Some things really disappoint me

Of all of the things to spend money on and be concerned about in EDUCATING our students, this is not one of them. I’m not faulting the school or the teacher. They’re only playing the game with which they are trapped in by the state.

“Highlights” from the article (emphasis mine):

Photographs of each teacher hang nearby. Next to them are the average test scores for each of their classes, color coded in green, blue and red marker for high, average and low. Picture a super-size spreadsheet.
Teachers also can get bonuses or pink slips based on how their students do.
“the data room” – is the new meeting place for teachers.

Really? You need a “data room” to keep teachers and students focused on goals? What goals? Passing a standardized test that has no actual bearing on success in life? That goal? Wow, our focus is sorely misplaced in Texas. Read the article. $6000 to “design the room.” Salary for someone to be the “improvement coordinator.”

And the goal is to pass a test.

A test that has no bearing on college success.

A test that does nothing to prepare our students for the real, working world.

A test that the state of Texas spends $100,000,000 (that’s 100 MILLION dollars) on each year to administer (not counting local costs) while woefully underfunding actual education and not funding enrollment growth (which grows so fast each year it’s like adding another Fort Worth ISD annually).

A test that steals 25% or our school calendar to administer (not counting prep and practice days).

A test that does nothing but prepare our kids to take more tests.

A test that kills the love of learning in students.

A test that kills the love of teaching in teachers.

A test that kills innovation.

A test that kills creativity.

A test.

This is not what I want for my children. This is not what I want for other children. This is not what I want for our staff.

At what point will the Texas Legislature realize that if they truly want to be “successful” like the world’s leader, Finland (read that link, it’s worth your time), they have to go the opposite direction. You know, the direction that includes critical thinking, problem solving, free exploration of a subject as opposed to rote memorization. The one that mandates equity among ALL students and schools. The one that focuses on building successful citizenry.

Yeah, that one. </rant>

National Writing Project Grows Lifelong Learners

In 2005-6 I was in the midst of my graduate work at the University of Texas at Arlington. Working toward a Masters of Education with a Literacy Emphasis fit very well with my love of teaching reading and writing. In the spring of 2006, I was given the opportunity to be a part of the Bluebonnet Writing Project’s Summer Institute. I would earn 6 hours of Masters credit and become NWP certified at the same time. Little did I know how much more that time was worth than 6 hours of grad credit.

I was tasked with studying brain research, writing research, pedagogy research, and… you get the message. I was challenged to write in all different types of modes that would extend my skills and experiences. I collaborated with writers in my class as well as the global audience provided by the National Writing Project through their digital portals. I was able to sit and work in the presence of greatness from school districts all around Texas during those five or six weeks. My skills as a writing teacher grew to levels I never thought possible.Not only did I become a trainer consultant, but I became a technology liaison. Both have given me extended opportunities to network with educators from other states in an effort to improve professional development in both their states and ours. It is a connection that was born out of six weeks worth of work one summer, but it is one that will hopefully continue well into my teaching career.

How important was this training to me? Well, if you consider that I live 3 hours from UT-A and commuted, I’d say it was pretty darned important.

From that experience with the National Writing Project, I’ve become a lifelong learner. I realized the impact of networking with other professional educators to build my skills, learn new methods of instruction, and how to impact my students in great ways through literacy. Thousands of students and untold numbers of educators have been touched by the National Writing Project through just my experiences in the last five years.

What value can you place on the positive changes that have taken place due to the National Writing Project’s untiring devotion to training educators nationwide? These are changes that happen one year and disappear the next. These are lifelong changes that can be directly attributed to the work NWP and those who have been trained by them have done.These are changes that go beyond any multiple choice test and right into the lives of teachers and students on a daily basis long after the tests have been scored and filed away for another year.

Do the right thing. Continue to fund this project for its proven, positive results. You want to fund the best programs available for the taxpayers’ dollars? Fund the National Writing Project.

What can we live with(out)? Part Two

I bet you thought I forgot about this little series here. Sorry. Got a little backed up with work. So, here we go with numbers 4-6.

Photo Credit: apdk

4. HOMEWORK
The 21st century is a 24/7 environment. And the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear. And despite whatever Secretary Duncan might say, we don’t need kids to ‘go to school’ more; we need them to ‘learn’ more. And this will be done 24/7 and on the move (see #3).

This one has me on the fence. Part of me says you know they need it (practice), yet the other side of me says we get them 8.5 hours a day and they only have a few hours of daylight left to be kids when they get home. I’ll admit that I am fortunate. My son does really well with school. He is still not a fan of homework, but what kid really is? I will say that if it takes a student more than 15 minutes to do your homework, you have given too much. If the child cannot decompress like we do when we come home from work, then they will build a negative image of what school and learning really is. In the end, though, it is really about the learning.

I agree with Shelly’s statement that Arne Duncan is wrong. “We do not need kids to ‘go to school’ more; we need them to ‘learn’ more.” Would a shift in how we teach and learn within the classroom help our students become 24/7 learners? Some it will. Some it won’t. What I do know is that as long as we keep teaching to the lowest common denominator, we will continue to graduate the lowest common denominator. Is that a fault of the teacher or the system? One drives the other. You know my stance on this. The system is out of control. Or too much in control. One or the other.

5. THE ROLE OF STANDARDIZED TESTS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
The AP Exam is on its last legs. The SAT isn’t far behind. Over the next ten years, we will see Digital Portfolios replace test scores as the #1 factor in college admissions.

What a great segway from homework, teachers, THE SYSTEM…. I hope this one is true, but the reality is that authentic assessment, like ePortfolios, is expensive. We had a great pilot in Texas several years back that I was a part of: Performance Standards Project in TX.  Great assessment. Great idea. Poor funding. Got scrapped. I was privy to a conversation about this project earlier this year. It is not dead just yet. Maybe it is just hibernating until the right time.

For this to be successful, the state and federal government are going to have to change their views on trusting local teachers to submit accurate assessments of where the students are at in their learning. Otherwise, we will maintain the current testing machine we have in place now. That makes a small few very rich and a rather large population hate school.

6. DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION AS A SIGN OF DISTINGUISHED TEACHER
The 21st century is customizable. In ten years, the teacher who hasn’t yet figured out how to use tech to personalize learning will be the teacher out of a job. Differentiation won’t make you ‘distinguished’; it’ll just be a natural part of your work.

I am pretty sure many teachers are here already. Those that are not are stuck in some prescribed instructional system (there’s that word again) that tells them what to say and do at each moment of the day. Those systems become popular when administration no longer trusts their staff to do the right thing in instruction, earned or not. But, Shelly is correct. This is a great time to be an educator. Being able to find tools that allow each student to be successful at the level that encourages them to improve is made easier than ever. You just have to spend a little time searching. And networking. Don’t forget to network.

So, this ends this group of three. Join me next time when we discuss attendance offices, paperback books, and the dreaded “W” word (Wikipedia).

What can we live with(out)? Part One

Over at Mind/Shift, Shelly Blake-Plock wrote a great little piece on what he feels will be obsolete by 2020. It is a timely piece as I begin to plan for what could be massive shifts in instruction and learning in our own school district.

Some of his items should be gone already, and in some cases, are. Other items might not seem so easily dispensable in the politically driven times we are in. I see no immediate end to politicians getting out of the “run down education” business anytime soon. It is just too easy to do that for political gain. Instead, they will spend countless billions of dollars trying to convince the world that a standardized test result is the end all beat all. But I digress. I am giving away my opinions much to early in this.

Over the next course of (insert an unknown amount of time here), I will hit upon Shelly’s items a few at a time to reflect on them for my own self-learning. Maybe you will find my thoughts worthwhile. Maybe they will sound like drivel. The goal here is for me to kind of flesh them out and see where I end up.

The first item up for debate:

1. Desks
The 21st century does not fit neatly into rows. Neither should your students. Allow the network-based concepts of flow, collaboration, and dynamism help you rearrange your room for authentic 21st century learning.

We go for the easy target first. I like that. Get warmed up with a softball lob. Okay. I agree with Shelly on this, but I think desks are still a part of the landscape. The focus should be that the desks are no longer in rows, and the entire learning space is not made up of desks. This allows students to find a comfort place in the classroom to fit them. It can actually become a learning space of their choosing. Some might like a beanbag. Others might like sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. Still others might like the baseball stadium chairs nabbed at the pawn shop for a great price.  The teacher gets to decide how they want the room to look for their part of this bargain, so why not let the kids help figure out their part of it? After all, when you are finished fixing your room up like you want it, you call it “my classroom,” right? There’s a good chance the kids will also claim some ownership of it if they get some choice in the matter. At least consider what it is like to be a kid in your room to learn about what you are teaching. Besides, who made the rows of desks a sacred cow anyway? And if you really want to challenge your thinking on classroom design, go ask Christian Long and David Jakes for some assistance.


Shelly’s item number two:

2. Language Labs
Foreign language acquisition is only a smartphone
away. Get rid of those clunky desktops and monitors and do something fun
with that room.

This one I struggle with a little more. There is a difference between acquisition of language and acquisition of a device that can do the language for you. I prefer the device part myself only because it is easier. Does that make it better? Is it less personal in today’s times to let the device do the talking instead of the human holding the device? I’ll leave this one for others to debate. It will take legislative change to pull it off in Texas anyway, so it really is not in the hands of teachers. All I know is I have Google Translate, and it does a pretty decent job on my iPhone. I just wish it didn’t require the Internet to do it. When I go to China in a few years with my family, the data plan is going to eat me alive.


Item number three:

3. Computers
Ok, so this is a trick answer. More precisely this one
should read: ‘Our concept of what a computer is’. Because computing is
going mobile and over the next decade we’re going to see the full fury
of individualized computing via handhelds come to the fore. Can’t wait.

Yeah, I’m here already. I believe that schools not already considering and preparing for a BYOD (bring your own device) environment are years behind where they should be. Given the current economic climate and the grim future in education funding, this is going to be one area that will stick out. Shelly is right in that computing is going mobile, but I believe it already has. The only portion that hasn’t is the mundane automated tasks, and even many of them are there thanks to an updated Google Apps (word processing, spreadsheets, etc). With Adobe introducing Wallaby recently to help businesses convert their Flash based work over to HTML5, I think the writing is on the proverbial wall now. I brought this exact thing up with a leader at Texas Education Agency in a phone call today. I won’t go into specifics, but the outcome is that they are developing apps for mobile devices to overcome poor web design (or maybe it is poor web updates). Regardless, it will help pave the way for a BYOD setting that can be platform agnostic.

Consider the great devices out there already. Android based tablets are making great strides, and Apple is dominating with the iPad 2. I’m not going to go so far as to say the iPad 2 is the game changer, but it is a device worthy of serious consideration. Its greatest asset is the sheer number of apps available to help learners of all types.

I was skiing in Wolf Creek this week when I met a young lady at lunch who is studying to be a teacher at Texas Tech. She shared that she had to leave her high school in Plano for a private school because they were not meeting her needs as a special ed student. Considering how bright she seemed from the conversation, I deduced correctly that it was dyslexia. One thing led to another and we began discussing technology options as she finds more and more integration in her college classrooms. She was considering a Nook or a Kindle and asked my opinion. We discussed what those machines can do, and I asked her what else she would like them to do. Again, she was hoping for something that could help with her learning needs. I shared some of the apps I found for special education, including one that offers to assist in the writing of papers for dyslexia students. Then throw in the nice accessibility features for special needs. And, of course, she can always add the Kindle app if she wants it. She said just the writing assistance app alone would be worth the purchase for her. She felt she could easily account for spending the money on it considering that the iPad is the cost of just TWO textbooks these days. I’ll write more about my thoughts on the iPad 2 later, but having heard great stories of what it can do in the lives of children who live with all types of differences, it is safe to say it is a viable candidate for a mobile computing future.

I’d say that is enough for this post. So far, I’m at a crossroads on number two, but I will catalog that thought to come back to when the time is right. My next post will cover Homework, Standardized Tests, and Differentiation. All three are worthy of reviewing on a regular basis, much less waiting for 2020 to change them.

All Photo Credits: mine.

How do you teach this?

Creativity. The last of the great vestiges to not be standardized tested to death (because they have no idea how). The last of the items on the list of things to “teach.” In truthfulness, I’m not sure it IS something we can teach. I think it is something we give our staff and students opportunities to BE.  Some of you may recall that I have said before of creativity, “I’m not sure exactly how to teach it, but I know it when I see it.” Well, this is an example of it:

Low Tech but High Engagement

Thanks to a previous post by my fly fishing buddy @RMByrne I found Chris Bergmann. Chris is not your normal science teacher. Well, he’s not like the science teachers I ever had. This guy either thinks out of the box or he is a master of the Googles when it comes to finding creative ways to teach science concepts with his middle school students. Notice I said with. They seem to always be a part of the teaching and learning. Novel concept, right? Let’s just say he gets it and the kids are getting it as well. I am also sure there are plenty of great science teachers out there, but they are not taking heed to what Dean calls the moral imperative, sadly. So, we all lose out.

Watch this video as Chris utilizes a trash can and some Styrofoam cups to teach about the properties of air. Reminds me of an interactive movie I sat through near the Alamo many years back. Watching that canon smoke ring zip through the air held me captive to the content. Low tech, but very engaging. I’m just glad he is documenting his cool lessons to maybe inspire other science teachers around the world.  Check out his YouTube channel here as well for other great videos. If you have any great science teacher video links like this one, please share in the comments below.

Well said, Dean.

Those of you in White Oak might recall Dean Shareski as our keynote speaker from a few summers ago. He left us with an indelible footprint that has changed many teaching careers and student lives.

Once again, Dean tells it like it is. He does an awesome job of summarizing the exact feeling of the connectedness we have access to as educators and the eternal benefit of learning from great minds like his. Below is his keynote for the K12 Online Conference going on right now. If you didn’t know about it, check it out. No worries if you missed something. They archive it all for you to go back to time and again.

So, thanks, Dean. I look forward to the opportunity to hit the links, grab a bite, share a mansion, and be a part of great conversations with you again soon.

60 Sites in 60 Minutes

Well, it was actually more like 45 minutes, but Lori Gracey (TCEA Executive Director) rocked this presentation at the TECSIG meeting with lots of useful sites. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably felt spammed with me tweeting out all of the sites. I didn’t get them all, so you need to make sure you take a look at the presentation below to catch up. Good stuff. Thanks, Lori.