Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons Teachers Learn in Their First Month of Teaching

So your first weeks of teaching are wrapping up.  At times you've struggled to recall why you became a teacher.  But in the past few weeks no doubt you and your students have learned a great deal already.  Still nothing could ever have prepared you for the past month.  The lessons learned are too numerous to recount.  So the TU will recount ones that people might find humorous.

#1 To survive as a teacher you cannot be bothered by having people call your name at least 100 times a day.

#2 You have become aware that anything you draw or sketch on the board will, to those entering the room or when you look at it later, resemble either a body part or an obscene act.

#3 Despite claims to the contrary and the fact you cannot admit it publicly there are actually stupid questions.

#4 Regardless of how bad you have to use the can in fact hold it.

#5 The last 5 minutes of class only take about 30 seconds.

#6  No matter how smart a student is they will require a minimum of 5 minutes to pack up their book bag at the end of class.  Efforts to delay them from doing so are seen as quite rude.

#7  Chewing Gum can be used to make a surprising variety of sounds.

#8 Teachers new to the profession must realize quickly that they teach students, not a subject.  Fail to learn this and odds quickly turn against you surviving.

#9 Kids may not even be able to spell their own name but are quick to point out your errors on worksheets or on the board.

#10 At least one student in your class will enjoy drumming.  The band plays at all times by the way.  When they arrive, moment of silence, while you talk, during a quiz...the beat must go on.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Easy Targets

Answer quickly, do more Americans die each year from homicide or suicide?

Which city has a higher crime rate, New York, NY or Aurora, IL?

Most of you would say homicide and NYC.  Most of you would be wrong.  Some things just stick in our brains more vividly than others and affect our judgment for the worse.  Often, these vivid cases are not just easier to remember, but perpetuated through our conversations, personal experiences, and the media.  I'm sure all of the news reports on murders and crime shows set in NYC affected your judgment on these questions as well.

Education suffers from the same problem.  The images and memories of those terrible teachers stick out in our brains.  So-called reformers find a vast resource of collective memory to evoke in the public to spur initiatives to disrupt a supposed broken system.  Ignored are the consistent images of caring teachers engaging students in the day-to-day business of learning.  Nothing as inspiring as Mr. Keating or Mr. Escalante, but certainly not the caricature of Ferris Beuler's Econ teacher. 

The "bad, boring, dull" teacher trapped in a "monotonous, dull, rigid" system is quite overrepresented in our collective imagination of what education is.  Because of this over-representation, teachers and public education in general finds itself on the receiving end of quite a bit of unfair and caricatured criticism.

Alfie Kohn recently wrote an article for Education Week titled "Corridor Wit: Talking Back to our Teachers."  Usually I find Kohn quite on target.  His arguments against homework are thoughtful, and while I don't completely agree with him I appreciate the thought that he provokes.  I greatly appreciate his understanding of standardized testing's impact on education.  His recent post humorously quotes some of what he considers "the overused and underthought pronouncements that reflect truly reactionary views of education and children."  Following each quote he proposes the witty response he wishes he'd been able to deliver in retort as a student.

Here is a sampling:

I need all eyes on me, please!

Mrs. __________, I appreciate your honesty in admitting that your periodic requests to look at you are really about what you need. Obviously it isn’t necessary to look at you in order to hear what you’re saying. More important, neither looking nor listening is the same as learning. In fact, real learning is more likely to happen when we students are doing most of the talking. But, hey, if your need for attention is so pressing, I’d be glad to stare at you some more.

Eyes on your own paper! I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do!

In other words, you want to see what happens when I’m deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more my “neighbors” and I could accomplish together? Why?

Take everything off your desks except a pencil.

Wait a minute. If you’re giving us a test, but forcing us to put away our books and notes, then you’d mostly be assessing rote recall. Surely you’re more interested in knowing our capacity for thinking than how much stuff we’ve crammed into short-term memory, aren’t you?

I admit, it's funny, but on some level I find it offensive.  Here's why:
1) There are times when I do need all eyes on me.  I do bear some responsibility in your learning and with twenty to thirty of you surrounding me in a classroom, eye contact is the best short-term method for me to monitor your understanding.  I know that real learning happens when you start talking, but not if you're just talking about the game last night.  Students need some direction (ever read Lord of the Flies).

2) As a teacher, I get lots of support from my peers.  Then I go into a classroom and conduct lessons on my own.  If I want to buy a computer, I talk to friends and do some research, then I evaluate the options and make my own decision.  Here's another point-- Is the population of Argentina greater or less than 2 million?  Go ahead and make a guess about the population.  Do you believe that your answer would have been significantly higher if my first question said 200 million instead of 2?  Sometimes I do want to know what my students think and know.  I want to minimize the effect of outside factors and distractors.  I want them to learn how to participate in a "well-functioning real-world environment" by learning to think on their own and then bringing their collective knowledge to the table with informed understanding and openness.

3) Is short-term memory a bad thing?  Sure it isn't everything, but it is a cognitive skill that requires practice.  And enough practice will lead to long-term recall.  No, it isn't the only thing that I'm going for in class, but when my students find themselves in a real-world situation, they certainly won't have the textbook and if they can't use the right search words the internet might not help either.  So every so often, yes, take everything off of your desk except for a pencil.

I agree with most of the other criticisms in Mr. Kohn's post.  Commenting to a tardy student "how nice of you to join us" is a simple attempt to shame or guilt a student into better behavior.  But this out of hand criticism takes the hard work of teaching every day and reduces it to a caricature.  To assume that teachers don't reflect on their homework policies, class procedures, and grading policies demeans the individual educator on whom the structure of our public school system is built.  It unfairly demeans the system by oversimplifying the cause of some of it's biggest flaws.

I don't think that Mr. Kohn meant any harm, in fact, I sincerely believe that his work supports the movement toward quality education and away from corporate-driven reform efforts.  But, I do think that teachers have become too easy of a target and caricatured posts like this further pigeonhole the lot of us as unthinking, standardized, slave drivers wedded to the status quo of mediocrity.  The reality of day-to-day life in the public school classroom is far different than this.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are We Really Going There?

D.C. Schools Prepare for Nation's First Sex-Education Standardized Testing

Go ahead, click the link.  That title's not a joke.  Our capital's school system plans to use multiple choice standardized testing to gauge student knowledge in 5th, 8th, and 10th grades on a number of health related topics.  Officials created the test to comply with a recent policy enacted by the D.C. City Council.

Officials said that the test, which will also include questions on nutrition, mental health and drug use, is based on a provision of the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which the D.C. Council passed to address health issues in the 75,000-student system.

But the legislation’s sponsor, council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), said the law requires only that the District produce an annual report describing progress on student health concerns. It does not mandate creation of another standardized test.
As silly as this sounds, every time the citizens of our nation sit back and allow passage of what appears to be reasonable education policy our schools take one more step down the slippery slope of insanity.  Did you hear about the 52 new standardized tests last year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg?  To implement the new Pay for Performance systems students took standardized tests in nearly every subject, including Yearbook!

Now, Virginia is among the bandwagon states that want to link teacher evaluation to student "growth and performance."  Here's the catch.  Can anyone argue that teachers should be rewarded for promoting student growth or assissted when they don't/can't?  Not at all.  Whether you refer to "growth models" or "value added", the idea that teachers should be judged on how much a student learns in a given year can't be refuted.  So no one pushes back against legislation that tries to enable this.

We're beginning to learn this year in Albemarle County about our new Teacher Performance Appraisal system.  We've started changing the system to comply with state requirements that at least forty percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on "student growth."  So far we haven't fallen prey to the testing craze, we don't have to specifically link all of our "growth goals" to standardized testing.  It's going to be hard.  Administrators will have to ensure that teachers set reasonable and rigorous enough goals.  They will have to make sure that standards are applied equally across the division.  Some teachers will have specific data to include (with SOL testing) while others can be more creative (music, art, Psychology, etc.)  In the end, it might look easier to just give the kids a test see how they do.

Standardized testing for Sex ed?  Really?  Wake up America.  Republican or Democrat, education policy isn't working, and until more people stand up and expose the consequences of current education policy we're likely to see more of the same until we finally break this system and start over from scratch.  That idea might sound good to some, but for the millions of students who are being broken down along with the system that is supposed to support them, that is not good enough.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What Republicans Think About Education

Thursday night's Republican Presidential Debate included a question about education.  Candidates were given thirty seconds each to respond. (Does that say something about the value of education?)  We've included the question below, candidate responses, and a brief commentary from the Teaching Underground for each.  Enjoy.

QUESTION: I've taught in both public and private schools, and now as a substitute teacher I see administrators more focused on satisfying federal mandates, retaining funding, trying not to get sued, while the teachers are jumping through hoops trying to serve up a one-size-fits-all education for their students. What as president would you seriously do about what I consider a massive overreach of big government into the classroom? Thank you.

FORMER GOV. GARY JOHNSON, R-N.M.: I'm promising to submit a balanced budget to Congress in the year 2013. That's a 43 percent reduction in federal spending.

I am going to promise to advocate the abolishment of the federal Department of Education.

The federal Department of Education gives each state 11 cents out of every dollar that every state spends, but it comes with 16 cents worth of strings attached. So what America does not understand is that it's a negative to take federal money. Give it to 50 laboratories of innovation, the states, to improve on, and that's what we'll see:

dramatic improvement.

Abolish the Federal Department of Education?  That sounds pretty Anti-Education to many folks, but maybe not.  If Johnson is right, it's costing more than it's worth.

FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, R-PA.: Yeah, 20 years ago, the federal contribution to education was 3 percent. It's now at 11 percent, and our schools are doing worse, and it's exactly what Gary Johnson just said. It's because the federal government's meddling.

The bottom-line problem with education is that the education system doesn't serve the customer of the education system. And who's the customer? The parents, because it's the parents' responsibility to educate the children.

It's been that responsibility -- from the moment they were born, they began the education of their children. And at some point, we have-- the government has convinced parents that at some point it's no longer their responsibility. And in fact, they force them, in many respects, to turn their children over to the public education system and wrest control from them and block them out of participation of that.

That has to change or education will not improve in this country.

I can't say that I totally disagree, but we have a public trust.  Sometimes parents will not live up to their responsibility and with this attitude I fear the children suffer.  How do we adjust education to make sure we're responsive to parents?  I must say, I don't think the feds can do much for us there.

FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, NEWT GINGRICH: I think you need very profound reform of education at the state level. You need to dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education, get rid of virtually all of its regulations.

And the truth is, I believe we'd be far better off if most states adopted a program of the equivalent of Pell Grants for K-through-12, so that parents could choose where their child went to school, whether it was public, or private, or home-schooling, and parents could be involved. Florida has a virtual school program that is worth the entire country studying as an example.

I'm always a little leery of the baggage associated with vouchers and choice talk.  And technology should facilitate education, but this virtual school example sounds too much like technology as a solution to education problems.

REP. RON PAUL, R-TEXAS: If you care about your children, you'll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids.

In 1980, when the Republican Party ran, part of the platform was to get rid of the Department of Education. By the year 2000, it was eliminated, and we fed on to it. Then (inaudible) Republicans added No Child Left Behind.

So the first thing a president should do is -- the goal should be set to get the government out completely, but don't enforce this law of No Child Left Behind. It's not going to do any good, and nobody likes it. And there's no value to it. The teachers don't like it, and the students don't like it.

But there are other things that the federal government can do, and that is give tax credits for the people who will opt out. We ought to have a right to opt out of the public system if you want.

O.k. Ron, I'm with you on decreasing federal involvement, but you lost me at "business of education."  It's not a business, and we need some form of government guarantee of access to education.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-TEXAS: There are a lot of good ideas here on the side and whether it is cutting back on the Department of Education, making those types of reductions.

I happen to believe we ought to be promoting school choice all across this country. I think school -- the voucher system, charter schools all across this country. But there is one person on this stage that is for Obama's Race to the Top and that is Governor Romney. He said so just this last week. And I think that is an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person that wants to run for the presidency.

Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top and that is not conservative.

Tell us what you think about education Mr. Perry, not your opponents.  I'll slam Race to the Top right along with you, but you need to tell us more about what you're for than what you're against.  Once again, the voucher and choice talk can mean many things, and too often on this side of the isle it means harm to public education.


Let me tell you what I think I would do.

One, education has to be held at the local and state level, not at the federal level. We need get the federal government out of education. And secondly, all the talk about we need smaller classroom size, look that's promoted by the teachers unions to hire more teachers. We looked at what drives good education in our state, what we found is the best thing for education is great teachers, hire the very best and brightest to be teachers, pay them properly, make sure that you have school choice, test your kids to see if they are meeting the standards that need to be met, and make sure that you put the parents in charge.

And as president I will stand up to the National Teachers Unions.

You're dead on about state and local control Mitt, but you've fallen for the teacher union myth.  Do you really think that a group of average income teachers paying dues to a union has more clout than the multi-million dollar multi-national corporations like Pearson and Rupert Murdoch's educational ventures.  I want a president who will encourage governors to work with Teacher's Unions (who represent the folks who deal with students day in and day out) and stand up to the corporate interests who are driving school reform today.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-MINN.: We need that to do with education what has always worked historically, and that's local control with parents. What doesn't work is what we see happen right now.

I'm a mom five biological kids. We've raised 23 foster children in our home. The reason why I got involved in politics was because of the concern I had about our foster children and the education they were getting. What I would do as president of the United States is pass the mother of all repeal bills on education. I would take the entire federal education law, repeal it. Then I would go over to the Department of Education, I'd turn off the lights, I would lock the door and I would send all the money back to the states and localities.

Maybe not a bad idea, but again, we do need a government to at least guarantee that localities and states are living up to their responsibility to educate the children of America.

HERMAN CAIN, BUSINESSMAN: A lot of good ideas, I won't repeat them.

All of the programs at the federal level where there's strings attached, cut all the strings. We have got to encourage parents to take advantage of choices, but provide those choices and we must find ways to empower the students. This is how we are going to improve education, but primarily get the federal government out of trying to educate our kids at the local level.

Sounds great to me.  I'd like to know more specifics.

FORMER GOVERNOR JON HUNTSMAN, R-UTAH : This is a key question, because it has so much to do with our nation's competitiveness. I feel like I've run my own clinical trial in my home, raising seven kids. We've seen every option. We've experienced everything out there. But as governor I learned some important things. I signed the first -- or the second voucher bill in the United States, Carson-Smith. I've actually done something about this.

We actually worked on early childhood literacy. If you can lock in the pillars of cognitive development around reading and math before age six, you are giving those kids the best gift possible as they then proceed through education.

Finally, you've got to say no to unfunded mandates coming out of Washington. They are totally unacceptable. No one loves their schools more than parents and local school boards, and local elected officials.

Again, not sure about vouchers, but kill the unfunded mandate.

There you have it folks.  The republican take on education in thirty seconds or less (per candidate).  Here's to informed decision-making and an educated electorate.

(thanks to Fox News for transcript details from the debate)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time Well Spent

She started by asking students to "name an animal that reminds you of the Great Depression."

I didn't know where she was going with this, but she was in ed school, and I liked exposing myself to some of the new and fresh methods they were employing, so I let it go to see where it would end up.

"Sperm Whale!" one student responded after the teacher had written six or seven responses on the board already.  The students were as confused as I was, and simply named animals to avoid the discomfort of silence.  As she turned her back to write this most recent comment on the board the student turned to a classmate, "dude! She actually wrote it, she wrote Sperm Whale on the board."

I was ready to pull the plug, when thankfully she switched things up.  She stepped up to the overhead projector, this was ten years ago, started placing transparency on it, and retreated into an invisible bubble as she slid the cover sheet down, line by line, revealing the text of the notes that students were to copy.  She read them too.  As if my sophomores couldn't yet.

All teachers have those days where there just is not enough time in the class to get it all in.  But especially early in our careers we have those days when the minutes can't go by fast enough; we find ourselves struggling to fill the block and keep the students engaged in something.

Somewhere around my third or fourth year of teaching, I took on a University student in her practicum course; she needed to teach five consecutive classes under my supervision. I wasn't prepared to prepare a new teacher. I could tell that she was struggling to prepare for the first lesson, and despite my suggestions and assistance in planning the lesson I just wasn't sure that she was going to handle it.

I could go into more detail about the lesson, but from what I've recounted above you've probably figured out it was a disaster. So much of a disaster that she was in tears before we even began to debrief. I eventually had to call in her University supervisors to assist, and after a few more attempts she opted out of the education program.

My biggest lesson from the experience came out of the mouth of a student. Near the end of this teacher's first class, a particularly sarcastic student sitting next to my desk turned to me and said "Mr. Turner you owe me an hour and a half of my life back." Even though his comment was bitter and quite rude, I knew he was right. Time is precious for all of us. Time can be spent, but never saved. This means it is vital to get the best value from every minute we're given. None of us have the right to waste anyone's time. I may not always succeed, but on that day I vowed to never waste someone else's time... especially my students.

This doesn't mean that academic instruction must always take place from bell to bell. Often I even build in "down-time" to intentionally engage with students in conversation, or to give them a mental break when anxiety seems to be high. But I do this with intention in hopes of making the most of every minute my students and the public trusts me with.

Now, having children of my own, every afternoon when they get straight to work, or every evening we stay up together a little later than we should to finish all of their homework, I find myself hoping that their teachers are using every minute of their day in a productive way.

I hope that every minute of the day that my children are at school and every minute of the day that my students are in my class that the value of time is respected- whether it's learning a new skill, meeting a new friend, strengthening relationships with teachers and peers, or taking a break to recharge.

When we're given the responsibility of taking someone's time are we careful to make sure that it is time well spent?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Best and Brightest

My colleague and I write a lot about education reform here on the TU.  It may seem like we oppose much of the current reform. We do.  Not because we are obstructionists.  In fact it is obvious that our nation's education system needs continual improvement and we welcome positive changes.  Less obvious is which if any of these reforms have merit.  The one size fits all systemic changes that are being pushed by major players will do little to affect positive change in the average classroom.  They may in fact do the opposite.  What is certain is that the focus of many of the ideas and measures is the quality of the teacher.   Many profess that an influx of the nations “Best and Brightest” to the teaching profession will do much to fix all that is wrong.
Of course there are bad teachers out there and a growing number of initiatives seem focused on identifying and then purging them from the profession.  I have no problem when bad teachers leave.  I have a problem when good teachers leave.  That is happening with greater frequency.  I also have a problem with how these efforts to root out bad teachers affect what I do in the classroom.  Some cite the lack of teacher dismissals as evidence that bad teachers are protected by tenure and that it seems anyone can keep a teaching job. But they forget that many self select and quit. They also underestimate the complexity of judging quality teaching.  It is true anyone CAN teach under ideal conditions.  But there is much facing schools and done by today’s students in those classrooms to prevent such ideal conditions from materializing.  When people realize how hard it can be many there including these Best and Brightest will say in effect “I’m out”, and head for the door.  Knocking many of us regular teachers over as they rush past. But people teaching for the right reasons stick it out.  That should matter.   They find ways to improve or ask for help.  They do a lot more for kids than what happens between the bells. To me it is far more important WHO a teacher is as opposed to WHAT they are. 

As the focus shifts to those actually doing the instruction efforts are made to ensure all students have access to quality teachers.  How could anyone oppose such a thing?  But these efforts to identify bad teachers and standardize curriculum hurt me in a variety of ways.   Couple that with the promotion of common techniques from the edgurus or edupreneurs of the day and you’ve got a tangle of adverse affects. These hurt quality teachers.  Those that have control over what I do see teaching as a science.  Where a variable can be altered and it will reproduce a desired outcome. Those who teach know it is an art.  This disjoint lies at the heart of many issues and is in part a reason why we created this Teaching Underground.  Those who have survived the first few purgatory like years that weed out people in teaching for the wrong reasons or those who do not possess the necessary skills know there are no shortcuts and there are no easy years.

Those promoting B and B talk miss many key points.  Chief among them is the fact you can have all the degrees in the world and still suck.  Drop a Harvard law grad or Wall Street CEO in some of the classes I’ve taught and the kids will sniff them out and eat them for breakfast. Educational success is not a guarantee of success in life.  Especially not the life of a teacher.  I’m proof of the opposite since I am still working despite my unimpressive academic record.    A review of this might lead one to conclude I am unfit for every job. But there is no substitute for experience.  I learned much from mine.  Lessons I will not soon forget.  Lessons that I use daily.  One of those is that even smart people can be dumb and lazy.  Nothing against smart folks joining up, just cautioning that they do so for the right reasons.  That they understand there is no playbook or model for what happens every day.  They better be child-centered and not self-centered or they won’t make it.   Three years does not an expert make.  And to think they’ll remedy everything might be short sighted. 

So take for example Mr. Mortimer Zuckerman.  A bright fella who says in part “America has to rethink how to attract, employ, retain, and reward outstanding teaching talent.”   What Mr. Zuckerman forgets while he pounds away in one of his 4 houses or his 100+ ft yacht, is that teaching at Harvard and Yale and publishing magazines differs a great deal from teaching in a public school.      Teaching is a human endeavor.   What people say does in fact matter.  Calling for more Best and Brightest hurts.   A  Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind continue to have unintended consequences. Throughout, one constant is that we are not all motivated to work harder and longer solely by money.

What else he does in the article does is tougher to discern.  I’m surprised I even picked up on it given I am just a teacher.  He starts with pointing out the “Educational Crisis”…then moves on to criticize tenure and I think the overall nature of our educational workforce lowering the crosshairs directly on teachers. (Allow me to return fire)  Catch phrases like digital learning and concepts like having kids learn by watching DVDs of top teachers reveal that the view from the top is not what I see everyday.   Will it work?  Maybe with a small percentage of our kids who are self motivated.  In fact, the new methods could reduce the longer-term need for mass teaching manpower”  Really?   Over-reliance on technology is dangerous.  It shouldn't replace teachers, it should empower them.   As good as it sounds having a kid in California watch a teacher from North Carolina using technology ain’t exactly gonna work for a lot of kids, and it doesn’t work for teachers either.  You can’t simply watch a good teacher and then repeat what they do.  Authentic assessment is what many of us do every day.   Intentional or not Zuckerman’s ideas further erode understanding of what good teaching really is and how valuable those people are.  It is not teaching to the test, it is teaching the kid.   There's no rubric for good teaching. 

This simplistic approach to educational issues reveals the divide between those that teach and those that “know” about teaching. Among the most asinine of ideas are many coming from  “reputable” educational researchers who hide behind mountains of data.  Too many of whom inexcusably fail to even talk to teachers in any of what they do.  The Best and Brightest should follow the same path to the profession as the rest of us, not get short tracked.   I frown upon alternative licensure not because I am threatened by it but because it makes a mockery of the requirements and processes in place as part of preparation to become a teacher. Not the least of which is the professional semester or student teaching.  Forgo it and you have no idea what the job is really like.    Kinda like many writing on education reform.

Those who seek to break down some of these regulations and “judge” teachers objectively put all of us who care about quality teaching in peril. Would we do the same for doctors and pilots?  They often blend anti-union and anti-tenure ideas and propose annual contracts.  Remember the origins of tenure.  Without tenure I might be less likely to take risks, take on a student teacher, share ideas, be innovative or take on some of our more challenged kids.  You cannot on one hand stress the importance and impact a great teachers then totally discount everything they say.  We do not choose our “clients” and we are subject to a slow erosion of our autonomy within our workplace  But still many teachers endure.

Best and Brightest talk does much to demean those of us who labor every day to help kids learn.   I know many great teachers whose SAT scores eliminated them from the most prestigious learning institutions.  But they know their craft well and in front of kids they transform into the most brilliant professional you’ll ever see. These three simple words subtlety imply we who are teaching are not smart  Sure I was just happy to get into college and I work with some of the folks who taught me when I was in High School.    I can only imagine what they think of me and purposefully avoid asking what I was like in High School.  But I do ask them how I can do better on occasion.   I am not the best at much of anything and I am smart enough to know I am far from bright.  Still I know a good teacher when I see one.

I’ll even admit I might be counted among the bad teachers by some measures.   Some of what I say here may sound a bit "holier than thou" but it is only meant to awaken the common sense among us.  I don't give much advise on investing or campaign strategy.  But I’d advise people who don’t face 14 year olds each day listen none the less.  Let’s not get hypnotized by the sheepskin shingle on someone’s wall and instead measure WHO people are as much as WHAT they are.  Listen to the professionals in the job when they say things are bad ideas.  Absolutely look for the best teachers we can but do not exclude those who can excel at the job because they didn't end up at an Ivy League.  Let’s remember that these efforts here to identify and remove those who are not good teachers do much to impede and frustrate good teachers.   As a result I have seen too many join those exiting on their way out the door.  In part since they can no longer excel and enjoy the profession and teach the kids the as they once did.  Ultimately this Best and Brightest approach might leave us worse off than we were are now.   Making the job of those of us who are crazy enough to endure for the right reasons harder.  Whatever the case it doesn’t help us teach the kids we’ve got much.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Five Technology Tools You Can Use Tomorrow

So we've touched on some thoughts classroom teachers have regarding technology. The last post left you with Larry Ferlazzo's checklist of whether a technology was worth using. Since we can't share I-pads or laptops with anyone we thought we might offer a few suggestions and links to some tools we have found useful. You are welcome. Every time you click these we get $1 and also can count the time towards out PLC(PLN) goal. Seriously though I sometimes wonder how these business models are set up and how they make any money. These are all quick and easy things that you can easily start using in some fashion with minimal effort. And based on much of what I read...we teachers are all about minimal effort ...right?
Quia Intro/Tutorial
A site I started using about 6-7 years ago mostly for test and SOL review and as I understood more I realized its potential and power. I get a lot of positive feedback from parents and students on this one. It is a simple "create your own" site that most importantly allows you to "steal" from other teachers and quickly use their stuff and make it your a virtual walk down the hall. So day 1 you could be up and running in a few minutes with access to huge amounts of content you can actually use with kids. And they like it. You can give quizzes, play review games, give surveys, share files, post HW...pretty powerful. Most important to me is that it was created with the classroom teacher in mind. very helpful for assessments in or out of class. It is a paid site.
Quizlet Demo Video
Quizlet is something I am using only recently but it is easy to learn and intuitive. Good for basic review of information and another example of a way to extend the classroom. Nice because it tailors to where the kids are weak and is pretty simple. Again easy to start with nothing and quickly get to something.
I describe it as the Facebook for school. Kids like the basic format and it opens the door to extending the classroom virtually. You can do all the usual...assign stuff, have stuff turned in, grade it, etc. I like the layout and ability to use it without much appreciation for its power. In a sense it does what Facebook does and helps create community. They have the coolest music with their tutorial as well. Oh that matters...

If you are looking to promote the cooperative work projects this is where it is at and it has 2 turntables and a microphone(See artist known as Beck) My kids use this more than I do but it is a very effective way to have kids work on projects and avoid having situations where one kids does all the work. You can track edits and actually see who did what when. Likely the most flexible and powerful if you know the ins and outs. Many teachers in my building are awesome at this.Admittedly I do not...but I still use it now and again to share stuff.

Jing Overview Video
Jing allows you to share information from your computer. PowerPoint Presentations with narration are the easiest example but you can do so much more. You can share what you see on your screen and make short videos to help others.

Discovery Education
My school has a site license and I mostly use this to access video segments to use with my PowerPoint notes. In more recent classes I have have kids use this to research and find suitable video clips for projects.

Easily allows you to upload/correct documents and then you can download PDF versions Good for peer reviews for students(though trading actual pieces of paper still works believe it or not)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Are Teachers Anti-Technology?

Are teachers anti-technology?  I don't think so.  One of the primary responsibilities of teaching is to relate to students in your classroom.  If you think those earbuds in your student's ear are plugged into a magic little box that creates music out of the ether, well, you might not make it as a teacher.  My four year-old demonstrated the other day that he knows enough about computers to exit the Word document that I've failed to save in order to find his favorite games website for a little "Uphill Rush" in the afternoon.

My point is that a teacher who doesn't get technology is akin to the teacher who lets ink stain his or her shirt pocket, the one who still says "that's the bomb" when they want kids to think they're "hip", the male teacher who still wears mid-thigh shorts in the summer time.  Teachers must understand the world their students live in.  This doesn't mean yielding to every fad or fashion of the day, but if we are not at least involved enough to understand what influences our youth, we're likely not concerned enough about them to teach them well.

Still, we aren't the trendsetters.  Kids aren't taking their fashion cues from us.  Several years ago, students started prefacing every statement with the phrase "not gonna lie."  It was the new "like."  I thought it would be cool to start my own trend so I started saying things like "NGL, this is going to be the hardest quiz you'll ever take" and "you've got a low B right now, but NGL, if you get a good grade on this test it might bring you up to an A-."  I think they made fun of me for that.  I tried to tell them that everyone was saying it now because "not gonna lie" just took too long to get out.  They didn't believe me.

What does this have to do with anything you say?  Well, as a teacher, I must be immersed in the culture of technology as much, nearly as much, or maybe slightly more than my students.  If I'm too far ahead of the curve, most of them aren't going to follow.  A few months ago, I laughed with a colleague over the fact that when we were in high school, shorthand was still a class.  Our last post mentioned the Apple IIe from the 1980s.  Most adults, even as young as twenty years old, can look back with a little humor at how far we've come with technology since their high school days. 

So are teachers, anti-technology?  I don't think so.  I think most teachers are very willing to engage learners in new ways, taking risks from time to time for the sake of better teaching.  I think we're a little put out when our leaders promote the myth that technology will save money and solve so many of our problems in education.  We get tired of seeing that money is always available for new technology, but scarce in other areas.  We don't jump to use technology that just does what we've always done, except maybe a little faster or fancier.

Teacher/blogger, Larry Ferlazzo wrote a piece for Education Week earlier this week suggesting a checklist of sorts for whether he would consider using a particular technology in his classroom.

1) Does it take me less than one minute to learn the basics on how to use it?

2) Will it take less than one minute -- with guidance -- for my students to learn to also learn the basics on how to use it?

3) Does it provide a value-added benefit to student learning over a similar activity using basic classroom tools?

4) Is it a tool that I believe can be used regularly in class?
5) And, lastly, though being able to answer yes to the previous four questions usually outweighs a negative response to this one -- Can it make my life a little easier?

I like it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Digital Bandwagon

Tim exits his mom's car and flips open his phone to begin textting. His Ipod blaring as he weaves his way through the halls barely avoiding collisions with others whose eyes are also glued to tiny screens. He rounds the corner and enters my room. He puts his phone away and removes his ear buds and plops into his seat. He takes out his Netbook and frantically checks his E-mail and Facebook before the bell.  He next logs in to begin the lesson for the day using Edmodo and begins working pausing occasionally to check twitter feeds. So Tim has done a lot this morning but he hasn't done one thing, spoken directly with anyone.  Is Tim your son in my class? Probably not as things aren't that bad but we better keep an eye on Tim and his classmates.

Nothing is as attractive or as marketable for schools as digital technology. My neighboring local district is spending more than $2 million to provide each student in 6th-12th grade with Windows based tablets. The adoption accompanied by a flashy new acronym, the Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking(BLAST). Most schools are increasingly investing in technology as a key improvement strategy.  One to one is coming. 

One to one is the educational jargon meaning that each student has his or her own computer. School divisions, and thus public taxpayers, are pouring funds into equipping students with the latest and greatest digital resources. Smartboards, Promethean Boards, LCD projectors, laptops, Ipads, Computer Labs, Instant Poll Clickers, Software Applications and Information Management Systems and the dizzying amount of unseen infrastructure needed to make them function are sucking up cash like a vacuum. But as decision makers barely pause to reflect on these investments it might be prudent to consider them a bit more.

I think having access to such tools is great for both kids and teachers. Where would I be if in the 1980's Apple IIe hadn't appeared and allowed me to learn LOGO?   (Probably in the same place)  Technology is a great asset in education.  I love computers and what they allow schools to do.    What they are not is a guarantee that learning and education will improve. Soldiers in the military can be more effective with the best weapons. Teachers too can multiply their impact with new tools. But both must know how to integrate them to do their job. Another way of thinking about it is you don't just pass out bazookas. (OK a bit of a stretch but I liked the phrasing) Schools should both pilot technology and also prepare the majority of teachers to utilize such tools. If they don't then they are eye candy and do little to substantively improve what's already happening.   

Technology adoption is more complex that it appears. Worth remembering is that these tools don't stay "new" for very long and as an example that little Apple IIe far outlasted its usefulness.  Equal access across divisions with disparities in funding might expand gaps in resources. The big business side of the adoption process shows when company salespeople court officials and saturate them with information like a DC lobbyist.

Contracts have become big money, and often cut out of the loop are the ground level educators. We (in our division) experienced this firsthand last year with a little disaster called Gradespeed.  Another complicating factor important to remember is that in addition to large up front costs there are also a continuing expenses as long as the school supports a product. Wear and tear, maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, required support personnel all can be unseen costs. What happens 3 years down the road when kids complain that computers are too slow because they take .3 seconds longer to connect?

Technology constantly changes how we operate.  It can motivate some kids in ways other approaches seemingly cannot.   Many are pushing hard for state of the art technology to completely transform our classroom.  As it does we might be wise to remember we can pay in other ways for this blind faith in technology.  A recent NY Times article stated "Even as students are getting more access to computers here, they are getting less access to teachers."  Not a good thing.  

There is a reason we still drive our own cars instead of using onboard computers.  There are social consequences since these things that are meant to connect us can isolate us as well.   Within the classroom, I know once a kid has a computer on their desk nothing you say matters. With the young sometimes technology contributes to a decline in civility.    Many wonderful teachers in the classroom struggle to keep pace with the changes and I pride myself on integrating the newest technology into my instruction, sometimes not pausing to consider the unintended consequences.

  • Am I spending more time on the computer and less time interacting face to face with students?
  • Are kids disconnecting from each other?
  • Are we blurring the line between real engagement and entertainment?
  • Does the outcome justify the expense?
There's much to consider with this panacea.

With this in mind it might be interesting to watch this story unfold and think a little more deeply about all that it affects.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Problem of Standards: September 11 in School

"What are you doing to commemorate 9/11 in the classroom this year?"

I'm sure nearly all teachers have encountered this question in the last month, perhaps more.  On the ten year anniversary of the attacks, our schools are expected to... well, to do what they are supposed to do: educate and inform students about the world in which they live.

I'd never say that social studies teachers "love" this stuff, but in a way, it's why we do what we do.  Wars and diplomacy, technological milestones and catastrophes, assassinations and visits of state, the good and the bad, defining moments drive history and we grasp those events, the more current the better, to draw our students into a curious desire to understand their world.

Yes, it's a t.v, not a microwave.
I remember from my childhood, a major national or world event meant that if our teacher couldn't find a television to bring into the classroom that we'd be crowded in the room of the teacher who could.  The Iran-Hostage crisis,  the attempted assassination of Reagan, the Challenger explosion and the Iran-Contra hearings all provided current relevant events that opened the door for my teachers to share the history leading surrounding these events.  These teachers helped me to understand the context of the milestones and understand why they were so important in my life.

That is part of the problem.  Those events are now history, as much a part of the past as Abe Lincoln, Teapot Dome, the Russian Revolutions and even (gasp!) the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Kids entering high school this year were not likely to have even been in school on September 11, 2001.  Adults look back with words like "I remember it like yesterday."  Answer honestly, if you're over twenty-five years old, isn't it surprising to think that ten years have already passed?  

An article in the most recent Education Week laments that a majority of states' education standards don't mention September 11.  On the eve of ten years, and the standards of History haven't caught up.  Is this really a problem?

It depends.  I remember June 2001.  My tenth grade World History (1500-present) class had already taken their SOL test.  The test didn't carry as much weight then, but it was still important.  I was glad to have over four weeks of school left after the test to cover content outside the standards, which at the time didn't reach any of the major events of the 1990's.  We learned about the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan and the political movement called the Taliban that had taken control of Afghanistan.  That spring, the Taliban had been destroying historic Buddhist monuments and forcing Hindus to wear identification to single them out.  My students easily drew comparisons between what this Taliban government was doing in spring 2001 and the events that transpired in Germany prior to World War II.  I chose this content because of its relevance.  It unfolded as we learned about it from multiple news media.

Three months later, those same students watched the world change.  They'd never heard of Osama bin Laden, but when the President of the United States called out the Taliban government of Afghanistan, there should have been at least seventy-five eleventh graders in Virginia's public schools who knew exactly what he was talking about.  In the minds of those students, September 11 probably sits on the knowledge perch of "current events" as it still does in mine.  For today's students and those of the near future, September 11 is placed on the shelf of history along with the Kennedy Assassination, Pearl Harbor, The Great Depression, the sinking of the Lusitania, etc.,

I worry that if we fret too much about adding September 11 to "the standards" or mandate that schools and teachers conduct lessons about September 11 on its anniversary, that for this generation of students we will turn it into another static monument of an era past.  There is nothing "standard" about the current affairs of our world and the dynamic influence of history.  Any worthy curriculum should be able to address this.

In the spring of 2001 I was able to help students explore a narrative that reached back to the Age of Imperialism, stretched into the twentieth century, and had yet to culminate in the 21st.  I had already hit the high points that students would have to remember for their test.  "All that you need to know is that Asoka converted to Buddhism after a particularly bloody battle, his empire was called the Mauryan, and it was in India.  Yes, there's a story, but we don't have time for that you've got sixty other facts to learn before May."

I hope that we don't turn September 11 into another checkbox standard like so many others.  Can a teacher of American history examine the aftermath of the Cold War and explain the changing face of American culture in the 21st century without discussing September 11?  Can a student of US Government understand the growth of executive power and declining right to privacy in the last decade without starting with September 11?  Can one learn about World History and the global relationships of the modern world without the context of September 11?

Certainly not.  But I'm not ready to reduce it to a standard of learning, giving it the first panel of the "most important moments of the 21st century" poster.  Standards of history and social studies aren't meant to be comprehensive lists of important names, dates, and places.  Real history standards provide enough context to understand and enough flexibility to explore the rich paths that human society has created.  For now, I am comfortable knowing that September 11 has yet to appear in the "standards" in many places because I know that my colleagues will provide their students with opportunities for a rich understanding of that day regardless of standards of learning.