Monday, April 9, 2018

A visit to Mesenich, the original home of the Binzens

April 2, 2018: We drove from Brussels to Mesenich today. We’ve counted over 300 wind turbines in the recent 3 days of driving from the Netherlands, to Belgium, and today into Germany. In the final hour of our drive, and entering the valleys of the Moselle, the landscape grew dramatically beautiful – granted that it’s early April, and it’s all just getting ready to move out of winter brown and bare. But the riverside towns are madly picturesque, and the hills rise steeply from the riverside, all knitted with small vineyards.
In recent days I had researched online for Binzens in the area, and I was aware of a family in the next town upriver, Senheim, 2 km away (also a town in which some of our direct Binzen forbears had resided). We drove through Senheim, and I figured I’ll try to drop in on them soon, as I’d found their address....
(click on pics below to see larger)

Pulling off the river round into the tiny burg of Mesenich, you’re immediately into narrow little streets. It wasn’t hard to find our hotel; you’d be in and out of the place in a couple of minutes driving at a crawl. Our proprietress speaks no English, so we were challenged by that, but quickly a friendly fellow, Andreas, a regular guest, appeared and helped orient us. The hoteliers are winemakers – they’re all winemakers here. Hirschen-Schuster, since 1585. We can buy it cheaply in-house. Andreas explained that Moselle wine has been popular since Roman times, and it excels because of the soil, filled with ‘black stone’ (slate, we later observed) that absorbs the sun’s heat and holds onto it into the night, warming the wine territory in a most favorable way.

The wine is very good. After our first taste, we headed out for a walk. Out behind the hotel, which is the third block up from the riverside and the outer edge of town, the hillside immediately slopes steeply upward in vineyards, occasionally crossed by narrow lanes paralleling the river. The walls that run alongside some of these paths are extensively decorated with busts of notable local vintners, and other artistic curiosities. We walked up to about the fifth of those lanes, high over the valley. From there you can walk either direction, up or downstream. Both are said to be lovely walks. Tomorrow we may walk to Senheim and try to find these Binzens. When I asked our hotelier Norbert if he knew the name, he said there hadn’t been any Binzens living in Mesenich for some time, though there used to be an auto mechanic, and we grabbed the phone book and showed me the names of the several Binzens residing in Senhals.

We later had dinner in a delightful little restaurant, Bai, in a wine cellar, just down the street. And the waitress there also knew of the Binzens one town over. So it’s a small place.

And it’s a vacation destination, for sure. We’re told the summer wine festival is something marvelous. (There’s a German word for this event; there’s no translation; it’s an ancient tradition.)

April 5: Now we are driving out, after a delightful stay. We want to highly recommend the place we stayed in, Hirschen-Schuster. It’s at the high end of town, with vineyards stretching up the hill out the back – still just 3 short blocks from the river. It has apartments with kitchens, so one can save a lot on food bills.

On our second day, we kicked around town, and drove downstream as far as the sizeable holiday town of Cochem, topped by a magnificent castle on a hill, where we shopped for food. Later, Xenia and walked from our hotel to the next town upriver, Senheim, there to try to meet the Binzen family we had heard about. It was a half hour’s walk through vineyards all the way, up and over a lovely mountain pass, then plunging down into town. The church bell was ringing as we strolled down into the small streets. I in turn rang the bell of Thomas Binzen, and found a slightly portly man about my age; I explained to him what my deal was, and he understood, and then we attempted a conversation for several minutes, he in German and me in English, and I understanding almost nothing, and not having been invited in, we took our leave, with me noting for another day that I ought to learn at least a 500-word German vocabulary for moments like this! We walked back home alongside the river, and knowing that some of our Binzen forebears had lived in Senheim, I imagined how often they had surely walked these ways many times.

The next day we set off on a hike downstream to the small village of Bielstein, where I envisioned a visit to the castle ruins on the hill above followed by a lunch at the very picturesque riverside café. Manuel, Norbert’s son and the current generation’s proprietor of our hotel’s wine business, drove the short trip to Bielstein in his van to allow me to drop our car there and then bring me back. Our walk began well, in a flatter highland of vineyards, but about halfway through, the light rain intensified into a real drencher. I ran the rest of the way to get the car, while the others cut it short and headed into the village of Briedern. The latter part of the hike proved to be a dramatic single-track high up a very steep wooded mountainslope, ending at the castle, which had suffered terrible bombardments in the 18th century.

After drying off at home, we drove to Cochem, which is a pretty place full of small hotels. We walked up the steep narrow streets to visit the “castle,” which turned out to be built in the 19th century by a rich guy from Berlin, on top of the ruins of a castle that dated back to 1000 A.D. Then it was an early dinner at that café in Bielstein I’d intended earlier, where we tried for the first time the local red wine. Then back at our hotel it was a wine tasting that stretched on for more than 3 hours. The basement level of the hotel is the winemaking operations, which we toured, and all the wine business on this street, aptly named Weinbergstrasse, have rooms for these elaborate and lengthy evening social wine-tastings. They are served with sliced sausages and bread and cheese, pickled mushrooms, and such. We went through about of dozen of their varieties, most of them delightful, and featuring very little of the old-fashioned sweet German taste, which they have clearly evolved beyond in order to give the people what they want. They sell almost all their wine direct to customers.

There we chatted with Andreas and his friends, and Manuel, who once interned in Sonoma and served with helpful explanations of the various varieties and growing conditions. We learned among other things that zippers are referred to as Sipples, and that there’s a popular phrase, “Es ist in die Binsen gegangen”, which means, Things are going to the dogs, up in smoke – literally, that’s going to end up in the reeds – Binsen being a sort of reed. From the internet:  “The phrase comes from the duck hunt, when the ducks flee into the reeds (colloquially: the rushes) or struck birds fall into the reeds, they are no longer findable for the dog and thus lost.” The reeds would also account for the “broom” meaning, as they said it’s possible brooms may once have been made from these Binsen reeds. But all in all, it’s a sound-alike; these rushes aren’t really “Binzen.”

We also learned from Manuel that his sister-in-law was previously married to a Binzen, with whom all are still on good terms! And I found but was unable to contact in the area, a guy with a construction company; a plumber; and an artist - all Binzens. So the Binzens are definitely ensconced around here.

We also learned from Andreas that one can buy a house here for like 50-60,000 euros. The young folks can’t make a living here, except by making wine, which I guess is passe as a lifestyle. The Dutch have been snapping up vacation homes.

We want to come back here. We intend to. It is beautiful.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tactics for English Language Learners

Let’s suppose that I’m teaching middle school social studies. Here’s a relevant unit: 

The aim of this activity is to allow children to understand the recurring common theme of migration through human history. Children then, by focusing on reasons for migration, can come to understand the particular circumstances of refugees.

In this class, I have four English Language Learner (ELL) students:

Ivana is starting her first year in a US school. A native Russian speaker, she is in stage 2, early production. She speaks only in short phrases. 

Eogenia is the child of a recent immigrant family from Guatemala. She is in stage 3, speech emergence. While her capacities to do class assignments is limited, she luckily has more language-advance classmates who share her background and are able to converse with her in Spanish and help her along.

Henry is the child of Nigerian parents, and has been in the US for several years. He is in stage 4, intermediate fluency. He is able to be very actively involved in class discussions; his more obvious errors tend to come in his written work. 

Rand is an adopted Ethiopian. He began learning English at age 5 and has been at it long enough that he is now at the stage of advanced fluency (stage 5). He seems like a native speaker to me.
The good news is that I have a unit that will be really meaningful to each of these students. No question, they will have thoughts about it, and their thoughts will be valuable to their classmates to hear, if they get the help they need to convey them. It’s also helpful that those who are at the earlier stages can observe the later-stage students modelling the achievements they’re headed for.

In fact, it’s all good news. These students are on a journey, and I and the others in the room are here to help them get where they’re going. Some of them are not going to understand what’s being said, written, presented; but their time is not being wasted. Every minute of this at times befuddling effort is moving them forward.

My task is to give them supports that meet them where they are. I’ve got a lot to draw on, and this week, here’s what we’re pulling out of the arsenal…

We’ve got pictures: we’ve got all sorts of news coverage out of eastern Europe, of Syrian refugees seeking to find their paths into a new home. These pictures stimulate discussion, and a lot of relevant words come tumbling out. 

I’m going to avoid correcting all the time them when they say something … “wrong.” I’ve learned to say things like, “Oh, yeah, like the immigration officer” instead of, “Not the police – the immigration officer.”

Some of these students have stories to tell. I’m not going to put them on the spot, but Henry and Rand can tell the stories of their journey to the US, and in fact they want to tell these tales to their classmates. All these other students who grew up right here in town are learning for the first time what it’s really like to be uprooted and re-planted. And Ivana and Eogenia are definitely grasping the idea of what Henry and Rand are talking about. They don’t understand it in depth, but they’re straining to pick up all they can.

And they’re getting a reinforcement of acceptance through this experience. Today, we’re not talking about the immigration of Italians and Germans in the 19th century; or ancient Israelites. But we’ll get to that – and hopefully that’ll start to seem a little relevant to everyone in the class too!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Special Education Referrals in a Westchester School District

I spoke with the lead special education administrator of a school district in Westchester County, New York, Kristie. It was the first week of school and she was pressed for time, so one of the strong impressions the conversation left me with, in addition to her obvious professionalism, was how much specialized jargon was flowing off her tongue. Since it’s all new to me, I was scrambling to keep up as she gave me a quick introduction into how special education is a highly regulated, highly organized system with crucial accountabilities.

A student may be identified for special education referral either by the parents or by school staff, and these two paths each have their own requirements. In either case, the staff takes an individualized approach to determine what sort of supports they can build appropriate for the student.

Much of what happens in the referral process is mandated by state and federal law. For example, the Response to Interventions (RTI) spells out a clear process to follow, beginning with collecting data that would demonstrate initial eligibility. The RTI process will move the student into one of three tiers. But Kristie made clear to me that the state does not dictate how they intervene, such as what courses they provide. For example, the district has a special resource room for intake called Bridges, which is not based on any legal requirement, but is modelled on their own choices of best practices.

And this goes some way to explaining the school administration's directive for special education. The administrators make it their business to continually analyze their continuum of services, from the least restrictive, most inclusive ways available to other approaches as needed. This is a well-resourced district with the capacity to keep an eye open for innovations they can add, in a field that seems to be in a state of ongoing development, with a steady stream of new research, assistive technologies, and piloting methodologies.

If the student is “classified” as a result of the referral, s/he is then under the responsibility of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) and is given case manager. The whole process of evaluations and committee reviews ensues. If not, their case is sent back to what they call the “building level,” meaning the team of educators in the student’s school building, who manage this student along with all the others, though one presumes with a closer, more specialized level of attention.
Students identified for special education are provided with a continuum of services at the elementary and secondary levels, ranging from teacher-direct interventions to out-of-district placement if necessary. The CSE team determines what’s appropriate in each case, including social-emotional developmental needs, and develops a plan to suit.

Parents are deeply involved. If the referral is initiated from within the school, parents are informed early and kept aware throughout the process. Either way, once a student is classified, consultations with parents are a constant feature, with weekly conversations at a minimum between a learning specialist or psychologist and the parent, and a robust online portal providing the parent with extensive access including real-time tools.

I was curious about the social-emotional component of a special education student’s predicament, whatever their particular needs may be. The philosophy overall is to take a student-centered approach, in which students take responsibility for their own learning and development to the maximum extent. They seek to enable student activity that is less directed by the teacher, more self-directed.

I then spoke to two veteran high school teachers from the same district. When I asked Dean and Renee how they identify a student for special education, it became apparent that that rarely happens at the high school level – almost always, the referral will already have been made in earlier grades. So students tend to come under their supervision already under the management of the CSE. The teachers then tend to jump into an RTI process that is already well defined.

As they get more involved in the case, they observe actively, and when they notice things, they bring their findings to the team meetings to talk about it as a group. They then try approaches in the classroom that they have reason to expect to be of value. They then collect data and go through several cycles of reporting and adjusting. When something isn’t working, this triggers them to try a different level of intervention, and this escalation may continue as long as necessary.

The teachers know a student is struggling when they see poor reading comprehension; a student who is grades below age in reading & writing; and obvious problems with math comprehension. They most often attribute these observed qualities to slow mental processing and weak memory. They recognize that there are many causes of these conditions – neurological, hearing impairment, learning difficulties, and often physical causes.

On the subject of emotional handicaps, I thought both teachers initially indicated that they tend to stay away from handling that. When I sought a further explanation, they clarified that it’s not that such cases go untouched, but rather that emotionally fragile kids are handled more as the special province of psychological staff, such as clinicians who conduct psychological testing and work directly on conditions like anxiety. They also noted that in their experiences, the attempt is made to address such conditions earlier, in middle school.

I asked whether referrals ever seem to come as a surprise to the parents. Again, this is not a process these teachers handle much, but they think it rarely comes as much of a surprise to parents of student at the high school level.

When I asked whether alternate methods of instruction are tried before referring the student for special education, the answer I got, which really referred to the RTI, indicated to me that at the age they’re teaching, students are pretty clearly segregated already in the minds of the teachers into those who have been classified in special education and those not. They did describe how highly individualized the RTI approach is for each student. It might involve calling the parent once a week, making a homework schedule, giving the kid more attention if s/he’s having hard time reading. Their perspectives seemed to be very much formed by the RTI process, with its weekly committee meetings examining different cases; a large reference list of different interventions depending on the student; and an iterative process of the committee recommending an intervention, the teacher and student trying it, and reporting back.

Before these interviews, I had taken some time to reflect on the role of personalized learning in special education today. I found the sources I examined for that topic took an expansive view of personalized learning, as an education practice applicable to all students and all classrooms, not just an approach to handling students designated as being on the special education track. I think that in addition to the benefits a personalized learning program can deliver for all students, it can also do a lot to create a more inclusive and less judgmental context for special ed students to thrive in.

The interviews, though, quickly took me out of the position of seeing either special education or personalized learning from a theoretical, academic overview standpoint. So while the things I have reported here may not be news to the reader, for me, not having been involved in any of this before, it was quite an education into both the formal process and the perspectives and approaches of teaching and administrative staff concerning special education. Attending to special needs has to be a significant chunk of a teacher’s time, and the collaborative accountability is quite intensive. What the teachers are doing is not just educating, but carrying out the law. I think that a teacher has to adopt a really positive attitude about his/her contribution to the student’s growth to incorporate this special attention seamlessly into his/her complete range of responsibilities.

And this brings me back to the consideration of personalized learning. If this is always the approach to handling everything that happens in the classroom, and if it is bolstered by supportive innovations such as the flipped classroom and relevant learning technologies, then it would seem to me that the benefit is not just that the classroom environment becomes a better fit for student on the special education track, as valuable as that is. It is also that in the collaborative work of teacher teams, when the practice of individualized planning and execution that special ed kids are mandated to receive flows also to all the other students, the whole spectrum of learners are really in the same boat together. That sounds ideal to me as long as the means of teaching, learning, and asssessing build in efficiencies that provide the time necessary for the teachers to attend to students in this way.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What is "Innovative Teaching and Learning"?

"Innovative Teaching and Learning" is a buzzword set of practices in education these days, backed by Microsoft research and advocacy. Here's an infographic giving a brief overview of what it's about:

Innovative Teaching and Learning Infographic

One important finding backing up this approach is that the quality of an educator’s assignment strongly predicts the quality of the work that a student does in response. Greater than 90% of variation in student work scores was accounted for by differences across assignments, not by differences across students for the same assignment.

Brief History of US Education Law Pertaining to Student Testing

How have federal education laws acted to move us to today’s testing/assessment regime?

Here I look at four laws:
  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965 (ESEA)
  • Goals 2000: Educate America Act, 1994
  • The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)
... and you'll see how since the 1980s, the direction towards more testing with the purpose of enhancing school accountability has been continuous throughout different presidential administrations.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Why are the Common Core Standards So Closely Linked with High-Stakes Testing that Many Parents Find Onerous and Odious?

It seems to me that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are tightly fused in the public’s mind with increased and more stringent standardized testing, and that this close association with testing has created a lot of resistance to Common Core. Here in New York that's certainly the case, with this year (2014-15, the first year common-core-oriented tests have been introduced) 20% of students/parents opting out of the testing.
I've been holding a minimally informed view that the standards are a reasonably good idea undermined in the public perception by being saddled with contentious assessments that may be serving other purposes entirely. I wanted to take a closer look. How real is that linkage between CCSS and onerous assessment? What caused that perception to arise? And how are the major educational organizations responding to it? I looked at the websites of some of the major US educational organizations to find out. 

I began with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, because it gives the appearance of being the central online advocacy force on behalf Common Core. So I was surprised to find it did not have a lot to say about the assessment side of the coin. They emphasize that data collection is not required, but up to each state individually. Perhaps they are reluctant to wade into the controversy, but if so, my casual observation of P.R. strategy tells me they’re dropping the ball, because the perception “out there” is so strong that Common Core is all about the testing and “teaching to the test.” And that’s ironic because, by the definition of Common Core’s learning objectives, one would expect the methods for assessing achievement to be quite different from and more meaningful than the customary, rote-questions, fill-in-the-bubble methods. They need to address the controversy if they want to make a stronger case for CCSS and help get it through this difficult roll-out.

Before going any further, it’s worth quoting this concise statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as to what Common Core is basically about:

The Common Core State Standards have the potential to transform teaching and learning and provide all children with the problem-solving, critical-thinking and teamwork skills they need to compete in today’s changing world. This approach to learning moves away from rote memorization and endless test-taking and toward deeper learning.

The AFT is very supportive of Common Core. But they strongly assert that there is a need to extensively field-test the assessments before rolling them out. They make the comparison with how businesses methodically field- and market-test their products before introducing them, to prevent commercial failures. The implication is, why would education administrators handle such a large and important “product roll-out” any differently, and risk blowing the necessary positive impression and goodwill? They suggest a moratorium on the testing, asserting that it is too rushed, and they also argue against jumping into using test result to determine such things as student advancement or penalties or rewards for school performance.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to make this comparison, but this “botched roll-out” thing reminds me of the drastic effect the failed opening days of the Obamacare online exchanges had. It just gives the whole project a bad image, painting program elements that are totally unrelated to the testing problem and otherwise potentially easily accepted with the same discolored broad brush.  

The National Education Association (NEA) stakes out a position close to identical to the AFT’s. They are very opposed to high-stakes testing, and one gets the sense they are representing a group of teachers who are weary not only of having to teach with these test in mind but also of being associated by default with standardized testing, as if it was somehow their idea. They propose delaying any testing until the teaching side is rolled out smoothly. Indeed, they published an article back in 2012 expressing concern that when the tests arrived, they could undermine the effort to establish Common Core.

All these organizations point supportively to the “next generation of assessments”being produced by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) for some states and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers(PARCC) for others. I did not find either the SBAC or PARCC website particularly informative on the subject of the timing of initial testing and what effect is was having on public support for the Common Core, but at least PARCC was direct and explicit in stating that their assessment project is all about supporting implementation of Common Core. 

So at least they are not abashed about it, and I get the sense that they are earnest, research-based, and creative about getting the assessments right. But they do not seem to address the issue of timing or argue that allowing more time to pass would be a good thing. I imagine that, like the Obamacare administrators, they have been under tremendous pressure to get it done and out yesterday, to (theoretically) lend credibility to the whole project and generate an evidence base. But that pressure is probably also coming from political interests wanting to use results to “incentivize” schools and teachers, long before the linkage between test results and appropriate consequences can be demonstrated.

PARCC has an interesting description of how the two major evidence-based principles on which the standards are based are focus and coherence. It is not my topic here and I don’t have time to discuss it, but they do a careful and effective job of explaining how this is a rational and testable basis to do assessment better than it has been done in the past.  It lends confidence about the project in the long term, but will they get there before the political winds change, weighed down with negative impressions?

I presume PARCC and SBAC are predominantly researchers into effective educational methods and assessment design, rather than interest groups pushing for testing in the ways it is sometimes used to reward and punish schools and teachers. It’s not clear whether or not they are supportive of the immediate requirement of using the tests in the initial implementation of Common Core standards.

So who is? I’m guessing it’s political leaders more than anyone else, but to finish my roundup, I took a look at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). A section of their website titled “Standards, Assessment & Accountability” ties these subjects more closely together than any other source I examined. By “Accountability,” they mean consequences for professional educators and institutions for their results. So I’m guessing they have a strong interest in seeing to it that these three aspects are very tightly knitted together. They do come across as a group of technocratic believers, particularly in their statement about accountability, which seems to be their culminating, unifying concern – and which likely plays best with the political class. No mention of a testing moratorium there.


Tim Walker. (October 16, 2013). 10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core. Retrieved from

Tim Walker. (December 11, 2012). Beyond the Bubble: Schools Get Ready for Common Core Assessments. Retrieved from

Common Core State Standards Tools & Resources. (2015). Retrieved from

FAQs about the Common Core State Standards. (2015). Retrieved from

Standards, Assessment & Accountability. (2015). Retrieved from

Testing. (2015). Retrieved from