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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

No Walk in the PARCC

Not long ago I read with glee about Chicago Public Schools saying they were not giving the PARCC test to about 600 of their schools. To me, it was a strong message being sent -- we aren't ready for this test and we won't force it upon our kids until we are ready. But today, it was announced that they would indeed be administering it starting next week. State Superintendent Christopher Koch held them hostage with money, threatening to withhold funds if PARCC wasn't administered as the law states it should be. Sadly, money talks and CPS had to cave.

But now two things make me raise my eyebrows. One of them is the late notice to the 600 schools who didn't think they were administering the PARCC test. I have helping teachers for the past month work with their kids on how to navigate the test -- how to use the online tools available to them during the test, looking at the different kinds of questions and how to answer them (there are single answer multiple choice, multiple answer multiple choice, fill in the blank, highlight, drag and drop, drop-down menu, constructed response, graphing, and equation editor questions -- all requiring different methods of inputting the answers). We've practiced having the kids log in and out as well as flag and review questions, too. According to the directions in the script, once the students start the test, teachers are not allowed to help the students answer the questions or use any of the online tools unless there is some sort of technology malfunction, so it is important that the kids know how to move around the page, move from one question to the next, and how to answer questions. Some of the navigation of the test is intuitive for these "digital natives", but some of it is not. And kids who might not have a lot of access to technology might also find the navigation challenging. How are the kids in those 600 schools going to get properly acquainted with the tools they need to know to take this test in the short amount of time they now have -- less than a week? Maybe they have been prepping the kids in case this whole thing fell through (exactly as it has).

The other thing that makes me concerned is that students in Chicago Public Schools in grades 3 - 5 are taking the paper-pencil version of the test. The bulk of my assistance has been with students in grades 3 and 4; in our district, all our students are taking the online version of the test. During practice sessions, kids have had questions about how to use the tools and navigate the test. More than one student forgot how to move to the next question. Had this been the actual test and not a practice session, nobody would have been allowed to tell the student how to go to the next question, so either that student would sit there and not move on or figure it out on his or her own. Hopefully the latter can happen and in a timely manner because if the student takes 20 minutes to figure it out, that is 20 minutes of testing time lost, meaning the student will likely not finish the test. Kids who are taking paper/pencil tests probably won't have to worry about not knowing how to move on to the next question. Also, students taking the online test will have to do their constructed responses on a keyboard as well as use the equation editor, meaning they use a keyboard and the buttons on the screen to develop their responses for math questions. This is going to be a much more cumbersome process than it will be for the kids who are handwriting their responses. Kids who don't have a lot of keyboarding experience, as kids in grades 3 and 4 tend to be, could be at a real disadvantage with the online version of the test.

So when you consider that within the entire PARCC partnership of 10 states plus Washington, D.C., some kids have been prepared for navigating the online test but some haven't and some don't need to, and that some kids have good keyboarding skills but some don't and some don't need them, and some kids have plenty of access to technology in and out of school but some don't and some don't need the access to technology for this test, how can ANYONE hope to come up with STANDARDIZED scores on a test that really isn't STANDARDIZED for everyone? How fair will it be to compare the scores for 3rd graders taking the test on a computer with limited keyboarding skills and computer experience to the scores of 3rd graders taking the test on paper?

Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels like this makes no sense.