Category Archives: Commentary

A new direction

I’ve decided to take this blog — and my classroom — in a new direction.

There’s been a nagging feeling for some time now that my classroom was not as it should be.  For the last few years, I’ve felt like I was losing touch with the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher, and losing control of being able to guide the atmosphere of my classroom into being one that encouraged students to enjoy their time at school while they learn.

Of course, my first year and a half as a teacher probably focused more on the enjoyment aspect rather than the learning.  Yes, students liked being in my class, but it was because of the digressions we had during class discussions, or the multimedia projects that probably focused more on how “cool” the students’ videos looked rather than how much they actually learned doing them.  To counter-act that, I’ve felt as though the last few years in my classroom have been swinging too far the other way.  I’ve graded more harshly, I’ve spent less time really getting to know my students… everything was their fault if they didn’t have the intrinsic motivation to learn.

I’ve been reading, tweeting, but most of all rethinking everything I’ve come to view as the norm in my classroom.  It’s not enough and it’s certainly not the best way for the students under my care to learn.  I’ve been too much of a lecturer and the resident expert on everything.  I’ve taken away their freedom and assigned them writing prompts that may hold no interest for them whatsoever.

This year, that all changes.

Overnight?  Of course not.  This will be a daunting year.  My wife and I are expecting a baby in October.  I have a student teacher coming in January.  I’m a week away from the start of the school year and some of these ideas are still just swirling around in my head, yet to take on a coherent shape.

Here’s my ideal: No grades. No homework. Develop in them a deep desire for exploration.  I want my students to learn and love learning.

I’ve been reading the newspaper all summer, seeing the steps being taken by our government to “improve” the education system.  Instead, all I see is the federal government killing teachers’ desire to help students learn and eviscerating students’ natural inclination to learn about the world around them by replacing learning with testing.  The way this whole system is being run is wrong.  And no one at the top has any clue about what it will take to fix it.

That’s where we come in.  I’m trying to transform my classroom this year into a place where every student has every opportunity to learn and to make the necessary mistakes to get to that learning.  Will it be pretty?  No.  I readily expect this to be a messy year.  I expect to make a lot of mistakes myself.  I expect to feel exhausted at the end of every day (or more than usual, I guess).  I expect to try to reach every student and still be disappointed by a handful that never connect with what we’re doing.  Maybe my expectations going into this will be enough to keep up morale when the going gets tough.

So what about this blog?  I’ve been a bad blogger.  I don’t write regularly and I’m not anticipating that changing for this school year.  But now this blog also has a focus to it that I really never had before.  I want this place to chronicle the steps I take this year.  I want it to be a list of my failures and blunders, as well as my successes and discoveries.  I want to be an example for others… whether it is an example of how to make this transition or how not to make it, only time will tell.

The tagline for this blog is Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Amen.  Let’s get to it.

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School’s (Not) Out For Summer

Back to School Already? Year-Round Programs in Full Swing – ABC News Shared via AddThis

Thanks to Eric Langhorst (Twitter:ELanghorst) for tweeting this article. It reminds me just how much I would love to have year-round classes.

When I was a student while living in England, we had year-round schooling. School started in the beginning of August, with one month breaks in December, March, and July. I remembered more when we came back to school in August, and we (my family) had more time to travel for Winter Break, Spring Break, etc. Given the opportunity, I would absolutely love to have year-round schooling here.

That being said, I do have to agree with some of the critics that say year-round schooling will not help a school that is already mediocre. Isn’t that true of any initiative? However, I think a move to a “modified calendar” would give some teachers the added consistency they need to make changes to the way they teach. We’re always complaining about a lack of time, so who wouldn’t benefit from an extra 20-30 days in the school year?

There were also a couple of comments for this article — one in particular — that I wanted to address. I’ve heard from people before that the 3-month summer vacation is “a key part of life for American youth,” as one of the comments says. I would challenge that by asking: “Can you tell me exactly what those American youth are doing during those three months that is so worthwhile?” I don’t view the longer calendar as being extended babysitting, and I’ve been to the mall or the park during June, July, and August… so I suppose this additional summer time is key for all of the smoking, lounging, vandalizing, etc. that some American youth choose to participate in.  I see students’ Facebook updates about how bored they are, or that they’re just sitting at home, “doin nuthin.”  Is this really what summer is all about?

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That’s a big turn-off…

After forgetting and missing the official dates last year, I’ve decided to take part in the official Turnoff Week this year and go screen-free from April 20-26.  This is an idea that really intrigues me, because I can see every day in my classroom the effects of technology saturation on the minds — and bodies — of the students I teach.

On average, people watch 4 hours of television and then spend another 4 plus hours with computers, games, video, iPods and cell phones.  According to Nielsen, the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 892 minutes per week!  The company that owns Second Life (a virtual world) claims that its users spent over 1 million hours on line. (http://www.screentime.org)

Recently, I’ve seen too many schools throw technology at students as a solution and not as a tool.  I think that’s unfortunate because technology can do a great deal to help us, but it is not the end-all be-all of educating these children.  Yes, I have a Promethean Board in my classroom that I absolutely love and that my kids enjoy using… and yes, it will be turned off for an entire week!  I want to make sure that my students understand that we should be the masters of the machines, not the opposite.

I’ve always wanted to be conscious about how much television I watch, and how much time I spend on the computer, but I think it is all too often so much easier just to turn on the television when you’re tired and need a way to decompress after a long day.  My wife and I have recounted the time we visited my family in Missouri a few years ago and the televisions were broken in both sets of grandparents’ houses.  We agreed it was the best weekend we’ve ever spent.  The only technology involved was the car radio!  I learned more from and more about my grandparents in that one weekend than I think I had my entire life!

That being said, I want to be an example to my students that you don’t need an iPod or iPhone turned on 24 hours a day to be a fully-functioning human being.  A teacher at a local high school has done this while relating it to Thoreau’s notion of “simplifying” and had his students give up their cell phones and agree to buy nothing but the “essentials” for one month. (http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2009/mar/07/local/chi-simple-lifemar07)

I’ll be curious to see just how many of my students decide to try going “screen-free” even just for a day or two.  I think the novelty of the idea will grab a few of them, so I’m really looking forward to this.  If nothing else, it will give me a chance to use the old typewriter that’s sitting up in the attic!

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Performance Anxiety

When I was a young lad, I was usually a good student.  Straight A report cards were regularly stuck to the fridge.  When there was a problem with my performance, however, the first person my parents questioned about that was me.  Had I not studied enough for that test?  Did I read all of the chapters I was supposed to have read?  Simply stated: it was my fault.

Now that I’m a teacher, with many friends who teach all across this great country, it seems that failure is still my fault.  President Obama said as much today as he reaffirmed his claims that he would seek to institute merit-based pay for teachers.

New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones… Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. (New York Times 10 Mar. 2009.)

Sounds great, right?  As a teacher who is always trying new things and attempting to be innovative, this concept should be one that sends little shivers of excitement up my spine.  When my students perform well, I will be rewarded.  That’s often how the business world works and from what we’ve seen lately from the business/financial sector, why wouldn’t we want to emulate them?  But, hey, when students are failing, it must just be the teachers fault.

This debate has been around much longer than I have been a teacher, so I doubt I’ll be adding too much to it, unless you count my two cents.

What I do know is that a merit-based pay system will not work.  This side of paradise there are just too many variables to take into consideration before we “award” teachers with merit-based pay.

In the three short years I’ve been teaching, I have had three very different groups of students.  Even within each of those groups, the individual classes varied dramatically.  One year I might have had a group that would excel at everything we did.  The next year, I might have lessons or units that have been improved/clarified, and yet that particular group will struggle through every week and every unit of study.  Any teacher who has taught for more than one year will tell you that each year is a unique mixture of students, be it for better or worse.

Not to mention the inequality in student populations across the country.  Taking into consideration language barriers, family income, parental involvement, neighborhood environments… before paying teachers for their performances becomes a fair and viable solution, all of those factors would have to be equal across the board.

Even the best teacher is going to struggle with a student if there is no support coming from home.  Parents are just as important, if not more important, to their children’s educational success as an effective teacher.  Try telling that teacher who is working their fingers to the bone to get their students to succeed, despite a lack of parental involvement, that merit-based pay is the best solution for our educational system.

During my first year as a teacher, I had a student who I was expecting would be enrolled mostly in Honors courses their first year of high school.  After taking a test that would later be used to determine their high school placements, the student’s score indicated that they should be placed in Special Education classes.  Now, that test was scheduled the day after Halloween — a horrible day to administer a test that appears to carry such weight — and who knows why that particular student performed so poorly on the test.  Multiply that by several more students and tell me how merit-based pay would work for me as a teacher?

And how will this “merit” be judged?  What exactly are they evaluating to determine whether we’re worthy of this higher salary?  How can they guarantee that there won’t be any favoritism or cheating?  I think I also missed where all this extra money is going to come from.

This whole concept makes me nervous, because I have a feeling that something like this would turn teaching into a competitive profession and not the collaborative one that it should be.

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McKinsey & Company, 2007.

I want to throw something out there, but I don’t think I can coherently delve as deeply into it right now as I’d like. I’ll come back to it later.  I was reading through a report on “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top” by McKinsey & Co. done in September 2007.  There was an interesting section in the report about teacher recruitment and teacher training done in the most successful school systems in the world.  Instead of solely rewarding or punishing ineffective teachers once they have infiltrated the school systems, they actually spend more time scrutinizing applicants to teacher training programs before they even go through the training.  As I mentioned, I haven’t had enough time to process this idea to the point where I’m ready to fully try to analyze it, defend it, or tear it to pieces… maybe later!

There are districts that have implemented this kind of salary plan and are thriving because of it, so I don’t doubt that it might work in a few instances.  However, I’m not sure how this would work on a national level.  There is no guarantee that a merit-based system would be any more effective across the board than what we already have.

When we’re discussing effectiveness, fairness, rewarding results, and so on, I can’t help but leave you with two quotes that sum up what I was feeling today as I heard the news report about Mr. Obama’s speech:

The world more often rewards the appearance of merit than merit itself. (François de La Rochefoucauld)

I have a bad feeling about this. (Han Solo)

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How I hope to approach “21st Century” education

Yesterday I attended an all-day workshop at the ICE 2009 conference led by Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.  It was one of those workshops that you leave wanting to change the world.  There were so many things I wanted to take from what we discussed there and use in my school, whether it’s tomorrow, next week, or next year.

The first thing I’m taking away from this is a change of perspective.  I don’t know when or why I forgot this, but it was Chris’ statement on what schools should be that really struck a chord with me:

School should be…
– Thoughtful
– Wise
– Passionate
– Kind

Sometimes I think the current educational climate is too reactionary.  All too often we’re presented with a problem, such as low or stagnant test scores, and we respond impulsively.  Do that too much and you’re simply layering on a series of bandages to repair a punctured artery.  There are teachers in our district who sometimes feel that’s what we’re doing, and to a degree, I’d have to concur.

School has to be thoughtful.  We cannot afford knee-jerk reactions and spontaneous decisions when we’re dealing with students’ lives and learning experiences.  In order to help our students, we need to be carefully deliberate about what we do.

Chris Lehmann spoke about those people who believe schools should be run like businesses and how foolish that idea should seem in the light of our current economic situation.  The last time I read or heard anything on that topic, the catchphrase that was used was “Ready-Fire-Aim.” Is that really the best way to approach students’ learning?

Sometimes the quickest way to find out if something will work is to jump right in and do it. You can always make adjustments along the way. It’s the ready-fire-aim approach, and surprisingly, it works a lot better than the more common ready-aim-fire approach. The reason is that after you’ve “fired” once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim. Too many people get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. (“Do It Now,” Steve Pavlina.com)

As a point of clarification, this author is referring to business; he is not speaking about education.  What I’m afraid of is when schools begin trying to fix problems by “firing” away with technology.  I’ve heard this all too often, but if schools want to implement a “21st Century” education program that includes things like 1:1 computing for students, increased use of technologies, and Web 2.0 tools, it should be done with a deliberate and thorough examination of pedagogy first.  Something I’ve been trying to do lately — and this probably seems obvious to a veteran teacher — is to actually use my trusty UbD framework and decide what “big ideas” I want the students to get, rather than saying “Hey, let’s create a wiki and once we’re done, THEN figure out what the big picture is!” Chris’ presentation allowed me to reach some great insights with regard to my own classroom and my own lesson planning.  While I’m happy to be a “21st Century Pioneer” in my district, I want to do so with a renewed focus on making sure my students become “thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.”

The next step is to figure out how you teach someone to be “wise.”

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The “Natives” Are Restless

The title of this entry links to an article that brings to mind all of the conversations I’ve had with friends, family, and co-workers about the idea of “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants” that was first presented by Marc Prensky. Chris Betcher of Betchablog makes a great point that stands alongside other comments made by those, like myself, who are not sold on the idea of a digital native as someone who has a natural ability to use technology in ways that are above and beyond their poor hapless teachers.

I particularly enjoyed his examples of students, as well as his own children, who would be considered “digital natives,” but do not live up to the level of expertise ascribed to “natives” by Prensky and others. The most frustrating conversations I’ve had in the last couple of years have been with other teachers or those within the field of education who just can’t believe there are children out there who aren’t excited by or aren’t experts on technology. They might be able to out-text me. They might have an iPhone and an iPod Touch at age 12 (which I still think is crazy, but I won’t rant on that just yet), while I own an iPod that’s already 2 generations old. It really doesn’t matter. They might know what a thing is, but they are certainly not light-years ahead of me in terms of understanding it or applying their knowledge to other uses for their technology.

I does bother me when teachers assume they are in a losing battle against the digital natives because everything they read tells them they will always be behind the times. Everything I’ve read or been told, by people who keep up on these things, has been pretty discouraging. It makes me feel like I’m not doing enough to keep up with the students. Then I’m shocked when we can’t even create an iTunes playlist for a class project!

I’m not even sure what I would be considered. I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet, but since my dad worked at Texas Instruments, we always had some kind of computer or technology in the house. I’m not sure if I’m a native or an immigrant. Does that make me “undocumented”? I’ve decided to give up on these labels. Most times they aren’t even true, which makes them even less helpful.

So, take heart “digital immigrants,” and move over “digital natives.” We’re all in the same boat… but it’s the immigrants who have done more traveling and understand how to steer.

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