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Archive for January, 2012

I am anticipating that this post may be among the most unpopular posts I will write as a blogger. My position on this topic certainly did not win me the “most popular guy” award when I was a secondary teacher. I remember when Barry Goldwater ran for President; there was a saying that “He would rather be right than be President”. That was a testament to the man’s core beliefs. That seems to be a dying quality given the examples of politicians today. The point however is that sometimes there are issues that we must hold true to, even at the expense of our own popularity or acceptance by others.

As teachers, we accept the fact that we have to put aside our political beliefs in the role as educator. For the most part educators accept the fact that politics and education should be separated. We need to do this to explore critical thinking. We can talk about issues when appropriate, but hopefully, it will be in a fair and unbiased discussion of the facts and not the politics of an issue. Most educators accept this and support it as a concept. As a highly opinionated person, I often found this to be one of my most difficult goals to accomplish, but I believed that it was an imperative that I had to follow. I believe that most educators agree that there are some things that should not be brought into the classroom in order to maintain and promote an atmosphere for academic discussion free of negative influences of any kind. Of course there are subject-specific cases in social studies classes where political discussions might be appropriate.

As an educator, my observation of educators is that they are caring individuals who are people oriented. They love to teach and they love to help mankind in general. Helping people is in their DNA. It is that very trait that is the main cause driving too many educators to often for very good reasons do a very bad thing. Today, with our economy in the state that it has been in for the last few years, there are many opportunities for people to involve themselves with charitable projects either as individuals or as part of a group. Some of the most effective contributors to charities are individuals with access to groups of people. It enables them to access their sources for money, goods, or labor to help any charitable organization. The causes are always good with a heartfelt need for support. That is the problem.

Teachers, or administrators enlist kids in these efforts to help with all of the best of intentions. I agree that we should instill in kids the willingness to give and to help others. I must draw the line however at how we accomplish this. Too often some believe that in the name of charity that the end justifies the means. There are educators who tie children’s participation in a charitable event to the grade those kids will receive on a paper, project, or class participation grade. Ultimately, a student’s participation in a teacher’s selected charity, no matter how worthwhile a cause, will be reflected in a grade that is supposed to reflect student learning in a specific subject. Of course it is even more egregious when administrators support the efforts in the same manner on a school wide basis. I don’t know about other states, but this is against the law in New York.

To oppose this injustice to kids is usually translates to opposing a specific charity or even the act of charity itself. That is what makes dealing with this so difficult. I oppose it because it makes some kids uncomfortable. I oppose it because now, it places kids, whose families may be struggling financially, at an academic disadvantage. I oppose it because teaching should be about learning and not if kids can take stuff from home to give to a teacher’s cause. Few kids own money or goods. They get stuff from their families. If the families do not have it to give, why should the kids be put in a position to feel that pain and then be penalized academically for that as well?  They can’t get that extra credit that the other more financially capable kids are privileged to obtain. The fact of the matter is that many of the kids being asked to give, might very well be the recipients of charities themselves.

How to give is an important lesson. We should all learn that lesson and learn it well. However, we should not, as educators, attach a grade of any kind, for any reason to anything a kid does or doesn’t do in the name of charity. As much as we believe in a cause or charity we shouldn’t cram our beliefs down the throats of others especially if they can’t afford it. We can have collection areas for goods and money in common areas but not specific classrooms where people keep track of who contributes and who doesn’t. That maintains contributions and the dignity of individual students.

Now, I must go off to have a discussion with one of my daughter’s teachers, the thought of which prompted this post. This usually is a topic at Christmas time, but the economy being what it is, has focused this subject to be a more year-round discussion with more and more caring educators. And so goes the decline in my popularity, and reputation as a humanitarian. I do believe that as educators, if we are to have grades at all, they should never reflect whether or not a child’s family can support a charity.

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There are certain education conferences that people look forward to attending each and every year. Certainly the big national conferences with thousands of attendees and hundreds of vendors are the conferences most familiar to educators. The state organizations usually draw big crowds of educators as well. At one time this is how educators networked and saw the newest of the new, and the best of the best. All of that is represented at big education conferences.

With the introduction of the internet, conferencing as an activity has changed. There is a transparency to conferences that was not possible before. Social Media has armed educators with the power to report out exactly what is happening at any conference. Not only are there tweeted comments about the conference, people often comment on specific sessions for all the world to see, blemishes and all. For those who closely follow conference tweets through the use of hashtags, there are many horror stories of presenters who crashed and burned, having each and every flame described to the world in tweets from the audience.

A specific hashtag is created for each conference, so that it can be discussed on Twitter. The symbol, # starts the tag with a few identifying letters to follow. For example: the hashtag for the upcoming ASCD Conference will be #ASCD12. Anyone tweeting from, or about that conference will tag their tweets with that hashtag. Anyone wanting to follow what’s going on at that conference, need only create a follow column for #ASCD12, and each and every tweet about the conference will flow through that column. I have found TweetDeck and Hootesuite to be the best Apps to use for this purpose. Social Media people are beginning to gauge a conference’s success by the positive buzz generated by tweeters. Social Media savvy organizations are beginning to understand this and are developing Social media strategies.

Of all of the conferences dealing with education, there is one very small one (I think between 3-400 attendees) that creates the greatest Buzz with the Social Media connected educators. The audience of attendees is made larger by the Livestreaming of sessions over the internet to those who couldn’t attend in person.  For the last four years EduCon has taken place in Philadelphia sponsored by  The Science Leadership Academy, which is headed up by Chris Lehman, an outstanding educator, leader, and speaker. This conference differs from most others centering about education. There are very few vendors. There are very few formal presentations. EduCon is based on discussions lead by discussion leaders. The leaders present the topic which they have some stake in or knowledge of, and direct the discussion from there. It is a simple formula with no bells or whistles.

There is another thing that makes this conference different from the rest of the education conferences. Most of those big one’s have been around for years, and are learning how to adapt to social media. #Educon in many respects was born through social media. Most of the educators in attendance are connected educators. It is almost a requirement for connected educators to tweet their impressions out about #Educon at every session they attend. When you look at a twitterstream for the #Educon hashtag it is not a trickling brook, but a white-water rapids of a river racing with tweets of opinion, reflection, information, and occasionally adoration. If all conferences were only judged by the buzz they created, the EduCon would rival or surpass all the top contenders. I am sorry I missed actually attending EduCon this year, but I am keeping up with the tweets. I look forward to next year.

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Today,  #Edchat’s first Topic was:  Which should we support first for the best result, a reform in student learning (teaching methods), or a reform in teacher learning (PD)? I did have a preference when I made up the question, but I saved my opinion for the chat. There were a few comments about this being a question similar to: which came first, the chicken or the egg? I didn’t see it that way. I was simply looking for the most immediate way to affect needed change in a system that by many accounts is failing to meet goals, as its shortcomings are exacerbated by deepening dependence on data driven decisions based on high stakes testing results.

I have a unique position as an adjunct in the Department of Education in a small private college. I am a supervisor of student teachers in secondary English. My position enables me to visit and observe students totaling 40 to 50 visits a year in middle schools and high schools on Long Island, in New York. In addition to doing observations I often engage with cooperating teachers in discussions about their teaching experiences in their schools. I have observed over a long period of time that each school has its own culture. Some are teacher centered, and some are student centered. Some are tech infused, and some are tech deprived. Some districts are affluent and some have large pockets of poverty within the district. The differences not only vary from district to district, but also from building to building within a district.

It is the combination of the culture of the school combined with the leadership that determines the direction that any new teacher will take. They begin the job with the methods that they have learned, but the application of those methods, and their practice, more often than not, will be influenced, if not determined by the culture and leadership of the schools in which these young teachers have managed to secure jobs.  The career span of an educator goes from 35 to 40 years in the system. The big question is: How do teachers stay relevant in their profession over that span of years? If our society was based on stagnant information that had little change over the years, teaching would be an easy profession. However, over a three, or four decades of teacher’s career in the Twenty-First Century there are huge changes. Changes in methods, technology tools, and even content.  How do teachers stay relevant in this ever-changing world.

Many schools are set up with mentoring programs. Even without official programs the older teachers often take the fledglings under their wing to teach them the way of the school. This all works well as long as there is a healthy culture and a vibrant leadership. If however, there is an unhealthy culture, teachers who are burned out, resistant to change, unwilling to experiment and just putting in the time, that tends to perpetuate itself.

Professional Development is not usually done on school time. The school week is for instruction. There may be workshops offered on a voluntary basis after school hours. Usually there will be some type of Conference day during the year where development is scheduled. Occasionally, a consultant may be provided by the district for a training session on a pet project that an administrator saw at a conference. If there is a technology or IT staff, they may provide occasional workshops, but that is often a bells and whistles presentation of applications. For the most part PD decisions are left up to individual teachers to secure for themselves. This can be done by approved courses or workshops provided by colleges or professional organizations.  Again we are talking about decades of professional development along these lines. This is not true for every school in every district, but I believe it happens in some degree more often than not.

The idea of educators needing to volunteer time and in many cases money to obtain professional development is also a losing battle. As new teachers mature and begin having families, both their time, and money become scarce commodities. There is less available time after school hours. Money is needed for the family before Professional Development. Once an educator falls behind in developments in the profession it is difficult to know what it is he or she does not know. Many view this as a generational gap. I see it as a learning gap, having little to do with age. After not learning new methods, or technology tools of learning for a long period of time, and considering the rate of change with technology, how can educators make informed decisions on what PD they need? This again continues the cycle of poor PD and a resulting lack of reform.

How do we break the cycle? How do we address the needed Professional Development in an ever-changing culture over four decades for each individual educator. The present system does not appear to be meeting the need. There are no simple solutions. What is obvious to me as a connected educator would be to get everyone connected using the internet. Of course for all of the reasons elaborated here most educators are not ready for that solution. Stagnant Professional Development promotes stagnant professionals!

We need to take a fresh approach to Professional Development. We can’t hold people responsible for what they do not know. PD must be included in the work week. We must provide the time and support it with meaningful development. I do believe in giving people choices, but I struggle with the idea that some educators may choose to stay in their comfort zones when we need them to leave those zones behind. The PD must be tailored to specific courses and in some cases to specific teachers or administrators. Education must be addressed and discussed as a profession. Trends should be examined. Experimentation needs to be encouraged. Administrators must lead the PD and not just mandate it. By continuing to educate our educators professionally, we should be able to expect a resulting reform. I don’t see this as a chicken or the egg thing. To be better educators, we need to be better learners.

 

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I just finished reading another post on how educators oppose technology, Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools. The headline from the New York Times misleads somewhat from the content of the article, but it does support the seemingly anti-tech-in-education bias of the NYT. The focus of the article is on the resistance that educators and parents in Idaho are showing to legislation being moved forward in regard to mandating technology in education. As an ardent supporter of technology in education, one would think that I would wholeheartedly support this legislation.  The problem with any legislation dealing with education however is the ignorance of the legislators in regard to education and learning.

The fact of the matter seems, in this case, to be that teachers are opposed, not to the technology, but rather, the intent of its use, as well as the lack of support for training and implementation of the technology. I addressed this same issue in my last post, Another Tarnished Silver Bullet. The purchasing of mass quantities of technology to throw at students, while cutting back on teachers and salaries is not a well-lit path of enlightenment. Many or even most legislators may know about technology without knowing technology. They don’t understand how it is used as an effective tool for learning. They see it as a magical phrase that can be used to sound knowledgeable about what education needs in order to be effective. It is a sound-bite that may be THE Answer for education. It sounds very “Reformy”, and legislators are all about reform. They don’t get the fact that putting the boxes in the rooms does not get the job done. You don’t put someone in the cockpit of an airliner and expect him/her to get passengers across the country. When that flight tragically fails, legislators will blame the person for refusing to learn how to fly, and the airplane for not being reliable, while bearing no responsibility for forcing everyone into this position to begin with. Sound familiar?

Teachers look to technology as a tool for learning. Legislators see it as a way to reduce cost. It is a way to deliver more content with fewer personnel. If legislators were serious about really putting tech in education on a large-scale for learning, then they would put the money up for proper professional development and implementation. Teachers cannot be replaced by technology. Exposure to more content through technology does not enable student learning. It is the teacher who sets the stage and guides kids to use, create, collaborate, and learn with the technology. We learned the lesson that the TV screen does not care for and raise children. It is a helpful tool when parents control, monitor and regulate its use. We now have to understand the computer screen is not an educator unless it is combined with a teacher to stimulate guide and provide feedback on its use.

Of course, when this latest attempt in Idaho to legislate education reform fails, there will be plenty of blame: The intransigent, bad teachers who refuse to change, the greedy teachers unions looking to get more money, administrators who are just putting in their time until retirement. There will be no mention of ill-conceived and poorly planned legislation pushed through by overzealous politicians looking to benefit by hyping their participation in education reform legislation. It will be business as usual.

When it comes to our Legislators on the subject of Education, they seem to believe that a little knowledge goes a long way. Unfortunately, for us, and our children the opposite is true. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) an Essay on Criticism, 1709

A little learning is a dangerous thing; 
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

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