Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Open letter to the parents and students, 2011-12 school year

I've decided this year to "go public" with my ideas and post some philosophical rationales on my class website, a sort of here's-where-this-idea-came-from post. I preach transparency, so I guess it's time to live it.

An open letter to the parents and students, 2011-12 school year:

Basic Philosophy
Mine is two-fold.
  • Choice and Consequence
  • Transparency
I believe in choice, and I will defend anyone's right to choice. However, I also believe in consequence - there is a result to every choice we make, and it is important to me to be aware of the consequences of the choices I make. Thus, I make this the center of my teaching practice - my students need to realize that they DO have choices, but also that those choices DO have consequences that will be upheld. Life teaches us that some choices have more positive (or more dire) consequences than others, and I believe that should be practiced in my classroom.

Secondly, I believe that rationales for making those choices should be available to all involved in the choice (hence this page of the website). You cannot make a truly informed choice if you are not truly informed. I do not want to hold "secrets" from my students - teaching is a collaborative act, and no real progress can be made if students do not understand the "WHY" of the "WHAT." Giving students a more clearly defined framework for WHY I am presenting these items to them is a professional goal of my own this year. 

Teaching Concepts
I have chosen 3 teaching concepts to focus on this year:
  • Student choice and flexibility
  • Student accountability
  • Teacher responsibility
Student Choice and Flexibility
Growing from my philosophy above, I have attempted to revise my own approach to the classroom; I would like to make it more "realistic" - too often, classrooms operate in a four-walled vacuum and do not take into account "real" life. We all experience good and bad days, and life provides us all with varied hiccups along the way. In an attempt to meet the students where many of them are, I am introducing CHOICE assignments this year (please refer to the syllabus for more information). These assessments will allow students to A) express their understanding of the content in a variety of ways, and B) have some say in how much they do. I believe this very much reflects the idea of choice and consequence, but also gives students some individual control of the work they do. A lot of the ideas from Race to Nowhere and The Case Against Homework were influential to me here.

Student Accountability
I firmly believe that students need a guiding  hand to stay "on track," especially towards the end of their high school careers, when the more "adult" experiences begin to accumulate. However, I also am uncomfortable with students "getting by" without doing a significant portion of the work - my job is to ensure learning takes place in my classroom, and assessment is the main method by which I judge that. So, a new "catch phrase" this year will be: the consequence for missing the work is getting the work done. (See also Dr. Douglas Reeves' ideas on toxic grading practices)

I am inspired by Tom Schimmer's blog post about removing the late work policy in its entirety - although, on reflection, I think that is too much of a jump to make in one year. Thus, I have a revised late work policy that I believe will both give students a little elbow room and still hold them accountable. There is an eventual consequence, but they have a lot of choices to make before that consequence is applied. And, of course, I will do my best to include the parents/guardians in those choices along the way.

Teacher Responsibility
Standing in front of the classroom, I am responsible for (hopefully) reaching and teaching the minds of up to 125 students per day (quick math puts that number at almost 1000 students at the end of this, my 8th year teaching). As such, I believe that it is my responsibility to model that which I teach. I seek to help students develop into creative, flexible, critical and reflective thinkers, and I need to follow suit in both WHAT and HOW I teach. 

Education is at an interesting crossroads these days, and our students are being presented with more and more challenges almost daily. To that end, we must be aware of our immediate neighbors, our global partners, our technological advances, etc. We are constantly looking ahead to the future, but we cannot forget the past, for the past is how we got to where we are today. I am currently reading David Perkins book, Making Learning Whole. He encourages reshaping our curricula to look at a larger, more relevant picture. I am looking to Perkins to figure out a way, for instance, to wake up the sleepy topic of Macbeth for my juniors. It should be an interesting journey...

Another book that has fallen into my lap lately is Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Prof. Cass Sunstein. This book focuses on how particular "choice architects" have great influence over the choices people make, and that sometimes people need a "nudge" in a particular direction. The implications of this idea on the teaching profession, I think, are quite large. The ideas from this book influenced some of the above policy ideas.

Finally, technology is prevalent in our society today, and I do not think it is "going away" any time soon. Thus, we must educate the users of technology in appropriate methods of use. I plan to try to integrate technology into the WHAT and HOW that I teach this year. Students will be utilizing blogs, Google Docs, and other web 2.0 tools throughout the year in an effort to both increase comfort with these powerful tools and, hopefully, inspire students to seek out further methods of use.

In closing, I encourage you to follow some of these links and read some of these books. And please, feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns about anything - I'd be more than happen to continue this conversation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Shame on you, Sony, shame on you. (#ps3)

Do we all remember when Sony got hacked a few months back? It was one of those shady moments for a global(?) corporation - since I couldn't access my account (i.e. no BlackOps online) for a few days, I asked a student who knows about games and he informed me of the hack. I find it odd that I find out from a 15-year old that all my user data may have been hacked. Whatevs.

Flash forward: today I get an email about new terms of service, etc. I don't know about you, but I rarely read those things - I assume the service I choose to use will work and I assume the "risks" are "typical." Today, though, I figured I'd read through. Here's an interesting snippet, near the end:


The first and last lines give me pause: "No warranty is given about the quality, functionality, availability or performance of Sony Online Services." Wait, what?

In a system BUILT on online platforms, you deny all responsibility for the quality of your online service? Where is the sense in this? Rather than be proactive (and logical) and take steps (publicly) to ENSURE the stability of your platform, you shirk that obligation and hide behind legal walls? WTF?

Why are we so afraid of responsibility for our actions (past, present, AND future)? What happened to ownership of a mistake? Simple as it is, the phrase "my bad" captures it perfectly - you screwed up, and it it your bad...YOU fix it. Don't run away and let the problem happen again and claim freedom from responsibility - that is a definition of cowardice.

Let's extend the concept further: here is a role-model for a generation (I use the term loosely). Playstation and XBox are probably more important to my students than email, and I wonder how much these attitudes filter down. Maybe it happens subconsciously, maybe it occurs with slight attitude shifts here and there. But, in my mind, this is the same problem as catching a student cheating and hearing him/her say "It wasn't me." Bullshit. Stand and face your consequence.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bigfoot: I Not Dead (@MyEN)

3 more graphic novels read today (man, I love summer vacation):

From the bottom up: 
  • The artwork looked great, and I love Kevin Smith. I recently read a Neil Gaiman penned Batman story, and enjoyed that too.
  • While at Harvard, I bought Daniel Pink's book Drive. It seems "serious," and I thought that a manga-inspired career-guide. Entertaining.
And for the crown jewel of the day, I Not Dead. This is the book bigfoot wrote upon returning from exile. You must read this book. It made my literary day.

Here's a snippet, where Bigfoot writes notes to himself on how to improve his lot in life. The spread is titled, "Self-Improve."
  • Bigfoot got get more perfect.
  • Refine bigfootocity. Pull together.
  • Think outside box. Lose ten pound.
  • Learn speak the French. Ballroom dance.
  • Demonstrate superior knowledge of fine wine at dinner party in charming, non-pretentious manner. 
  • Be Oscar Wilde of woods.
  • It so hard.
  • Brain size of apricot. So, so hard think good.
  • Maybe if eat Kelsey Grammer of Frasier fame, will absorb him soul and all attribute like McDonald's combo meal.
Or this lovely piece, titled "Plans":
  • Is beautiful day. Maybe bigfoot go for walk. Maybe go eat the chickens. Go lay by stream and practice yelling. Be nice. No, wait, can't. What if girl call that Bigfoot meet at bar last night. She hot. Pretty sure she say she vegan. I say I vegan too to make her like. No chickens for Bigfoot. Bigfoot have no cell phone so no go anywhere. Fuck me hate today.
It's amazing how such a small book can refresh an entire day. Go out and find it. And, by putting the links in above, I found there are other bigfoot books. I already requested one from my library. 

Read it. Love it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Gobalization through graphic novels?

So, one of my action items upon returning from this year's Harvard FOL was to become a more globally-aware citizen. And yesterday, just home and readjusting to normal life, I find myself at the library. My brain starts rambling onto books to read, etc., but I was tired. So tired. And I needed a day's break from thought.

And then I saw the graphic novels. The scope on the shelves always amazes me, as it isn't really comic books. These are novels dealing with serious themes (e.g. the history of the wobblies, and an Adaption of Zinn, History of the American Empire). And then I found an interesting looking gem: Dead Memory, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. Hey, it's a start...

It is told in black and white, and deals with a somewhat dystopic digital age, where all the citizens of the city have committed their memories to the central cube, ROM (note the pun on read only memory). As is the case with most similar stories, ROM evolves from data processor to data controller, thus becoming a god among citizens.

The basic problem: the residents wake up one day and find a wall constructed in the middle of a block. No explanation, no witnesses - it just appeared. This, of coures, literally and symbolically divides the residents of the block. Each day, more and more walls appear. The city residents literally begin to lose their memories, their ability to communicate, and to speak. In one series of frames, the protagonist goes to the central library to prove a fear wrong - but all the books are blank. The citizenry are literally becoming blank slates.

One of the most damning sentiments appears on pg. 27, in the bottom three frames.
"We observers are completely blind when it comes to seeing the present. We are condemned to observing the past, and limited to doing nothing more than developing hypotheses about the the say nothing of the future."
This gave me pause, and I wondered how much of this sentiment applies to the current state of education. Are we condemned (and content?) to only hypothesize about what is in front of us, what we see as a nation, as parents, as classroom teachers? Or do we take action and do something?

Of course, one would hope the action taken is "right" and "logical," even though recent actions prove otherwise. How do we combat this apathy? How do we renegotiate bad policies? How do we progress as a citizenry and avoid the blank slate future?

Oh, I also borrowed 300, by Frank Miller. Guess I'm in a fighting mood and needed some inspiration.

An archive of #HGSEPZFOL 2011 Tweets! Thanks to @KeepStream for the tech!

Fellow FOL participants: I have compiled a collection of all the tweets from this year's Future of Learning summer institute (well, almost). These tweets date back to somewhere in the Tuesday morning plenary with Mary Helen Immordino Yang and David Rose. Unfortunately, I could not retrieve tweets any further back.

Although the process was tedious (I had to manually click on each tweet, for around 5 hours), I felt so refreshed to look back over a compendium of thought from most of the process. And, while one part of my brain fell into a sort of comatose state-of-clicking, the rest of my brain re-fired all the thoughts and emotions and conversations from the past week. I was able to relive the week now, and all of us can return to this conversation for ever (I hope).

Again, it was great to meet and learn with and from all of you. I hope this provides you with a valuable resource as we shape the future of learning together!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Where Tweets go to die @Twitter (#edtech #HGSEPZFOL)

Following up my previous post on helping to facilitate a group synthesis at Harvard, I will now express my frustrations with Twitter. As beautiful and valuable as I have found the tool to be, today it disappointed me.

Simply put - it sucked.

Here's why: you can't archive your tweets in Twitter. You can't even search back far enough (a few days, depending on the volume of tweeting you do) to manually get them all and copy/paste them out. I've spent at least 4 or 5 hours in the past 24 attempting to find a workaround for this, with little success. Evidently, Twitter modified their API recently to disallow this type of feature.

Here's what I want to do: create an archive of the #HGSEPZFOL tag. This is the Harvard FOL tag we used during this past week's ed conference, and a number of us want to be able to return to the stream and parse it for ideas, links, and conversations. After all, as educators, we like to reflect. And, in this age of super-fast info, we sometimes need to go back to something repeatedly before it sinks in. Call it a human thing.

I have been tweeting out various 3rd party programs as I have come across them, but nothing seems to work yet. Two programs, KeepStream and TwapperKeeper, seem to have potential, but do not quite do what I need. I was able to capture about three days' worth of tweets and clip them to Evernote (careful: it's a 5mb file), but that is still not all of them.

Frustrating at the minimum, damaging at the worst. From what I've read, the old tweets phase out of the servers after a few weeks. That's just stupid. In a day and age of being connected, why can't we access old streams? Why is this so damn complicated?

If ANYONE has ANY ideas, I'll take them. Please.

If not, Twitter, wake the hell up and see how your product is being used. We need more functionality and flexibility, not less.

Co-creating group synthesis with Twitter! (#edtech #HGSEPZFOL)

This has been quite an amazing week. I just returned from a four-day conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) titled the Future of Learning (FOL), and my mind seems to have spun out of control. All of the speakers were so amazing to listen to, and each one awoke a part of me that I think was sleeping. The institute was inspiring.

On the family front: Amy and Sam took the trip with me, and talk about success. I am so proud of both of them for battling the (big?) city and taking it all in stride - those "crosswalks" at Solider's Field Road were terrifying to navigate.

And, on the tech front, a small group of us took Harvard by Twitter Storm.

The latter item is my focus now, as I need much more time to digest everything from the institute, and the family stuff is much better said in person (open invite to hang out, anyone?).

First, the narrative:

There were 200 participants in the audience from a variety of professional capacities, countries, ages, and technological expertise. I'd say everyone had pen and paper (no batteries to recharge!). Most had a laptops and cell phones. A lot had tablets (iPads everywhere). Few had Twitter accounts.

At the opening plenary on Monday, Veronica Boix Mansilla informed the audience that FOL created a hashtag for anyone who was Twitter-inclined (twit-clined?) - #HGSEPZFOL. So, armed with my trusty iPad, I rushed off to cyberspace and found a few loyal Twitterers (i.e. @PrincipalThinks, @Lorfehr, @wedaman, @TripleFSharp) putting the feelers out. I joined right in.

Much to my surprise (and to Harvard's), there was quite a lot of Twitter traffic generated that afternoon. Veronica displayed some of those tweets on Tuesday morning (and following mornings). The stream continued. @PrincipalThinks suggested a Tuesday PM beverage, and about 7 of use awning-hopped to a cozy little pub and introduced ourselves. In person. Can you imagine that.

Wednesday comes, and the Tweeps (titled by @bjfr) represented, our numbers growing. By the end of the day, @bjfr organized a larger group of us together for a very important, and damn cool, mission:  we would co-create the final plenary on Thursday, using Twitter as a group synthesis of all that we had experienced. Our job was to get the tweets out there. Non-Tweeps would write their ideas on paper (no batteries!) and hand them to the Tweeps, designated by colored flags taped to the back of our chairs.

Thursday afternoon arrives, and the Twitterverse shook with the full force of FOL synthesis.

Using TwitterFountain, tweet after tweet appeared on the screen. The minutes and ideas flew by, and more and more participants signed on. It was a glorious moment.

All drama aside, the experiment was quite amazing to watch. Given that one of the throughlines of the institute was the Digital Revolution, a small core of us made it happen, real-time. @PrincipalThinks read some stats after we ended the TwitterFall, and the small number of us tweeting (200 at most, most likely a lot less) were able to reach over 7,000 individuals on Twitter.

I think the room felt the power of the moment and the power of the tool used appropriately. I hope they continue to investigate it and create their own PLN (personal learning network). I hope they open their eyes to the possibilites opening before us each day.

I gotta say, I gave myself a little pat on the shoulder. Think about it...lil' ole' me going up to the big Ivy League, unprepared and feeling small in the shadows of the giants. Then, on leaving, just four days later, feeling that I was able to truly make a difference. That was a great moment for me, knowing that I was part of something that WILL spread, that I was able to help facilitate such a great sharing of minds and ideas.

I won't forget FOL 2011, and I hope FOL won't forget what we discovered and created together.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My GTD setup: Evernote & Egretlist

Hey all - it's been a while since I've posted, but I've been a bit busy figuring out how to be a dad. Yup, Amy gave birth to Sam on June 30, and all those "ToDo" items were suddenly unimportant.

BUT...given two months off for summer vacation, and spending the better part of the previous school year trying to come to terms with the "processes" I use while I teach, it seems apparent (now) that I would stumble upon the GTD system.

This is not a new idea to me - my colleague Pete Rodrigues introduced me to the concept of inbox zero - something that I strived for, and continually failed at, with my work email. Amy, my wife, immediately recontextualized that idea into Sink Zero, and we HAVE been able to maintain that fairly well (usually accompanied by a high five).

I entered GTD through the back door - I found the tech first, realized a potential, and went searching for a system to help me utilize that potential. I am actually more interested in "processing" first, and collecting, etc. later. To clarify, by "processing," I really mean tweaking the system to meet my needs, my tech, my life. Once I have that, I will start the collection (yay).

Here are the resources I used/will use to implement my GTD:

I am relying heavily on the magic documented in Ruud's post: Saved searches in Evernote. As he shows, you can create (and save) custom search strings that allow for very dynamic and malleable lists. I have taken a combination of Ruud and Daren's ideas about contexts, and still plan to use a somewhat static, but useful (I think) implementation of Allen's containers a la Evernote's notebooks (inbox, Reference, ToDo). Finally, Egretlist allows me the opportunity to work with the checkboxes in Evernote (and it is beautifully designed as well) - I can create new ToDo's or check off ones on the go. And, due to the magic of the searches, once it is checked off (i.e. done!), it is automatically removed from the list. 

Here's my Evernote setup:

First, my notebooks:
I decided to use "ToDo" instead of "Next Actions," for two reasons: it is shorter to type, and it is more in, what do I have TO DO right now (or later, etc.).

Now, for my context tags:

I modeled this after Daren's context categories - you can read the basic descriptions of each there. So you know, @RR is "Read/Review," @SD is "Someday" (thanks, Ruud!), and @WF is "Waiting For." My own little shorthand... Finally, the @ToDo is Allen's "Next Actions."

The concept of context took me a while to grasp, mainly because I am, and I think many of us are, so tied to the idea of project, that we forget the places/tools we need to get those projects completed. For instance, I plan to repaint my porch (@SD). It makes no sense for me to review my ToDo list at work and have to think about porch painting - there is no way I can complete that task at work, so why waste the energy. I will wait until I review the @Home list and think about it then. Similarly, sometimes I need the web (@Online), sometimes I need to use a phone (@Call), and sometimes, I need to discuss something in person (@Agendas). It all depends on where I am and what I have at my disposal.

Saved Searches:

I haven't created all the searches yet, but you can see above that I can find all my next actions in my To Do list. I also have a separate ToDo search tied to a specific project - the Future of Learning (FOL) conference I will be attending at Harvard next week. By tagging notes in Evernote appropriately, you can create custom searches very easily. It just requires some fore-thought.

The real beauty of the system is the ability to search based on whether or not a checkbox is checked. The search term is "todo:false" for unchecked, or remaining, items to do. After that, you include tags you want to find, and exclude tags you don't want to see. For instance, in my ToDo search above, I have excluded the @SD tag, as I do not want my Someday items co-mingled with my ToDo items. I plan to create searches for each of my @context tags. Please see Ruud's post for all the search strings.

Now, to plans of implementing this (I have done a test-run of the system with one project, my Harvard conference, but more on that in a later post). Here is what I propose:
  1. Capture a new idea/task in a new note in Evernote. 
  2. Title this task, if possible, with an Action (i.e. active verb, such as "Read," or "Call") and a specific subject/task (i.e. "John re: dinner on Fri). A completed Title would read: Call John re: dinner this Friday.
  3. TAG IT! This is the essential piece to all of this. If this is something to get done in the next few days, here is how I would tag this note: @ToDo, @Call, @Anywhere (and, possibly, @Agendas)
  4. The item will appear in one (or more) of my Saved Searches. When I call John, I check it off on my phone using Egretlist, and, voila!, it leaves my ToDo list automatically!
  5. Daily/weekly review of undone items - I can shift lists etc. and file into the appropriate notebooks.
  6. Aim for Inbox zero each week (each day is too much to start with...)
I know this muddles Allen's system a bit, but I figure that, after the initial, massive brain-dump collection, there must be a number of mini-collections throughout the day. Or, at a minimum, a daily review in the evening that sorts out the the next day's work. I hope this will enable me to deal with all the minutiae that I have to deal with each day as a teacher.

As a tangent to this post, here's a someday item: create a routine for my home and work email inboxes that follows this process. It will have to involve rules and filters and the such, but I am sure it can be done (and I am sure someone has already started it!).

I would love to hear some feedback on this idea, as I feel it pulls together a variety of tools. Of course, I will update with progress and changes as I use the routine. And sorry for the long post, but thanks for sticking it out!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Aligning (myself) to the standards

UPDATE: Fixed the Kohn link.

Here's yet another "grad-school-response-turned-blog-post":

Here is the assignment:
Classroom Activity:  With your students, identify a state standard the class needs to achieve within the year.  Next, identify what the smaller goals (or benchmarks) the students will need to be able to achieve in order to meet the standard.  As a group, brainstorm ways that the class is addressing this through classroom activities, assessments and student performance. Finally, make a plus delta chart and group the brainstormed ideas according to their effectiveness, in two separate vertical columns. The Plus/Delta chart gives students the opportunity to share what they thought was good about an activity (plus) and what they would change in order to improve the activity (delta). 
Writing Activity: Write an informal one-half page reflection on the classroom activity assignment by answering these three questions (cut and paste the questions and answers into the body of an e-mail and send to your instructor).

  1. What did I realize that I am doing well regarding curriculum alignment and assessment?
  2. What could I do more effectively based upon the students’ responses?
  3. How would utilizing the “backward design” approach align lesson plans and assessments?

Include in your reflection, any new ideas and/ or significant insights you gained from the modules and websites.
To be honest, I did not do this activity with my students. The main reason? I am currently caught up in pushing my juniors to excel on the Regents, the NY state ELA assessment in high school. I don’t have the time to sit them down and ask how they feel about the standards, etc. I can predict their answer: A) whatever, we don’t care or B) what are standards?

I found Alfie Kohn’s article to be the most interesting, informative, and thought-provoking, and that is the one Must See site that goes against all the others...he argues for the vaguest possible standards, and I tend to agree. While I respect the need to ensure that as many children as possible receive an equitable education, I do not like the rigid conformity being imposed upon us as teachers. So far, no has told me which book to teach and which not to. If I “miss” a book one year (i.e. The Great Gatsby last year), no one slaps my wrist. I consider myself lucky.

The current NY state standards are quite vague (at the top level). They focus on listening, reading, writing and speaking for a variety of purposes (there are 4 total). Of course, each one has A LOT of “sub-standards” (the irony in the pun is too good to pass up). But, on that top level, I can say that I “align” myself with those standards. For instance, during a structured group work activity, students ARE, in fact, speaking and listening for social interaction. And, by writing a compare/contrast essay, students ARE, in fact, reading and writing for critical analysis and evaluation.

But how do you “assess” speaking for social interaction? I mean, it’s part of my job, but no one tests the students on how well they communicate with their peers.

I’m only partially serious here - I don’t expect to have to grade student conversations - in fact, if I had to, I might just vomit. But the case do you assess these standards? Let’s look ahead to next year: the Common Core College and Career Readiness standards (the alliteration is SO c-c-c-cool). We are being told that we have to start modifying our curricula to meet this new set of “national” standards (not all states have climbed aboard this crazy train yet). And the best part? No one knows what the test looks like yet.

Now, the standardized test purist may argue that is a good thing - your job is to ensure the student meets a particular benchmark at a particular time in his or her life - and you don’t need a test to do that. Sure. Of course not. Thank you, Bill Gates.

Let’s jump back to the Regents exam - the main essay (and now the only one) is called the Critical Lens essay. Students are given a quote which they must interpret, choose two works they have read (not necessarily in school), and discuss how each work fits with their interpretation of the quotes. Oh, and did I mention the need to focus on the use and effect of literary techniques?

The essay is tough, but I’m not sure it’s good. First: there is little interaction between the texts - most students write a 4 paragraph essay (intro, body, body, conclusion). Second: when will students ever write this essay again? I have a BA and an MA in English, and I have NEVER had to write that sort of essay, asking to focus on that type of detail, without supporting materials (the primary or secondary texts, at a minimum).

And, dare I ask: how is a standard maintained when each student can choose different texts? How do you objectively assess that? The simple answer is you don’t. A previous administrator once informed us we should not be spending more than 1 minute per essay, as they had only allotted us 3 hours to grade 800 essays. Yeah. THAT sounds objective.

So, back to the question of HOW I “align” myself - I do my damndest to ensure my students have the skills they will need to pass the test. We do the sample essays, peer reviews (with them using the scoring booklets), format reviews, etc. But I also want them to learn beyond the test. So I do a lot of creative work, different types of essays, etc. I cannot justify teaching ONE type of essay, for I do not have ONE type of student.

Now, I CAN see using this sort of activity in the beginning of the school year. It makes sense to me to introduce the standards at that point and create a class “checklist” of sorts to keep track of class progress. That would be helpful in getting students involved and would be great to keep referring back (and/or adjusting) as the year passes by. That is something I could see myself utilizing next September, especially as we embrace (lovingly?) the Common Core standards - at a minimum, I will be able to remind myself of what the standards are.

And, for backwards design - I have already started purchasing books on that topic. I plan to use part of my summer to see if I can re-invigorate my lesson planning (it is a bit stale right now) and take advantage of that research. It makes sense to me in the abstract, but I need to make it real. I need to rethink a lesson and see what I really want, and what I am really asking.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Increasing writing skills in students

Hey's been a while since I've blogged, but life's been hectic here lately. I have a number of posts planned (all on my SpringPad notes), and I hope to get them out to you soon.

In the meantime, I just typed an assignment for one (of my three) grad classes I am currently taking, and figured it would work here as well. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, etc.

I did not select ONE particular student, as I can really pick ANY of my students’ pieces and discuss strengths and weaknesses (one of the “perks” of being an English teacher, I guess). In general, I find that my students can usually respond to a specific task well, but they have a hard time when I remove those supports. Students are pretty good at plot events, but not so good with the higher analysis of literary elements and effects (combining reading and writing skills). Students are pretty decent about getting an idea across, but struggle with the syntax (i.e. “good ideas, bad execution”).

After reviewing the pages in the book and reading some of the websites, I started thinking about things I could do NEXT year to help improve student writing across ALL my classes. These are the two I plan to implement: portfolios and creative writing (something that wasn’t in the text). I also picked up on an interesting grading strategy: “Mondays for comments.” I currently teach juniors and seniors.

For the portfolios: Some context is needed here. My department chair instituted writing folders for all English students a few years back. The purpose of these folders is to collect student writing over the course of their high school career, and the folders follow the students each year to their new class. I have always struggled with finding a way to use (or make use of) these folders as part of my teaching. One big reason is that I have not made them part of my “routine” yet.

This past summer, I planned to use them full-force. I created ideas (note the abstraction) upon ideas about reflection sheets and processes, etc. And etc. And etc. These ideas were just that - ideas. They never made it past the proverbial drawing board, and never say light of day in my classroom. The folders gather dust in the back of the room.

Next, year, year, I plan to actually use them. After reading the section on portfolio assessment and having recent success with a new activity in class that required a lot of personal reflection on their part, I have decided to do it. Here’s my basic plan:

  • First few days of school: gather all the folders and devote a period to letting the students peruse their previous work. I will create a “note-taking” sheet that allows them to gather their thoughts, etc., about their work, and the first writing piece of the year will be a reflection that looks to the past AND the future (i.e. here’s what I’ve done, here’s what I want to do).
  • ALL student writing will be placed into the writing folder throughout the year
  • EACH QUARTER students will have a “quarterly” reflection on the status of their writing. They will have class time to thin out their folders, select the work they are most impressed with, and write about it.

I believe that writing about their personal process will help them understand that writing is just that - a process. And a major part of the process is to look backward before looking forward - you need to review and revisit what you’ve already done in order to proceed and progress on new work.

For the creative writing: I’ve recently been inspired by high student-interest in a creative assessment I developed (with help from others, of course) for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Students have just finished reading the novel and are currently watching The Breakfast Club in class. They will write an analytical essay comparing and contrasting the two works in class (the “Critical Lens” for those NY folk), but I didn’t want to just leave it there. I did some brainstorming with my colleagues and came up with this creative assignment. Not everything is written, to take advantage of multiple learning styles, but a written component is required for at least half of the work.

The reason I bring this up is two-fold: first, when I reviewed the assignment yesterday in class, students seemed genuinely excited, something I have not seen for a long time. The questions that bubbled up turned this into a 30 minute discussion of HOW they could do the work, something I did not expect, but did welcome. Second, I was reminded on something I already knew - creativity is interesting. It emboldens the writer and facilitates flexibility in both ideas and words. I strongly believe that increasing the number of “creative” works will increase the level of interest and skill in a struggling writer. Finding success in a “different” form of writing will, hopefully, carry over into their “normal” writing. Confidence can be a powerful motivator.

The final idea I got from the text is more for me, as teaching writing (i.e. grading writing) is difficult for me, and attempting to do it well take A LOT of time (and, to be honest, I am not sure how well I am doing it). The concept of “Mondays for comments” is intriguing to me. Here’s the basic idea: (assuming the assignment is due on Monday) any paper handed in on Monday will get comments written on it; late papers will only get a number grade (again, I reference Tom Schimmer's post on eliminating late penalties - perhaps this is the "balance" I was looking for). I can see how this has the potential to speed up the grading (and returning) of papers, as I think we all find ourselves in the quagmire of being burdened with too much grading. The problem, of course, is getting the proper feedback to the students in a timely manner. To extend this system, I might develop a “code” that a student could write on his/her paper if they WANT to receive comments - that way the interested and motivated become part of the process; for the others who do not want comments (these are the students who receive a paper back, with my comments, and time, all over, and simply throw it in the recycling bin). With this sort of system, my time is freed up, the students who WANT the extra feedback get it, and anyone else is free to attend extra help to discuss their grade.  (To the readers: is this educationally sound?)

I feel that these are things I can institute next year with a modicum of planning and preparation on my part - it is more about forming a habit for myself. If I can make it routine, I believe the students will benefit.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stumbling Into Project-Based Learning (Guest Post)

UPDATE: The link asks for a login - I asked Susan to modify the permissions and will update again once it is open to everyone.

UPDATE: Susan's post has been copied and pasted below...

My colleague, Susan Phalen, asked if she could use this space to broadcast her recent experience with Project-Based Learning in her AP Lang class. The project focuses on attempting to persuade the school administration to institute homework-free periods throughout the school year (as inspired by Race to Nowhere). FYI, Susan and I sat next to each other at the RTN viewing last month, and were equally inspired, I think (that was one of my initial posts...).

So, fellow educators, please read Susan's guest post. You may leave comments here or DM her @msphalen.


{Begin Guest Post: "Stumbling into Project-Based Learning, by Susan Phalen}

Every year in my AP Language & Comp class we read Emerson and Prose on education.  We talk about John Holt's “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.”  This year, we went together to see Waiting for Superman and, a few months later, Race to Nowhere.  My students were galvanized by seeing their L.A. counterparts onscreen suffering from the same overload and stress that they deal with every day.  “It doesn't exaggerate one bit!” they told me.  “We never get enough sleep, we're always behind, and we're exhausted.  We make ourselves sick—but we won't take off from school.”  I'd overheard enough student conversations to know that this was no more than the truth.

Back to the classroom, where I prepared to move on to the next unit of study.  They, however, could not stop talking about what they saw as a change whose time had come.  “We should write a letter to the principal,” they said.  “Ask him for a homework-free weekend once a month.”  Aha!  I thought.  A writing opportunity with a real-world application.  “Sure,” I said.  And we were off.  They paired up a few weeks ago and I had each pair propose our idea in one paragraph using a different rhetorical mode:  definition, exemplification, narration, cause/effect, process analysis, and so on.  We figured that we would combine the best parts of all of them and see how it worked.

I had not reckoned with the the sheer energy and drive this group would bring to the table: “We should survey the student body so the principal doesn't think it's one little group of AP students complaining,” Shelby said.  “Use Survey Monkey, it's free,” Elyse advised.  “And get the word out on FaceBook,” Nikki agreed.  “Hey, Ms. Phalen, can we have some class time to write survey questions?”  Startled by the speed with which this letter was gaining momentum, I said “OK.”

Realizing that they were now designing a presentation, they thought about next steps.  After all, if Ms. Phalen was letting them use class time, they were clearly in charge on this one.  What would persuade more people of the validity of their idea?  Shelby had, in another class, successfully lobbied our school board by showing up en masse at a board meeting.  It was natural that she would suggest we present our proposal to the board in, say, three weeks?   “Dress up, everyone!” she ordered.  Madhuri, the senior editor of the school newspaper, decided that our proposal would form the center story of this month's issue.  “Ms. Phalen, we definitely need some more class time.”  Alarmed, I started revising my lesson plans for the week.  “Uh, guys?”  I said.  “I still need you to take that test soon, OK?  How is—uh, how is Monday for everyone?”

They took the test Monday, then on Tuesday got back down to business.  They realized that their case would be stronger for some data (“Logos, everybody!”), so they did some Internet research on homework and spent another day sorting and evaluating it.  The survey results started to come in and they realized that seniors were over-represented.  Monica, alarmed, said “We need more sophomores, you guys!  Who knows some sophomores?”  Finally we were ready to combine everything we had into one Google doc that we could edit together in real time in our Writer's Lab.

I could not imagine how this next step would work.  I pictured mass confusion and no accountability, with (by conservative estimate) half the class checking out to chat about the upcoming weekend.  So I asked a few questions before we left the room:  1. What will be our main organizing mode?  2.  Can we please diagram our claim and list our reasons (support)?  3.  What tone and register will be most effective?

These questions led us to list the modes we needed to accomplish the various tasks of the proposal:

At that point they were ready  to pair up and take on specific pieces of the project.  Mahsa, Rebecca, and  Emily  immediately took on the organizing of the whole; Elyse and Shelby decided that since the survey was their baby, they would analyze the findings and figure out where and how to insert them.  Monica said that she would write up the objections our proposal was sure to encounter so that we could preemptively address them.  Sophia and Caroline, who didn't know right away what task they should do, looked at me for directions.  I looked back and (for once!) realized that I should NOT be the Answer Lady on this one.  I asked “What task can you see that we still need to do?”  They looked blank.  Alexandra said, “Sophie, you could write the narrative that's supposed to open the piece.”  Sophia's face lit up.  “I can do that!” she beamed.  Caroline said “I can help Madhuri write the exit poll questions for the teachers who are going to see the film next week.”  One by one, they had figured out what parts they wanted to own.

That was Friday.  Once we got upstairs to the Writing Center, they spent the period working intently, more deeply engaged than than I had seen them in a long time.  They came to me only when they hit a snag.  Elyse announced, dramatically, “We have a problem.”  Turned out that they needed to buy a membership to Survey Monkey so that they could get all 200 survey responses analyzed (I put the $25 on my credit card rather than hold up the project; they immediately passed a hat around and handed me $17) and once the organizing crew wanted my feedback.  Mahsa said worriedly “Does this look right to you?”  I looked at their diagrammed proposal and said, “Yes, it looks fine to me but, honestly, we just won't know if it works until we read it in draft.  We can always change it if it's not right.”  That's all they needed from me: reassurance and permission to proceed while still unsure of the outcome.

At this point I'm clear about only a few things:  I didn't plan this into being—I did support it with structure and class time and then successfully stayed out of its  way.  They probably won't be this single-minded every day, even on a project of their own choosing.  And, finally, I don't know how to repeat this process with my other classes.  Given that time-management skills are my current Waterloo, repeating this may not even be what I do next.  But I do know that I want more of this, please.  I'm still orbiting the planet with how cool it felt to be in a room with other engaged workers instead of with obedient and dutiful students.

I see too that project-based learning cannot be one size fits all.  This project is working for this group, this year; I will not expect next year's class to get hooked by the same thing.  Part of what energized them this year was the element of kairos—the right word at the right time.  The newly-released documentary we saw was the catalyst for them.  I can't know now what will hook the next group.  However, I can let the next class know that a group project is an option for them too.  I can stay alert to the signs of excitement when they show up.  I've had beginner's luck, but if I start now to research what other teachers and schools do with project-based learning, I will have a few more strings to my bow ready for the next opportunity.

This is an interim report.  In a few weeks, I hope to write about the presentation and publication of our class's proposal and to reflect on the incredible energy that becomes available when students sense that they can affect our big, frustrating, illogical adult world where—let's face it—everything real gets done.

Note to self:  This, this is why kids love the sci-fi novel Ender's Game.  Not because it's a real-life version of a video game but because in it, smart kids design and execute brilliant strategies that SAVE THE WORLD.  That's what our students want to do too.  They know—as we know—that it needs saving.  And that adults aren't doing it very well by themselves.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Blogging in the classroom

I've started a GDoc with some colleagues regarding some ideas about how to begin using a blog with students (juniors and seniors, in this case). The link should allow anyone with the link to edit, so feel free to  leave your thoughts there, or just comment below.

Thanks in advance!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Totally infowhelmed - TeachMeetNJ 2011 rocked!

(even though I only got a half-day...had an afternoon engagement to get home for)

This is a decompression post: Pete (@pete_rodrigues) and I spent the morning at TeachMeetNJ, 2011 (#tmnj11). It was my very first "un-conference," and I was blown away. I met and spoke to a number of educators I follow on Twitter (@tomwhitby) and met a whole lot more (@andycinek, @butwhat, @kdwashburn). The concept of the PLN blending back and forth between the Twitterverse and reality was great (interesting moment when I realized I knew the virtual person but did not realize that I sat close to him for an hour in the previous session...).

There is no rhyme or reason to this, just the mandatory brain dump. If I don't do this, I will lose it all...

First session: Designing Teaching & Constructing Learning, by Kevin D. Washburn (@kdwashburn). Focused on the "learning brain," and was inspiring. (Here is the handout he used.)

  • He took us through the core processes of learning: new data, labeling/sorting, attaching to prior knowledge, and application.
  • Discussed the brain's downtime (formula is +/- 2 added to the child's age; i.e. a 16 year old's brain has a 14-18 min window before it literally "turns off" for necessary downtime). For more info he suggested reading How The Brain Learns, by David Sousa
Student brains will take downtime if you plan for it or not. If you plan for it, you can use it to your advantage.

  • Kevin has a book out, The Architecture of Learning, which I received a free copy of. I am really excited to read it, and will devote future posts to what I find. 
  • Old School Tool: index cards. By having students write info on index cards, they can literally sort (and resort) the information. This aids retention. For instance, I could have students list conflicts as they rise and fall throughout a novel. One day, we can sort by plot order (when the conflict occurred in the story). The next day, we can sort by importance, using the same information. I was thinking of extending this into a group setting, where each group is responsible for one type of info (i.e. symbols, etc.), and the groups would have to continually reshuffle the info as we progress through the book. This can be displayed on some sort of wall chart etc. (still using the index cards).
  • When we prepare lessons, we do the brain learning we will ask our students to do when we teach the lesson. By the time we teach it, it makes sense, because we have found the data, classified and organized it, considered its value, etc. This is a nice perspective for me to latch on to when I am frustrated - of course it makes sense to me...I made it! Also opens my mind to considering further steps I might need to take to help my students make their own connections.
  • A lot of what we do in the classroom is verbally based - utilize non-verbal forms to challenge and engage them (the non-verbal/spatial part of the brain may be under utilized in certain content areas).
  • Practice without feedback is not helpful. Kevin said that this was the one thing we should all do more often and more consciously - using constant formative assessment to guide students to "proper" learning.
  • Summarizing is a powerful tool. Here's an idea for a daily closure, written in a student's notebook.
Ask them to "fill out" this form: 
List three things you remember/did/liked/didn't like (insert verb here);   
"I learned"; 
"I think"; 
"I plan to" 
I discussed this with Pete on the ride home, about how we can improve students' metacognitive abilities. This might be one easy way.
  • I believe Kevin referenced Gloria Houston (sp?) as having done some excellent work on summarizing
  • You need to "own the downtime"

Second session, "Ways to Grow Professionally"
An excellent conversation about what we as educators have to do (not "can do"). We no longer have a choice, as the tech is there, the kids are there, and we need to be there. That, or be left behind. (FYI: notes and quotes from this one are on my twitter feed.) We also made a Google Doc that captured most of what was discussed.

Andy Marcinek's talk of the "back channel" opened my eyes up as well. The literally idea was using something like Twitter that can capture what is happening during a lecture that you, as the teacher, may not be aware of. For instance, while we were in our round-table, Any projected the stream from the conference (#tmnj11) using Monitter. As we were talking, we could see thoughts and ideas from the rest of the sessions. Some of them made their way into our own conversation. That is fairly powerful collaboration, even if it is/was unintended.

On a more philosophical note, the concept of the back channel happening in our students' brains as we talk away is what grabbed me. I can "visualize" what a Twitter stream of my students' brains might look like: I am pretty sure it would fly by super fast, and I'm pretty sure my "Teacher Tweets" would be few and far between (and certainly not trending). Of all the things a student thinks about, I am pretty sure my teaching is not the most pressing.

So, my question is simple: how do we tap into that back channel? How do we utilize what is there and blend it with the content and skills we need to teach? How do we make our "Teacher Tweets" stay at the top of the list, and not get lost in the Twitterverse?

There is SO much more spinning around my head right now...great conference, great experience, and great people.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Differentiating my classroom

Hello fellow educators. I face a dilemma, and would like to use some info that is new to me to address it. I would also like some feedback (hopefully) before implementing (which could be as early as Monday).

Here is the situation: I teach a semester Senior English class, Struggles of Humanity (the running joke is the  class should be called Struggles of's only half-funny). I don't have a set curriculum, and my dept. chair gave the freedom to "do what I want, as long as they learn." Both a blessing and a curse, cast down on me (borrowing the line from The Gaslight Anthem song, "Red at Night." I know, shameless plug).

I have no state exam to worry about (NY Regents is taken in junior year), and I have the freedom to tackle any concept in literature that deals with a struggle that humankind has faced. That translates to, well, anything.

On the flipside, we don't necessarily track our students in senior year, so the range of abilities is immense. Last semester, I had a number of students above the 100% mark (they went beyond every assignment I brought to them) and I had 4 students fail below the 30% mark (lowest mark in one quarter ...7%). It is both a dumping ground and a melting pot.

Now, to my newest group of students. We are 1 month into the semester, and I don't know my students. Oh sure, I have their names down and I taught a few of them last year, but of the 25 students staring back at me, I don't know who they are and where they are (in life, etc.). And, it's not from a lack of me trying. Or, more reflectively, it IS from a lack of me trying - because I'm not trying the right way.

They are simply (or not so simply) apathetic. When I say they are silent, I mean it. I have a had a few courtesy giggles in a given period. That's it. I was discussing this with a veteran colleague yesterday, and his reply was "quiet, just the way I like 'em." He was only half-joking.

I don't want quiet. I don't want status quo. I sure as hell don't want apathy. (Even my horrible pun, which I repeat every year and still giggle at, didn't elicit a response: "Give me apathy! Or give me something else." Attribution, anyone?)

Most of the class needs to pass the class to graduate. I have concerns about some already, who have been late with assignments (@TomSchimmer - I'm still the "10% per day" guy, though I haven't stopped thinking about your "Lose the 0" post a few weeks back).

Last week, our PDT presented a short video about Differentiated Instruction (see my post about teacher reactions). In the video, the teacher had three different levels of assignments: straight ahead, uphill, and mountainous (a loose paraphrase would be easy, medium, hard, I guess). I have been thinking about how to utilize this thinking in my classroom. When I looked at my seniors, thought of the differentiation, the two seemed to meld.

Here's my plan:

  • Divide the class into two possible groups: straight ahead and mountainous (I will modify the names later)
  • When each student arrives, he/she needs to choose what they feel like doing that day...they get to choose how their learning will be structured.
  • If a student chooses the "easy" task, he/she will go to the back of the room and will be asked to do individual seat work. He/she may not participate in the day's lesson, unless he/she switches to the "challenging" task - then he/she may join the conversation.
  • For assessment, here's my thought: I will create a checklist of required work for the quarter, and each student must hit the minimum requirements. If a student consistently choose the "easy" assignments, he/she will be turning in MORE assignments of STANDARD quality work. On the flipside, the students who choose the "challenging" assignment would hand in FEWER assignments of a MORE CHALLENGING quality. 
Here is my big question: Is this educationally sound? 

The vision I have is that a small number of students who want to participate will sit near the front initially, and we will have conversations, etc. This will allow me to "teach" those who "want" to be taught. And, hopefully, the numbers will shift based on what the "easy" students see the "challenging" students doing. 

I am asking students to complete this survey over the weekend so I can get their feedback on this type of system. I doing this for them, or for me? Is this an attempt to fix a problem using the wrong tool? Since DI is such a new concept to me (as a practical resource), I want to make sure I do not misuse it. I also hope to bring this up at the Teach Meet NJ conference tomorrow morning (#tmnj11).

I would truly appreciate any feedback. And I know it's a long post, so thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Ills of Social Networking

I might have faux-pax'd - I engaged enraged Britney Spears fans in a contest of wits on Twitter...and might have lost.

As I sit here, decompressing from this afternoon's Teamsters' Local 455 Rally, I looked through my hundreds of tweets and saw a trending tag: #tilltheworldends. Out of curiosity, I clicked.

And immediately saw my mistake.

The battle scene I stumbled upon is tough to describe. Smoke filled the air. The screams and anguish of the wounded were a constant hum in my ears. And the fallen. Oh, the fallen.

The war waged on, intensifying with each Twitter Tweet update. 3, maybe 4 second go by, and there are 20 new Tweet soldiers ready to fight to the death.

This is no ordinary war, though. It is a multi-front extravaganza. We have the die hard Britney fans, who keep sending reinforcements to prove that #TillTheWorldEnds in not a fill in the blank thingy, but is, in fact, her new album. (As if that improves anything?)

Then we have the Bieber-fans. It seems we are gearing up for a Britney-Bieber show off, the pop-queen-that-was and the pop-queen-that-is, until the stoners enter the battle (somewhat confused). Their attack is one-sided, consistent, and constant, as if the only thing the stoners can do is click "retweet." Their battle cry (dry-throated-cough?):

"Ima smoke WEED #tilltheworldends."

And the battle rages on....

(oh crap, 156 new tweets...)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Can you insert a table in a blog post?

Col 1 test Col 2 test
row 2 test

If you handcode it...yes!

An interesting intersection...

Three things happened today that gave me pause. Three things that are disparate in nature, yet somehow linked in my mind. Three things I have not been able to let go of...

The first moment happened in my classroom (twice) earlier in the day. In the midst of trying a whole lot of new ideas and methods of teaching for my juniors (which they are actually excited about), my senior classes tanked. I stopped mid-class to ask the class "Do you care about this topic?" Both times, the honest answer was "no." I stopped the lesson and tried to move to something of more interest (something I would not have considered two weeks ago).

We had our monthly faculty meeting this afternoon. Our senior building rep asked for a few minutes at the start of the meeting to address the membership on two points: unions are under attack, and we all need to get involved. Now. The second most-senior rep stood and addressed the younger teachers with a heart-felt plea: get involved in the conversation or get left behind. As a building rep, I was pleased to hear these words spoken to all, as we do not have enough unity in our building.

Moving on, we had a quick video presentation by our Professional Development Team (PDT), and we then broke into small groups for discussion. Our PDT team is an effort for teachers, by teachers. An effort to share our knowledge with our colleagues in the hopes of rising the bar for all. In this age of budget cuts, we turn to our own for help. We turn to our own to get by and to get better.

In these small groups (about 10-15 teachers), the question was posed: how can we utilize differentiated instruction in our classrooms, and does it seem to be a valuable technique? (I paraphrase here.) And the teachers were not impressed. Their reactions sank to the negative:

  • Why should we try to change?
  • I just don't see how this can work
  • How does admin expect us to do something they want while making our jobs more difficult?
  • I can barely cover the curriculum can they expect more from me?
  • They talked about this 10 years ago...where did it get us then.

Now, the climate in our building is not an overly positive one, and many teachers just "shut the door and teach." Dare I say, the climate in America right now is not favorable to public education in general. Their reactions were understandable. But not, I feel, justifiable.

This is not an admin manifest: differentiate or feel the wrath of the system! The PDT (started by teachers, run by teachers...NOT admin) chose the topic of differentiation based on teacher feedback (a quick, online survey). This is teachers helping teachers. An attempt, grass-roots style, at unity. A few brave teachers willing to stand up and say, "Yes, I can help."

I brought up these ideas to my group (I was trying to further the cause of PDT, not undermine it). My colleague, Pete Rodrigues, has taken me under his wing on my quest to develop my own PLN, and the links between what I have discovered in the last two weeks and the negative reactions I observed today are crystal clear.

If teaching has taught me anything, it is that stasis equals death. The stagnant teacher is not an effective one. The cloudy mirror of habit does not improve our lot (speaking as one who is, uh, trying to "polish" the glass...). I have made it a personal and professional goal to be reflective in all that I do. I have attempted to squash the ego. I am comfortable making mistakes, for that is where learning happens (a philosophy I hope to develop in my students).

Sure, there is a ton wrong with education today. But what is each one of us doing about it? I can't think ten years ago...I can only think tomorrow. What can I do tomorrow to improve? Can I change a thought? A reaction? A belief? A student? A future?

Be the change you wish to see. Get involved. Stay connected. We must be unified in the conversation that is about to occur, or we will all be left mute and hand-tied in the darkness.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Whither did you go, free time?

Isn't it amazing how quickly free time just disappears. Amy and I had a great week off, catching up with some friends we haven't seen in a while and making some great progress on "projects," and now it's Sunday night, and I am barely planned and prepped for the week. It felt SO good to live this past week (as the three weeks leading up to it were non-stop school). And, I must say, the weather in good 'ole Nyack was so fine today! Got a two-hour walk through town with the dogs and some Runcible coffee, sun on our faces...

I so do not want to go to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The # engchat Daily

Just found this on Twitter, as my colleague Pete Rodrigues has a featured post...check it out on The # engchat Daily. And, feel free to join the convo on Twitter!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What does a "0" really mean?

Just read an interesting blog post by Tom Schimmer, "'0' Influence, '0' Gained." His basic premise: a 0 on an assignment is both meaningless AND counterproductive.

I have had similar thoughts as well, that certain kids just "play" the system and continue on with whatever they were doing pre-0...and not learning what we want them to learn in the process. For instance: I had a senior last semester who is incredibly bright and completely apathetic about school - when he was present, he was brilliant; when he wasn't, he totally checked out.

He managed to earn a 7% (ish) for the second quarter of the semester class (if you add in 0's for all the missing work). Now, according to Mr. Schimmer, he should receive an INC for the missing work (I fully support this, by the way). BUT...with college looming near, and second semester transcripts being sent out, I was told I had to give him an F, as I couldn't leave an INC on his transcript.

After reading Mr. Schimmer's post, I think back to my student: what is the more important lesson here - that he have the failure shoved in his face and be given another chance (in a new class) to graduate, or to have to actually make all the work up before moving on? The same argument might be made in early grades as well: if little Johnny has not mastered his multiplication tables, why should he move on to Algebra? Keep the student where he is and provide the help he needs until the material is learned...

My question is: how do we instigate these sort of changes in our schools? Something like this is a paradigm shift, and I can guarantee MANY people in my school, at all levels, would not support this.

TANGENT: Incidentally, I purchased a book over the summer that I have yet to read, Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. Has anyone out there read it? Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

This brings, uh, "tears" to my eyes

While cleaning out some old emails (goal is inbox zero), I came across this, sent from my sister-in-law. Thought it would fun to be repost. Enjoy!

To call things by their right name...

We just finished watching Into the Wild in one of my senior classes, and the ending of the movie always sends chills down my spine. When Chris writes his final note, and signs it with his true brings the entire movie into perspective for me. And, every time I finish watching it, that line sticks with me for a few days.

This time around, that line has combined itself with the other current thoughts swirling around me head (sorry for the other unrelated news, the newest game app I purchased for the iPad is Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Zombies vs. Pandas...every time you get ready to launch a pirate, you get a good ole' "ga-harrr): why aren't we looking at the state of education in this country and seeing it for what it truly is? Why can't we step back and call things by their right name.

I came across two items on the web, both shared with me by my colleagues. The first was shared with me last Spring, as our contract was up for renegotiations, and the threat of "student-progress-as-a-part-of-teacher-evaluation" loomed near (brief footnote: I am not against this...I just don't trust any lawmaker who wants to make such a significant decision on paper and then "figure out what it looks like" after the fact): this idea (from superintendent John S. Taylor) takes these ideas surrounding teacher evaluation and applies them to dentists...the resulting analogy goes to show how ludicrous an idea can be when applied to a slightly different context. The second article appeared recently in the Washington Post on The Answer Sheet entitled "Why Teacher Bashing is Dangerous": it is an edited commentary by Stan Karp, a man with some excellent insight into the state of education today (be is a LONG piece, and that is only the edited version - full version can be found from link on that page).

The first piece is just entertaining to read, but I think it sheds light on the fundamental issues with the current thinking behind teacher evaluation - if the cavity is the bottom line, and cavity count is all you measure, is that a true assessment of "dental skill"? What if the "clients" are, in fact, consuming too much sugar outside of the dentist's office, or what if they don't brush often enough? Or what if they have a fear of the dentist's chair, and put off showing up for a check up, thus complicating the problem?

A now-retired teacher (who was, incidentally, my 11th grade teacher as well) gave me a great piece of perspective that got me through the really rough days: "you only see them 44 minutes a day, 5 days a week. They are making decisions that are beyond your reach during the rest of the day." When will the lawmakers realize that? Give me any student, and I will give you a set of decisions that child is faced with that are completely beyond my control (context: I teach high school). Those decisions will affect the child's education, and somehow I should be responsible for that? It seems to me that we need a social shift - the "blame" falls across all the failed areas of society (an entitled population, a lack of stable family life, the instant gratification of NOW, etc.).

Some quotes from Karp's piece that struck me:

  • First with No Child Left Behind, and then with Race to the Top,Democrats have been playing tag team with Republicans building on the test and punish approach. Just how much this bipartisan consensus has solidified came home when I picked up my local paper one morning and saw Gov. Chris Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had, quoted as saying “This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”
  • We need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. And in my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is a key to school improvement.
  • Teachers count a lot. But reality counts too...
  • Spending more money on standardized tests is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better-trained doctors, they don’t need more thermometers.
  • (from the comments below) Let's face it, 50% of all kids will be in the lower half of their class. 

Why don't the people with power listen to the people with the right ideas? (How's that for the utopic- naive statement of the day...). I am afraid of what the lawmakers are going to do, and I think they forget that any change they make will take 12 years (k-12) to cycle through to the results - and by then, four other change will have been made. And who deals with all the upheaval? Teachers.

And, far more importantly, students.

Folks, let's open our eyes, blinder-free, and take a serious look at what CAN work. This needs to be a conversation between ALL members involved, not a one-sided, corporate-politico discussion.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Being a Teenager...

They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words, right? What if the picture is words?

I spent the better part of today with my juniors doing a brainstorming/pre-reading activity for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They brainstormed away, and then I inputted their ideas into Wordle. I plan to use this visual tomorrow as a reflective assignment: is this image reflective of your generation?

Here's what they said:

Period 1:
Wordle: BeingATeenager(1)

Period 5:
Wordle: BeingATeenager(5)

Period 7:
Wordle: Being a Teen (7)

All periods combined:
Wordle: Being A Teenager (compiled)

I'd be curious to hear reactions...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Teachers-to-be? 0r, Effort ≠ Achievement

Let me set the stage: taking two online grad courses right now, and taking a 3rd "in person." Have had three student teachers in as many years. I am concerned about what I see.

First, full disclosure: I am taking these classes to max out on my salary scale. Not that that changes my perceptions, but it might be useful to know that I am doing this for the money first, and for me second. (Hey, daddy-to-be is watching those future $$$ slip away to baby...). Second, because of all the crazed turnover in my department in the past 5 (ish) years, some consider me a veteran teacher. At 7 years in, this terrifies me. I still make rookie mistakes (I know, we all do), and do not necessarily feel "qualified" all the time to teach someone how to teach.

Now, the benefit of a hosting a student teacher is that it forces you to become more aware of what you actually do in the classroom; for those 7 or so weeks, the introspection-scope is turned up to 11. The "meta" level becomes really real, really quickly (thanks, literacy class!). And, hanging out in meta does provide opportunities for reflection that might have slipped on by otherwise (the ruts I think we all get into time and again).

Stop me if you've heard this one before: I'm sitting in class, and the prof hands back our first writing assignment. And, can you believe it? Some kids didn't do it right [sic]. But we get a chance to rewrite it, but only this once. Only one do-over in this class.

The comments from the prof astounded me. First (and let me remind you this is a grad class is literacy education, meant for future teachers-to-be): your tone is off, it's too conversational. "I don't want a conversation, I want a reflection." Second: many of you have comma issues, so I made a list of the 7 times you ever need to use a comma. Third: many of you didn't do the assignment, which was to reflect on literacy education (does anyone else see the irony here? They don't understand the work, in a class that deals with basic comprehension? Come can't make this up). So, you can redo this one, because I don't want to give out 1 out 5's to anyone, I really don't.

Huh? Commas? Really?

Let's do the time warp, back to my previous "you've-hosted-a-student-teacher-so-we-give-you-a-voucher-for-a-free-grad-class" class...this one was about Technology in Education. Right up my alley, right? First day of class, prof tells the students to click in the upper right corner on something. A gentleman behind me raises his hand and says he doesn't understand. Prof replies pick up the mouse and move it to the upper right.

The gentleman grabs said mouse and lifts it off the desk. Vertically. Airborne mouse.

I sh*t you not.

(oddly, this is the second time I've seen this happen in my lifetime.)

And this man wants to be a Technology leader?

Back to my most recent student teacher. He had ideas. He had energy. He tried REALLY hard. And he fell apart.

I have never seen someone implode so quickly in one week. After 6 weeks of heartache (and him not listening to me or his advising teacher), he finally realized what teaching was like. This was an epiphany to him. This was borderline ridiculous to me.

His line in the classroom: My teaching is effort based. If you try hard, you will succeed with me. (My often-response: a student can try really hard and still be wrong - effort does not equal achievement.) The kids ate this up (of course) because, as we all know, they all try REALLY, REALLY HARD.

His line to me, at the end of his time with me: Thank you for the experience. I want you to know that I tried my best. My thought-response (not spoken): effort does not equal achievement.

And, if you want "data" to back up his effort-based teaching: on average, the individual student average dropped 5% from Q1 to Q2 (to be fair, that is a weighted stat, with some other factors I don't want to list here).

The sad part is that he was a former student of mine (granted, I was a leave replacement, he was a second semester senior in a digital video yearbook elective). A colleague of mine has been trying to work on a profile of our graduates...I pointed my colleague at my last student teacher. I think he is representative of what high school churns out.

We have created a generation of students who do not know how to take responsibility for their mistakes (emphasis on not knowing - I believe they could take responsibility, but they really, truly, do not KNOW how to. That toolbox is, sadly, defunct). And, as any teacher can tell you, this job requires the highest level of responsibility, as we are (literally and figuratively) prepping the minds of America's future. We cannot shirk this responsibility.

I know that we have all these debates about the future of education and un-motivated students, etc., and I know that it all is true. But with funding being cut from teacher ed programs, and more pressure being put on teachers to be more effective (student performance counting for 1/5 of teacher evals), this seems to be a losing situation for all. We call it a problem, and then we actively remove supports that can address the problem.

You want better educated students? Create better educated teachers.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Crisis of Conscience

So. One and one half years later. Married now. Baby on the way. Amazing how time just...passes. Inspiration struck tonight, so I sit here, beer in hand, decompressing. It's late, and I will pay for this tomorrow, but the cost is worth it.

I just attended a District viewing of Race to Nowhere, a film that takes a closer look at the culture of education we seem to have created. This is the culture that keeps pushing, keeps scheduling, keeps demanding more from the kids. This is the culture that is harming those same kids. The effects of parental, federal, and social demands are damaging our students, our future.

I used to joke with my class a few years back that I was terrified that they would soon make decisions that would impact my future. Then, I would stand in front of the room (where else?) and inform/complain about the decline in academic skills in my class. This year, I am having a crisis of conscience (sounds worse than it is): I realized that I am a player in this convoluted game.

So I change my tune. My class website is called A Shift in Perspective, and my philosophy (stated often) is "choice and consequence." I begin answering the question "What's the answer?" with "I really don't care about the answer, I care about the question." And I mean. And it confuses them. Rightfully so.

I realized quite recently that my focus is off in the classroom, that I needed to shift my own perspective and realize that there were consequences to the choices I make on a day to day basis. Welcome to my crisis of conscience.

There is no doubt - my students are weaker than ever in the realm of English skills. We have developed a culture of righteous apathy - "I will complain loudly, though I really don't care!" When we focus on answers and not questions, we stay in the realm of basic information and avoid critical thinking. "Why should I figure out the answer...I can just Google it." Soon, we will all have Android logos stamped on our foreheads (and this coming from an avid Google supporter).

This film came along at a perfect time, meeting my soul in a head on fight (there is no clear victor yet). The film raises SO many excellent questions about the state of education. Some new studies have shown that doing less homework results in better performance (think: playtime, family dinner, less stress to "achieve"). The over-scheduling of our lives has surpassed the tipping point, and we, as individuals, as a community, as a country, are in desperate need of rebalancing.

A mother stood up after the film and said that her 2nd grader is suffering physical pains from anxiety over her schoolwork. What, 8 years old...and this is what we are teaching the student to focus on? This reminds me of a George Carlin skit, where he laments kids today not having playtime ...

(and I paraphrase): What ever happened to sitting in the yard with a fucking stick. And you dig a fucking hole.

As a parent-t0-be, I am a bit freaked out by this paradigm we have created. This year, my District has disallowed (ain't that a great word) physical contact during recess. Translation: no freeze tag.

What. The. Hell.

Let kids be kids. Let families be families. Let's work towards a change and let life feel real again. I am filled with hope at the prospect of change, and dismay that it will not happen. I don't have enough faith in the parents of my district to create a united front for change. After all, how will their kid get to Harvard if we relax the rules?