Consistency, consistency, consistency…

If realtors were selling weblogs, I think those would be the three most important things to remember about blogs: Consistency, consistency, consistency.

Revenge of the Right Brain from WIRED Magazine.

"Revenge of the Right Brain" from WIRED Magazine.

As it is, my blog is probably feeling a bit like the housing market right now.  It’s a little neglected, not seeing much action… but I only have myself to blame.  If you don’t write, no one’s going to read.  That being said, I’m going to pledge to myself one more time to keep this blog up-to-date and to post weekly, if not several times each week.

Coming up on my fourth year of teaching, there are going to be plenty of new challenges this year, but I’m also feeling more prepared than ever for the start of the school year.  This will be the first time I’ve taught the same grade/subject/materials for two consecutive years, so I’m already looking forward to taking what I did with the students last year and improving on it for this year.  I’ve already spent some time adapting lessons that failed miserably into some great projects or activities that would keep me engaged — and since I’m pretty picky about what I sit through, that’s saying something.

I’m also throwing myself into the presentation arena — hopefully — as I’m preparing a proposal for a breakout session I’d like to present at the next Illinois Computing Educators conference.  I’ve always learned so much from the conference in the last three years I’ve been attending — especially this last year’s workshop with Chris Lehmann — and I feel like it’s time to give back and present something that might inspire a new teacher coming to the ICE conference to try something different in their classroom.

My dashboard countdown widget says there are 23 more days left until the official start of the school year.  I’ve already hit that summer wall where “I don’t want to go back” has turned into one of my father’s favorite phrases: “Turn me loose, I’ll never be the same!” I’m there. I’m ready.  Bring on the students and let’s crack open those books, fire up those laptops, and watch those “brain wheels” turn.

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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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On your mark… get set…

Here it is… year 3. New room, new teaching assignment, new grade level, new team… so I almost feel like calling this Year 1: The Sequel.

I’ve decided to changed the focus of this blog slightly. Instead of having people wade through my rants about my school district, I thought it might be more edifying to move beyond my own situation and join the discussion on technology, professional development, and shifting schools.

With some vacancies left by teachers who moved on to other districts and administrative positions, here I am in my third year as the co-chair of the Language Arts department. I’ve also taken a position on the school’s leadership team (working on our school improvement plan.) Taking all of those things into consideration, I’ve taken on quite a bit this year and I feel a renewed sense of interest in helping my school develop effective and worthwhile PD. After attending the NSDC conference in Orlando this summer I brought back some ideas for our staff, and the LA department in particular, to adopt.

For the first time many teachers are being asked to track what they’re doing in the classroom using actual data. We’re attempting to collect data on student learning through common assessments, action research, and regular pre- and post-assessments. While this can be done in a useful way, I’m afraid many of our teachers see it as busywork and they’re concerned about viewing students as numbers rather than human beings. To be honest, I’m so new at some of this that I don’t know what to do to allay their fears.

Many of them have been in this district for so long, they’ve seen initiatives come and go, and come back again. Many of them are disillusioned and suffering from “new initiative fatigue.” We bring in speakers who say the same things over and over, we’re doing things that were ended ten years ago because they “weren’t working…” I can understand their frustration. I suppose my goal with this blog is to engage others in conversation about motivating teachers and influencing administration to enact effective and worthwhile PD.

So… any suggestions?

Classroom blogging

After-school meetings are usually the last thing on my mind following a long day in the classroom. This last meeting, however, left me encouraged to keep on keepin’ on. Just the other day we had scheduled a “tech fair” at our school, which is probably simpler than it sounds. It was really four teachers who had attended the IL-TCE conference back in February presenting some of what they learned to the rest of the faculty. Myself and one other faculty member presented Blogs & Wikis… and received some very positive feedback.

I’ve been working with our district’s tech department to look into school-wide blogging for next year, and the response from this tech fair told me that a good deal of teachers would be willing to try blogging and are actually excited about the idea. I think the key is to get teachers to believe that blogging will, if not revolutionize, then streamline their ability to get and give feedback from students and parents. It has certainly saved a lot of extra paper in my classroom; I carry my laptop home some nights and that’s it.

With Spring Break over and the kids already talking Summer, it’s been a busy and tiring two weeks. The feedback from our teachers on this presentation, though, has me reinvigorated. I’m excited about getting this set up for next year and anxious to see how each classroom teacher will take this idea of classroom blogging and make it uniquely their own.

(I think I’ll go order David Warlick’s book now.)

Just got blog-blocked…

I’m wondering how many other teachers/students out there have the problem of their district blocking web sites at the first sign of student mis-use. Last year we were able to use some YouTube videos to complement our lessons. This year they blocked it. I helped a Special Ed. teacher find a site that allowed students to “create their own superhero,” which tied into a lesson she was doing in Language Arts. That site is blocked too. After attending the ICE conference in St. Charles, Illinois, in February I was introduced to Netvibes as a way of keeping track of blogs or podcasts that I might want to follow as a means of building a Personal Learning Community. This morning, I try to open my Netvibes page… I’ll give you three guesses. You’ll only need one.

I’m on the tech committee for our building and I’m a contributor to some of our district tech meetings, and we’ve even discussed the problem of blocking sites purely for the sake of keeping kids away. We came to the conclusion that instead of blocking everything, we should be educating the students on how to use the Internet appropriately. This is beginning to remind me of 2-3 weeks ago when China started blocking YouTube for the videos related to Tibet. There’s great information out there, but if we just block it instead of exploring it as an educational opportunity, we’re losing a great tool.

Perhaps my question should be this… are there districts that have come up with a good way of teaching their students appropriate uses of the technology? I’m finding that’s not happening here, as far as I can tell from my Language Arts classroom in this little corner of the building, and instead we’re opting for the quick fix.

This is a quick post, but I want to make sure to publish it before they start blocking my blog!

Adopting (and interpreting) Web 2.0

I’ve been listening regularly to Jeff Utecht’s podcast (“On Deck”: Shifting Our Schools) and I’ve been impressed with the caliber of the discussions that have come out of that forum. While I’ve always been interested in projects that connect students with others around the globe, I’ve never really heard any clear-cut and practical examples of how to do that. The great thing about their podcast is the international nature of the guests. There are teachers from the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. I highly recommend it to any teachers interested in adopting new technologies in your classroom.

The most intriguing thing about their recent discussions is something that should be obvious to teachers, but I’m afraid it’s not for most — what the students are learning and producing should be relevant outside of school. In fact, if students are not producing their writing or other projects to be shared with the outside world, it’s next to useless. I’ll turn that finger on myself, as well, and say I haven’t been encouraging that concept of student-published work as much as I should. I’m encouraged by the idea that podcasting, wikis, and blogs can do this. While I feel I’m a fairly tech-savvy person, I’m new at using this Web 2.0 technology in the classroom.

I’m trying this now with introducing blogging to my 8th graders. My plan for the next couple of years is to create a school-wide blog system in which the students can use blogs to write journals for Language Arts, lab reports for Science, etc. I want to start by getting all the Language Arts teachers on board with blogging. Not only does blogging get the students’ work “out there” and published for an audience, but it would also ease their teachers’ workload. Not everyone might agree, but I find it much easier to post a comment to a blog as a response to something a student has written, as opposed to writing up comments on a hardcopy essay. That’s not to say we should get rid of essays all together, but I think blogging could be a great way to help students establish voice in their writing and help teachers get immediate feedback to their students.

I think the big drawback, at least as most of the teachers in my building might view it, is understanding what a blog is, or a wiki… they know web sites and e-mail, but ask any one of them what moodle, twitter, or skype is and they would look at you as if you were from Mars. The first step, I think, to getting this to work is to help translate some of this for the other teachers, as well as finding one or two new applications they could really use effectively in the classroom and narrow down their options for them, to avoid overwhelming them.

All ideas and no assistance…

I’ve had some great ideas lately for projects involving the use of technology — most notably Web 2.0 technology — that I think would really engage the kids with the material. Multiple problems arise when I try to plan out these projects and implement them.

Problem #1: I’ve never worked with some of these tools before…
The Web 2.0 tools that are available are just mind-boggling. (Or should that be mind-blogging?) Blogs, Wikis, social networks, etc… the possibilities seem endless, and I think that’s where I’m running into a few problems. The possibilities do seem endless, and that’s probably making it more difficult for me to narrow down my focus and intent. There are so many things the kids can do with these different tools, it’s difficult to pick just one or two components and use those effectively. So many of the teachers in my building are either anti-technology or simply afraid to try using it, that there is very little building-level support for coming up with tech-related lessons and projects.

Problem #2: This takes a lot of setup and instruction before the kids even know how to use a Web 2.0 effectively…
At one of our last district meetings on implementing technology and 21st century literacies in the classroom, part of the discussion focused on teachers’ fears that they couldn’t use technology because the kids were already “masters” of the Internet. As “digital natives” they already knew so much more about the digital world than we (the immigrants) did. I don’t think this is true at all. The kids know of the digital world, but I don’t believe for a second that they are masters of it. I used that assumption that they were masters at the beginning of the year, but many of them, even at the 8th grade level, don’t know how to post something on a blog unless it’s MySpace. I can’t even remember how many times I told them to e-mail their essay to themselves so they could work on it at home and the response back was, “How do I do that?”

It takes a lot of setup and pre-instruction to get the students ready to use Web 2.0 tools, and my problem with that is the lack of tech support at the building level here. So far, this year, we’ve had two different tech coordinators for our building, with long periods of no tech coordinator in-between. We currently have no tech coordinator for our building. Even the ones we do get are not necessarily teachers, so when I go to conferences and hear about the LA teacher working with their building’s tech coordinator to prepare students for a Wiki project, that doesn’t seem like a reality here (at least not yet.) The district-level tech facilitators have been great, but they can’t come to your building every day to help out with something. It is nice to see people getting excited about some of the ideas I have for integrating Web 2.0 tools into the Language Arts curriculum. Most other teachers are so freaked out by words like “blog” or “moodle” that they don’t want to have anything to do with them. That’s completely understandable… when I didn’t know what they were, they confused me too.

Problem #3: I’m still new and this and I’m overwhelmed…
I know this is coming off as being a long and rambling complaint with a list of excuses… a new baby at home, increased responsibilities and a leadership role at school, family health problems… I don’t want to make excuses, but with all that’s going on in personal-life and professional-life, I don’t have time to run a one-man show with regard to coming up with lessons and projects that use 21st century tools.

If anyone has any solutions or suggestions, I am all ears (or eyes, as this is a blog and not a podcast!)