I matter

09/18/2012

I used to be very shy. VERY shy. Then Angela Maiers showed me that I matter. 

It was three years ago at a major technology education conference in Washington, DC. I thought of it again this weekend because I was in DC with Angela for the first Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education.

The NECC was my first education conference and it is a huge one. Five days and tens of thousands of people. I had been on Twitter for a few months and had made some soft connections; I’d had some conversations with people and I knew a few names. At that time my handle was @spedteacher, being shy I used my job at the time instead of my name as a moniker. I was a very small presence despite my large size.

In many ways the NECC was a huge step for me. I had not yet met anyone I knew through Twitter face-to-face and I was in awe of the knowledge, the experience and expertise of the people I followed there. I was learning so much and wanted to learn more. I always want to learn more. Curiosity is my driving force. So I decided to go to NECC.

Attending NECC was an expensive proposition. Registration is a few hundred dollars; DC hotels were not cheep and were at a premium, especially those within walking distance of the convention center. When a teacher from upstate NY, who I didn’t even know through Twitter, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to share my hotel room so we could both cut our expenses I only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. Fortunately, Ryan Wassink and I got along well.

One of the features of the NECC is what they call a Bloggers Cafe where people gather to write their blogs, chat with others and generally just process the huge amount of information being presented. In this instance the cafe was a collection of small tables and cushioned benches and couches of different heights. I would go there and sit off away from anyone else. I was VERY shy.

One afternoon I got to the cafe and it was fairly empty, I sat on a bench leaning my back against the side of the empty couch next to it. I did not yet have this blog so I was on Twitter looking at tweets about the sessions I was not able to attend. Some people came and the cafe began to fill up. There was an interesting conversation going on behind me and I was listening intently. At one point I turned around to see who these people were and as soon as I did this very pretty woman looked at me and said, “You’re spedteacher!”

That woman was Angela Maiers. Angela is an award-winning educator, speaker, consultant and professional trainer known for her work in literacy, leadership and global communications. She is a big deal. She recognized me. And she introduced me to everyone else in the conversation. Then Angela asked me what my take was on the topic.

I have no idea what the topic was, but I will never forget that Angela thought what I had to say mattered.

Angela has been telling people that they matter for a long time. She talks about it, she writes about it, and she lives it.

I’m writing this to tell you that you matter, and I’m writing this to tell Angela how she mattered to me. Angela recently started a group on Facebook called Choose2Matter. She, and it, have helped me change my teaching this year.

I’m telling my students that they matter. It started the first time I saw them and played them this message (make sure your sound is on, then click the play button!)

There are geniuses here!

I asked them to tell me about the kind of genius they are. Engagement was instantaneous. They all wanted to make a Voki and tell their message about the kind of genius they are and how they matter.Everyone got right to work, thinking, writing planning.

All except one small girl who just sat there staring at her paper. I went to her, knelt to her level and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes. I asked if she was having difficulty writing. She nodded yes. I said, “you’re very shy, aren’t you?” She nodded yes. I told her to whisper in my ear the problem she was having.

She leaned over, cupped her hands around my ear and softly said, “I don’t know what kind of genius I am.”

I whispered back, “I don’t know you yet so I don’t know and can’t tell you what kind of genius you are, but my first job this year is to help you discover it for yourself and learn how to show it to the world.”

She smiled.

I mattered.

Thank you, Angela.

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The Dull Edge of Education

11/03/2011
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - JANUARY 5:  A screen shot ...

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New York City bans all student electronics from its schools.

No cell phones, no iPods, no Blackberries, no iPads.

Yes, the city that cannot provide enough working technology in classrooms to allow more than two students use computers at a time in most classrooms has decided to maintain its stand against students bringing their own technology to school.

According to our chancellor and his boss, the billionaire mayor, who really runs the schools, education is teacher-delivered and nothing should distract from that one-way flow of knowledge.

Isn’t odd that this city that likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge of finance and fashion is so far behind the times when it comes to education? Isn’t it odd that the man who fancies himself the savior of education has such an old-fashioned view about how it happens?

Last night reporters for Schoolbook, the new collaboration between WNYC radio and the New York Times, confronted chancellor Walcott and asked him if he would consider changing the rule regarding student-owned technology. He said no.

When the reporters commented that some believe cell phones could be useful in education he reportedly replied, “And cellphones can also be not useful in class as well.”

And another door slams in the face of our students.

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Censorship in Schools: More than makes the headlines

08/14/2011
censorship [remix]

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Book challenges and banning get all the media attention but they are a small minority of the censorship that occurs in schools.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), 11,000 book challenges occurred in the past 20 years.

To call attention to these challenges and highlight the books banned as a result, the last week of September each year is designated Banned Book Week by the ALA and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL).

It is absolutely imperative to defend intellectual freedom and fight against book challenges, but in paying so much attention to them, it is easy not to notice the more pervasive and far more prevalent censorship that occurs in every public school every minute it is open.

I’m talking about censorship of the Internet.

The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act requires schools to ensure that children are not exposed to sexually explicit words and images in order to qualify for Federal technology subsidies. Almost all schools accomplish that by using filters that are designed to stop obscenity before it reaches student computers.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against blocking student access to pornography at school, they get more than enough exposure to sexual messages in the mainstream media. But internet filters block much more than pornography.

“What we have is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game. These broad filters aren’t very helpful because we need more nuanced filtering.” Karen Cator, United States Department of Education Director of Education Technology (Barseghian, 2011).

seive

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Even the National Educational Technology Plan notes that in some cases internet filtering “creates barriers to the rich learning experiences that in-school internet access should afford students” and that tools such as blogs, wikis and social networks have the potential to support student learning and engagement.

Some argue that the anxiety over the internet that leads to filtering has less to do with possible student exposure to pornography or other sexual content and more to do with fear of unfettered ideas and the technology through which ideas are transmitted.

“Filters would not be placed on computers if government officials, religious moralists and the competitive marketplace didn’t feel their control slipping away or threatened” (Bissonnette, 2003).

Decisions about what to filter are made by filtering companies that are not held accountable to anyone and which refuse to explain the criteria for their decisions because they are trade secrets.

Educators and educational needs have been totally taken out of the picture.

New Canaan High School librarian Michelle Luhtala says the same issues of censorship, fear and free speech that make banned books resonate also apply to social networking sites that most schools block.

“Teaching with social media shows students how to responsibly use those platforms. Blocking access denies kids the chance to practice sharing their knowledge with the real world in a supervised setting” (Toppo, 2011)

Thanks largely to her efforts the ALA and AASL have declared September 28th to be Banned Sites Day.

One day. It is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to protect student intellectual freedom and access to all age-appropriate learning materials.

Despite the efforts to restrict or cleanse the materials in school libraries, racial slurs, bullying, obscene language, sex scenes and violence will always appear in books students read. There will always be challenging themes, emotionally charged scenes, and characters with few traits to admire.

“Pretending there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice is a prescription for disaster for the young,” asserts author Lois Lowry who has seen her book The Giver challenged and removed from libraries.

“Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of The Giver, the world where there are no bad words, no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted.”

“And that is the most dangerous world of all.”

References

American Library Association (2011). Number of Challenges by Year, Reason, Initiator & Institution (1990 – 2010). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengesbytype/index.cfm

Barseghian, T. (2011, April 26). Straight from the DOE facts about blocking sites in schools. Retrieved from http://mindshift.kqed.org/2011/04/straight-from-the-doe-facts-about-blocking-sites-in-schools/

Bissonnette, S.T. (2003). Smothering Free Speech. Journal of Library Administration; 2003, Vol. 39 Issue 2/3, p87-105. doi: 10.1300/J111v39n02_08

Lowry, L. (2005). A dangerous utopia. RHI for High School Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/RHI_magazine/pdf3/Lowry.pdf

National Educational Technology Plan. US Dept. of Ed. 2010, 54.

Toppo, G. (2011, July 25). Web restrictions draw ire of some educators. USA Today Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-07-25-banned-websites-school_n.htm

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How I Made Leaving School Work. Maybe You Can, Too

05/21/2011
Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City

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As I sit here thinking about my own experience, forty-plus years ago, deciding high school was not the place for me, I wonder whether anyone anyplace other than where I was could have done what I did as successfully at that time. And I think how much easier it would be now.

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I grew up in Manhattan and in late 1967, when I left school for the first time at age 14, Manhattan was, for me, a 12 mile long, 1.5 mile wide educational experience. A brief subway or bus ride could deliver me to any one of dozens of museums of art, natural history, craft or occupation. Or I would emerge from underground into what seemed like a different city where the people spoke Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Ukrainian and the foods in the restaurants were the best kind of spoon-fed learning.

McCarthy button 1968

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Eugene McCarthy was emboldening and enlisting young people to become the driving force behind his idealistic campaign for the Presidency and against the Vietnam War. I had already worked on some political campaigns and, when the cold January winds blew, the NYC campaign headquarters at Columbus Circle became my second home; second even though I spent more time there than at my family’s apartment where I went only to sleep and shower.

Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, NYC, USA

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New York City was made for the learner and I suspect it was only because I was here that I could realize, in retrospect, that going to classes at my two high schools, one considered at that time one of the two or three best in the nation, actually interfered with my learning.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that had I been living in Oklahoma, Iowa, Arizona or suburban Connecticut my experience would have been radically different.

It would also be radically different today because thanks to the Internet and all the wonderful tools that have become available because of it, a fifteen-year-old in Kansas, Kankakee or Kalamazoo could explore even more of the world from their bedroom than I could from the heart of the world when I was fifteen. It is truly an amazing thing that today anyone, almost anywhere, can learn almost anything her or she might want to know about, almost immediately and mostly for free. They would not even have to pay the subway fare I had to fork over.

There is, of course, a qualitative and experiential difference between looking at a picture of a pierogi and popping one in one’s mouth, or walking the streets on foot instead of through Google Earth, but one learns what one can the way one has available.

I am not arguing that the average, or even the exceptional, young teen has the ability to learn anything on their own or that they would even realize what they might be able to learn. I had guides, mentors, interlocutors and others who would steer me, challenge me, and teach me. I relied on those around me, but today those people can be anywhere in the world.

School does not work for everyone, but neither does leaving it. We each have our individual paths. Still, if one is not learning in school and is willing to take the risk and make the effort, the opportunity to get a broader, deeper and more interesting education is richer now than it has even been.

And that is a magnificent thing.

This post originated as an essay for The Teenagers Guide for Opting Out, Not Dropping Out, of School

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Is it worth $69.64 to you?

02/12/2011
USB flash drive

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In December I became the librarian at my school, replacing the woman who has held the position since the school opened in 1956.

I’m really enjoying the work. Perhaps it is needless to say, but I’ve made some immediate changes. I’ve started a long-term plan for bringing the library into the 21st Century, but in order to follow-through and turn those plans into reality I have to jump through some hoops.

Every middle and high school in the state of New York is required to employ a certified school librarian, now called a school media specialist. That is why I am a graduate student once again.

In order to get temporary certification so I can continue being a school media specialist in September I have to have 18 credits toward my Master of Library Science (school media division) degree by the end of August.

Do the math. Credits come in little packages, three at a time and I need six of those packages in the next six months. I’m taking three classes – nine credits – now and will take another three classes over the summer.

Taking three classes while working full time is taxing, but this essay is not about that marathon.

This is about one session of one of the classes. At least I hope it is only about one session.

The class is called The Technology of Information and it is a required introductory course. We had our second session earlier this week.

Students are not allowed into the computer lab in which we take the course until the professor arrives so we were all hanging out in the hallway outside chatting and checking our email and text messages on our smartphones or Blackberries. When the professor arrived we all filed into the lab, sat down and logged into the computers, launched the browser and navigated to the class website before the professor took over our computers remotely to broadcast his PowerPoint for the lesson that would teach us about…

…the parts of a computer.

Yes, friends, we spent the next 155 minutes learning that the keyboard we had just used is called a keyboard, that the mouse is called a mouse, that computers are filled with wires in circuits that connect every part of the computers with the central processing unit (CPU) through the mother board.

We learned that peripherals are called peripherals, expansion slots are used for expanding the capabilities of the computer, and that those little USB drives use a different kind of memory than the typical internal hard drive.

We got to look into an opened-up computer, circa 1999. We even got to hold an actual CPU, an actual hard drive and a circuit board in our not-quite-eager hands.

Die of an Intel 80486DX2 microprocessor (actua...

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Help me decide: was this a well-developed lesson that was differentiated for auditory, visual and tactile learners, or was it an insult to the notion of graduate-level education?

What would you pay for a lesson like that?

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Jumping Through Certification Hoops Should Be For Everyone

01/10/2011
Cathie Black Visits Hillcrest High School, Dec...
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I’ve spent the day learning about the hoops I have to jump through — a 2nd master degree, for one — to be certified as a school librarian. Oh, and I have until August to get 18 of the 36 required credits if I want to be able to do the job I’m doing now next year.

I think our new school’s chancellor should have the same opportunity I have, get half the credits for an education leadership degree to be allowed to continue to do her job past Labor Day.

If I worked at an elementary school it would not be an issue but certified librarians are required at all secondary schools.

That I’ve done more in one month in and for the library, and for the students and teachers who now can use it than the certified librarian (certified in 1956, btw) did in the past six years is apparently not as important as having that piece of paper certifying me.

That I can teach the students and teachers about technology and how to use it effectively and safely where the certified librarian thinks the electric typewriter is a threat to society is not as important as having that certificate.

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...
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If the certificate is that important for me to have, shouldn’t the school chancellor have one, too?

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Making a Point, Missing the Point

12/21/2010
Lava Lamp Red
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I am still astounded at the new things I’m realizing now that I am responsible for taking a library that stopped progressing sometime in the mid-1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.

The first thing is that organization, never my stro

ng point, is essential in a library. There is so much to keep track of: books, borrowers, the card catalog (more on that in a bit) return dates, trends (more on that, too, in a minute) and new releases.

There are likely more things to keep track of, but those are the ones I’ve discovered in my first two weeks. I hope some more experienced librarians I’ve come to know will inform me what I not paying attention to that I should also be focusing upon.

The second thing I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible to go directly from being an excellent 1970s library that unfortunately finds itself in 2010 to being a 2010 library ready for whatever develops in the next decade or two.
Let’s start with the card catalog.

The subject catalogue (
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We have a lovely wooden card catalog unit with a matching four-drawer file cabinet. Both pieces would look terrific in my house. The newest item in that file cabinet is a clipping from the New York Times of November 8th about the results of the Presidential election held the day before.

The card catalog is an anachronism. I just uncrated 15 cases of books and have a stack of catalog cards about a foot high that I need to file. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of time it will take to do that filing, but I have to think there is a better use of my time than doing that.

One potentially better use of my time would be to organize our non-fiction section currently in total disarray. It does one no good to look up a topic, say the grammar of Old French (perhaps you wonder as I do why we have two books on that topic), and not have a clue where to find the books filed under 841 in the Dewey decimal system.

Or perhaps an even better use of my time would be to figure out how to sell off that non-fiction section (complete with six — count them! — six different encyclopedias) and the lovely wooden card catalog and file cabinet in order to buy a few e-readers.

My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen has been hosting an interesting conversation about e-readers vs. books on her blog. The conversation started with the news that Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas got rid of many of the books in his school’s library and replaced them with e-readers and a coffee shop.

I’m not at all interested in the discussion of whether a

coffee shop belongs in a high school, but I am interested in the fact that Lamar High School can afford to buy a bunch on e-readers. So can a lot of schools around the country. But I’m scrounging for bookends.

A black metal bookend.
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Think about that for a minute. E-readers for a rich district and school, but my poor students get to watch me try to scrounge bookends.

While you’re thinking about that I hope you come to understand that until we find a way to make sure every student in America has access to the same resources, whether they are great teachers, e-readers, or classrooms with heat, all the other talk is meaningless.

All the education reformers, all the politicians, all the teacher unions and all the teacher-training colleges are all avoiding the central issue affecting the future of education and the future of our country: the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Find a way to fix that and you’ll see a whole bunch of other problems you waste time talking about disappear.

E-readers? Maybe someday.

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