Thursday, July 21, 2011

Search Engines are Outdated

Search engines are outdated. Really. They're about, what, 10-15 years old in terms of popular use? And they have transformed the way we live our lives -- even our memory is changing.

And they're outdated.

I bet a lot of people who found their way to this page are part of why they're outdated. You may not know it, but let's think about it. I'll use education as an example, since this is a blog sort of about teaching. If you're a teacher and you need a good web-based resource, where do you go? 10 years ago, it may have been to Google. 20 years ago, it was to a colleague (though it was probably not for a web-based resource). Now, it's definitely to our colleagues. The difference here is that my colleagues are not limited to the 5 other 7th and 8th grade teachers at my school. It's much, much larger than that.

I, and many others, go to Twitter. Look at this post by Erin Ochoa:

A great question -- and a very appropriate place to ask it! Not only that, but it was the FIRST PLACE SHE WENT (I asked her -- another great thing about Twitter). Not to a search engine. Not to e-mail/call her colleagues (it is summer, after all). She went to Twitter. It's what we're all doing these days!

The search engines know this. Did you notice how Google and Bing have social networks built in? You can see live tweets related to your query. You can see things your friends have recommended. They know that we are in a social world, and a simple search engine isn't going to cut it anymore. We need something to cut through the garbage.

That something is each other.

Twitter is amazing with this. Google+ will be as well, but I imagine to a lesser extent (you don't know to look for information from people you're not already connected with).

My question: how do we bring this to the classroom? How do we move beyond search engines and into asking questions to real, live, knowledgeable human beings who know what we're looking for? Twitter's handy, but will we get parents on board with that? It seems too public. I'm really not sure how to approach this.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Most Influential Educator?

John Merrow posted his nominations for "Most Influential Educator in America" 2 days ago. Go read it if you haven't. Then realize two things:

  1. Nearly all of these people are not educators. Politicians and businessmen and women involved in education are not the same as educators, regardless of their influence.
  2. The question "who's the most influential educator in America?" is completely absurd.
Now, I understand a lot of people involved in education, especially on the policy-making end of it, are highly influential. Joel Klein and Arne Duncan are both incredibly influential, for better or for worse. They get people talking. But to call either of them an educator is, to me, really missing what it means to be an educator.

In one sense, everyone is an educator. But in the sense Mr. Merrow is using in his post, relatively few are educators. Professional educators are those he is trying to refer to. These would be your classroom teachers, librarians, parapros, etc. etc. Professional educators are those whose job it is to teach. They teach kids, they teach adults, they teach everyone -- whoever their students are, their job is to teach.

These people may also be policy-makers, but in different ways. For me, determining the most influential educators in America would require consideration of people like Dan MeyerPernille RippKate Nowak, and many other teachers who influence not only their own students, but other educators as well.

But beyond who is considered an "educator" is the question being asked. Who is the most influential educator in America? Well, let's think about where their influence would best be directed. Logically, it seems that influential educators are influencing their students. But I am an educator. . .and I'm going to be pretty surprised if I have more than zero influence on a student in central Iowa. I bet there are educators who are incredibly influential to that student, though. How do we leave them out?

You know who the most influential educator was to my students this past year? Me. For better or for worse (and there was a bit of each), I was the most influential educator to them. And next year, it'll be whoever their teacher is then.

The fact is, EVERY TEACHER is the most influential educator in America. To try to single out one, or even a handful, is to be looking at the wrong thing. It doesn't matter "which educator is most influential" -- that's looking at it from the eyes of an outsider to the education process. The view that matters is from the eyes of the students. Each and every individual student in this country. Who is the most influential teacher to them? The one teaching them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Class Size

Waiting for Superman made the claim (or at least supported the claims of others) that the most important thing in the classroom is a good teacher. Good teachers, the film purports, are more important than seemingly any other factor: poverty, parental involvement, classroom resources, etc. Of course, we know all those things (including good teaching, that incredibly difficult to define but easy to identify attribute) are incredibly important to the education of a human being in our schools.

Bill Gates, a huge supporter of good teachers (and finding ways to evaluate them), is also a big fan of classroom size arguments. He outlined in a well-read opinion piece a plan to put 4 to 5 more students in with the top 25% of teachers (once -- and if -- we figure out a way to identify who those teachers actually are). This is just shy of the 7-to-10 fewer students per class range that was shown to have "significant long-term effects on student achievement and other meaningful outcomes."

I'm not going to sit here and re-hash what has already been mentioned in a great article by Peter Smagorinsky. However, the idea of adding students to classes is not a new one, and represents quite a dangerous slope.

First off, again, this is nothing new. Class sizes have gone down when the economy allows for more teachers to work, and they have gone up as layoffs become more commonplace. It is an easy way for a district to try and save some money, and it's also an easy way to allow more student-teacher interaction when the money is there.

However, there are two slippery slopes involved here. The first has to do with which teachers have larger classes. We still don't have a way of identifying good teachers. Student test scores are not an effective way of measuring teachers, especially when that's not what the tests are designed to do. So how can we have that be for just good teachers? And what would cause those good teachers to want to do that? For the higher work load? So they can have less time helping each individual student? Administration's decision? What would happen, then, to those who aren't identified as the top teachers? That's not a battle I'd want in my school. Higher pay? Even though the Gates Foundation has a survey that says 83% of teachers would take a higher pay to teach more students, I don't see any numbers that say the top 25% of teachers even have a majority of them in that 83%. I'd rather have a teacher who was actually known to be good than one who just wanted more money for more students. But we don't have that metric. Not yet, and maybe not ever -- we'll see.

The other slippery slope has to do with the class sizes. Sure, there's evidence that adding 4 or 5 students to a class won't significantly change the outcomes for each student. But what happens when we do that twice in a couple-year period? Then we're past that 7-10 student mark, and outcomes are being effected. And let's go back a few years. Class sizes are already getting larger; in some areas, 4 to 5 more students a class would be over 7 students more than a couple years ago. Wouldn't, then, there likely be some adverse consequences for those students?

The thing is, to some extent, class size doesn't matter. But that extent is very small. It does matter for a lot of reasons (again, check out Peter Smagorinsky's article for a brief summary). And my last point: even though it may be better to have the best teachers have a few more students, what happens to those struggling teachers who are inadvertently included in that group? What about the 4th-year teacher who has done pretty darn well because they've had a class size they could manage, but now is overwhelmed with 5 more students? Where's the support for them?

We treat these "good teachers" as if they're not also in need of all the support they can get from administrators and fellow teachers. If we continue to put all the weight of our country's future on their shoulders, they're going to shatter. For a while, the conversation was on special needs students. Now, it's class size. What will tomorrow's be, and at what point will our good teachers collapse?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Who's Really Winning and Losing?

In the NFL, their current labor dispute has led many to talk about who may come out winners: the owners or the players. Meanwhile, many are asking the question: what about the fans? The thing is, with the NFL, they are a business whose primary goal is to make money. Their secondary goal is entertainment. So the fans aren't a part of the equation, as they are a secondary concern. As long as their marketing deals don't fall through, they'll still have their money, and will likely continue to sell out their games, for a variety of important reasons.

In U.S. Education, the latest dispute has been between teachers and their states. Unlike the NFL, there has been a significant decrease in total funding lately for public education, and there has been a lot of public outcry about where and how the needed cuts will come. This has led to a backlash of bile being spewed at teachers, demeaning the profession, and leading to many reforms that seem to have as a core belief the idea that teachers do not get better as they gain experience, and their job could be done by just about anyone.

Meanwhile, many who are speaking out against teachers are not asking the question many teachers are: what about the students? There seems to be this disgusting discussion about whether the teachers or the states are winning or losing (I didn't know there were winners and losers in education, but okay). But you know who's losing, no matter what? The students.

Imagine that you are a student, going to a public school this year. Being as you have a good teacher, you are encouraged to pay attention to what's going on in the world around you. So you do. And you hear how teachers are lazy, and how there is this magical formula for good teaching, and basically that these teachers need to get over themselves, because just about anyone could do their job. Are you going to respect your teacher? Maybe. Maybe not. But it may not matter what that teacher does -- your mind is probably already made up on the profession all together. And when there's that loss of respect, you're going to tune out what's going on in the classroom. And you, the student, lose.

But maybe that's not true. Maybe this antagonism of teachers hasn't given extra cynicism in our students about the educational system. But it certainly has given confidence to parents who are sure they know that the teacher is not doing the best they can for their little angel. And it certainly has dampened the spirits of teachers across the board. Those things alone can easily combine for a classroom that is not as uplifting and supportive of students as it ought to be. And the students lose.

But maybe that's not true. Maybe the students don't lose respect for the teachers, and maybe the parents are still supportive, and maybe teacher spirit is as high as it was before. But the state is still getting rid of good teachers and keeping good teachers from entering the profession. And there is less and less worthwhile help for struggling teachers who could use a little guidance. And the students are losing.

But maybe, just maybe, teachers do know what they're talking about. And maybe they'll be allowed to negotiate their wages in a fair way -- during the summer, or the "off season," as the NFL does. Maybe they research they do and the innovative practices they come up with will be supported. Maybe they will be allowed to teach the way they know how to teach.

And the students will win.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why I'll Never Be a "Good Disciplinarian"

Subtitle: and why I'm not sure I care.

I realized the other day that as I get older and more experienced as a teacher, it has added absolutely nothing to my classroom management skills. Well, scratch that. Wrong phrase. Experience has added absolutely nothing to my abilities to fairly discipline my students when needed. Recently, I've thought a bit about why that is.

First is the way I present myself in the classroom. This has a lot to do with it. Were I 6'7", 280 lbs. and could shoot lasers out of my eyes, I'd probably be a little better at having my students settle down when necessary. But I'm not. I'm 5'8", 150 lbs. (soaking wet), and I sit on tables and desks to talk with my students, with no laser-eyeballs. Not that this means I'm not going to be able to have my students listen to me, but it's a piece of the puzzle.

Secondly, I don't have a thunderous voice. I have a fairly mild-mannered way of speaking, and that adds to the thought that I'm a mild-mannered person who can be taken advantage of. Mild-mannered? Yes. Able to be taken advantage of? No. But again, a piece of the puzzle.

Thirdly -- and this is the big one -- I honestly believe that my students best learn -- in ALL aspects -- by making choices and having natural consequences happen. This means that they may choose to do their homework or not. I'm not going to force them. They may study or not. This also means they may choose to pay attention or not. I'll ask them to make the best choices, and I'll give honest reasons why they should. But ultimately, if they're going to zone out or misbehave in class or what have you, that's their choice. My main issue is when it affects the choices others are trying to make as well. That's where consequences need to come in.

And this is where I have difficulty. I'm not completely certain how to continue to have natural consequences when someone's talking is impairing someone else's learning. I'm not going to remove them from the classroom. I'm not going to give them all the attention they want. But I also can't let them continue to disrupt the class. Overall, I believe I need to do a better job of engaging them, but there are still times in every classroom that everyone needs to be able to silently pay attention to another person in the room, be it teacher, classmate, or whomever. I'm not sure how best to accomplish this.

We talk a lot in my room about why we need to act certain ways in certain situations. The consequences of our actions, especially when it comes to others. But how do I enforce this? It seems like any external consequence (demerits, detentions, name-on-the-board, whatever) cheapen the authenticity of my classroom. Is it possible to have an effective classroom management plan in place with real consequences that is also authentic?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why I'd Rather Give a Student Some Intense YA than THE HUNGER GAMES

If you're not sure what this post will be about, please go re-read the title. And yes, follow the insinuation that The Hunger Games is not intense young adult literature. Sure, it's a fascinating read, and kids are eating it up. I love the fact that there's a popular series out there that is pulling in regular readers and reluctant readers alike. And schools are embracing this, as it is so common to see 7-12 graders reading this series.

And part of that sickens me.

Why? Because these are the same schools who may be pulling books from classrooms or libraries because they are "objectionable" in their themes or content. I can understand that not every book is for every person. But if there's one thing a really good YA book does, it offers a safe place for the reader to engage in some difficult scenarios.

I'm not going to re-invent the wheel talking about this. Check out what Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) has to say about this: Open up the "Challenges to TWISTED" part.

Let's use Twisted as an example. First off, this book is not for everyone. There are many students who may not be great with this book. However, there are many more, typically reluctant reader boys, who need this book.

Why? This book talks, openly and honestly, about hormones, sex, suicide, teenage drinking, divorce, parent issues, bullying, and the struggle to find your own voice. And you know it does with these things? IT RESOLVES THEM. By that, I don't mean LHA puts a nice bow on each of them and says "this is what this means and how it should be handled." I mean she follows the choices of the characters through the consequences that result. So instead of having underage drinking happen and nothing result, we see where that can lead, in a very real way. Actions have consequences, and most of the book is about watching those consequences become wrapped up in each other, and finding a way to overcome them and get life back together.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins introduces a lot of other touchy subjects: murder, Communism, oppression, slavery, power, lying to further your own causes, suicide, sex, defying authority to name a few. And you know what? Most of these are left unresolved. Suicide is discussed as a positive option to giving in to an oppressive government. And this isn't dealt with; it's just there. Nearly every character lies, and in fact this is used to move the plot along. This is never resolved. Sure, we see some consequences, but many are just brushed over to continue the plot of the story. The brutality of murder is probably the only one from that list above that is adequately touched on.

To me, as a teacher, this is more dangerous than anything in Twisted. To read a dramatization of tough choices when the only consequences are the ones that lead to the desired resolution is not creating a realistic worldview for our youth.

Now, I think The Hunger Games are good reads if you're looking for something to read. But they're not going to change anybody's life. Good young adult literature has the ability to change someone's life for the better. However, it's often not given that opportunity to do so, because it is removed from the shelves before anyone who needs it has a chance to read it.

If we really did not allow our students to read anything with themes beyond the life experiences they've already had, there would be no reason to read anything at all. Not that it would matter; nothing would be read anyway.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Cutting Teacher Salaries and Merit Pay Cannot Co-Exist

There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately about teacher pay (though really, more mud-slinging than debate, from both sides involved). There's talk of "shared sacrifice" and how teachers are overpaid, and blah-de-frickin'-blah. The thing is, nobody wants to pay anybody less money. But the economy warrants such discussions. Okay.

But wait. Weren't we having the same conversations, just a few months ago, about merit pay? How good teachers should be paid more? There are certainly things to be said about both of these things -- cutting teachers' salaries and raising good teachers' salaries -- but let's look at just one big idea of each, with the understanding that neither idea consists of only the one piece I'm going to pull out. But it's a big piece of each of them.

Cutting salaries. One of the big ideas here is that teachers make more than their fair share of the public sector pot, so it makes sense to cut 'em a bit, especially in benefits and retirement, as that's what a lot in the private sector did a few years back (or never had in the first place). Underneath this, though, is the understanding that those who truly want to teach will teach so long as they can afford to do so. So as long as we don't cut too much (though for some, any cut will be too much), we'll still have those passionate teachers. And, don't you know, passionate teachers tend to be the ones more likely to engage their students, and those students will be better off. They may even test better. There's likely research to support this, but I don't have it on hand. The argument remains: cutting teacher pay will not cut our good teachers. They're motivated intrinsically by their own drive to teach and to teach well.

See where I'm going with this?

Merit pay. One of the big ideas here is that teachers who have proven themselves to be more effective (big can of worms there, but that's for another time) deserve to be paid better. Their results are better, they have shown to be more of a master of their craft -- let's reward them. And then, in turn, teachers will strive to become better so they can also earn some of this higher pay.

Wait. Let's rewind a bit here. If teachers are going to strive to become better to achieve a higher income, then that means that we're assuming good teachers are extrinsically motivated. They're going to be motivated by the money more than they are just the intrinsic motivation to teach well. Is this the same group of good teachers that is intrinsically motivated to not leave the profession under a lower salary?

I know teachers, good teachers, who would work harder for more money. They're in the minority. I know teachers, good teachers, who would leave the profession if they were paid less, even if they could survive on the new pay. They're in the minority. Most of us (good teachers) are not going to be severely impacted by changes in the pay scale. What we will be is outraged over being treated like pieces of a puzzle instead of people. We're outraged that our students are treated as mice in a maze, tested over and over and over again, and now it's finally our turn to be outraged on behalf of ourselves. We're outraged that even when we agree to pay cuts, it's not enough, and we need to not be allowed to bargain as a group.

Have the discussions that need to happen. Balance a budget. But treat those who are being tossed in front of the bus with some respect.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Let's Try Something

In response to some who have said teaching is a "part-time" job (either because it's not 12 months a year or because the days are short), I'm proposing an easy experiment. Keep track of how much you work this week. And, if you'd like, for the following weeks. You could keep track of time actually in your building, total time spent working, or both. If you're not a teacher, please list your profession as well. I know teachers work a lot, but I'm sure other occupations have very long weeks as well, though I'm not as familiar. Feel free to come back here and post weekly updates, so we can get a fairly decent sample from various weeks.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Grades

Ask any teacher you know the following question: "What is the thing you dislike most about teaching?" If there are no major events happening to the profession at the time (for instance, now the answer "lack of respect" might be more common than it was 15 years ago), I bet a high majority (let's say 75% or higher) of teachers would answer with "grading."

We need to take care of one thing before you read any further: grading and assessing are not the same thing! Assessing is an integral part of teaching. It provides the road map to each student's success. It gives the feedback teachers need on where their students are, and what they have learned and what they have not yet learned. It is how teachers know what to teach to their specific and unique students.

Grading, however, is the practice of assigning a score to these assessments (which leads to another discussion of formative v. summative assessments and the role grading plays, but that may be for another day). These scores may or may not be truly representative of the learning that has taken place.

In fact, I would venture to say that grades are more often not a true representation of learning than not. I say this because grades too often try to fit the student into a box created by the teacher to measure the student. I think grading actually interferes with learning for 3 main reasons.

First up: late work

Work is assigned to a student, and it's due in. . .let's say 3 days. Or, better yet, there's a big summative assessment end-of-unit test. But what if that student's not ready to demonstrate their knowledge yet? Oftentimes, it doesn't matter (full discussion on late work pending, but check this out in the meantime), because we assigned the deadline and by golly, the material had darn well better be learned by then! Or else!

. . .

. . .

Or else what? Or else the student will never learn it? Or else they will always be lumped into the group that couldn't quite get it? Oh wait, that brings up number two:


I'm not talking about formal "these are the smart kids (but don't call them smart kids!), these are your average kids (but gosh, "average" sounds so. . .[what, average?]), and these are your slower kids (hey, you can't call someone slow! It'll destroy their self-efficacy!) tracking." I'm talking about informal "this student is generally an A student, this one a B student, etc." tracking.

But wait -- some students are A students, or B students. Even when we don't label them that, it's how they perform.

Really? So we can't put these students into groups, so we'll put them all in the same classroom and still end up slapping a label on them. But instead of "gifted" or "exceptional" or "at level" or whatever the latest PC term is for a slow learner (quick aside -- I think "slow learner" gets it best. They're still capable learners, just not at the same pace: see "late work"), we put a label on them of "A student," "B student," etc? This does not allow the student adequate room for growth.

Case in point: imagine a student who completely bombed the first half of a marking period. I mean, just was awful. Didn't turn work in, didn't participate in class, and had a grade that reflected this. We've all probably had this student. Well, imagine this student then turns the corner. Work starts being done. Learning clearly improves. This student is now passing tests and participating in class. So the end of the marking period comes, and it really would be great to give this student a grade that reflects where they are at that moment. But because of how low they were at first, they have no hope of passing the class. It doesn't matter if it just took them awhile. They were a failing student, and no matter what they did, they were not going to earn enough points to pass. They remain a failing student. And now, fresh slate, but they're right off a marking period that they failed, instead of a "C" or so which may have been a better representation.

Sure, the grade could just be changed, but isn't that defeating the whole purpose of grading in the first place?

Lastly, it just doesn't make sense.

Grading doesn't make sense? Sure it does! It's how we can measure student learning!

Okay, fine. It's how we can measure student learning. But is it the only way? I would say no. We can find other metrics to use than letter grades (more on that further down). But it doesn't make sense because it is a completely false incentive. Students don't "learn" to learn. They "learn" to earn a grade. I did a K-W-L recently, and the students honestly said they wanted to know enough information to pass the test. And then what did they say they learned? Enough information to pass the test and then forget it. And you know what? They were spot-on with this self-assessment. That may be more of an argument against unit tests, but I think it applies here, too.

If they're working for the grade, they don't care about the learning, they care about the grade. If the grades are taken away -- what's left? The void is going to be filled with something. If you think chaos will ensue, I don't think you give your students as human beings enough credit. Humans are curious. I don't want to sound all Piaget on you here, but we want to make sense of the world. If grades are gone, who owns the learning process? I don't think it's the teacher. I'm pretty sure it becomes sole possession of the student -- where it ought to be.

This is quite long now, so I'll try to wrap it up. Grading is really hurting our students' learning, and I think all teachers know it. Deep down, we know that even if grades provide the motivation our students need to desire to learn, it's a false motivation and it completely throws what they're trying to learn off course.

So what do we do? We find a new way. How about honest feedback? How about we actually talk with our students about what they're learning? How about we invite them, especially the older students, into the assessment process? "What did you learn here?" is no longer an exploratory question, but a raw, honest question. "No, really, what did you learn?"

I don't think this will work for all students, at least not right away. But I think we need to stop making grade-junkies (apologies to Alfie Kohn) out of our students, and put them back in the driver's seat of their learning. And then we teachers can spend our time doing something more productive for the students.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Are you sick of higly-paid teachers?"

We've all seen this in one form or another, whether it be the current derivation (recently most frequently found here -- requires a facebook account to view), or some other form of the same argument through chain e-mails or other forms over the years.

It needs to stop.

It's whiny and pedantic. It's making a terrible argument as a joke to get people to think and talk -- and it is getting people thinking and talking. The problem is it's getting teachers and their friends saying things like "this is the boost I needed today," or "yeah, we are underpaid," somehow basing this off of the numbers presented in the note, and having those who really are sick of highly-paid teachers say things like this:

"If king for a day, I would eliminate “Education” degrees - one of the most irrelevant degrees today. I want a teacher with a major in a real subject matter (science, math, English, etc) and not a degree in “how to teach”. I've read articles that entrants into “education” colleges are in the lowest 25% percentile - so the kids are being taught by the lowest intelligent grads."

"If I were czar, I would require **all** teachers to take and pass Calculus I for engineers and science majors. They would sit in the same classes, shoulder to shoulder, with the geeks.
Do teachers need Calculus to teach? No, of course not, but it would assure that they had a high enough IQ to be entrusted with a classroom of children. It would help prevent having math phobics teaching classes and passing their bias on to their students. And...Maybe having taken and passed Calculus the teachers would reject the nutty methods that are being used today to teach math.
Also...I would require all teachers to take and pass, once every three years, the GED for high school drop outs. If they can’t pass the GED then they shouldn’t be anywhere near kids as a teacher.
It is my guess that large numbers of government teachers would fail the GED, even if given a month or two to prepare. They would likely fail the math portion."

This is the reality. This is how some real people honestly view teachers and education (for more negative comments, check out Free Republic). These comments are based in falsehood, but they're real comments brought forth by this note. That brings me to my main point: this note is damaging to the teaching profession.

It's damaging because it unfairly compares the profession of teaching to the job of babysitting. Teachers know this is tongue-in-cheek, but the connection is still there. Nobody really thinks teachers are glorified babysitters, but here we are, making that argument, jokingly or not. The fact is, teachers are the brunt of a lot of criticism these days. Some of it deserved, and a lot of it not. We don't need to force our way into more undeserved criticism. We need to build up the profession.

Instead of arguing about pay in this manner (any job could do that, and it would show that all jobs are grossly underpaid), how about we proclaim the things we do as teachers? How about we talk about the training we all receive -- most of it while we are in the profession? How about we talk about the time we truly put in (one post at Free Republic mentioned requiring teachers to work 10 hours a day -- anybody else laugh at this being an underestimate?)? How about we stop making comparisons to the business world (since we're not in the business world), and start making professional comparisons? By this, I mean go ahead and compare us to lawyers and doctors and other professions. We, like them, are professionals, and have high standards. If a doctor screws up, there's a mighty lawsuit on his/her hands. If we screw up, we should also be held accountable. If this is the reality (which I purport that it is), we need to stop running from this.

Of course, the other reality, that we need to make known, is that there is currently no fair way to judge a teacher. There's no objective method that works. If a doctor were judged by the patients he/she has who don't survive after treatment, every doctor would be fired. Some just can't be saved, no matter how hard he/she tries. This is understood. The same is true of teaching, yet that is not understood. I don't know a single teacher who gives up on any student, just like I don't know a single doctor who gives up on any patient. But they don't all make it. That's the reality.

The other part of this reality is that teachers are only a piece of the puzzle that makes up a student's education. There are teachers, support staff, administrators -- these are all the paid positions. There are also parents and friends, who are probably more valuable to the individual student than all the paid positions. There is no formula, no equation that accounts for all of this and ends up with a grade for a teacher. There probably never will be.

And there shouldn't be. Teaching is a profession, not a job. We want that respect. We feel we've earned it. We need to act like it, even when the rest of the world doesn't treat us that way. That's what will make it a profession.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Presidential Medal of Freedom

I enjoy sports. I enjoy them a lot. The competitive nature, the mathematics, the essence of humanity sometimes coming out in the field of play (not mentioned here: greed, pompousness, vacuum of money). As a fan, I watch some sports chat shows (notably Around the Horn and PTI on ESPN over dinner). They've mentioned lately two recent Presidential Medal of Freedom winners: Bill Russell and Stan Musial. Bill Russell is certainly deserving for what he accomplished as an athlete and coach, and especially for what he has done for civil rights. If I was in charge, I don't know if I would have awarded anything like this honor to Stan Musial, but I'm sure there could be far worse honorees.

But I digress from my main point. I went to check on who had won the Presidential Medal of Freedom (pretty much the greatest award a non-military U.S. citizen can be given), particularly in the field of education. 15 people have been honored for their work in education since the award's resurrection by JFK in 1963. Of these, best on some quick research, one -- ONE -- has done most of his/her work in K-12 education: Margaret McNamara, the founder of Reading is Fundamental (which, by the way, is in severe danger of losing all federal funding). That means no curriculum designers, no K-12 teachers, no K-12 administrators, nobody who is in the schools day in and day out. I think this is ridiculous. I also think this is likely to change in the coming years, because of the ubiquitous nature of blogs, Twitter, et al. So, who is going to be the one to break through? We all have a wealth of information, and a wealth of talent. This all adds up to the ability to make a lot of positive changes. For my money, I'd nominate Dan Meyer for his "What Can You Do With This?" idea. Bottom line: it's time that we, as teachers, make the impact we truly can. Social media has made this more possible than ever. Let's go grab the horns.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Homework is Essential?

"Homework is an essential part of learning."  This was just said to advertise a bit on helping your child remember more that will be aired on a local morning show tomorrow morning.  This was said, without qualification, and without hesitation.  Most people, both in and out of the world of formal education, probably wouldn't bat an eye at this.  But it hit me, as I'm sure it will many others, like a slap across the face with a sack of bricks.

Homework, an essential part of learning?  I'm sure many would concede that homework is an incredibly common part of school, if not essential.  I myself assign homework most nights in most classes.  But you know what I'd like to do more than assign homework?

Not assign homework.

I hate assigning homework.  I hate discussing a concept with my students, either through class discussion or group exploration, and then saying to them "Great!  As a class, you guys understand this.  Now, here are some exercises (rarely, they're problems) for you to work on in small groups in class for the remaining 10 minutes, or by yourself at home.  Oh, and the odd answers are in the back; I know that, you know that, so you better not get those wrong.  Have that done tomorrow morning."  I don't understand how this makes sense.  Yet I do it.  My students don't like it (most of the time), they don't do it to learn -- they do it for the grade.

So what's the point here?  Am I just ranting a bit over something I saw on TV while I have a fever (yeah, possibly)?  But are we still doing homework?  Really, teachers?  Homework was a great idea when we got out of the chalk-and-slate world and into textbooks, paper, and pencils.  Learning exists beyond the walls of the classroom, now more than ever.  If we box our students into doing exercises for homework, what are we missing out on?

What if the "homework" (we need a new name for that, by the way) was a way for the students not to take the classroom home with them, but a way for them to bring their world into the classroom?  We can solve equations anywhere.  Why waste time that they could be gathering data and wondering about the world around them on that?  Homework can and should be for students to gather pictures, videos, and other evidence of the world around them to support what's going on in class.  We can't be in all of their lives (nor should we be -- that'd be creepy and potentially illegal).  But they are.  They can bring that to the room (they do anyway, emotionally).  How can we make use of this?

Wow, that got a bit off-topic and rambling.  No more blogging while sick.  But the point is this: is homework an essential part of learning?  Essential?  I don't think so.  If we have it, let's make it worthwhile.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Escape from the Textbook Notes

My notes from the Escape from the Textbook Conference stream.  All times are Eastern.

12:16 We're getting started.  On time (essentially).  I like it!

Escape from the Textbook

This is a late notice, but there's a live stream of a conference called "Escape from the Textbook" that begins at 12:15 Eastern.  It goes basically all day, until 6 (it's actually west-coast based, so that's why the late times).  Check it out if you get a chance; I know I will!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Top Jobs of 2011

CareerCast rated the top 200 jobs of 2011, as well as the worst 10.  The tops?  Software engineer, followed closely by mathematician, and then a big jump to actuary.  Apparently mathy/statistical jobs are awesome.  No surprise to me.

What's last?  Roustabout.

Their formula uses 5 main criteria, which then break down further: environment, income, outlook, stress, and physical demands.  The tops and bottom begin to make sense when looking at just those criteria.  Desk jobs have decent environments, good income, low physical demands, and potentially low stress.  Working on an oil rig is essentially the opposite.

Well, I was curious.  Where would teacher land?  I would think the stress would be somewhat high, with parts of the environment being good and parts being bad.  Where does this formula put teacher?

100.  Behind librarian (29), school principal (41), teacher's aide (91).  Also behind astronomer (22), barber (76), and telephone installer (97).  What's right after teacher?  Surgeon at 101.

It's an interesting list; check it out!

As for the students. . .there are certainly some good math applications here.  Would a better formula be more accurate?  How do the intangibles of a job factor in (and is there a fair way of doing that)?  Could the students come up with a different formula they would trust more?

Language arts applications: do you agree with the rankings?  Could someone be happy as a roustabout?  Could someone be unhappy as a software engineer?  What would make a good job for an individual?  What would make a bad job for an individual?  What would make a good/bad job for you?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Good Teachers are Good

Do these results surprise anyone?

The "surprising results?"  "When highly effective teachers are hired, not only do their students' test scores improve, but the scores of students in classes they don’t teach also get a boost."


Teachers become better teachers from each other, and oftentimes, teachers are inspired to try new things by just chatting with other teachers who try new things.  Also, teachers can have a positive influence on their students that carries over to other classes those students have, which creates a better learning environment for all.  This shouldn't be news.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Re: Super Bowl

I think I found the response to how I'll use the Super Bowl in my classes.  I'm going to be teaching "The Star-Spangled Banner" as literature in a couple weeks.  This snafu by Christina Aguilera should prove helpful (comments on YouTube NSFW or school):

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Egypt and Social Media Lessons

As we all know, a country shut down their ENTIRE INTERNET (both its hosted sites and accessibility) to try to quell a revolution.  Facebook and Twitter seem to be the main culprits.  First off: whoa.  Secondly, and I think this is key: it didn't work.  These websites are merely the tools of social media, not social media itself.  The spirit of social media lies within its users.

Ready for a favorite question of mine?  So what?  Well, let's not ignore the social media message here: outlets like Facebook and Twitter are here, and they're pretty important right now.  They may not be around forever, but humans will always find ways to use whatever tools they have to connect with each other.  So how do we use that?

Or maybe it's not important how we use it, but that we use it.  As a teacher, I have a professional facebook account.  This allows me to connect with students and parents in an easy way.  I can post information there, random videos, fun little quotes and sayings, and there's a level of connection.  I've tutored students through facebook, answered questions about projects, etc.  That's a basic and simple use.  But social media is here.  Let's not be afraid of it!  Let's find ways to best use it for our students and for our schools.  It's free and it's easy to use.  Why would we not figure out how to make it work for us?

Super Bowl

Last year, over 106 million Americans watched the Super Bowl, making it the most watched television show ever.  Sports fans watch it because it's the biggest NFL game of the year.  Non-sports fans watch it because the commercials are the most anticipated set of commercials during any one show; nearly all of them will be new, and most will have high production values.  People will talk about the game at least for a few weeks or months; they may talk even longer about the commercials (if they're memorable enough).

So what?  Well, come on, teachers!  106 MILLION people are all going to be watching the same thing.  I don't know what the demographic breakdown is, but I bet a good 75% of middle school and older students will be watching the Super Bowl (and commercials).  All of these students will come to school the next day with a common experience among them.  Incredible!  The only other times this could happen would be incredibly major news events (which cannot usually be planned) or huge local events (town fairs or something of the sort).  But with these events, not every student is going to have the same experience.  With the Super Bowl, while their environment will be different (are they at a party or by themselves or maybe just their family?), they will all see and hear the same thing over the course of about 4 hours.

With apologies to Dan Meyer, What Can You Do With This?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tough to Get Going

After an exhausting 2 weeks (end of the first semester of my first year at this school + a 4-day trip with my former school to Washington, D.C.), I find myself back to where I usually am when it comes to blogging: stuck.

I find that while I have ideas floating around, I can never seem to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).  This is a recurring theme of my life on the Internet: I start, and fade away.  Start, and fade away.  Start, and fade away.  I look at some amazing blogs out there, and I wonder: how do they do it?  How do they maintain a life as a teacher and yet still have the time and energy to share that with everyone else?  How do they have the organization necessary to do all that?

So. . .how is that done?

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Just get out there." Yeah.

So I was reading my Edutopia RSS feed, when I came upon this gem:

In it, Andrew encourages teachers to just get out there and try things.  I couldn't agree more.  I seem to be repeating myself to anyone who will listen, but the art of teaching will only continue to grow and evolve if we, as a teaching community, try new things.  If we keep on doing the same thing over and over again, we will never get any better.  It seems obvious that we shouldn't teach history courses with the same material we did even 10 years ago.  Why do we insist on teaching other subjects in the same way with the same material?  Technology's changing; we should figure out how to use that.  New things are being discovered in science and math all the time.  Let's use this!

Of course, teaching does change.  Someone figures out a way to make something more teachable or in a new and engaging way, and slowly that spreads to others.  With the Web 2.0 burst a few years ago, this whole process is sped up immensely.  But still, we each have a choice: do we want to be the teacher figuring things out, or do we want to be those who change because of what others have figured out?

To me, the choice is clear: we should all be those who are trying new things!  And let's not lie to our students about it.  I have tried new things throughout the whole year with my classes.  Being my first year at this school, I suppose that's part of the territory.  But when I try new things, I'm not going to have my students think I know exactly what's going to happen.  I tell them I'm trying something new, and it might work, and it might not.  As a class, we might all fall on our faces.  Or we might do some pretty awesome things that make our classroom better.

Latest example: I gave my students a small notepad, calling it the "Book of Wonder."  In here, they are to jot down anything they wonder about throughout the day.  They're middle schoolers.  They're curious about just about everything.  When they have something they want to talk about as a class, they write it on a separate card (to not tear apart their book), and put it in the "Wonder Box of Wonders."  Then, I try to take their curiosity and work it into what we do in class.

Will this work?  I have no idea.  It's been 2 weeks and I haven't been able to incorporate anything yet.  But if I can never work anything into the curriculum, is it a failure?  No, and here's why:

For the first 3 days, my students were writing in these books constantly in my class and in their other classes.  I should have given the other teachers a heads up on this, so they would be able to manage this in their room.  Learning moment for me.

For the first 3 days, my students were writing in these books constantly.  Most of this was valid, though some certainly was just joking around or posturing for their classmates.  One student made a flipbook.  But they were thinking and writing about what they were (and are) curious about.

Within the first week, a facebook group was made.  In this group, my students are posting things they wonder about, and are answering other people's wonders.  They range from serious ("I wonder why there are holes in Swiss cheese") to less serious, but valid ("I wonder if we'll have a snowday tomorrow") to middle schoolers figuring out their emotions ("I wonder why life has to be so hard sometimes" and "I wonder why some people at our school are really mean").

Even if I am never able to use their wonders in class, I view this as a success because they're thinking and sharing with each other.  They're not afraid to be curious.

So we need to get out and try things.  What's the worst that happens: we fail but learn from it?  Teachers afraid to learn?  That sounds dangerous to me.


Hello, to whomever may be stumbling upon my blog here.  I've tried a few times in the past to get a blog up and running, and always found difficulty with it.  Now that I'm taking a course that requires blogging (and will hopefully provide pointers with how to do so), I may find it easier to stick with it.

I'm just another teacher doing what he can to reach his students.  I live and teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working with 7th and 8th graders mostly in literature, but also with pre-algebra and religion.  I love teaching all three classes, with a soft spot in my heart for each of those subjects, and also the connections between them.

I suppose that's all for now.