Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is the Purpose of Education? #IMMOOC

If I had been asked the question, "What is the purpose of education?" a decade ago, I'm sure my answer would have focused on things like learning material, understanding the mechanics of writing, and other curriculum-based skills. In answering this question today, I still see an absolute need for kids to learn some core skills -- reading, writing, 'rithmetic -- I think the purpose of education has finally gone beyond learning those skills.

In his book The Innovator's Mindset, George Couros says on pg. 3  in the introduction, "Consider this: students have access to better resources online than what teachers could possibly offer." Facing this fact can be a real ego blow for some teachers who fancy themselves "experts". I certainly don't discount the knowledge that teachers have about their areas of expertise; teachers definitely have important information that is worth sharing with students! But teachers are no longer the main conduit for getting that information to students. Teachers need to embrace the myriad of excellent resources available to help them educate their students; other people have done all sorts of legwork for us -- we teachers would be silly not to use what's out there!

So to me, the purpose of education now is to make sure students learn the important information in all sorts of subject areas, but then they also must find ways to put what they learn to use. They also need to learn all sorts of other skills that we used to consider part of the "hidden curriculum" -- things like cooperation, communication, organization, collaboration, research, speaking, presenting, analyzing, evaluation, application. Without opportunities to put these skills into practice, all the content learned will be useless, just sitting there in their minds (if we're lucky, it stays in there -- it's more likely it just fades away).

Innovation plays a critical role in education today because the nature of information is constantly changing. There is always new information -- both factual and false information -- and new ways that information is shared and accessed. In order for education to remain relevant for students, schools need to constantly reassess how their students are learning and change with the times. Without innovation, schools just update themselves but then become stagnant -- and we end up back in the situation so many schools are in now: facing the need for change but fighting the system to make it happen.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's Not The Device, It's You

News flash: I don't think technology is the be-all and end-all of education. I'm sure this makes some people raise their eyebrows. I am the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, after all. Without technology, wouldn't my job be moot?

Just because I am an advocate of using technology in the classroom doesn't immediately mean that I think all technology use is good. I don't think books and teachers should be replaced by computers and online schools.

Good education is about meeting students where they're at. To do that effectively, we need to make sure that we are using the wide variety of tools available in our toolbox. Sometimes kids need a book. Sometimes they need to write something down on paper. Sometimes they need to play a game. Sometimes they need to see a video. And sometimes they need to use a computer or the internet.

When people complain about kids being addicted to technology, it is so quick and easy to blame the technology itself. Common complaints blamed on technology:

  • Kids spend too much time on their phones/iPads/game systems/computers that they don't know how to interact socially with other people.
  • Kids don't get enough sleep because they're on their devices all night long.
  • Kids don't do as well in school because they pay more attention to their device than their homework.
  • Kids have short attention spans and need to be entertained because of everything they do online.
  • Kids can't spell or write coherently because they always use "text speak".
  • Kids suffer health issues from so much time spent staring at illuminated screens.
These are a mere sampling of complaints. But when it gets right down to it, here's the ugly truth: if theses things are happening, it is not the fault of the device; it's the fault of the parent or the adult who should be paying attention to the way the technology is being used by the child. If a child is up until 3:00 in the morning playing video games, it's not Nintendo's fault. The parents should take steps to make sure the child is in bed. If a student turns in a report littered with IMHO's and FWIW's and spellings like "wut" and "b4", that's not the phone's fault; it's the teacher's fault for not taking the time to help the child write correctly for his or her audience.

And while I'm sharing unpopular ideas, adults who can't put their phones down during dinner or act like internet trolls or compulsively post selfie after selfie -- the technology isn't at fault there, either. As adults, we are all responsible for our own behavior. It's a cop out to say, "I'm addicted to my phone."

Placing blanket blame on the technology and then deciding that the way to fix the ills that exist as a result of the abuse of the device is to simply ban the technology is utterly laughable. The technology is here to stay -- the internet isn't a fad. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and our kids' lives. The best way to make sure all that technology gets used appropriately is to model proper usage ourselves and guide our kids through using it safely, meaningfully, and effectively.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Here's a news flash: teachers are people. For some people, this is hard to believe. Teachers are mere humans like the rest of the people in this world, but they are sometimes expected to act in super-human ways. And in my opinion, sometimes that is exactly what teachers need to do -- set aside their humanity; otherwise, teachers might end up behaving unprofessionally. So here comes a rant.

Because I am human, there are times when I show up to work and I am having a really bad day. Maybe I had a fight with my husband or daughter, or maybe I'm facing a family crisis (like last fall when my father nearly lost his life due to a cardiac arrest or last winter when I had to deal with my grandfather's suicide), or maybe I dropped the gallon of milk minutes before I left the house and had to clean it up. But in the name of professionalism, I push all that humanity aside and do my job. This doesn't mean I can't tell my students or coworkers that I'm having a bad day or that I'm dealing with some really tough things in my life at home. What it means is that I don't get to take out my anger and pain and frustration on my students and coworkers. I don't get to be snippy and crabby with them. I don't get to be rude to them. Instead, I behave professionally and interact with the people at work respectfully and civilly and pleasantly, if I can muster that. Doing otherwise is unprofessional.

Because I am human, I do not like every student in my class equally. Some students I like more than others; some I actually don't like at all. But the funny thing is that they don't know that. My students don't necessarily know who I really like, and they sure don't know which ones I don't like. Showing favoritism or partiality or dislike or hostility would be unprofessional. And this can be hard because kids are perceptive little creatures. They can sniff out fake people really quickly. As a teacher, I have to set aside my humanity and behave in a super-human way in order to be professional.

Because I am human, I do not like every person I work with. Some people I consider to be really good friends; some are work acquaintances; and some are people I am stuck working with despite the fact that I don't like them or trust them or even respect them. But just like my students, those people don't know who they are. The people I have issues with are still treated with kindness and friendliness and respect. I don't get to ignore them or be short with them or blow off their email messages when they ask me for help because doing all those things would be unprofessional.

Because I work with humans, I have to deal with people who have bad days and people who don't like me. They are short with me, ignore my emails, and behave in an unprofessional way. But I don't get to respond in kind. Instead, I behave professionally and meet rudeness with kindness.

Really, being a professional requires remembering one simple thing: treat other people the way you would want to be treated. 

Monday, August 8, 2016


A couple of weeks ago I attended an incredibly motivational conference on innovative teaching and educational technology (Leyden Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium). Not only were there high quality keynote speakers and presenters (such as Josh Stumpenhorst and Jaime Casap), but it was also limited to a maximum of 425 participants, so none of the breakout sessions was ever overcrowded. I highly recommend this conference -- it is well worth three days out of your summer vacation!

But one thing happened there that for some reason has stuck with me -- and kind of left me scratching my head. On the last day of the symposium, the keynote speaker did one of those quick little audience surveys to find out how long people had been teaching. She started out asking for first year teachers to raise their hands. If I remember correctly, there was no one who raised their hand. Then she asked for anyone who had been teaching 1 - 5 years, and there were a few hands. Then she asked for 5 - 10 years; there were a few more hands. Then 10 - 20 years, a nice number of people raised their hands. The she asked for 20 - 30 years; there were lots of hands for that group, including mine. And then something really weird happened. The people in the auditorium broke into spontaneous applause. When the speaker then asked for people who had been teaching for more than 30 years to raise their hands (and there were a few), there was more applause. Being part of a group of the receiving end of spontaneous applause like that was humbling but weird. Every day, I go to work and do my job -- and I'm not denying that it can be hard, arduous, draining work -- but I get to work with great teachers and fun students, so my time at work really is enjoyable. Having fun seems unworthy of applause. But then when I started to think of what it takes to be a teacher for more than a quarter century, I guess I can see why people would celebrate that. There is a constant state of flux in education, and to be quite honest, being a teacher doesn't always generate a whole lot of respect and admiration. So I guess I'll just be humbled and grateful that someone out there actually thinks that what I do and have done for so many years deserves a moment of applause.

But after the applause was all done and the speaker got back to her presentation, I had a thought that baffled me a bit. I realized that here, at this three day conference on innovating education, learning how to change up the way teaching and learning happens in the classroom, there were many more of the "older" teachers than the "younger" teachers. And I wondered why that was. After all, it is so often the "older" teachers who get the bad rap -- they're the ones who are stuck in their old ways of doing things; they're the ones who don't want to change. At least that's what the prevailing attitude seems to be so often. The veteran teachers are stuck in the past, the jaded ones. The fresh-faced college kids are the eager ones, the innovative ones, the hope for the future. Yet at a conference devoted fully to significantly changing the way education looks, there sure weren't very many of those fresh-faced innovators.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not naive. I know that there are PLENTY of veteran teachers who are sitting around on their tenured butts whining about "kids these days" and still using the same tests they were using 5 or 10 years ago. I also know that there are plenty of teachers out there who are new to the job and eager to change the world. But this conference isn't the first time I've run into this. A few years ago, I attended a two day workshop on grading practices presented by Rick Wormeli. My colleague and I were seated at a table with another 5 or 6 teachers from a different district. They all looked pretty young -- barely pushing 30 -- so I'm guessing they hadn't been teaching more than 5 - 7 years max. And THEY were the ones bucking everything Rick Wormeli said. THEY were the ones complaining that this was stupid and there was no need to change anything. But there sat my colleague and I -- with our years in the classroom being more than double of those young teachers -- and we were digging what Wormeli was saying.

I don't know why there is this weird divide, or if it really exists. But it sure feels like it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

No Surprise

Last school year, I spent a lot of time with the teachers in our grade 3/4 building helping them familiarize their students with the PARCC test interface they would be encountering. The kids were so great (the teachers, too) -- they tried every single tool they could in the PARCC tutorials. We showed the kids how to navigate the PARCC test; we had the kids work on it while we modeled it; we has the kids try it on their own at their own pace; we had the kids try it on their own in a timed situation to simulate what the PARCC test would be like. We answered their questions over and over and over again. And so many of our kids worked so hard on their actual PARCC testing days. But that doesn't mean all the preparation we tried to give the kids worked flawlessly.

It was in the forefront of all of the teachers' minds that in the actual testing situation, we would be unable to answer any questions the kids had about how to navigate through the testing site. That meant that if a kid forgot how to go to the next page, teachers were not allowed to tell the student how to do that. Conceivably, a student could waste a meaningful amount of time just trying to determine how to go to the next page.

This made me really mad. Because it was grossly unfair. I worried that the kids taking the online version of the test could be at a disadvantage to the kids who were taking the paper/pencil version of the test. After all, those kids wouldn't waste any time trying to figure out how to go to the next page of the test.

I tried to convince myself I was being paranoid. I told myself I was making a mountain out of a molehill. I assured myself that the teachers had prepped their kids so well that it would be silly to think the kids would be at a disadvantage.

And then I read this.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Good at Reading, or Reading is Good?

Today, I had a half day of professional development that focused on close reading and writing from sources. All tied to Common Core, of course. While I could see how someone who is new to the gig of teaching could get some good information from this, what I fear the most is the message being sent about teaching reading. Everything when it comes to close reading needs to be text-based. One of the videos we watched today is this one on writing text-dependent questions. On the surface, I see the value in close reading and having students respond to text-dependent questions, but the more I thought about it, the more upsetting it became. Here's why.

Here is how this strategy is supposed to work.

Kids are given a text to read. Let's say they are reading a short story, or even a magazine article. Close reading means the text needs to be read three times. Each reading is done for a different purpose and should allow the student to delve more deeply into the text. Then having students respond to text-dependent questions will be their way of demonstrating their depth of knowledge of what they learned. We are told this will help our students become good readers, they will be able to master challenging texts. Lord knows teacher bemoan the fact that kids aren't good readers. This close reading thing sure does sound like a great way to develop our kids into readers.

But I can't help but wonder if while we are trying to make out kids good readers, they might end up not thinking reading is a good thing to do. This process of close reading has the potential to be overkill, making kids dread having to read something over and over and over again. Asking only text-dependent questions has the potential to make talking about what they read very clinical and meaningless all while trying to make the text meaningful. If you watched the video I linked to above, then you know that posing questions that ask the students to find ways to personally identify with and connect to the text is not a good thing; remember (as said at the end of the video): "It's what's INSIDE that counts...stay inside the text!"

While we work so hard to make out students good readers, are we killing any desire they might have to read for fun? Because close reading doesn't seem to be at all about reading for fun; it's all about making meaning.

The crux of my teaching philosophy is that I want to help students make their education meaningful to them personally right now. It's hard to make thirteen-year-olds see why prepositional phrases and mythology are meaningful, but if I want them to care about prepositional phrases and mythology, I have to help them connect to those topics personally right now. It does no good to constantly hit them with threats of high school, college, or jobs. Those things all seem a lifetime way when you're in 8th grade. But close reading -- and writing from sources -- eschew those personal connections in favor of a focus on understanding the text as it is presented, not from a personal perspective.

It seems to me that the harder we work to make out students good, critical readers, the less success we have because our students learn pretty quickly that reading isn't fun and it isn't personal.

And that is really sad.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Stick Around

I just saw this article posted this morning, contemplating why some teachers decide to stay in education despite the immense challenges faced in this field right now. I thought I'd add my two cents for anyone who's interested.

I have been teaching since 1991 and I don't plan to leave it. I admit that over the past 5 years, I have contemplated leaving teaching. Some of the reasons I thought about getting out included

  • the way Common Core has been implemented
  • the implementation of PARCC testing and other high-stakes testing
  • the general attitude of hostility toward teachers from the media and general public
  • administrators and parents who are unsupportive of what teachers do (caveat -- this does not mean ALL parents and ALL administrators; it only takes 1 or 2 to make an absolute mess, trust me)
  • decreasing autonomy
  • increased workload
  • flawed evaluation systems
  • workplace politics
I'm still here, though, and I have no intentions of leaving. Why do I stay?

  • I love education.
  • I love kids.
  • I love seeing the ways kids' faces light up when they finally "get" something difficult that they have been trying to learn.
  • Education is not a job to me -- it is a calling. I always wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. Always.
  • Did I mention the kids?
The reasons to leave this field are easily quantifiable and identified. The reasons to stay, not so much. It's something that is in my blood. It is just part of who I am. The reasons I stay in teaching are based in emotion, not tasks. When I am teaching in a classroom, talking with, laughing with, and guiding my students, I am at my happiest, professionally speaking. The times when I am miserable are rarely when I am with the kids. They are when I am in a meeting or when I am reading an email or when I am on a phone call.

Why do I stay in education? Because I am a teacher and that's all I have ever wanted to be.