about students having positive relationships with their students, for example, because that's what effective classrooms look like, but extend no further funding and allot no extra time to accomplish such a thing. If teachers could wave a wand, *Poof* education would improve. A little bit of knowledge, in the disguise of top-notch academia work, is incredibly dangerous, especially in the hands of politicians.

Chapters and articles that read like a wish list with complex vocabulary do nothing to further knowledge in a discipline or make change for the better. And while this blog post is just as likely to fail in those regards, as a part of academia, I can at least try to learn a lesson and avoid inapplicable, uninspiring writing.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Teachers Need to Be Informed, Part 1

Teachers Need To Be Informed
Part 1: Global and National Education News and Views

As a teacher you should of course have your content knowledge, specific pedagogy knowledge, general pedagogy knowledge, and knowledge of technology. But if that’s all you’ve got I doubt you’ll be one of the teachers that stays in the profession for long. In order to stick with it, you’ll need to know about the landscape of teaching globally, nationally, statewide, and locally. People are always talking about what’s going on in other countries and on a national scale, so it’s good to be able to contribute to the conversation, but also the trends you can read about eventually affect you. In Part 1, I’ll share a few resources for keeping up on the global and national scene. In Part 2 I'll share state and local resources. 

Resource A: The New York Times Education section:

This portal has links to stories on all kinds of education, from day-care to the university, public to private. You’ll see stories on testing, reform, trends, pedagogy, and people of interest.

The other day when I checked this was as good as any other day, and I found two articles of interest:
This story talks about how MA would rank second in the world on the TIMMS international assessment if it were its own country. International comparison is a hot topic in the policy world and teachers need to be aware of one of the primary justifications for education reform: “We’re falling behind other developed nations.” The story goes on to describe what kinds of things MA does to make their schools some of the best in the nation. Learning about practices you admire can help you bring change to your school.

Part of the deal with the No Child Left Behind waivers states received in recent years was a string attached that said states would have to adopt “tougher standards,” which is the Common Core. Tennessee is among those states and this article provides useful information on how public schools will be affected. 

Resource B: Education Week
I follow Education Week on Twitter, and they constantly send out links to interesting articles related to policy at all levels and general and subject-specific pedagogy.

Recent links:
A link to a specific math pedagogy/policy website:
And an article about getting ideas from around the world to improve education:

There are plenty more, maybe readers can tell me other good ones.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Why are we doing this?”/“When will we ever use this?”

I’m in the middle of explaining division of exponents and the dreaded question comes. “Mr. Sohn, I’ve got to ask you. When are we ever gonna use this stuff?” They won't ever use this specific stuff, I thought. 
I heard that question quite a few times in my seven years of teaching. I developed stock responses, asked other teachers what they say, and tried to think carefully about why students ask that question.

I always thought that the students who ask that are showing some spunk and not just trusting that adults have their best interest in mind. Because why are we requiring all students to, for example, pass Algebra 2? I was a math teacher and I know that Algebra 2 is a pre-engineering type course. How many engineers does the USA produce? Will we produce more by making everyone learn conic sections?

For the students, everything is busy work if they don't know why they’re doing it or when, where and how they will use the information. For some students, school itself (all of it) seems like busy work. Ormrod (2011) talks about value expectancy. If students don't associate a value with their work, motivation is hard to find. 

Some students, of course, ask the question as a diversion tactic. One student in particular knew that I loved to talk about it, so he would ask one of those questions every other week in the hope of getting me off on a tangent. But many students are genuinely interested in the reasons why they are doing what they are doing and if they will need to know the information after the test is over.

In my math classes I would often answer this question with an idea about transfer. “I hope you are learning how to take complex problems and break them down into manageable pieces,” I might say. Another math teacher I know would tell them, “You better hope you are using this someday because you will be making good money.”

Another possibility is to try to change students' goal orientation. I try to encourage more responsibility on their part by asking them to change 
from the question, “What do I need to know and have to do for this course?”
to, “What am I committed to understanding, and how do I engage with this class and its content to best pursue that understanding?”

Those answers justify what is taught in class by telling students about future use, but the truth is we don't often know why we are teaching what we are teaching. Or we believe the lie that the government knows that this is what students should learn. It would be nice to think that the state-mandated curriculum was not produced in an arbitrary way. But if expert economists can't predict what the economy will look like in 10 years, how can the state legislature possibly know what we should be teaching?

So what if we can’t answer the question about use? Is there another way to create value for what goes on in your classroom? I came to a realization recently by having a class that I wanted to “get something out of.” “I’m not going to use any of this stuff!” I complained (to myself). I knew I needed to readjust my attitude because I wouldn't get anything out of the class if I thought it was useless. I thought back to something my Uncle Brother, aka Thomas Berry, said to me about the earth and environmentalism. Among humans, he said, use is the lowest of the low. No one likes to be used. So why is that an acceptable mode of relation with the planet that sustains our life? So I worked to value the time and interactions I was having with the professor and other students. Once I was over my bad attitude and developed relationships with my classmates, my mind opened up to the possibilities of application and (oh man, surprise!) use for the content of the course. 

Why do we have to use everything from class? Class is something we do, and serves a purpose beyond utility. Class is a place where members of the community come together, go through various rituals, take state-mandated high-stakes tests, and sometimes even do some cool stuff like discuss issues and learn about each other and the community we share. Those things have value in and of themselves. Among humans, if you said I only want to hang out with you if I can use you, that would probably ruin the relationship. Why is it ok to only do schooling if it can be used?

What will you say when your students ask those questions? Will talking about values other than utility work for your students? 

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Assessment and Feedback Metaphors

When I asked in class for my 401 students to come up with an image or word to represent assessment, two of the student group's suggestions made me think deeply about what assessment is and does. The word was "placement," and the image was of a road leading off into the distance where there is a city and the sun setting.

With placement, one could say that grades and assessment tell you where a student is. What is their place? Where on the road to the Emerald City are they? The question that occurred to me is this: how do we know where we are in general? What helps us distinguish when we have moved from one place to another? Landmarks, signs, and features of geography or the built environment are the indicators of place and define limits and borders of space. It is natural, then, for people to determine where they are by looking at external sign-posts like grades. Grades and assessments can show where students are relative to others with the idea that they don't get lost. Statisticians and test-makers determine what it means to be at a fifth-grade reading level, for example.

But academic achievement and advancement is not a literal domain, and so external landmarks like grades can distort and in fact mislead students. This is particularly the case when grades, rather than signposts or markers of progress along the journey, become the destination. If the signposts we offer are just like boxes to be checked off on a scavenger hunt, they become as trivial as finding an old tire (or whatever it is people find on scavenger hunts).

So what should feedback (as an integral part of assessment) be like in order to avoid the trap of triviality? Sticking with the placement and road metaphor, we could argue that feedback should be like a compass: a guide to keep students on track towards the goal of reaching the Emerald City. But I am going another direction (haha).

Feedback can be confusing or provide guidance. There is nothing worse for me, when reading professor feedback on a paper, to see a checkmark or a question mark to the side of a paragraph. "What does that mean?!" I think. But there are other times a teacher asks a question that helps me think about what I have written in a new way. In rare cases, teacher comments have helped me glimpse a whole new world I didn't even realize my writing had implied.

So for me the ultimate goal of feedback is for it to be like a mirror: teachers hold a mirror up to their students so that they can see themselves in a new light. With the new light, they can see where they are and decide for themselves which direction they would like to go.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


How is accountability established? We can imagine that a teacher in some way is responsible for and accountable to her students. Some voters like to talk about holding politicians accountable. Politicians hold teachers accountable. It seems like a circle of blame. But there's something interesting about situations where people talk about accountability--the speaker almost always shifts attention from her own accountability.

Think about the last time you were blamed for something. Did the person blaming you have nothing to do with the poor outcome? One common occurrence in my house involves me forgetting to take out the trash or recycling bin. My wife will say something about me forgetting to do it. I, in turn, ask her why she didn't remind me. "It takes two to forget taking out the garbage," I sometimes say. Needless to mention, she finds this aggravating (as anyone would).

 In Edwards and Potter's classic book Discursive Psychology (1992), they present findings from research that show that, when people are giving accounts about accountability, what the speaker says almost always works to reduce her blame. An example may clarify this point. Edwards and Potter share a conversation between two nurses. One nurse, A, is trying to convince the other, B, to take a particular patient.
 B: And uh isn't she quite a young woman? Only in her fifties?
A: Yes, uh-huh.
B: Oh, how sad. And what went wrong?
A: Well, uh
B: That surgery, I mean.
A: I don't...
B: Isn't she the one who- I think I heard about it- the daughter in law told me-wasn't she playing golf at the Valley Club?
A: Yes that's the one
B: and had an aneurysm.
A: Yes
B: -suddenly
A: mm hm
B: They thought at first she was hit with a gold ball or bat or something, but it wasn't that.
 A: uh huh
B: It was a a ruptured aneurysm, and uh th-they didn't want Dr. L. at M. They took her to UCLA.
 A: Uh huh
B: And it-- and it left her quite permanently damaged I suppose.
A: Apparently. Uh he is still hopeful.

 Nurse B is resisting A's request, and tells the "facts" of the patient in such a way that blames the family for the delay in the patient receiving care. This way of telling the story works to help the nurse refuse taking responsibility for the patient. If it is the family's fault that the patient is in such dire straights, nurse B will feel no obligation for caring for her.

 Teachers do the same kind of thing with students. To avoid accountability, teachers often blame parents, administrators, society, video games, etc. On the other side, parents blame school systems and teachers. I would argue that we are all, to some degree or another, responsible for each other, but whether or not people are accountable is not necessarily a relevant question. What is a relevant question is who gets the most people to believe their story about who is accountable.

At this point, politicians and media are much more successful in convincing the public that teachers are the ones to be held accountable for the problem with the education system. This works to keep parent and public eyes off the politicians and others who have a stake in public education. It can distract people from the possibility that the system needs more money, better infrastructure, more teacher training and support, and more community involvement.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Barb Rentenbach and Dr. Lois Presentation

Some of you went to see Barb present last Friday. Here is the website for her and Dr. Lois' new book, I Might Be You. They will present again on Thursday, April 25th, at 11:10am. Here is a video of a presentation they did a couple years ago. Temple Grandin is another woman with autism that had a very rough time growing up, but now is relatively famous. I read a book by her for a class in my masters program. One story I'll share from one of the presentations I saw: A student of mine asked something like, "Does she [something something]" I don't remember the rest of the question. Barb responded "She is me, and I am right here. You can address your questions to me." The student was, not surprisingly, embarrassed, but said that it was a lesson she would never forget, and that it helped her build empathy and respect for people with disabilities. What stood out to you about the presentation? What are some lessons you think you'll take with you? Please feel free to ask further questions and respond to each other's questions.