Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Competing Contrast

Last night I went to see "Race to Nowhere".  I highly recommend it. Yes, it's another documentary about our troubled school systems, but this one was made by a mother, not an Academy Award winning director. The focus is on the stress engendered by a system that is more about competing and test-taking than it is about understanding and learning. The consequences on kids range from depression to drop-out to suicide. One line from the movie that sums it up comes from a student who, after she passed her AP French test, said, "Good. Now I never have to speak French again." Another sentiment that captures the film's major gripe was that high school has become more about the college application than college.

I asked my high school senior to come along so I could get her take on the film.  She clapped long and hard at the end and was in major agreement with the film. She thought the movie could have spent more time on college guidance counselors as the pressure point for all this. That is somewhat autobiographical for her--she chose not to take Art instead of AP History against her counselor's advice that she needed the AP class to get into a top tier school. My daughter wants to be a pastry chef and has already been accepted to her school of choice.

On the way home we turned on the radio to hear the precise part of the State of the Union address when the President was discussing education. He was touting his administration's Race to the Top initiative, which the movie's title subtly mocks. He talked about being in competition with the rest of the world. He talked about the importance of high performance (which in the movie doesn't necessarily correlate with high learning...the students call it "doing school"). My daughter chuckled.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Video: Confidence and Heroes

Confidence to Take Action - performer and attendees!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow Day: Anticipating Excitement

We are having a snow day here in the the Northeast and students from New Jersey to Maine are rejoicing as if Christmas had come again. Maybe teachers, too. Having been both a student and a teacher, I understand the sense of excitement that winter weather can bring. As someone who thinks a lot about schools and education, however, I can't help but wish there comes a time when a snow day brings disappointment, instead of delight. I know... keep dreaming. :)

Yesterday I was thinking about how the notification system has changed. When we were kids much of the excitement was listening to the radio anchor read through seemingly endless lists of schools and anticipating your own. When I was teaching, and later when I had children, we covered all the bases with the radio on and the scroll at the bottom of the TV. There was always the problem of tuning in to just past the letter in the alphabet of your school and having to channel surf or wait it out. Has anyone besides me chased the alphabet around their three local stations? It was a major breakthrough when they figured out how to keep the scroll going through commercials.

With my youngest a senior in high school, the announcement yesterday that school was closed today came via email, text message, and automated phone call. There was no going to sleep in anxious anticipation and waking up early so she could go back to sleep. There was only going to sleep happy to have an extra day to edit an end-of-term video project and study for next week's exams. Though it's 10 am as I write this and she is still asleep.

The system for notifying us that school has closed has changed a lot in the last twenty years. The excitement that school has closed has not.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

AP: From Hard Drive to CPU

The New York Times this week had an interesting article on upcoming changes to the AP exam. The changes are what I would call "Aspirations friendly." A rhetorical question I sometimes pose to teachers is whether the goal of education is to have students know science or to think scientifically, to know history or to think historically, to know literature or have a literary mindset. I believe the latter in each pair contribute more to a students Self Worth, Active Engagement, and Sense of Purpose--the 3 Guiding Principles of Aspirations work.

While it is true that to learn to think scientifically you have to chew on science, the days of memorizing facts and formulae are winding down. It used to be that the only portable memory device available was the one you carried inside your skull, but now just about everyone has a portable memory device with potential access to enormous amounts of information in their pocket. As a result, understanding information and being able to apply it--and not simply being able to access it from memory--is the mark of an educated person.

According to the the Times article, the goal of the new AP Biology curriculum framework is "to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists." Given the revised history exam, rather than memorizing specific dates "teachers will have more leeway to focus on different events in teaching students how to craft historical arguments." What I hear in all that is an encouraging shift to have students act less like hard drives and more like CPUs.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tearing Down Walls

I think one of the more exciting things happening in schools today is teachers regularly meeting to learn from one another, share best practices, and discuss pedagogy. Some of my favorite meetings to observe are the Teaming meetings that now happen in many middle schools. Focused on students, these meetings inevitably open the door better outcomes for students and teachers alike.

I have long thought that the architecture of the traditional school lies. It tries to convince us that teaching is something that happens between one adult and a roomful of students. One big desk, twenty-five smaller desks. While much of the time-on-task of teaching is still like that, long gone (hopefully) are the days when teachers can operate effectively as if they were in a one room school house. Nor is gathering only in the silos of the traditional departments a solution to the challenge of being colleagues to one another in this profession.

Once I visited a school so close to Heathrow Airport in London that I thought the planes might land on the roof. Every Tuesday the staff gathers at the end of the school day for one of a variety of meetings.  Some Tuesdays they meet by department to discuss curriculum.  Other Tuesdays the focus is on student management issues and the staff meets in a hodgepodge of specialties and experience levels. Another Tuesday might be a free meet, during which you schedule time with a colleague with whom you are working on a special project; the only thing off limits on that day is not meeting with anyone.

Many things are shifting in education and the breakdown of the walls between teachers is one of them.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Video: 2010 Digital Book Report Awards

Alan is a little intense, but the idea of opening up digital forms of assessment and reporting is a good one.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resolution Suggestion

When I analyze a My Voice Staff Survey, there are two statements I start with:
  • If I have a problem, I have a colleague with whom I can talk
  • Staff respect each other.
My experience has been that the bigger the gap between those two numbers, the greater the likelihood that that the problem someone is talking to a colleague about is another colleague who they don't respect. That is an underlying issue in the work schools do that must be addressed before most things can move forward. In the National survey of over 20,000 school staff members those numbers are 93% and 72% respectively. Not horrible.

I was once in a school where the first number was in the high 90's and the second, among classroom teachers, was 0%. It actually forced me to run a system check on the survey processes. Everything checked out. I had been asked to go to that school to talk about their student data. I knew there was no assistance I was going to provide to help their students that was not by way of dealing with the fact that most of their "collegial" conversations took place in the parking lot, rather than in the staff room.

Suggestion: Next time you have an issue with someone that erodes your respect for them, find a way to talk with them about it instead of someone else.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's Aspirations

Why do so many well intentioned resolutions end up ending by the end of January? I deal with a similar question in my work in schools. Why do so many students with such seemingly high aspirations--to be a professional athlete, to star in movies, to develop the next viral video game--end up settling for careers and a life far short of their goals?

QISA's mission is to promote and support students' aspirations throughout the world. Here is what we have learned in that pursuit: Real aspirations are different than dreams and hopes for the future. They are more than mere goals. Having a genuine aspiration is having the ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams.  Dreaming is one thing, doing is another. Resolving is one thing, being resolute is another. It's acting in the present on behalf of my future that is the chief characteristic of an aspiration and a real resolution.

Inspiration in the present for either my resolutions or aspirations comes from self-worth, active engagement, and a sense of purpose. Consider a new resolution (or an old one you are renewing this year) and ask yourself:
  • Do I believe I can achieve this?
  • Am I willing to engage actively in the means necessary to attain this end?
  • Do I know the purpose of what I am resolving to do?
If the answers are yes, yes, and yes, then hip hip hooray!

Driving Bullying Out

Yesterday the Boston Globe reported that 99% of Massachusetts districts and schools met the December 30th deadline for filing anti-bullying plans. Of course, the key will be taking those plans out of the garage and out where the rubber hits the road. The only results that matter will be a downshift in actual bullying incidents.

I happened to be with a team of administrators in an urban school district yesterday as they were discussing their successful filing and next steps. While full implementation will not be until the start of the 11-12 school year, they already had plans in this school year for roll out, education, and training for all stake-holders: teachers, parents, students, everyone. Among other elements, their plan includes counseling intervention for the bully as well as the target, rather than just punishment for the bully and "there-there" for the target.

My bias about anti-bullying efforts has always been that it focuses on a symptom. Underneath the hood of bullying is the fact that only 30% of students in grades 6-12 have reported that students respect one another. That breakdown of respect undoubtedly drives all kinds of disrespectful behavior, the worst forms being the ones all but six schools in Massachusetts have committed to addressing because of a new law. Perhaps because the six schools have been publicly named, one administrator yesterday quipped, "the state has plans to stuff those six schools into a locker until they comply."

The Globe article states "Among the most effective anti-bullying programs, research has shown, are those that change school culture — often by involving entire school communities, including teachers, bullies, cafeteria workers, librarians, school bus drivers, and children who witness bullying, and imbuing them with a sense that bullying is not acceptable behavior." I agree with the "change the culture" approach, but if it ends in only "thou shalt not"s and never shifts towards a positive, caring, respectful culture, I'm not sure how far we will get.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Monday Musing: Re-entry

When I was teaching, I used to always ask my colleagues of these days after the holidays: How was re-entry? There can be a lot of friction and static after a week plus off. Our students and we still groggy from over eating and under waking.

I would also take my students through a groan inducing stand-up routine. "Ok. It's been over a week since we were together, so let's review a bit." I would pick up a piece of chalk. "This is chalk. This is a blackboard. I am a teacher. You are students." Picking up a pen and notebook and in turn holding each one up. "Pen. Notebook. Everybody good?" Groan. was re-entry?