Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday Video: A Charlie Brown Education

Moved the video up one day in honor of many being off tomorrow.  I think one among many of the touching elements of A Charlie Brown Christmas is Charlie's quest for the true meaning of Christmas amid the commercialization of the season. It makes me wonder about how the true meaning of education can get lost amid the standardization of the system. Maybe that's why so many students hear "Wah wah wahwah wah" when they should be hearing inspiration for their future.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

...Wonderful Time

"It's the most wonderful time of the year." No matter how you celebrate in December--the lights and tinsel, the gifting and partying, the beauty of new fallen snow and joy of time spent with old friends and family--it is delightful. Whether your holiday journeys have you walkin' in a winter wonderland or wondering as you wander, only the Scroogiest among us remain non-wonder-filled. And even Ebenezer was won over.

Have you ever wondered what wonder is? Some say it is a kind of awe, but that makes for strange translations: "It's the most awful time of the year" doesn't have quite the same jingle. Aristotle said that wonder, the desire to know, is what makes us uniquely human. Anyone who has seen a dog tilt its head knows that animals must wonder, too, but do they take the same delight in wonder that we do? Wonder is inquiry that we delight in. When we are wondering, we are meaningfully engaged in a curiously human experience. And as human, we have an unlimited and insatiable desire to understand and know. Our capacity for wonder has no upper limit. Wonder is curiosity at its hap-happiest.

One curiosity I have, is whether wonder is invited into the school day and year in the same way it is welcomed into this holiday season. Given that it is the force behind engaged understanding, knowing, and deciding, it should be the first guest to arrive at the party and the last to leave. If what passes for wonder in a classroom is questions that have students trying to guess the answer a teacher has in her head, bah! If the only things students are wondering is what questions will be on the test, then it's a humbug (<--haven't you ever wondered?). QISA's Condition of Curiosity & Creativity welcomes neither. Imagine students singing of September to June, "It's the most wonder-filled time of the year!"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

45 Million Can't Be Wrong

In case you missed it, December 10th's Washington Post carried preliminary news of the Bill and Melinda Gate's Foundation's $45 million study of teacher effectiveness. Though the final report is not due for another year, foundation spokesperson Vicki Phillip said of these results: "In every grade and subject we studied, a teacher's past success in raising student achievement on state tests was one of the strongest predictors of his or her ability to do it again."

Um. I am sure the actual report will have more details and make an important contribution to improving teaching, teacher training, and teaching evaluation. But when, according to the Post, the central finding of this $45,000,000 study "indicates that teachers with 'value-added' ratings are able to replicate that feat in multiple classrooms and in multiple years, I have to wonder what they spent the other $44,999,999 on.

For my money the only finding they needed was that "the average student is able to recognize effective teaching." Given that, save a few bucks and go to Million Voice for getting students' input on school level factors that make for effective teaching and learning and iKnow My Class for getting students' input on classroom related factors for the same.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What is Senioritis?

My oldest is in college and my youngest is a senior in high school, which is what prompts this "Monday musing." Both are good students and both attend(ed) the same good high school and both got senioritis at about this time. Not so much so that it impacted their grades significantly, but both more or less were done with high school half-way through their senior year. Why?

I used to think senioritis was laziness. Having been accepted into college or the military or made other plans post-graduation, 12th graders simply checked out. Why work hard when you don't have to? Why study for tests when you can get by, having mastered the game, with cramming or without studying at all? They tell you that those final semester grades count and that they will be part of your transcript and wah wah wahwah wah.

But the preliminary results of this year's Million Voice Project tell a different story. Seniors are more bored and less engaged than any of their school mates in other years. And these results are long before most colleges have sent out their acceptance letters. For example, just 45% of 12th graders say they enjoy being at school. Fifty-four percent (54%) say that school is boring. And only one-third (34%) agree that school helps them understand what is happening in their everyday life. Maybe senioritis is laziness. But maybe it is the ongoing lack of relevance in our current educational approach that has these students, mine included, disengaged.

If this is not relevant to you...let me put a different spin on it: Why do students (and teachers?) rejoice over snow days?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ski Slope

Yesterday, during a meeting, Russ Quaglia said, "I keep telling people, 'I'm not  as concerned with where kids are from as I am with where they are going!'" Where are kids going? I'm not only asking this in the sense of what are our students aspirations, their dreams, their sense of their future. While that is the core of QISA's work--helping students discover who and what they want to become and inspiring them in the present to get there--I also mean: What are the trends for students? What is moving forward in schools?

Here are some preliminary results from one indicator in the Pearson Foundation's Million Voice Project:

I chose this indicator because as both a parent and educator I think effort is one of the most important elements in education. Carol Dweck (1986) pointed out some students attribute success in school to one of four causes:
  • internal stable (I'm smart/I'm stupid)
  • internal unstable (I work hard/I'm lazy)
  • external stable (I go to a good school/I go to a bad school)
  • external unstable (the teacher likes me/the teacher doesn't like me)
It is no surprise that those who attribute success to their own efforts (internal unstable) are more successful than those who believe their efforts have little impact. The fact of the matter is putting forth your best effort makes a mountainous difference.

Does it chill you, as it does me, that one of the slippery slopes our students are on in schools is giving less and less effort from year to year?  Nine out of ten (90%) 6th graders report that they put forth their best effort at school. From that height, students slide down hill until just two-thirds of 12th graders report that they put forth their best effort. Keep in mind this is a self-assessment. These are not kids trying to snow us with feigned effort when we can see they are not really trying. One in three students is telling us they are not putting forth their best effort. "I know I could try harder, but I don't or won't." Never mind where a kid who admits that is from; where is a kid who admits that going?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snow Globe Season

The days just prior to Christmas can be a challenging time in schools and for students and teachers.  There is a lot going on. For younger students there is the anticipation of gifts and new toys that wreaks havoc on their already tentative attention spans. For older students there is the anticipation of a week off suggesting they start slowing down soon if not now. There are holiday concerts and decorations to put up and classroom parties and secret Santas. Throw in a random snow day and it's no wonder this time of year can seem like a snow globe in mid-shake.

Not to mention that for many schools a term is closing. There are exams and papers due and grades to submit. When I think about the 8 Conditions under these circumstances they sparkle. Obviously I believe they ought to be a year round phenomenon in schools, just as evergreens are ever green. But at this time, even with the swirl of activity, and maybe because of it, they light up. Belonging wraps people together more tightly. Heroes become more present. Fun & Excitement twinkles. As students collect toys for those in need, Leadership & Responsibility shines.

The real challenge is not to keep our heads about us mid-shake, it's how to keep our hearts about us. I mean that in every punny way you can think of. Try hooking your weighted-down sleigh to the 8 Conditions for the next week and a half, and see if it helps you pull through.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Leaning Tower of Adequate

Last week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The report compares test results for school systems in 65 countries in reading, mathematics, and science. No matter how you slice the numbers, the United States comes up in the middle of the pack in all three areas...not great...not horrible.  There have been ever so slight improvements from previous PISAs, but again those have been modest at best.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan fit the results into his ongoing call for major reform. In his official statement he writes, "Today’s PISA results show that America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century." The numbers and rankings and relative position of US schools given a "flat" require further study and interpretation. Google "PISA results" and you will see that the news and blogosphere are already abuzz with both.

For now, my only comment is that I think these are exactly the results to be expected in a school system that defines success as making "Adequate Yearly Progress."  Being average is "adequate." Making slight improvements every three years (the term of PISA's study) is "adequate."  Adequate means not great and not horrible and because it is the principle metric of No Child Left Behind, it is what every school is striving towards. All PISA tells us is that we are getting exactly what we are asking for.

When this topic comes up it is hard not to go into soap box mode.  Really? Adequate Yearly Progress? This is the standard of success in the United States of America? We want to be adequate? Not outstanding? Not Exceptional Yearly Progress? And I don't mean in relationship to other countries. I mean in relationship to yourself, the improvement/progress each school makes from year to year. I think words matter. And I think that if and when we reauthorize NCLB we hope, among other things, to improve on our PISA results from this year, we ought to re-imagine what we choose to call success.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Everyday Insights

Yesterday I had a conversation with an acquaintance about education. When people find out what I do for work, they frequently have stories to relate about their own experiences with school--either as students or parents--and thoughts about how to improve things. Though Steve was not a professional educator, his ideas about learning and how to engage students were insightful. Distilling the casual conversation into three ideas:
  • Students need to be moving. Is there a way to integrate movement into all subject areas? A designer by training and profession, Steve was thinking through how to do this with an art class he had been asked to teach at a local extension program.
  • Some students are who, what, where, when thinkers; some are why thinkers. He had a good friend who was the former and did very well in school; he was the latter and struggled. Is it fair that so much of our current schooling system is based on the kind of learning that can be assessed on a scannable form, rather than in essays and explanations? Steve shared that he still remembers a high school teacher whose final exam question was based on a historical novel they had been given a choice of reading. The questions was simply: Why did you choose the book you selected.
  • Students need Heroes. They need adults who challenge them, believe in their capacity to meet the challenge, and provide support as needed. Steve turned his mediocre school career around when a teacher noticed the doodles in his notebook and suggested he take an art elective. 
Hungry for stories (and blog fodder), I love sharing briefly about the work we do and hearing those whose only connection to school is having been a student chime in with what worked and didn't work for them. If you find yourself at a holiday party and needing to make small talk, ask someone who their favorite teachers was or what their favorite subject was when they were in school. And why.  Report back.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Video: Polish School Reform

Not just because it uses the word "aspirations" three times, this is worth spending 15 minutes on because it shows the power of reform at the structural level.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Experts Among Us

I thought I would connect my first Research Thursday to yesterday's blog. In addition to surveying, half a million students, we have surveyed over 20,000 teachers with QISA's My Voice-Staff Survey. In the results, four out of five (81%) agreed that professional development (PD) is an important part of their educational growth. And nearly all (99%) said they enjoy learning new things. So much so that 94% said they seek out opportunities to learn new things. I assume the others just wait for the new things to come to them. At least it would seem all teachers are open-minded. Which doesn't quite square with yesterday's "this too shall pass."

Perhaps because just over half (55%) of those surveyed said that meaningful professional development exists in their district. Obviously there is no way to know if the 45% who did not agree that district-sponsored PD holds any significance for them includes those who are waiting for those PD opportunities to just go away.  Another explanation could be that what teachers want in their PD is new learning and the PD offered just seems to be more of the same old same old.

I think there may be a related disconnect here. Actually a double disconnect. First, teachers have shared that they don't have much input on the PD that is offered in their district or school. Most of that is selected by administrators based on what they feel the needs of the schools are. Second, many teachers believe the best PD comes from inside, rather than from outside. Experts in education themselves, highly expert in the unique needs of their particular students, many teachers feel they would be best served by PD led by their colleagues. This correlates with a growing sentiment I have picked up in schools of teachers feeling administration doesn't trust them. It is one of the reasons I see my work not so much as bringing to schools an expertise that is not already there, but as facilitating the expertise of the staff I find when I arrive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Much?

One of the realities I bump up against in the work I do is teachers who try to wait out whatever change their colleagues and I are trying to implement in their school. Change, even when positive, is difficult. And unfortunately, schools and districts can get into what Michael Fullan terms "projectitis." Some schools even seem addicted to external programs as they attempt to "close the gap" or "raise standards" or "meet the needs of all children" or "race to the top" or...you pick the buzz cause.

In the beginning QISA's work looks a lot like one of those bottles of sunshine, so it is not surprising that some teachers take a "this too shall pass" attitude. If you read the label, however, you'll see Aspirations work is more a list of ingredients than a recipe. And the essential ingredient is the voice of your students and their particular concerns, rather than some think-tanks 9 Scales of Individualization or a Matrix for Learning for Life based on national averages. Sure, the 8 Conditions emerged from 20 years of research into what helps students be successful in school, but I challenge anyone reading this blog to read the list and argue that any one of them is not something students need if they are going to be successful. Now mix in what your students are telling you is the state of those Conditions in your particular school and this too shall never pass. Students' aspirations walk into your school building everyday and always will.

I was in a professional development session yesterday for administrators in a large urban school district that has, no doubt, seen its share of programs come and go. When one principal raised the issue of teachers waiting out new programs, another responded that she had friends in other professions and businesses and didn't know of any that were not asked to constantly be learning and adapting to a changing world. As veteran educators, she remained mystified that some teachers think schools are so different that they don't need the same level of ongoing support. The superintendent--typically the one responsible for bringing in new programs--responded economically, "I would want to ask those teachers, 'What is the cost of your waiting it out?'"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Define "Educator"

When I do a workshop or keynote for parents, I usually begin by asking those present to raise a hand if they are parents. They look at me dumbfounded, and everyone raises a hand. Then I ask them to raise a hand if they also happen to be teachers. A few people raise their hands. Then, I look dumbfounded. "Wait a minute. Let me try that again. Raise your hand if you are a parent?" All the hands go up. "OK. Now raise your hand if you are a teacher?" The penny drops and all hands go up for a third time.

Cathleen P. Black, the Chancellor-in-waiting for the New York City public school system, and the mayor who tapped her for the job, have come under a lot of criticism because she is not an educator. Many are thumbing their nose at the idea that someone can hold the reins of one of the largest school districts having never had to file a lesson plan, correct a test, or run a faculty meeting. That's because Ms. Black's career has been in the field of publishing, much of that as a high-powered, ground-breaking executive. She also happens to be the mother of two adopted children.

I have already alluded that her being a parent qualifies her as a teacher. And I am sure that as a publishing executive she has had to assess a few manuscripts, teach a few lessons, and create an agenda--the end result in each case being the informing, if not the educating, of thousands of people. Ms. Black has had more than her hand in Ms., New York, and USA Today.

I guess the issue I have is how the criticism implies those in the business of schooling have a closed grip on education. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not among those who think that if only business people ran our schools, all would be well. Ms. Black will have much to grasp about schools on the job. And I applaud the waiver that required Ms. Black, in order to accept the position, to appoint a Chief Academic Officer (nice title) who once had to clean mimeograph fluid off his fingers. But to deny that someone of Ms. Black's experience and skills can't steer the Ship of Schools because she has never had to brush chalk dust off her blazer is, hands down, too narrow-minded for me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Supporting Structure

So as I reboot the blog here is what I am thinking:

Monday Musings (thoughts about education)
News Tuesdays (commentary on something in educational news)
8 Conditions Wednesdays (highlighting one of QISA's 8 Conditions)
Research Thursdays (a piece of research and commentary)
Friday Videos (funny or thought provoking videos from around the web)

Which brings up a quote I can't remember and couldn't find about the relationship between structure/form and freedom/creativity. I believe it is by the French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez. The general idea of the quote is that creativity emerges when one has completely mastered structure and form. One has to be firmly grounded in the framework within which one is operating in order to attain freedom. I don't mean this in the sense of paying one's dues before one can be inventive. I mean this in the sense of it is the framework that creates the possibility of interpretation, ingenuity, and invention.

If you are a teacher, you probably know this to be true from your own teaching practice. I know I am at my least creative when I try to wing it, and I am at my most creative when I have planned diligently. The 8 Conditions are like that. They are a framework. A plan for developing students' aspirations. I am hoping my little structure for the week will inspire me in similar ways. Consider this Monday's musings.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Scotch Hop

In international news the last few days, we learned that Ireland is in deep debt and England is in deep snow. Well. Deep by Old England standards. If you go to this BBC report about the snow and school closings, scroll down to where Scotland's education secretary, Mike Russell, is said to have written to local councils asking them to keep schools open where they can. He reportedly went on to suggest that staff who were unable to make it to their normal place of work because of inclement weather should try and report to their nearest school in the hopes of fielding enough staff to keep the school open. What a curious idea.

So maybe I live in Waltham, MA and I teach a few towns west at Framingham High School.  On a normal day it takes 25-30 minutes to get to work. On a typical snow day in the Boston area it would take over an hour assuming the roads were plowed and passable. This inability of the school staff to get to school is, in part, what causes schools to close. (I know there is also a student safety issue...work with me here.)  Mr. Russell is suggesting that instead of making that drive, I should report to Waltham High School. I could actually walk to Waltham High in the snow and be there in less than 20 minutes. Teachers who live in Framingham, but work in another city would, presumably, take my place. Assuming everyone plays musical schools like this, we could keep most schools open.

Half of me likes this. It seems workable. I am a teacher after all, and kids are kids. A new school. New students. Seeing after 25 years in one school, if the grass is any greener on the other side of the snow drift. Maybe we wouldn't get as much done as if school were in session normally, but something tells me teachers and students alike would enjoy the change of scenery and maybe even learn something from it.

The other half of me thinks this is the most unworkable idea I have ever heard. I am a teacher, not a replaceable gear in a snowmobile, and those kids would not be my kids. An unknown school. Unknown students. After 25 years, as green about another school's policies and procedures as if it were my first day. A day that became chaos as teachers drifted in and out of classroom and students snowed anyone who looked over 21 they did not recognize. "Excuse me, is this the way to the teachers' room?" "Sure, mister, right through that door marked 'Exit'."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prezi Aspirations

Sorry to have been away so long. Hope to get back on track with blogging. For those of you who wonder what I do, here is an explanation (without narration) using a new presentation software I just learned how to use. Click MORE and then FULL SCREEN for best view.