Tag Archives: education reform

Getting myself to move – Day 1 of #GTAATX

It was with mixed feelings that I traveled to Austin in the wee hours of the morning so that I could attend the Google Teacher Academy. Mind you, this is an opportunity only given to 52 educators out of hundreds of applications. It is an opportunity to sit in the collaborative, ideation tank that is Google for two days, immersed in networking and learning with some of Google’s brightest, and over 52 of the most creative leaders in education technology.

Still, I was tired, having spent the evening at a ladies event at my church and finally pulling into the hotel parking lot a little before 2 a.m. (after stopping three times because I was falling asleep at the wheel). Would I get enough out of these two days to make the trek worthwhile? Would I feel okay about missing two days of work and putting out fires in order to have this experience?

After Day 1, I have to say there is nowhere else I could have been today. Sitting in a small room with so many people who share the same vision and have the same out-of-the-box ideals and hopes was energizing. As I worked through the Google design process today, I remembered why it is that I am so passionate about the things I pursue in education. I could see that passion ignited in the others, who, as we had conversations at our tables, began to realize they were truly preaching to the choir – no longer speaking so passionately to deaf ears, their cries of reform and relevance were falling on ears just as enthusiastic as they were themselves.

This has been such an inspiring semester for me. The four-session series called the 4C Cadre (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking) at my district has reignited the creativity that had gone dormant in me. Miami Device in November put me with some of the greatest minds in EdTech so that I could realize the I, too, had something important to contribute.

  • Today, at the Google offices in Austin, I learned about the concept of moon shots and realized that, although my philosophy has always been about allowing baby steps from the teachers who I support, I needed to have a much bigger vision of where we are heading in order to make those baby steps mean something.
  • Today, I learned that there are a lot of people just like me out there – trying to change the world one teacher/student at t time.
  • Today, I learned, as Joe Marquez said, that “this is not MY classroom, it is OUR classroom” and we all share the same responsibility to teach and should be given the same opportunity to reach.

Blown away.

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Start with what we have

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann entitled Root Causes and the Save our Schools March. It was a very thoughtful post and clearly shows the sincerity of Mr. Lehmann’s education philosophy. In the post, he describes a classroom he observed and why he supports the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C.

I was directed there by a former collegue’s Facebook page, which shared the link, saying she wished she could work for a principal like him. After seeing who she was talking about, I knew that I would be writing a blog post about it.

You see, Chris Lehmann is in fact a really good principal. He is respected by many educators across the country, including me, as a forward-thinking education reformer. From his school, the Science Leadership Academy, Mr. Lehmann is able to try new things, make observations, learn from his teachers, and spread the word at conferences throughout the country. He is a true education leader. However, it isn’t all about the principal.

Principals have people who give them directives, who have people who give them directives, who have legislators who came up with the directives, who are following the lead of the nation’s leadership who have the ideas behind the directives. It all trickles down. Each individual principal has to make a decision about how much they are willing to put on the line for their vision. At the Science Leadership Academy, administration and teachers have the support of people who are able to provide a bit of an umbrella around them so that teachers can teach the way we all believe they should teach. Even as I type this, I’m thinking that Mr. Lehmann might have a different opinion – maybe he struggles against directives, as well, and just doesn’t make that as apparent to us as he highlights the really great things that happen at his school, and that is how it should be.

Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I listen to educators complain all the time about administration, about standards, about testing, about their students. I have witnessed educators whose response to something they don’t agree with is effectively a removal of good practices from their classroom. They decide to throw out everything they ever hoped for in their classroom and instead sit behind their desk and let their students figure everything out for themselves. While student-centered learning is a good practice, this type of learning is not – same lessons every year in the same sequence with a product of one PowerPoint with 13 slides, etc.

I have seen teachers who leave the profession because they didn’t agree with one administrator. I have seen teachers who turn into the teacher Mr. Lehmann described or the one I described in a post two years ago: Burnout: Trickle or Flood? They focus on what they don’t have. They focus on what they don’t like about their job.

They do not focus on what they do have.

They have students sitting in that classroom who want to learn. Those students have been conditioned to expect the burned out teacher instead of the one with a plan. They also have colleagues who share, or at least once shared, their vision.

Yes, they have standards they must teach. Tests they must proctor. Administrators they must satisfy. But 95% of the time they spend in the classroom, nobody is watching but the kids. They have control over the how in their classroom, even if they don’t have control over the what.

The end result – whether our students master the content – should be what we are focusing on. Any time we spend focusing on the negatives of our job is time we have stolen from children.

All of this is not to say I don’t see a need for education reform. I do. I just have an opinion about how it should come about. In presentations, I will often put  a picture of a mountain up. When it appears, I talk about the approach we have to take when we are tackling a problem and I see this as applying here, so I’ll share:

When we are climbing a mountain, we often lose sight of the top. We can’t necessarily see how to get up there – our view is obstructed by many obstacles and still others that we haven’t encountered yet. Once we get to the top and look down, we can see clearly the path we chose and the obstacles that path offered, but we can also see the path we should have chosen – the one with fewer obstacles – or the one with the kind of obstacles we could handle.

When we talk about education reform. We have to do it from the top down. As long as Washington is doing what they are doing, our states will do what they are doing, our districts will follow, and our principals will have to comply. As educators, we have the choice to either focus on the negatives or instead, to start with what we have. Run with what we’ve been given and make the best of it while we fight the fight from the top down.

I vote for starting with what we have.

A movement

I had the opportunity to attend the annual Podstock in Wichita, Kansas, this weekend. As I tweeted, using the hashtag #podstock2011 as instructed, I started to get replies from my Twitter followers – “what is podstock, and should I be there?”

This post is an attempt to explain, just a little, what Podstock is. If you “get” it, then you just might begin to think about what Podstock can be.

Podstock is a conference.

Or rather, it is an un– conference – with a conference-style format, the sessions lend themselves more toward discussion than traditional sage on the stage programming. Around 250 people attended this year, which is not quite twice as many as attended last year. If it doubles again next year, it will have outgrown its traditional venue, The Hotel at Oldtown.

Growth can be a good thing. The beauty of this conference, though, is the sharing and discussion, and I fear that could get lost if the conference gets too big. Even the vendor interaction is personal and relevant – I saw vendors participating in the sessions, just as enthusiastic and devoted as the full-time educators who attended.

Podstock is an attitude.

This was my first year at Podstock. I had a friend who had told me a little of what to expect, and I had done a little research on my own. I even attended a shorter Podstock of sorts in Tyler, Texas, (Podstock Pineywoods), where I had the opportunity to listen to the glue that holds Podstock together, Kevin Honeycutt. Kevin has a vision and a dynamic charisma that makes people want to learn, to share, and to grow. Kevin’s hope is for Podstock to become a nationwide movement, with small un-conferences happening on regional levels so that the original idea can be maintained with smaller attendance than the mega conferences that are becoming so successful across the country. Then it just might be a movement . . .

Podstock is.

Just when I was giving up on the value of attending an educational technology conference, there Podstock was. From the new technology adopter in a small school district to very advanced users in very large districts, educators came together for two days to share, discuss, and learn. It was an opportunity to dream, dream big, and start making connections that might actually facilitate true change.

Podstockers are a faithful group, often using personal funds and driving hundreds of miles to attend. They are what Honeycutt calls a “family” – these educators get to know each other well enough to be a support network outside of their profession.

“What is Podstock, and should I be there?”

Podstock was an exceptional experience. I would encourage any serious educators who have been finding traditional conferences lacking, and who want to get re-charged by finding others who are just as geeky as themselves to save the dates – July 18, 19, 20, 2012 – and start planning to attend.

Yes, you should have been there.

Why does it always surprise me?

I’m blogging from TCEA (Texas Computer Educator’s Association) this week. Yesterday, I spent the day at a pre-conference for Discovery Education, learning some great ways to digitize my classroom. The keynote speaker, Hall Davidson, had two interesting videos to show as a comparison of teachers and administration to show us who needs to be convinced about the need to go digital.

The teacher video showed rows of teachers in a session at a conference – all of them with laptops on, some of them with iPhones working, some with both going at the same time. Backchannels, networking, oh my! 

The administrator video showed a room full of well-dressed individuals. In the entire room, there was one netbook and a whole slew of laps with notepads (and I mean the paper and cardboard type), hands gripping pens busily taking notes.

This morning, I sat in a room full of people waiting to hear about Web 2.0 tools. I looked around and realized that there were only about 4 people, in a room of about 100, who had laptops. Unbelievably, the presenter started out talking about handouts. I had to stop and wonder – is this really a technology conference?

A person next to me, when she heard where I teach said “oh, that’s the paperless school!” She was all excited about it – the comment sort of depressed me. Although we were built to be paperless, actually getting every single teacher in the school to go paperless has been daunting and in fact, we do have copiers in our school, which is evidence that we have not gone paperless.

Even a presenter in the afternoon who is supposedly a 21st century leader in education talked about the fact that we would never be able to get rid of books altogether. Really?

What will it take for us to be able to let go of the paper?

What is it about mushed up, watered down, then dried out wood that makes us so dependent upon it? Is it the toasty warm feeling we get when we throw it in the trash after a class of students leaves the handouts lying on the floor? Is it the hefty weight of it in a backpack that we love to condemn our students to? Is it the chuckles we get from reading outdated information and pointing it out to students in the hopes they won’t believe everything they read in their textbook?

Why is it that we feel so compelled to give students something in their hands to read? Why can’t we let them find information on their own on the web?

Are we afraid they’ll read something that isn’t correct and take it to be fact? Then teach them how to discern.

Is it that we are afraid of them not being able to recall the chemical symbols for the first 20 elements on the periodic table on demand? Then teach them how to access the information another way.

Is it that we are convinced that if textbooks are found to be obsolete, so will we? Then learn how to teach without a student in view.

Anthony Robbins once said “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” It’s time for the education world to forget what they’ve always done and strive to do something they’ve never attempted. If I can’t find people who believe this at a technology conference, where can I find them?

Teaching Truth #11: Is It Our Fault?

I sat in a high school counselor’s office for way too long trying to understand why my daughter, who is one of the last class of students who gets to graduate under Texas’ old 3X3 instead of the new 4X4 still has to take 4 math classes, which means pre-calculus. Turns out that because she was smart enough to be in Algebra I as an 8th grader, which earned her high school elective credit, she only has two high school math credits (Geometry and Algebra II). This means my daughter, who will never ever need to know calculus on any level, will have to suffer through an additional year of math for nothing other than a mark on a piece of paper.

This also means that my two 8th graders, who also are going through Algebra I right now, will not only have to take Pre-Calculus, but Calculus, as well, in order to comply with the 4X4. Not to mention the fact that they will have to take advanced science classes to get their 4th credit in science.

All this got me to thinking, as I often do, about what exactly is wrong with education. I like to blame things on a lot of people – politicians, administrators, parents, etc. but rarely turn my eye on teachers.

Today I will. Although much of what I’m about to say can be blamed on politicians, administrators, parents, and society as a whole, the ultimate responsibility falls on us, the teachers. We have to start accepting that responsibility or else nothing will ever change in education.

What do I see as the problem? Standardized testing. Because of standardized testing, we are creating a society of students who are exactly the same. We take their individual strengths and dilute them while falsely pumping up their weaknesses to make them seem like little homogenized clones of each other. Is it any wonder that students hate school?

Is it our fault?

Bobby comes to school in kindergarten all excited and individual. From day one, we begin the routine. Everyone does the exact same thing at the exact same time. Bobby is taught to expect everything to be exactly the same for everyone and for everything to happen at a prescribed moment. By the time we get them in high school, our students, who desperately want to be individuals, are so beaten down that they begin to forget about what they really like. They leave their strengths behind and since they aren’t any good at those things we are forcing them to do, they lose interest and become mediocre at success.

I have a nephew who is extremely gifted but never graduated from high school. I look at the waste of his potential and I used to only blame him for not trying harder to fit into the prescribed formula his teachers wanted him to fill. Yes, he does have a great deal of responsibility for the fact that he didn’t fulfill his potential, but don’t we, as teachers shoulder some of that responsibility, as well?

We can say that we are forced by administration and the government to pound our students into uniformity. But are we, really? We are told that our students must achieve certain scores on standardized tests. Isn’t there a way to make that happen without compromising a students individuality? I think there is. We have to quit marching to the current education policies and start being our own individual selves.

As adults, we are told that we need to identify our strengths and build on them instead of focusing on bringing up our weaknesses. Why don’t we do that with our students? Encourage our students’ strengths and forget about their weaknesses. Identify teams of students who have varying strengths to form a cohesive group who can teach each other. Celebrate their individuality! Build them up when they come up with an alternative to something you’ve assigned. Give students the opportunity to explore who they really are instead of a carbon copy of the kid at the next desk.

Standardized tests, in my opinion, are wrong on so many levels. However, they are something that is here now and we have to deal with it. We have to stop letting the tests be our excuse. I firmly believe that if we forget about the tests and teach well, an irony will occur – our students will do well on the tests AND be individuals who can feel good about themselves, enjoy their education, and go on to be highly successful adults.

Stop the uniformity!

Teaching Truth #9: Don’t Let Go!

I was reading reviews yesterday, written by students, about a school at which I used to work. One of them jumped out at me. I’ve read and reread the review, reflected on my experience at the school, and come to realize the true issue.

First of all, a little background about the school. It was brought into being to be an innovative school, dedicated to educating students in a different way than the other schools in the district. It succeeded – in a big way. For several years, it was allowed to conduct its delivery of instruction in different ways than the rest of the high schools in the district.

Here is a snippet of the review that jumped out at me. “It has strayed from its original intent and purpose, opting to settle on becoming an average school.”

I thought about my experiences at the school. It is far from average. Full of educators who have life experiences that enhance the student experience, are dedicated to finding new and engaging ways to make a difference in their students lives, and an employability skills standard that gives students a real feel for what will make them successful after high school, this place was and is inspiring. Still, I have to admit that I did see a trend toward “average” while I was there. However, I do not believe the school opted to “settle on becoming an average school”, I believe the district has begun imposing its standards and conditions upon this exceptional school and is slowly turning it into a duplicate of its other high schools.

So, all of this for what? My next teaching truth:

Hang on to your ideals for truly educating your students. Don’t let go of those standards you set for yourself.

If you let district or even campus ideals for teaching to a standardized tests, you not only sell your students short, you sell yourself short. Your students will learn, yes, but not for the long term. They will not have fond memories of the “drill and kill” or the “gurge and purge” tactics. You will suffer, as well – losing sight of the reason you started teaching in the first place – because you want to help students get excited about their learning, because you want them to grow up and make a difference in the world. If you lose sight of excitement, you will come to dread your profession, and that is never a good thing.

In college, how many times did you read an assigned reading for a literature class and still didn’t know what it said after you finished? What was the purpose of having you read it in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been more effective to have had a lesson first, one in which your instructor engaged you, excited you, and revealed to you the hidden secrets to be found in the passage? What do you remember about your science class? Do you remember the lectures and the worksheets or do you remember the field trips and the experiments?

The school I used to be a part of still clings to its former self. It continues to promote field trips and real-life experiences. It continues to strive toward giving its students an edge in the real world by helping them to understand the difference between dressing for success and dressing for a date. It gives students a way of understanding how important attendance, punctuality and ethics are in the workplace. The question is, how long can it hold on?

In today’s world, where education needs true reform (and I’m not talking from a government level down, but from a teaching standpoint), we need to be clinging to what we believe. Your district wants results. If you can give them the same or better results using your methods, they will not complain and you may be able to effect change on a grander scale. You’ll be able to say, “Look what I did!” and dazzle them with what speaks to them – test scores. But you will be doing it in a way that your students will thank you for and that you will be comfortable with.

Don’t let go.