Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 TU Looks Back

Hard to believe isn't it? 2013 is history.  For some it has been a tough year.  For others things have gotten better.  For us the saying "Not doing our best, simply doing the best we can" pretty much sums up all that was 2013.  So as we close out the year a quick look back with some commentary seems like what we are supposed to do.  Cheers.

Obamacare-  What the heck was that?  If I was trying to design a way for people to lose faith in what amounts to the biggest issue I am advocating for, I would use this administration's moves a guide.  As if the shutdown wasn't eroding faith in the system enough we had to double down and show for real that this government can screw anything up..  It was quite the one - two punch and many adults and students simply do not want to talk about either anymore. Sad.

Boston Marathon Bombings
And you thought people never watched TV anymore.  At once, we saw the comfort and benefit of 21st Century technology as the perpetrators we're so quickly identified and caught, and experienced the reality that pretty much everything we do today is tracked and recorded.  The tragedy and triumph of this event is

Aaron Hernandez
Staying in the Northeast this title really should read, The Murder of Odin Lloyd.  He was the man who lost his life to someone who if you believe reports appears to be less of a football player and more gang member.  Way to go New England.  Nice job.  I always disliked Belichek and never knew why.  WTF?

Lindsay Quits Facebook-
Well that was actually in 2012 but no one noticed until later.  Well actually, no one noticed.  I did see people later who thought I was dead.  but Facebook doesn't miss me and I certainly don't miss it.  I instead focused on jazzing up my Myspace Page. (note from Turner: You're not on Facebook anymore? I didn't notice. But to all of the Facebookers out there who've liked our page, this would explain why it is so rarely updated any longer)

The Poop Cruise
Trapped in a living hell and not gotten much sympathy from the only people who could help.  No I am not describing the cruise and response from carnival, I am talking about those days of teaching when it all goes south.  The only thing that can make it better is the bell to end the day and the chance to star fresh again tomorrow. 

Travon Martin, Zimmerman, Paula Deane, Phil Robertson and Afluenza
Just this week stories of Duck Dynasty's Phil Robinson headline grabbing comments and indefinite suspension, then re-instatement from filming illustrate a few things.  Among them is that people need to recognize that having a right and exercising it in a manner that harms or hurts others(be it with words or a weapon) are two different things.   Think whatever you want.  But before we speak and act remember we all live in a civil society.  Let's do our best to keep it that way.   Guess we have a long way to go in so many ways.

Edward Snowden
I don't follow this whole story as much as I should but the more that comes out, the worse I feel.  I remember learning about the Rosenbergs and what happened to them and that provides some context.  If I am nothing else, it is loyal, so shame on him, even though I am a strong proponent of the Constitutional Protections of the 4th Amendment and just love America.

(Shhh.  I don't like them listening to my conversations so I will whisper.  They track stuff you know.  What happened to needing a Warrant?  Where's the Congressional or Executive oversight?  WTF?  I like being safe as much as the next guy but what do we have if we do not have our liberties? (note from Turner: So what do you think Snowden was all about?)

Michelle Rhee-
We just wanted to throw her in cause...well we are like elephants and have good memories, especially for grudges.We got an import on our staff from a DC Magnet School and he is a really good teacher.  He also wears suits everyday.  No joke.    Describing Rhee as "effective" he rattled off a list of stuff he liked that she did.    I had simply asked what he thought about her and he talked for 5+ minutes.  So it was a lot to digest. But his view differed from mine.  Where we agree, she is not the chancellor anymore.  Period.  Almost.  I always like Kevin Johnson and so in the spirit of the New Year, forgive but don't forget.

The Heart Attack
The week before winter break, we had a two hour weather delay on Monday. One of our colleagues in the basement retreated to the restroom ill. We called down the school nurse and he was taken out of the school on a stretcher. In the ER, he had a heart attack. This event highlighted the many variables that can arise while teaching. We, and he, had twenty plus students in each of our classes, but for a few moments there was another priority that superseded education. Happily, he is well on his way to recovery and should be back at school when we reopen on the sixth. In true Underground fashion, we have quite a treat waiting for him on his return. Rule #1 of the basement: don't leave your room unattended for longer than 24 hours or we're not responsible for what happens.

There were so many good and bad things that also happened but we don't have time to cover them in the level needed:

The Chicago Teachers Strike
The New Pope
Diane Ravitch's new book

So goodbye 2013.  We probably won't miss you ...that much much.  but absence makes the heart grow fonder.  The award winning photo below pretty much sums it up.   My 2014 be a blessed year for each and everyone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays

Greetings to our loyal reader(s)- probably no "s" needed there but oh well.  We hope that this post finds you on good terms with work, family and spending a bit of own time re-charging your batteries and not just spending money on gifts no one needs or wants.  Holidays mean many things to different people and nothing says Christmas like 70+ degrees weather in December and a post fro the Teaching Underground.  Right?.  Time to bond with family, to catch up with friends, taking time to be thankful for all we have and the torturous family visits all ring true of the season.  But through it all we hope you and yours have an you are wonderful Christmas, New Years and enjoy a safe and happy holidays. What better way to celebrate then to pay homage to a previous post and reflect on some of the things that define 21st Century Public Education.  This comes from the "Educational Jargon Generator"

We will innovate efficient curiosity through the collaborative process by enabling technology-enhanced competencies through the use of centers.  Schools must  seize cross-curricular efficacies in data-driven schools.  By continuing to deploy strategic presentations for our 21st Century learners education will modernize school-to-work niches across cognitive and affective domains.  Authentic Performance-Driven Assessments fosters enduring understandings within a balanced literacy program and coupled with integrated pedagogy within professional learning communities our next generation approach will raise the bar in our globally reflective paradigm shift.

Merry Christmas Ralphie Parker, Miss Shields,Flick, Scut Farkas and to everyone!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Truth in Fiction

My latest Netflix binge/guilty pleasure has been the t.v. show Sons of Anarchy. It’s an ultraviolent show about a young man’s ascent to leadership of a California motorcycle gang. They deal in drugs, pornography, and guns—but mainly guns. It’s great fiction, but like most fiction, you have to let hold of your grasp of reality to truly enjoy it.

For example, house cleaning is a constant chore in our house. The washing machine runs so much it’s like another member of the family. House cleaning is the primary source of conflict between members of our family. We even paid someone to do it for us for a while and it helped, but didn’t solve the enormous task required to not live in filth.

But no one ever cleans on Sons of Anarchy unless someone is murdered and then obviously the
body, blood, other evidence must be taken care of. The lead character in this show constantly deals with intergroup dynamics of his gang, meets with rival and cooperative gang leaders to keep the peace, and frequently participates in the “runs” and “deals” associated with the gang. Maybe we can assume that his wife does all of the cleaning—except she is a Surgeon.

And childcare! This couple has two young children to care for and only a gun-toting, marijuana smoking, heavy drinking, promiscuous grandma to help them out. (The one who crashed while they were in the car because she was driving while stoned) My wife and I are just teachers, but we’ve already found that a majority of life is consumed by taking care of children. Yet these kids just seem to show up when the plot demands, and somehow, when they’re not on camera, someone is taking care of them.

Don’t get me started on The Walking Dead. The midst of a Zombie Apocalypse and somehow food, water, and personal hygiene (not to mention unlimited supplies of gasoline, automobiles, guns and ammo) are just magically taken care of.

If you want to enjoy this kind of fiction. you’ve just got to resolve yourself to the fact that they are stories, and good stories ignore the mundane realities of life. That’s why we like them. If I wanted to watch someone clean house I could just get off the couch and experience it first hand.

I want people who don’t work in a classroom to recognize that sometimes they want to see the fiction of teaching and learning. In the end, the story—engaged students working toward meaningful goals—is all that anyone wants to see. I don’t blame them, that’s the part that everybody likes (including teachers). It’s ok so long as there is a recognition that it’s the real world and not fiction.

The mundane details usually consume most of our life, even if it’s the “story worthy” moments that we remember. If we don’t take care of the mundane details effectively, we might even find that we never get to the “story worthy” moments.

In teaching, I’m talking about taking attendance and accounting for every student, and then going back to change it for everyone that is late. I’m talking about setting aside the time to grade and then spending chunks of time on the late work. It’s planning out your instruction and then reorganizing your lessons in response to student feedback, snow days, unplanned drills, etc. It’s collecting paperwork and making sure the consent forms are signed, preparing the materials for the homebound student.

It’s deciding whether it’s best to hold the crying student accountable for not being prepared or deciding that grace is appropriate in the moment. It’s letting a little school work go undone at school so that you can take the time to be human and interact with your students, knowing that it will take away the time that you have at home to be human and interact with your family.

It’s standing over a copy machine or waiting for documents to upload, it’s covering for a teacher in a medical emergency. It’s remembering to reserve the computers and searching the building to find them in the room of a previous user. It’s falling back on plan B when the technology fails (and it’s going to fail).

It’s like housework and childcare for a family. When we consume fiction, we don’t want to think about the realities, just the good stories.  I want to tell the good stories of our classrooms, but like my colleague pointed out in the previous post, it would be nice to acknowledge some of the reality.

Maybe then we could recognize that the way forward in education isn’t just looking for the problem and finding its solution. It's about working through the problems-- which aren't problems at all, just the reality of life-- and appreciating the story worthy moments.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Truth in Advertising

I've seen this commercial so many times in the past month it is now nauseating.  What's worse is that it makes something rather complicated sound so simple.  "The role technology should play in education."  And, many people buy in based on that approach.  Provide students a shiny new device(in this case Microsoft's Surface Tablet) for "real work" and then poof...they learn better and bearded teacher with the tan vest is doing a better job.  Obviously no work can go on without this device or any other.  The description of the spot online reads "This Teacher knows change is coming, but with the new Microsoft Surface his students can do just about anything, even do their homework."   Boasting that if kids have keyboards they can go home and Skype or play games all night or find out what is due or even do homework.  They appear happy, magically more productive and obviously are better students.  Maybe so, maybe so.

But let us reflect on this "old fashioned" teacher in the commercial.  On a superficial level, or on the surface(excuse the pun but it was low hanging fruit and I couldn't resist) I can tell he's not actually a teacher.  How?  Well any seasoned teacher can just tell.  If he was I'd believe him but I don't.  His real name is Bobby Richards and he appears to be a very talented actor.  He plays someone who, based on his classroom decor teaches history or geography. The ad implies he has his students looking up information on Mozart. Upon closer inspection, when the bell rings it appears he teaches twelve students. Twelve!   More on that later.  Would such a device be a useful addition to such a classroom...probably.  But whether or not it is the best choice to improve things is another matter entirely.

Change Can Be Good
You might think I am motivated to discuss this ad by fear of change or because I have it out for Bill Gates.   You'd be wrong.  I embrace just about every real improvement that comes my way in education but I tire easily of the superficial panacea that are peddled by for profit entities or pushed by ill informed "reformers."  I love technology but can't stand using technology for technology's sake.  In essence pressing play on a VCR is about the same thing as posting a video on Youtube.  Working in groups with a piece of paper sometimes is preferable to a virtual meeting.  Our infatuation with computers can be all consuming.

 I only want stuff that helps my students learn, helps me teach and saves me time.  Things that make me a better teacher.  Computers have that potential but let's not oversell their ability to motivate, engage and wait for it..."teach."  That's my job.  One way to help me would be to give me 12 students and watch how much more effective I am.  Guaranteed.  Believe it or not that class might be too small, but easing my student load and giving me more teacher currency...time, would likely result in far more gain for my students than any technology.

I use technology a lot in my class but I don't keep using it if it doesn't provide what I think my students really need.  Face to face, creative, tactile and active learning never goes out of style.  Neither is the much maligned "lecture" which if done well is as engaging as anything.   Sure with new technology the first few days are pretty cool but the novelty wears off.  Some of my students have overtly expressed to me that they do not always prefer to work on computers.  Hopefully we realize that all this talk of flipping and technology integration is mostly absent one key voice, the student.  We assume it is better and they prefer computers that are invariably "needed."  Who might know best what students need in the classroom more than the teacher?  Most companies aren't thinking about kids first and their agenda is quite different.  But they can still do some good.  Microsoft's tablet might be a good thing here, or it might not be.

What's for certain is that technology like the Surface alone will not solve any of the real problems plaguing our education system.  It is just an electronic tool.  Despite what the teacher says in this commercial about the future it is not really any more revolutionary than a chalkboard or even ...wait for it... textbooks were in their time.  The advantage they have is those things have a pretty much unlimited shelf life.  They require no maintenance and in the hands of the right person, can prove just as effective

 Reading is still reading.  Right?
Meaningful change in education will come slowly and incrementally and technology will and should be a big part of that.  We should not wait for it to happen and should demand movement forward.  But, the temptation to leap ahead haphazardly for fear of falling behind can create as many problems as it solves.  Enter the flashy new gadgets marketed at schools, school boards and the public.  Does giving teachers free tablets make these devices the best use of public funds?    Do parents, politicians or administrators really give thought as to what providing every single kid a device might mean in the actual classroom or even outside of it?  Do they provide opportunities for teachers to visit schools that have taken this step?  Do they consider the long term social, economic and other less obvious impacts on students,  classrooms, budgets and schools as a whole? Do they make efforts to educate and involve parents in the adoption of technology?  In my case I think they do for the most part.  But I am lucky, but that doesn't mean the decisions made are ones I always agree with.

Having honey poured in your ear by technology sometimes results  in getting things we don't really need.  Schools are no different than other parts of our throw away consumption driven world.  We are really good at generating piles of antiquated stuff that is no longer useful.  If we buy something it should be based on a real need, not so much a want.  Separating the two is the tough part.

There is no real litmus test.   Do students need computers in schools today?  Yes.  Does having access to the internet make things better or easier.  Probably.  But lets not overlook the hidden costs.    Network  infrastructure, upgrades to software, time until replacement, repair and maintenance, training and must be factored in.  Bottom line is that it will end up being the classroom teacher bearing the brunt of any implementation such as this.  One to One means we on the front line have a lot to consider.  With technology growing more and more intuitive and integrated to daily life do we really need to flood the hours of a student's day with even more?

So with a little truth in advertising, what would this spot say?   
"Hey we've got this fairly low priced tablet that can access the internet, do some light word processing and can for a fee include a keyboard.  If you, your students or your school don't have access to technology on a daily basis this might be a low cost solution.  We have a bunch of extras and if you use it we might also be able to improve our market share in education.  The Surface also has some significant limitations that many find frustrating and we hope the low price will offset those.  Maybe that's why it isn't selling too well to the public...but... ah ha ...schools.   It could be like charity and we could write it off.  Seems a good use for unsold inventory.  Maybe its not a computer and you have might have trouble joining a domain, networking with other devices, saving and keeping software up to date but that said we are confident that many schools, teachers and students will like our product and that is why we are offering a whole bunch of them to a whole lot of schools so that maybe, just maybe they'll catch on.  Give us a try ...please."

Is the surface a good tool and good addition?  I'd start by asking teachers who use it.  Seems for  the most part reviews are favorable.  But many point out the limitations and unknowns.  Get their input and don't rely on top down implementation.  Understanding what is going on in this commercial is really pretty simple. Microsoft refocused and redirected its excess inventory at schools and launched a reward system as a means to gain entry into the education market.  Not that much different than a label drive from soup cans or some other means it makes sense to get everyone involved and behind the effort to fund low cost computers/devices in schools that want them.  Will it work?  Time will tell but I suspect that the Surface will be no different than many other forms of the latest greatest thing.

"Didn''t Care what you thought then.  Still Don't"

Truth in Reform
So now a little truth in reform.   What would leaders, politicians and decision makers say, or at least what SHOULD they?
Truth is refreshing.  To hear someone say "Hey I know this isn't exactly what you want but here's why we are doing it " would mean a lot.  I broke it down into sound bites to cover some of the major points.

"Hey...we know it isn't really the teacher's fault but someone has to be held accountable for these low scores."
"True, we haven't really given much thought to how to use the computers for instruction, but clearly we have to use them if we are going to keep up with all the affluent districts."
"Online learning might be great for motivated learners...but its not a viable option for all learners...we know that...but fact is it is a heck of a lot cheaper than hiring teachers. "
"I blame you...since no one else can be held accountable."
"It is not the type of learning we care about if you can't show us the data."
"I don't care about what you think, I care about what I think and I think I know better."

I could at this for hours...maybe in the comments section some of you could share what you wish reformers would say since it is what they mean.

Maybe some of that is too strong?  But the Appearance over Substance Paternalistic Movement for the Sake of Movement style of leadership that is rampant in this nation is wearing me thin.  It may not be any more responsible for problems than bad teaching, but it can certainly infect and interfere with quality teaching on a much greater scale.  As a part of this, buy the wrong devices or software and deploy them in poor manner and you have caused a lot of undue stress.  That is not good for students, not good for parents... and definitely not good for teachers.  Believe me, I know.

Technology in Education 
So back to the panacea of technology.  Big time movers and shakers are often far too cozy with computer, software and technology folks and do not pick up on the limitations.  They might get enticed with their own free version then commit and represent the tool as indispensable.  Forgetting the ever important mantra of K.I.S.S.     Having an out of the box access point for kids is in most cases a good thing.  But does the included Office software offer only a trial version?  Will the school division have to re-license applications and programs in a few years?  What happens if the device might break down(if you weren't are hard on stuff)?  How long before this device is no longer useful.  Does a kid want to stare at 8" screen 7 hours or more a day?

"Someone adopt me ...please"
I know I wouldn't have to look too hard to find storage closets full of old I-touches, unsupported computers or other fancy items destined for the Island of Misfit Tools.  That place is just as sad as the one in the Christmas classic.  Bottom line is most of this stuff represent budget busting Big Ticket Items.  As a teacher I see it as a means to divert more funding, energy and attention away from the classroom.  (<----Read that sentence again)   A narrow view perhaps, but one built on long experience.  The more we spend away from students, classroom, and actual learning instead on indirect support of the learning can mean we get less return on our investment.

I instead would focus on hiring good people.  Giving them what they need and a few things they want.  And, working very hard to make them feel supported and valued.  In today's world that means yes, technology should play a vital role.  But we must never forget what motivates and interests Microsoft, Apple, or any other for profit firm when they enter the realm of education.  Rest assured it is not what motivates those who can make a real difference in the lives of young people.   If we simply throw technology at our problems in an effort to improve, we won't even get past the surface(sorry...did it again).  Would I take some Surface tablets?  Why not?  But I don't feel I need them and I most definitely would not stand in front of a camera and blindly share my thoughts like this Timothy Busfield "teacher" did in this commercial.  But the tan vest...nice.