Tag Archives: high school

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.

The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.”  I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”

The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”

He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.

Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”

Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'”  Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.

Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.

In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?

I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options.  As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?

So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be?  We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.

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Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Wasteland

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This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.

Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire

I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month  underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.

Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.

 

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds  of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.

National Parks #clmooc Make 6

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National-Park_haikuWEB

The fiWEB20150730_122355_20138025332_onal project for the Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) took us to explore the National Park system as an open public space. Georgia has a plethora of National and State parks along with Heritage sites, Historical sites, National Monuments, and National Recreation Areas. I chose to explore a new-to-me park in Lithonia, Georgia. Arabia Mountain is an exposed granite monadnock still relatively unaltered by humanity. There was once a quarry there, but it is long shut down and the machinery removed. Because it is not heavily promoted and the signage is less than obvious, few people walked the mountain while I was there. (Granted, it was midday in July, and the 95 degree temperature may have had something to do with the solitude.) Still, it was easy to imagine early settlers and Native Americans hunting and living here. It is vast and rugged, but upon inspection, harbors all sorts of microscopic life and plants that manage to thrive without much soil. The views from the summit are beautiful, even on a hot and hazy afternoon. Buildings and roads are invisible, so it feels remote and isolated.

WEBArabiaMtn-38 WEBArabiaMtn-43 While I enjoyed my trek, I had to consider how I could incorporate this Make into a classroom scenario.WEBArabiaMtn-49

 Science and math might be natural fits: micro-biology and ecology are obvious, and geometry students could calculate the pitch of the mountain or determine the weight of granite slabs. Literature requires a little more creative stretch to incorporate. However, upon reflection, I see a number of ways to justify a National Park field trip for an English classroom. There is the historical value of oral storytelling, which was the tradition of the first inhabitants of this land. The area was also home to a community of freed slaves (the area bordered three different plantations) that became a prosperous town through the mid 20th century. NPR did a story about the Flat Rock community in 2008. Blending the Park with this history affords students the opportunity to write a historic retelling of the community or of fictional residents. This allows the students to research life in a specific era, a particular setting, and a historic climate about which little is known. Story is a key element of preservation, although it requires careful study blended with critical and creative thinking. As research, this is far more difficult than the “encyclopedia report”  many students do, but the benefits of learning curation from multiple sources ultimately proves practical well beyond the high school years.

WEBArabiaMtn-53 Research fulfills a number of standards in the Common Core requirements, but there are opportunities to use a visit to the Parks as impetus for creative writing. Many American authors wrote about nature (Jack London comes immediately to mind), and short stories featuring the land may inspire students to dig a little deeper into their own psyche or philosophies. Poetry may also emerge as a way to capture the vast beauty of the Parks.  A haiku or tanka (even a sonnet) poem embedded into a photograph blends creative thinking, art, and a structured form that touches the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy.

WEBArabiaMtn-80-Edit2In any education, National Parks are a treasure to consider, and many of them are accessible enough to encourage all students to visit, even if a school field trip is not allowed. Arabia Mountain is off the Path system of DeKalb County, a free to use paved greenway designed for pedestrians and cyclists. The Arabia Mountain website offers a number of ways to see the park.

A Fairy Tale and a Dream #clmooc Make #3

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This week’s Make challenge had me stymied. The premise revolved around game design: creating, remixing, and redesigning games and gaming systems. My first thought was that I know next to nothing about video games, and although I understand the appeal (not to mention my baby brother is a lead audio director for Treyarch), I don’t play them myself. I’ve read James Paul Gee’s work enough to recognize the potential of video games as part of project based learning, but it is beyond the scope of my experience.

Then I realized that “games” did not have to mean video games. I thought of board games and tried to think of new ways to remix them for my ELA classroom. My own creativity fell short, but several people came up with brilliant ideas that I may just have to steal. Margaret Simon (@MargaretGSimon) tweaked “Apples to Apples” so that players have to use random words to create stories. Deanna Mascle composed an adorable poem from old board game names and created a Muse game that may help collapse writer’s block. My favorite may be Julianne Harmatz’s “Capture the Quote“, which morphs Uno into a close reading tool. Brilliant.

Still, my own creative process stumbled over the “game” concept. I didn’t play a lot of games as a child and I generally wasn’t very good at them when I did. As I re-read the definitions of “game” #clmooc participants had tossed around, it suddenly hit me. I didn’t play traditional games as a child, it’s true, but I did play. I read voraciously, and the books stimulated an already active imagination so that my play became play acting. It should be no surprise that I spent several active years in community theater and my first teaching job was in Theater Arts. How many of us didn’t take on imaginary roles on our play? Pirates and princesses, aliens and androids: these dress up characters take on lives when we apply imagination.

The premise of my “game” is imagination. I grew up with my imaginary friends, most of whom were fairies who lived in the giant pink flowers of my wallpaper. (It was the 70s, what can I say?) However, my imaginary world and my books took me to fantastical places beyond looking glasses, through wardrobes, and beyond time.

Fairytale-Dream

“Two forces create eternity – a fairy tale and a dream from the fairy tale.”
Dejan Stojanovic

As for using this particular exercise in the classroom, I think it could be a way for students who “do school” to break out of the academic model for a moment and write or create for the pure joy of expression. It could begin with a question about childhood games and how they affect the growing up process. Who we are is largely determined by who we once were, so it is a legitimate thought for reflection. I’m still exploring this idea of “games” and I think I may be onto something useful.


Elements: mine (photography, wood overlay); Design Cuts (textures); DigiDesignResort ( a summer morning, first sun rays); Deviant Art (fairy dust wings by Jumper_stock, wings by stephanie_inlove, fairy wing by wolverine)

#walkmyworld: Reflection

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Back in late 1988, Michael Jackson released his album, Bad. I was student teaching 7th grade in Arroyo Grande, CA at the time, and decided to create a unit about taking personal responsibility for making the world around them better. Jackson was near the height of his popularity, so I used his song, “Man in the Mirror” as my central theme.  Of course, the internet didn’t exist, and even MTV was so new that it actually played music videos, but Jackson being who he was, every student knew the song. I recorded the song from the radio for reference and as a class we decoded the lyrics and analyzed them (I was cutting edge even then!) We created “mirrors” of tinfoil and constructed paper frames, writing poems on the silver about personal change. We discussed current events: the Cold War just ending, human rights issues in the Soviet Union,  uncertainty over China’s policies, economic challenges in the US, drugs, drought, and increasing Anti-Semitism. The bulletin board reflected light from the foil, while the students reflected for a moment the power of attitude. I discovered the role of relevance in the classroom.

Skip ahead a whole bunch of years, and #walkmyworld again considers self reflection, addressing the man in the mirror. Looking back at the headlines from 1988 and comparing them to headlines in 2015, and the stories are largely the same: wars and rumors of wars, human rights issues around the world, uncertainty over foreign policies, economic challenges, drugs, drought, and a rise in violence in the Middle East, a symbol of increasing (again) anti-Semitism. The old aphorism, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” sings true. In his poem, “Two Fusiliers,” Robert Graves wonders, “And have we done with War at last?”  The 2014 movie American Sniper was a huge box office success that told the story of the bond between war veterans because of the “wet bond of blood” they share. We have not done with war, as Graves had hoped. If anything, war is a constant in the 21st century.

 

shoe4

Putting my foot down for personal change.

 

So this brings me to the reflection of this week. Jackson’s song is a call to take responsibility for making the world better, not on a global scale, but by reaching out to the needy nearest us first. While we wait for governments to “fix” society, it continues its decline. The best of times are when individuals come together. We saw this as a nation in the weeks following 9/11. Jackson calls our normal state a “selfish kind of love” that needs to be replaced with personal change that makes a way to improve life for someone ELSE. It doesn’t take wealth or fame or influence to give of oneself.  The smallest things matter. I have given countless hats and scarves from my own head and neck to individuals who needed them more than I. It takes just a few seconds. I have sorted shoes for donations, served lunch in rescue missions, sung in nursing homes on Christmas day, and photographed memories for strangers who couldn’t afford a photographer for their events. I’m nothing special, but I did look in the mirror back in the 1980s and vowed to make a change that makes me see others in a different way.

To take this concept to the classroom would be such a easy thing: trash collection, scrubbing dirty and graffiti tagged walls, food drives or clothing drives to replenish the stores of the local rescue mission, and any number of other things that students can imagine. Let students brainstorm ideas. Give them ownership of the new vision and give them power to make it happen. Connect the service to poetry or song lyrics and biographies of people who have given of themselves (Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eric Liddell come immediately to mind). This particular learning event can serve as a springboard to all sorts of positive changes, one student looking in the mirror at a time.

Graves, R. (1918). “Two Fusillers”. Fairies and Fusillers.  Retrived from http://www.bartleby.com/120/4.html

Pearson: a Rant

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For all the research to the contrary, US public education continues to bow down at the feet of the mighty monopoly that is Pearson publishing. Although study after study demonstrates the need for education to be interested driven and project based in order to develop critical thinking skills, states, districts, and administrators turn to the easy solution, a one-size-fits-none approach provided by a single company.

Pearson has aggressive lobbyists, top-notch marketing and a highly skilled sales team. Until the New York attorney general cracked down in late 2013, Pearson’s charitable foundation made a practice of treating school officials from across the nation to trips abroad, to conferences where the only education company represented was Pearson….

The story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades.

Ever since a federal commission published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 — warning that public education was being eroded by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people” — American schools have been enveloped in a sense of crisis. Politicians have raced to tout one fix after the next: new tests, new standards, new classroom technology, new partnerships with the private sector.

K-12 superintendents and college administrators alike struggle to boost enrollment, raise graduation rates, improve academic outcomes — and to do it all while cutting costs.

In this atmosphere of crisis, Pearson promises solutions. It sells the latest and greatest, and it’s no fly-by-night startup; it calls itself the world’s leading learning company. Public officials have seized it as a lifeline.

How can a company meet the individual needs of students in a diverse nation such as the US? The short answer: it can’t. Yet every year, more schools turn to Pearson for a quick solution to a political problem. Teachers in the classroom are painfully aware that with every additional test from Pearson students fall further behind. They lose interest in the learning process as creativity is discouraged and interest-driven study is relegated to after school activities. Is it any wonder the home school movement is gaining steam? Critical thinking is developed by problem solving, collaboration, and desire to progress. Pearson’s single strategy does nothing but develop excellent test-takers who do not retain information because there is no context or relevance for any of it once the test is over.

Parents and teachers and voters need to insist that education is customized for the students in their districts. Student needs change from urban areas to rural, and geographical variances.  There are some common elements required, but once the basics of reading and mathematics  is established, education must offer flexibility if US students are to be competitive on a world market. Until the system values innovation, creativity, and self-driven learning, US students will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/pearson-education-115026.html#ixzz3S3UhOYVk

Lessons Learned While Shadowing Students

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Original article found here.
I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

mandatory stretch halfway through the class
put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class
build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.
Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.
Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

Twitter in the Classroom: Worth Considering

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Preliminary research seems to indicate that social media in general, and Twitter in specific, can be used successfully in the classroom as a pedagogical tool.  The first order of business, therefore, is to convince administrations and boards that there is a valid use for Twitter in the classroom. Like any new educational approach, it will take the boldest and most innovative to begin the trend of acceptance, but the same can be said of other educational devices. Chalkboards gave way to white boards and then to Smart Boards with a side trip to overhead projectors along the way. Film strip projectors fell away when reel-to-reel projectors became school standards. Since the dawn of video, however, those projectors are generally covered in dust in a warehouse, or perhaps, if fortunate, housed in a museum. Of course, the television and VCR on a cart has long been replaced in many schools by in room screens and DVDs or streaming video. Computers in the classroom were unheard of even 20 years ago, and schools lucky enough to have computer labs required floppy disks for memory storage.

 

Technology is evolving faster every year, and each generation of students has access to newer and better ways to communicate. The smart school board will search out ways to utilize the technologies already in the hands of their students. There is no extra cost to the school district, and students would lose yet another set of excuses for not knowing assignments and deadlines. Research at the college level is indicating that Twitter offers a positive change in student engagement when it is offered with specific scaffolding, explicit rules and expectations, and instructor modeling.  Students required to use Twitter in the classrroom ultimately had better grades than those for whom it was optional. Student community can be enhanced with particular hashtages and attention to privacy by employing school-specific accounts. Students can learn citizenship skills by participating in civil discourse with classmates or other students in other schools.

 

There is potential for Twitter to allow students to reach beyond the classroom and interact with the world beyond through use of specific hashtags. Communication skills may be enhanced by the 140 character limit, and tweeting may level the playing field between dominant classroom speakers and more reserved students who may never raise their hands in class. Teachers using Twitter have the ability to track backchannel discourse and make adjustments to teaching methods, even as the conversation is occurring. Teachers can personalize the learning environment, thus providing greater enrichment for students who need it as well as quietly remediate weaknesses for students who need bolstering. With appropriate boundaries for usage and intent,  Twitter offers a modern element for improved student engagement, which may, over time, lead to greater student achievement. At the very least, Twitter should be considered as a beneficial addition to the pedagogical toolbox.

12 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom: Creating a Global Classroom.