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.

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Through the Education Standards Looking Glass

05/20/2012

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This i...

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This is the bottom central pane of the memorial window – see [284591] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I know I should be used to it by now.
But it still gets to me when I see how duplicitous, disingenuous, distrustful and distant our government and education leaders are.

So much so that they are dangerous.

Education in the state of New York is under the control of a Board of Regents. They run the Department of Education and oversee every school district in the state. They set the rules for graduation and all the other rules governing how schooling is done in the state.

They also license barbers. They should stick to that and give up all the rest. Here’s why.

As early as 1995, the New York Board of Regents called for higher standards of education and stricter requirements for graduation from high school. Then they raised the standards.

This is from a report of the Public Policy Institute, a business group:

“In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York’s effort to upgrade educational outcomes.”

Regents Exams are content specific tests unique to New York. They were not new when I was alternately attending and dropping out of high schools in the late 1960s.

Then in 2011, the Regents announced they were raising standards again, making the tests more rigorous to show how important education is in NY and to show how well prepared NY students are for college and unstable career paths

All well and good, you say. High expectations and high standards are important. I agree.

The NY Regents are about to take another vote on setting high standards for NY students, only this time they’re likely to vote to get rid of the Global History Regents Exam because, get ready for this, because too few students pass it.

They want to make the test optional, perhaps replace it with an extra math or science test.

Here is the August, 2010 Global History Regents. Do you think students should know the answers to most of these questions?

Do the Regents try to figure out why students don’t pass the test? Do the Regents try  improving social studies education so that students are better prepared for the test? Do they try developing resources to help students understand the importance of having a grasp of history?

No, the Regents go about the process of raising standards by lowering them.

`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

– Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter IX  (that’s nine, NY Regents).


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?


I’m Tired of Talking About Education

12/28/2011

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

Learning and Schooling

Image by colemama via Flickr

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

Image via Wikipedia

From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.

Resource:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

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Standardized tests: good for the geese, good for the ganders.

12/11/2011
De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

Image via Wikipedia

Something remarkable happened the other day.

A school board member in one of the nation’s largest school districts had the temerity to take the 10th grade standardized tests that he and his cohorts require students to take.

I think this is an excellent idea.

After all, if the tests are appropriate to see what students know then they are also necessary to see what school board members know. School board members should be required to take the same tests students are required to take. To be fair, I’d only require them to take the 10th grade tests. I wouldn’t want to challenge them too much.

Standardized tests are necessary to see what members of state boards of education know. If the state requires an exit exam so students can graduate from high school, then that is the exam the state board members should take. If they can’t pass them they should be removed from their positions and required to repeat high school.

Standardized tests are also necessary to see what the mayors who control school systems and the chancellors they appoint know. After all, if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools.

President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

Arne Duncan should take standardized tests. So should President Obama.

And the results of those exams should be made public.

In fact, standardized testing is a great way to see which of the presidential candidates is most up to the demands of the job, which one can understand the math of the budget or the tax system. I’m sure Newt, Mitt, John, Rick, Ron and even Michelle could pass those tests with flying colors.

I’m starting a movement to have everyone who sets educational policy take the standardized tests, the same ones students do.

Join me. Send a tweet, a text, an email or phone to your school board members, your state legislators, your Congress people, Senators and presidential candidate of choice. Tell them that it is time for them to sit down with a couple of #2 pencils and show us what they know.

After all, it is only fair.

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We Need to Teach So that Kids Will Care

11/13/2011

Someone I respect says we shouldn’t teach kids stuff they don’t care about.

It sounds appealing. On some level this seems to make sense.

It is also patently absurd.

We have to teach kids things they don’t care about for all kinds of reasons.

The first reason is because we don’t have to teach them the things they do care about. They learn those things with or without us.

Dinosaur Exhibition Beijing

You know this if you have spent any time at all with boys between the ages of three and six and wondered how they know all they know about dinosaurs. You know this if you have ever talked to a teenager about their music.

We have to teach kids things they don’t care about so that they will care about things they don’t know about yet. Like genocides, or famines, or global warming.

Or how to use a chain saw.

Man using a chainsaw with all recommended safe...

I wish someone had taught me how to use a chainsaw. I didn’t care about it when I lived in Manhattan, it wasn’t important then. I could really use that knowledge now that I have a backyard with trees down in it.

As I see it, the question is not whether we should or should not teach kids things they don’t care about. The question is what it is that they don’t care about that we do need to teach them about.

This is not really something anyone I know can determine. I know I can’t.

I have problems just dividing knowledge into those things we academics call subjects. I have a very hard time figuring out where math ends and science begins, how people can think that what we call social studies doesn’t overlap them both and that it is all blanketed by English.

Kowledge is holisitc. It is all one giant fuzzy rapidly expanding blob with no beginning, no end, no edges at all. It cannot be created and cannot be destroyed; it can only be uncovered or revealed. And it is our job to reveal it, as much of it as we can.

I don’t think it matters much what order we teach things. Jerome Bruner says anything can be taught to anyone at any time. The only thing that changes is the level of complexity. He contends that anything can be, should be, retaught repeatedly at increasing levels of complexity.

I just know that it is absolutely essential that we teach kids one very, very important thing, something we all know but don’t focus on. We need them to know it and to focus on it, to make it the driving force in their life.

The other side of the globe.

We have to teach kids that the world has not always been the way it is now and it will not always be the way it is.

We have to teach them that they have the power to change the ways things are.

And we have to remember that so do we.

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