Reni has been published.

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My next book has been published.

It is written by my mom, and edited by me.

This is my mother’s story. It is the story of an extraordinary German girl born in Berlin just before World War II. It is written in her own words.

Find it here: Reni



I realized something while writing transcribing my mom’s memoir.
There are places in her story where I remember things differently, and places where I am SURE she is mistaken.
I decided to leave it without comment – for now.

This book was both wonderful and very hard to write.

It had occurred to me though that it might be interesting to provide some annotation at a later date, and so I plan to do just that.
I will write MY recollections of things, both as I recall them personally and as I remember them being told to me.
I will comment on things that I recall differently and provide some of my own side of things. For example, I have a LOT to say about the time surrounding my father’s suicide, as well as about the man who became my step-father.


I don’t know that this has ever been done. If you know of any, let me know!


I ALSO have many of my mother’s personal diaries.

The story she tells there is sometimes also very different.
That will be the third installment.


Who knows, maybe I can even convince other family members to contribute some of their points of view.



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Well Worth Watching: Losing Lena

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It’s time for gender equality in tech, let’s start by losing Lena. Add your voice at #losinglena

“I failed to see this as an image of a person.”
…. just an object being used to build, adapt, or train an algorithm.
My ideas are *STILL* often dismissed.
I have THREE strikes against me:
1. I’m female.
2. My PhD is in Ed Tech (y’know, not //REAL//)
3. I am a sessional. (Be sure to insert the silent “JUST A” before the word ‘sessional’.
Never mind that I have more teaching experience than almost ALL of my colleagues. (I actually taught a fair number of my colleagues when THEY were undergrads.)
Never mind that my publication record is better than almost ALL of my colleagues.
Sometimes it’s hard not to express frustration.

Source: Losing Lena

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Worth Sharing: We Don’t Trust Course Evaluations, but Are Peer Observations of Teaching Much Better?

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Why colleges and universities that claim to take teaching seriously need a comprehensive and fair system of evaluating it.


But, as always seems to happen, the same teaching technique inspired completely contradictory reactions.

For example, while I don’t show too many PowerPoints in English composition, every time I introduce a new writing strategy I’ll throw up a few slides with definitions and examples. One student praised the slides as the most helpful tool for her learning — another called them useless and recommended I eliminate them from the course.

Contradictory statements about my methods I can handle; I’ve seen them all before. But this round of reviews also included a comment from a student who said I didn’t “connect well” with the class. This was a community-engaged learning course in which we took a field trip together to a homeless shelter, spent lots of time in group activities in class, and shared personal perspectives on our understanding of poverty. I also followed my own advice and made a point to arrive in the classroom a few minutes early and engage in informal conversations with students.

So that student’s comment — although the only one of its kind in this crop of evaluations — is very likely to spend the entire summer sticking in my craw.

I’m also a white male in his late 40s, which means that I am usually spared pointed comments about my wardrobe, my voice, or my persona that routinely pepper the course evaluations of female and nonwhite faculty members, as plenty of research has documented.

Over the years, a number of factors — contradictory criticisms, bias against vulnerable instructors, inconsistent response rates — have all been adduced as evidence for why academe should reduce the outsized role that student ratings and comments play in the evaluation of teaching.

To illustrate that point, she walked us through a thought-provoking exercise that demonstrated in sharp terms why student evaluations and peer observations should be considered within the context of a host of other measures. “I want you to make a list,” Miller said, “of all of the different things that you do each week in support of your teaching. Don’t just think about being in class. Think of all of the other activities you do each week that relate to your teaching.”

Here is what I jotted down:

  • Read for class (for the composition course I just taught, I had to read four assigned books and some additional online essays).
  • Prepare my lesson plan.
  • Arrange a class visit to the homeless shelter.
  • Do background research on the subject we were discussing.
  • Grade writing exercises.
  • Create assignment sheets.
  • Meet with students.
  • Grade papers.
  • Respond to their emails.

As the list slowly grew under my pen, the point of the exercise became abundantly clear: Much of the work of teaching — perhaps most of it — takes place outside of the classroom.

Much of the work that we put into our teaching cannot be evaluated, or even accessed, via the two most common strategies that institutions use to evaluate our teaching effectiveness of their faculty: student evaluations and peer observations.

Part of the process ought to include training people in how to assess teaching fairly, or we risk basing promotion decisions on the classroom preferences or gut instincts of the evaluators.

It takes time to evaluate teaching well — and time usually requires financial investment. Those are significant obstacles, and they won’t be overcome unless academe is willing to set aside its reliance on easy but dubious methods and take the evaluation of good teaching seriously.

Source: We Don’t Trust Course Evaluations, but Are Peer Observations of Teaching Much Better?

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Worth Sharing: Opinion | Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?

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Excellence is not a zero sum game.

I’ve been saying this for YEARS!

Source: Opinion | Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?

I’ve been saying this for years! This is a big part of what I address in the essays of my new book, coming out late this year (Death to Deadlines: Gamification and Other Subversive Thoughts on Formal Education)

Source: Opinion | Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s? – The New York Times

For a generation now, school reform has meant top-down mandates for what students must be taught, enforced by high-stakes standardized tests and justified by macho rhetoric — “rigor,” “raising the bar,” “tougher standards.”

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, business people, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers must be good!”?

Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. In the real world, when scores have improved sharply, this has indeed been the reaction. For example, when results on New York’s math exam rose in 2009, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents said, “What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating,” but instead “that New York State needs to raise its standards.”

The inescapable, and deeply disturbing, implication is that “high standards” really means “standards that all students will never be able to meet.” If everyone did meet them, the standards would just be ratcheted up again — as high as necessary to ensure that some students failed.

The standards-and-accountability movement is not about leaving no child behind. To the contrary, it is an elaborate sorting device, intended to separate wheat from chaff. The fact that students of color, students from low-income families and students whose first language isn’t English are disproportionately defined as chaff makes the whole enterprise even more insidious.

But my little thought experiment uncovers a truth that extends well beyond what has been done to our schools in the name of “raising the bar.” We have been taught to respond with suspicion whenever all members of any group are successful. That’s true even when we have no reason to believe that corners have been cut. In America, excellence is regarded as a scarce commodity. Success doesn’t count unless it is attained by only a few.

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What rescued farm animals taught a photographer about aging and animal rights | CBC Radio

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A couple of my retired critters.

Dear Sunday Edition, CBC Radio:

As I listened to your segment on old farm animals, I became more and more insulted.

You see, I *AM* a farmer. I raise animals for meat.

The implication that all farmers kill or discard their animals as soon as they stop being “useful” is deeply offensive, not to mention just plain wrong. Further the implication made by your guest that all animals in rescue have been abused somehow reveals a profound lack of understanding of what most family and small farms are.

I suppose your guest should not be faulted for being so uninformed. She appears to have spent her whole life living in a big city. How can she possibly know what farms are like? And as an “animal rights” advocate, she is predisposed to believe the worst about farms and the lives of the animals that live there.

Sammy the duckling being gently protected by Arrow the Pyrenees dog.

Yes, it is true that many of my animals are killed before

they are 6 months old. In nature, 98% of ALL animals are killed or otherwise die before they reach breeding age. I can assure you that the lives of the animals on my farm are safer, more comfortable, AND more fun than their “natural” counterparts. My animals are sheltered from the weather, have room to stretch, jump, fly, and play. They have toys, clean water, and nutritious food. They get treats on a regular basis, and when it comes time to dispatch them, it is done humanely and with respect. None of the carcass is wasted.

The insinuation that farmers are heartless operators only interested in the bottom line is so far from the truth that only someone who has never spent any time on a farm could imagine that. Every single farmer I know has, at any given time, several old, retired animals on their farm. Many get special medical treatment, extra bedding, and individual attention.

Ray the duck having his daily bath.

Pikachu, Psghetti, and Pebbles enjoying their retirement.

I raise rabbits, and a variety of poultry. My oldest duck lived to be 17 (that’s 17 YEARS). For the last few years of his life he was completely blind, and when he could no longer get into his bath on his own, I helped him – every day.

I had a hen who lost a foot to frostbite who got to live on an open platform inside the rabbitry next to a window where she was safe from the other chickens (who would have picked on her) but could still be close to them. She lived like that for 2 years even though she was no longer laying eggs.

I almost always have a number of rabbits who get to live out their entire natural lives in small retirement colonies.

The photos taken by your guest are wonderful photos, but the claims that animals like this exist ONLY in rescues is just flat out wrong. If she had taken the time to actually visit some real life farms, she would know that.

Perhaps a bit of balance is in order here – how about doing a segment on some of the special needs critters that are loved and live on almost every farm?

-Katrin Becker
Cochrane, Alberta

Source: What rescued farm animals taught a photographer about aging and animal rights | CBC Radio

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What Traditional Classroom Grading Gets Wrong – and how to fix it.

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Source: What Traditional Classroom Grading Gets Wrong

(G)rading policies—which appear to be an objective, fair, and accurate method to describe a student’s academic performance—often increase achievement gaps by infusing grades with teachers’ implicit biases or by rewarding or punishing students based on their families’ resources.

Yup. They are also quite RANDOM.

Because grading is often not addressed in teacher preparation or in ongoing professional development, most teachers choose their own way to grade, guided by their best sense but uninformed by either research or best practices.

Grading practices are ALSO not addressed in Higher Ed professional development. OK. Let’s be honest, while most post-secondary institutions have campus units that offer many seminars, workshops and courses, the amount of teaching-related professional development completed by MOST higher ed faculty is ZERO.

(T)raditional grading practices result in grades that provide unclear and often misleading information to parents, students, and postsecondary institutions.

A bucket of information compressed into a thimble-sized container.

Traditional grading is subjective.

But then again, almost ALL grading is subjective. We might as well acknowledge that and make our grading practices as transparent as possible. Subjective grading is not necessarily a bad thing.

Current practices conflict with contemporary understandings of growth mindset and how to encourage students to learn through practice and experimentation. An F early in a student’s learning and an A at the end average out to a C, regardless of progress over time and final achievement. This mathematically unsound approach punishes students with early struggles, often those who enter the class with fewer resources and less prior academic success and have the most potential growth ahead of them.

That’s why my approach to Practical Gamification almost always allows for re-submission, and why the sum (total) of possible marks they can earn always adds up to MORE than 100%.
That way, they will always have an opportunity to recover from a ‘bad’ mark or a missed assignment.

Many teachers entered the profession to provide every student an opportunity to succeed, to minimize the achievement and opportunity gaps. Yet when we continue to use traditional grading practices, we inadvertently reproduce those gaps.

In partnering with urban, rural, and suburban public schools and districts, as well as elite private academies, we at the Equitable Grading Project—a research initiative of the equity-focused education consulting group I lead—have found that once teachers learn about the harms caused by our century-old grading practices, they are motivated to try alternative, more equitable grading practices.

What ultimately changed my thinking about traditional grading was asking myself the question:

What is the purpose of grading?

If I answer with the usual: “To provide evidence of mastery”,
AND, if I then look at what we usually do (high stakes tests, hard deadlines, single attempt assignments, compartmentalized grading, etc.)
it turns out that many of our time-honored traditions in grading actually have NOTHING to do with mastery of the course content.

In our review of academic research and observations of teachers’ implementation, we have identified key aspects of what we call equitable grading, which is accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational:

• Reflect growth and learning.
Teachers should use a more proportionately structured 0-4 scale instead of a 0-100 point scale that is mathematically oriented toward failure, stop assigning a zero for missing work, and weight recent performance and growth instead of averaging performance over time. By allowing students to retake tests and projects (with the chance to replace previous scores), teachers can reward learning, support a growth mindset, and not disadvantage students who enter classrooms with weaker academic backgrounds.

My Practical Gamification uses a 0-5 point scale for most items, and my students all know ahead of time what they can earn marks for.

I do not weight recent work more heavily (that seems like it could promote leaving things to the last minute, and send the wrong message about the value of early foundational work. I DO let my students re-submit work (till they get it right, if they want to), but with my strictly cumulative marking, there is no such thing as “replacing” a mark; there is only additional growth.

• Value knowledge, not environment or behavior.
Instead of grading subjectively interpreted behaviors such as a student’s “effort” or “participation,” teachers should focus grades on required content or standards. Grades should not be used to reward compliance or homework completion, both of which invite implicit and institutional biases.

• Lift the veil on how to succeed.
Standards-aligned rubrics, simplified grade calculations, and standards-based scales and gradebooks make teacher’s expectations explicit and facilitate students’ understanding, ownership, and power over their grades.

I don’t like rubrics. They work fine if you have large numbers. I can create a rubric for a 1st year programming problem because I’ve literally seen THOUSANDS of them. If you don’t have 1,000’s of example solutions made by all kinds of students, then you really have no idea what ‘exemplary’, ‘adequate’, or ‘needs improvement’ actually looks like. You are making it up.

• Build soft skills—without including them in the grade.
Teachers should employ a more expansive range of feedback strategies to incorporate peer and self-evaluation and build self-regulation instead of relying solely on grades as feedback.

Our analysis also found that equitable grading practices don’t just reduce D and F rates, they are also more accurate. When teachers use equitable grading practices, they assign final grades that are more strongly correlated with students’ standardized assessment scores on that content, and the effect is stronger for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Finally, we found that equitable grading improves the learning environment for teachers. In surveys and independent case studies, teachers and students reported that classrooms are less stressful, teacher-student relationships are stronger and more trusting, and students are more motivated to learn after these interventions.

When we talk about equity, grading is rarely mentioned. By overlooking it, we unwittingly perpetuate the very disparities we dedicate ourselves as educators to correct. It is incumbent upon educators at every level—teachers, principals, district administrators, school boards, and state policymakers—to improve grading policies to ensure that they reinforce, not work against, our commitment to equity.

Find out more about my Practical Gamification here.

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Worth Sharing: The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs

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How a writing tool became the new default way to pass notes in class

So much for the benefits of banning cellphones.
I don’t think banning things ever solves anything.
Let’s foster respect, courtesy, tolerance, and help them learn the ways in which tech can be useful AS WELL as helping learn the ways in which “traditional” approaches (i.e. non-tech) can be useful.

Teens told me they use Google Docs to chat just about any time they need to put their phone away but know their friends will be on computers. Sometimes they’ll use the service’s live-chat function, which doesn’t open by default, and which many teachers don’t even know exists. Or they’ll take advantage of the fact that Google allows users to highlight certain phrases or words, then comment on them via a pop-up box on the right side: They’ll clone a teacher’s shared Google document, then chat in the comments, so it appears to the casual viewer that they’re just making notes on the lesson plan. If a teacher approaches to take a closer look, they can click the Resolve button, and the entire thread will disappear.

Source: The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs

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Worth Sharing: Making Sure Yours is not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

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Not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

Briefly, Martini noticed that her students didn’t seem to get the connections she had hoped they would on the assignments she gave, and wondered if it would make a difference if she made those connections explicit.

I can answer that, as I’ve been experimenting with this for several decades now.

It does.

We often make the mistake of assuming our students will see the same connections we do. They mostly don’t. We owe it to them to make those connections explicit. That’s kind of the big idea behind Ausubel’s “Advance Organizers”

You can read more here:

From Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tanya Martini worked hard to make assignments in her psychology courses relevant to students’ lives. Even so, her students sometimes wrote in their course evaluations that they found those assignments pointless.

It was a frustrating situation, but not an uncommon one. Plenty of professors get similar feedback, especially when they, like Martini, a professor of psychology at Brock University, in Ontario, teach courses that attract non majors looking to fulfill a graduation requirement.

Martini decided to do something about it. When students indicated that an assignment was pointless, she figured, they were thinking only about the content it covered, not the skills it would help them build.

So Martini began including a breakdown of those skills in her assignments’ instructions. Surely that would help.

She ran an experiment to find out, asking students to rate the relevance of assignments with and without a description of the associated skills. To Martini’s surprise and dismay, her addition didn’t make much of a difference. Telling students that an assignment would help them build a particular skill was apparently insufficient.

Why? Many students, Martini realized, thought of skills in a narrow, context-specific way. It wasn’t clear to them that the same skill that a psychology essay would build written communication would also help them tackle a history paper, or a business proposal. Higher education often assumes that students can figure out how the skills they learn in one context transfer to a different one. “I think now,” Martini said, “that it’s asking a lot of them.”

So Martini added more-specific language to her assignment instructions to help students think about how the skills they develop can transfer to other areas. “It’s partly about making it very explicit,” she said. “But it’s also partly about giving them concrete examples.”

She began by acknowledging that these connections might not be obvious to students and that they might therefore question an assignment’s relationship to their goals.

Take, for example, an assignment for students in a second-year course in human learning, in which they create study materials for students in the introductory course. “You may think that this is a pointless exercise if you have no interest in being a teacher (and, more specifically, teaching PSYC 1F90),” she wrote in the instructions. But the assignment, she went on to explain, was about using design thinking, which “happens in any field where people have to ask themselves, on a regular basis, questions like, ‘How can we do this? How can we make this experience/process work? Could we be making this experience/process better for people? And if we could, what would ‘better’ look like?’”

The instructions for another assignment in the course describe how a skill it builds, knowledge translation, can be used in a variety of settings. “Whether you become a marketing manager or a cop or a counsellor or a physiotherapist,” she wrote, “you will often find yourself in a position of having to explain things to others (e.g., clients, parents and other family members) who haven’t had your level of training.”

Are these additions enough to move the needle on the way students view assignments? Martini hopes to know soon. One of her students plans to compare the relevance ratings students give to three versions of the assignment one with no mention of skills, one describing skills, and one further communicating their application as a senior thesis project. She hopes to have results next month. 

Martini’s approach shares elements with a broad effort, called transparency in learning and teaching, that encourages professors to make the purpose of their assignments explicit to students.

Another way of helping students understand the skills a particular course helps develop is explaining it in the syllabus. You can read more about that in this newsletter by our colleague Goldie Blumenstyk. (The newsletter has since been renamed The Edge, and you can sign up to receive it here.)

Have your students ever questioned the utility of your assignments? What do you do to help them apply what they learn in your classroom to their lives beyond it? Tell me at and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

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