The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


Education Ideas, cheap!

07/24/2012
English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st...

English: Looking northeast across Lex and 91st at 92nd Street Y. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

That is certainly the case with the #140edu conference next week at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan where, if you are a teacher or student, $1.40 buys you two days of ideas, inspiration, conversation and connection with some of the more thoughtful, challenging, and engaging educators who have used social media in their classrooms or individual learning.

I should warn you, these are long days. Both of them, July 31 and August 1, start at 8:30AM and run until 5:45PM, with only 45 minutes for lunch, but don’t worry. You don’t have to sit and listen to it all. You can get up, walk out, go to the networking room or step outside, then go back for more. Trust me, you will need to do this because your head will explode if you don’t.

Just plan to be back in the hall by 11:50AM on the first day. That’s when I’ll be talking about How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You. I don’t want to go into my whole talk here, but the thesis is that one can get an equivalent or better education using social media as one can by attending high school. I have no idea how I got included with the otherwise distinguished list of educators presenting here, but I did. Please come and disagree with me. Educators can register here for just $1.40 for the two days (you can disagree with a lot of people and make the conference even more cost effective if you like).

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you do go, and I hope you will, please come and say hello. I’ll be the one with the exploded head.


I Don’t Know and I’m Not Ashamed To Admit It

03/30/2012

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life and I ask a lot of questions.

Curiosity tears down walls

Curiosity tears down walls (Photo credit: Rosa Say)

As a result, I know a lot of stuff. But no matter how much I know, there is far, far more that I do not know. There is so much that I don’t know.

Today my not knowing was repeatedly displayed to my students. Due to an unusually crowded evening schedule this week I am even more tired than usual, but that isn’t why I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Actually, I knew that I didn’t know; I just don’t know how much I don’t know.

Third base.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know today: How prisoners give themselves tattoos; how audio tracks get attached to digital videos; and how to take the write-protection off a flash drive that somehow got write protected. Our tech guy also didn’t know that one; I didn’t ask him about the other two.

I can’t wait for opportunities to show my students how much I don’t know. Most of them think I’m pretty smart for an adult, but they’re between 11 and 14 years old, so they’re not surprised that I don’t know a lot of stuff.

They’re just surprised that I admit it.

Its been about 45 years since I was in middle school. Even though those were my favorite school years I still remember one teacher who, whenever one of us would ask a question he could not answer, would chastise us for not sticking to the lesson and for having too much curiosity.

Too much curiosity?

101 Uses for a Dead Cat

101 Uses for a Dead Cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may have killed the cat – I remain a skeptic – but it is a wonderful thing for a human to have. My curiosity is what I like best about myself.

The best tool teachers have is curiosity, theirs and, especially, their students’. Its been about 15 months since I moved from being a classroom teacher to being the librarian in the same school. I’m working harder but enjoying it more. Today I finally figured out why: I don’t have a heavy, mandated curriculum, no scope and sequence, no texts, no tests and no timeline.

I have the freedom to go where a student’s curiosity takes us.

Sure, I have things I want to teach, but I get to allow the students’ interests, the students’ questions, their wonders and their curiosity determine when and how I teach those things. I get to let my students’ education be what mine has largely been, bottom up, driven by the learner’s curiosity and passions instead of the top-down pre-determined, marketplace-driven curriculum the rest of the teachers have to deliver.

I bet we could solve a lot of the dropout problem, raise academic achievement and reduce behavioral issues if we can only get the rest of the school to teach the way a good librarian, and even this one, does.

We’ve tried all the other ways. Isn’t it time to try something different?


Paranoia in Education Strikes Again!

03/26/2012
cover shot of Children of Paranoia

cover shot of Children of Paranoia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I work for a paranoid school district.

It doesn’t trust students.

It doesn’t trust teachers.

It doesn’t trust administrators.

It doesn’t trust parents.

It doesn’t trust the public.

It is afraid that students will learn things that aren’t in the curriculum.

It is afraid that students will learn things that haven’t been approved in advance.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of the internet.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of social media.

There is a lot of good educational content on YouTube and YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let students access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let teachers access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let school administrators access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let principals override the filters that prevent access to those and other useful websites.

This can only be because it does not trust us. Any of us.

It does not let students, teachers or school administrators access Facebook in school, even though there is a lot of educational content on Facebook.

Even though we are required to teach students how to use social media responsibly.

Soon we won’t even be able model social media use for students.

The City is going to ban teachers and students from interacting over Facebook.

It doesn’t trust us.

Not at all. I bet the City would love to figure out how to stop teachers and students from interacting in the supermarket, the Laundromat, the shopping mall.

Heck, they’d probably even like to find a way to keep us from interacting in the classroom. Everyone knows how much trouble we can get into there.

There is an old adage that says you should treat people the way you want them to be. If you want young people to act like adults, treat them that way. That’s what I try to do in my library.

But the NYCDOE treats me and my colleagues like little children.

They are illogical.

They are insulting.

Or am I being paranoid?


Meeting a Different Student Need

03/18/2012
English: A painting of a teardrop I did.

Image via Wikipedia

Something had happened but I had no idea what.

An announcement told students and teachers not to move to their 7th period assignment when the bell rang ending sixth period, it was being extended…indefinitely.

I had the high-level 8th grade class, the ones I taught social studies to when they were in the 6th and 7th grades. I’ve written about them before

. We’re comfortable with each other and used the extended time to talk about the high schools they’d be going to in September.

The halls were strangely quiet as we’d been told not to give any passes for any reason during this time.

Like many, if not all schools these days, we have procedures to lock down classes if an unauthorized person gets past security, or if anyone has a gun, but those codes had not been given. It wasn’t even a drill.

We waited.

Finally, after about a fifteen minute delay, everyone moved to their 7th period assignment. I still had no idea why we’d been detained.

That is when the four 8th grade girls came into the library sobbing, wailing, and shaking. I feared the worst, that someone had died, perhaps even a student. The girls were so distraught they couldn’t talk. Finally one calmed down enough to tell me that the boyfriend of one of these girls had gotten so upset about something that girl said to him that he had punched his hand through the wall of the cafeteria. In doing that he had sliced the back of his hand open and was bleeding profusely.

An ambulance arrived to take the boy to the hospital. Only after that, permission to move to 7th period came.

The girls were deeply upset. All four had witnessed the punch. One of the girls, a hold over, older than the other by a year or two, said she’d never seen a boy cry before but the puncher was crying while the nurse and an assistant removed his hand from the wall.

The girls worried that the boy would bleed to death. I said it was highly unlikely, but they told me of pools of blood in the cafeteria. Again, I reassured them, telling them that the body has a lot of blood, can afford to lose a pint or two. I also knew from my frequent blood donations that a pint of blood looks like a really large amount.

Middle school is a difficult time for most students. Bodies are changing, emotions are expanding, interest in members of the opposite gender grows, accompanied by worry about one’s own attractiveness. At the same time, there is little time in their school day to ease up, to reflect, to react to trauma.

Not one of those four girls is a reader. They’ve never checked out a single book in the 12 school months I’ve been the librarian. I don’t have a strong relationship with any of them. Still, they came to the library when they needed a place to react, to emote, to be comforted and reassured.

They came to the library when they needed to feel safe.

Earlier that same day one of the veteran teachers, and not one who has been particularly friendly to me, came in to use copier, looked around, and thanked me “for making the library look and function like a library again.”

New books, organized shelves, new decoration on the walls, automated checkout and an online catalog have made the library a more active, more dynamic, and a more attractive place. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in little time and with almost no budget.

But what pleases me most is one of those things that will never show up on any evaluation of how I do my job. There’s no standardized test for it and it is not on any principal’s observation form.

I’ve made a safe place for students.

Nothing is more important than that.


The Worst Words in Education

01/24/2011
Golden Gloves Prelim Bouts
Image by kate.gardiner via Flickr

“Life is full of harsh realities. And I want as a parent to give my kids the ability to navigate thru life.”

Those are the worst words in education.

They are the worst words because they are used to justify cruelty to children.

What kind of cruelty?

Competition, for one.

I’m not talking about football games, elections for class president or the selection of the prom king and queen.

I’m talking about academic competition, things like spelling bees and other class-wide contests.

This afternoon, before the NFL playoffs, I watched a three-part video in which Rick Lavoie discusses why competitive learning is so problematic, and why it is a bad way to motivate students.

According to Lavoie, there is a major difference between the competition in school and competition elsewhere.  In school we are forced to compete. In life we only compete when we want to.

“The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

“We do our best work when we compete against ourselves, not against others.”

I learned this in fifth grade.

I loved fifth grade. I’ve written about my experiences in Mrs. Lorenz’s class before.

In a response to that post my friend Mary Beth Hertz commented:  “It seems a common thread is that we remember the teachers who took their time to find out who we were and to treat us as people. We also seem to remember the teachers who were a little out of the box.”

Mrs. Lorenz wasn’t always out of the box and one event in her class came back to me as I watched the LaVoie video.

We had been studying simple machines in science. It was the third of fourth unit of our science study and Mrs. Lorenz decided that instead of giving us a midterm exam, she would have a science bee.

Example of one of the 5 simple machines: Screw

Image via Wikipedia

We were divided into two teams according to some criteria or another. Each team had a mix of students from the different levels of ability in the classroom. Whenever a team member answered a question the questioner could challenge the answer. When an answer was challenged, Mrs. Lorenz would render judgment. An incorrect answer would get the answering student eliminated. Failing to challenge an incorrect answer would get both students eliminated. A correct answer would allow the students to remain in the game and the answerer would get to ask a question of the next member of the opposite team.

It sounds very complicated, but we all understood how it worked. We flipped a coin to see which team would get to ask the first question.

The game progressed and each team lost a few players in the first round, and more in the second and third passes through the remaining students. It came down to two students, one of the girls in the class and me.

I asked her a question and she got it right. She asked me to name the five simple machines. I named six and she was smiling broadly as she challenged my answer. If I were wrong she would win. If I were correct, I would win.

Mrs. Lorenz took her time making her judgment. The tension in the room grew.

She looked at me then turned to the girl and told her I was correct.

My teammates were excitedly congratulating me but I was watching the girl’s face and it looked like she was going to cry. Having me lose meant that much to her. I was very upset by the whole situation but did not really understand why.

I have a better idea now. What happened that day more than 45 years ago was very cruel to that girl, to our teammates and to me.

That girl was very smart, she was probably a better student than I was, but she needed to defeat me to feel that way. Because she didn’t, she was ready to cry.

Her teammates felt like losers and my teammates felt like winners. Neither feeling was accurate.

We moved the next year and I have no idea what happened to that girl, but I never took part in a class competition again. If I were forced to, I’d deliberately lose in the first round.

My being smart or not, my achieving or not, has nothing to do with anyone else’s work, only my own.  Whether I choose to compete or not has nothing to do with anyone else. It is my decision and no one can make me compete if I don’t want to.

It seems the realities of school are considerably harsher than those of life. That is cruelty. If we really want school to prepare children for the realities of life, competition should operate the same way in school and out.

Let’s end mandatory competition.

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Learning a Universal Language

01/20/2011
Angry Talk (Comic Style)
Image via Wikipedia

I just learned a new language.

I used to run a British pub in New York City where we used to joke that we spoke about a dozen languages: American English, British English, Irish English, Australian English, Singapore English, Nigerian English, Indian English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English, Canadian English and Spanish.

I’m not yet fluent in my new language, but I’m learning it very quickly, probably because I am exposed to it so frequently.

New York City is the world’s most linguistically diverse place and this language is all around here, but I bet it is in your town, too. It’s probably in your school, maybe even in your classroom.

It was in my library today.

What language is so pervasive that it is common in New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas; in Omaha, Nebraska, in Adelaide, Australia and anywhere else there are enough people to have a middle or high school?

The language of anger.

Angry Sphynx
Image via Wikipedia

Anger a language? You bet!

Everything anyone does, wears, doesn’t do or doesn’t wear is a form of communication, a language.

Today some kids communicated by pulling a whole bunch of books off the shelves of my library and scattering them around the room. I wasn’t there at the time, but when I came back I understood their language right away.

Those kids were speaking anger, much more a universal language than Esperanto could ever be.

What were those kids angry about? I can only guess; being in school when they don’t want to be, being in the library with a rookie teacher from a different academy (we have seven in our school) who was covering the class for an absent colleague; and, likely, some stuff happening at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Everyone connected with school these days seems to have plenty to be angry about.

Teachers are angry about budget cuts, standardized tests, and people with no educational background criticizing their job performance and telling them how to do their jobs better.

Principals are angry that their jobs depend on raising test scores for all, but raising them for the most challenging students at a faster rate despite uncontrollable external factors including poverty and budget cuts.

Students are angry because their school building looks and feels like a prison, compliance is the response expected, and everyone they come into contact with in school is focused on short-term results.

By the way, many experts say the focus on short-term profit making was one of the major factors behind the recent economic collapse. If that is true, the current focus on short-term educational success will likely lead to a collapse in our field, too.

It’s just one more thing to be angry about.

Anger Is the Swiss Army Knife of Emotions T-shirt
Image by Mike Monteiro via Flickr

Or is that the opportunity we’ve all be looking for to make some real changes in how school is done?

That’s what anger is, an opportunity to make changes.

It is not easy to change things even slightly, much less radically, when everyone’s happy.

But when everyone is angry the door is wide open.

The question is, will we take advantage of the anger or spend our energy trying to repress it?

I’m angry about the probable answer to that.

You should be, too.

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