30 September 2006

Trying Times

"It's merely a continuous and mostly vain attempt to keep several groups of people with opposing needs and agendas happy, and knowing in your heart of hearts that you cannot, and being lambasted for your hard work in the bargain."
---Jasper Fforde

One of my Curriculum homies sent me the above quote. In her mind (and now mine), it is the perfect way to sum up what it is like to work there. From a classroom teacher's perspective, "The District," including Curriculum, is often viewed as meddlesome. I should know. Up until this year, I was in the classroom---and for 15 years, I often had a similar mindset. However, I have been walking in other shoes part-time (and now full-time), which results in a more broadened opinion of things.

We had our first district-wide content area meetings on Thursday. You might remember me talking about the Pretty High School and their not so pretty attitude. The final outcome in terms of the meetings? Not a single teacher showed up to talk about science. Only one had e-mailed to say he might not attend. Whatever respect the other schools had for them---which wasn't much considering how they've ingratiated themselves in the past---is gone. People were angry. And me? I'm caught in the middle. I have the responsibility to run the meeting, but no authority to have people attend. The one who had the authority (their principal) felt it was easier not to have to tell his staff he made a mistake about things and blamed us instead. Once again, The District has to be the scapegoat so teachers have an excuse to be selfish.

Other content area meetings were similarly sabotaged. One showed up for Language Arts. Three showed up for Math and acted unprofessionally. Social Studies apparently had a decent turnout. We all looked like the walking dead when we returned to the office, ready to curl up in balls under our desks.

These district meeting days were set aside by principals---not us. I was at the meeting last year. I saw each and every one of them vote with a "thumbs up" to doing this. But now, all of this is moot---because late on Wednesday, The Union made them negotiate away those times. The reason? Because Special Ed teachers can't attend the content area meetings due to having to go to their own meeting. Never mind that I have never seen a SPED teacher at a science meeting in my 16 years in the district. I smell a rat in all of this. It smells a lot like the Not-So-Pretty High School. Meanwhile, my junior teachers---who were excited about finally getting time to meet---are pissed off.

So, what do we have? Two high schools mad that the other doesn't make any effort. All junior highs mad that they no longer have the opportunity to collaborate. Boss Lady 2.0 has the same look on her face at this point in the year that her predecessor had by late spring (not a good sign). And me, caught in the middle of all of the agendas. Everytime I think "Why bother?" to myself, I only have one answer: it's about kids...every kid every day. And until every teacher is ready to set aside his or her selfish agenda, until every administrator is ready to to be accountable for their own decisions and staff, until all of us at The Head Shed get out into classrooms as often as possible---then students will continue to lose out. Can't we all just get along?

29 September 2006

Censorchimps 2006

Software which acts to filter various categories of websites tends to be de rigeur at most public schools these days. I have never been completely comfortable with this idea. While I agree that pornographic images (for example) have no place in the classroom, I also know that even the most benign Google image search is likely to return pictures that have very little in common with the original query. We might like to protect minors from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the reality is simply that this isn't feasible 100% of the time.

One of the categories of websites which is blocked in our district has to do with games. The Censorchimp department (also known as our techs) thinks that there might be some games that have educational value which should not be blocked...but how will we decide which ones? I sat in on a meeting recently about this, mainly because I don't agree with the filtering---and I certainly have a hard time with one or two people making decisions about what the rest of us can and can't look at. An entire procedure was developed around how teachers could get a site unblocked. I do agree that teachers need to be responsible for both classroom materials in general and monitoring student computer behavior, but we have no similar policy regarding other educational materials. Do you want to buy a book of brainteasers, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or other games to bring in and use with students? No one gives a second glance. Would you like to show a film clip from a video you purchased? Go for it (but if you want to stream it, forget it...you'll be blocked). I don't understand why we have hoops for electronic media and none for other sorts.

I did ask who decides what is and isn't blocked. The techs claim the filtering company decides which categories, which I don't quite buy since the techs can allow different categories for different people: elementary students, secondary students, and staff. They did admit that our "Cabinet" positions have also made that determination in the past. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. Blogs were blocked last year, but now it's okay for staff to read and use them. No one has access to games, but staff is allowed to participate in all forms of on-line gambling. The only difference between what is available for elementary and secondary students is that elementary kids can't visit sites having to do with fashion and design. I haven't a clue why that would be.

A friend asked me this week why any site would be blocked to a teacher. After all, a teacher who's out cruising for porn using school time and resources probably doesn't need to be there. There is already monitoring software which tracks all of the places we visit. If you're not doing anything inappropriate, there's no reason to worry. And in the meantime, lots of resources out there are being blocked because a piece of software is making a "decision" to keep it from your students and you. As far as I can tell, the only reason to block things from teachers is to give someone down at central office a power trip. It really isn't much of a reason.

I'll keep asking and pushing when I can. It seems irresponsible to let the censorchimps control all.

28 September 2006

Pick a Grade...Any Grade

The past two days have been overflowing with tasks. I started the morning meeting with a k-5 group about standards-based grading. I then came back to Central Orifice to meet with our 6th grade math and science cadre before moving on to the grades 7 - 9 meeting during the early afternoon. I finally ended up with the grades 10 - 12 science teachers, which is a story all unto itself...but I can't stand to tell it right now.

I am seeing and hearing similar issues and questions from nearly every grade level, but because they don't get much chance to talk with one another, they rarely know that everyone is struggling with grading in their own way. K-5 is moving to a standards based reporting system and secondary is starting to ask "So, what does an 'A' mean anyway?" They are realizing it doesn't really tell them anything about a kid.

Every group is in fear that the grade level above is going to poop on them and berate them about student performance. I have no doubt that this happened in the past, but all but one staff/grade level I've worked with is beyond the finger pointing stage. They accept the challenges and responsibilities while acknowledging that everyone has their own burdens to bear.

I wish that there was some way for more teachers than just me to get the big picture. Days like today which are set aside for some district conversation are helpful, but still limited to "elementary" or "secondary." I need some way to get people to see how the pieces fit. I know how easy it is to be myopic about one's classroom. It's all you can do to keep focused on the kids in front of you. I truly understand that, but it's only by working together on behalf of all of our students that we're going to be able to make a difference. It doesn't matter what grade you teach.

26 September 2006

Dinopillars

Or maybe I should say Catersaurs.

This is one of those "best laid plans of mice and men" sorts of stories.

We have a new elementary science kit curriculum this year and I had set aside today's cadre meeting to introduce the butterfly kit. I ordered my caterpillars ahead of time so that we'd have them to look at and talk about today. The little beauties arrived a little less than two weeks ago and proceeded to do what caterpillars do: eat, grow...and pupate.

Pupate?! Crap. I didn't need them in that form, but by Friday of last week, my overachieving beasties were already doing what they weren't scheduled to do until Friday of this week.

I pondered a variety of possibilities for substitutions. Could I find wild caterpillars at this time of year? Might I substitute another non-threatening invertebrate (like pillbugs) for our observations? I finally settled on buying some plastic caterpillars...maybe a little bag of insects from Toys R Us. It's getting on toward Halloween---there ought to be creepy crawlies to buy, right?

Wrong.

I looked three different places and the best I could do was a bag of little dinosaurs. I stood there considering the prospect of replacing caterpillars with dinosaurs like some sort of Sanka experiment gone horribly awry. I decided I might as well go big or go home.

Today, the teachers got their caterpillar cups ready. There was food that they observed...we talked about the exciting arrival of caterpillars...and then I plunked tiny dinosaurs into everyone's cup. Thank goodness people have a sense of humor---and are teachers who understand that not everything always goes as planned.

25 September 2006

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Second Grade

One of the double-edged swords I traverse in my job comes from being the k-12 science person. I get this wonderful big picture viewpoint. I can see how all of the different pieces (should) fit together and the connections between grade levels and ideas. No one else in the department has this sort of assignment and, at times, their myopia becomes a hindrance; however, it also means that they can concentrate on a very discrete amount of information. I am particularly jealous of that ability this week.

Tomorrow, I have second grade teachers all day...followed by third grade teachers all of Wednesday...and then sixth grade teachers until noon on Thursday. I then get to run out to a meeting with grades 7, 8, and 9 science teachers for 30 minutes before leading a grades 10 - 12 science meeting at one of the high schools. It's a bit nuts, to say the least, but I am doing my best to gracefully eat this elephant one dainty bite at a time.

I am grateful for the help I was able to round up for the 7 - 9 meeting. There may be a couple of contentious moments at that meeting that my helpers are just going to have to field for themselves. I am asking each grade level to choose one activity in common to do before we meet again in January. I'll make all the copies and we'll take time to score things and talk about them in January---in other words, teachers only have to agree to set aside time for this activity during one class period. The goal in all of this is to help get some common points of conversation going. Each teacher has some specific things they like to do with their kids---which is fine---but since all students have to get to the same end point, shouldn't we have some way to tell what is and isn't working? This whole idea may well go over like a lead balloon on Thursday afternoon.

I'm looking forward to Friday. It's a non-student day and schools will be working on various initiatives. I haven't been asked to present anywhere or work with anyone...a fact that I'm keeping very quiet. I need some quiet time to figure out where I am and where I'm going next.

24 September 2006

The A's, B's, and C's of Grades

Every once in awhile, I think about the students I had during my first few years of teaching...and I feel sorry for them. I did the best I could, but I now know so much more about learning, classroom management, reading strategies, and more. Even in my 16th year, I am still feeling the urge of a paradigm shift coming on. This time, it's about grading.

I wrote about the inertia of secondary ed a couple of weeks ago. I was specifically motivated about the change in our elementaries to a standards-based reporting system and how that would never happen at the secondary level because the teachers would revolt. I think that's only part of the story. The other part is simply that colleges, universities, and employers are looking for more traditional marks. I could put parents in there, but we're not finding that to be the case here. There just aren't the same hurdles for elementary because the information that's generated there is used differently from secondary ed.

Let's face it, grades are not going to go away. The shift---if and when it comes for secondary---is really going to be about how we structure grades in the classroom. Most teachers use a rewards based sort of system. Grades can be a punishment and there may be a great deal of subjectivity, even with a rubric. But what happens if the system becomes more about credit for what is done (rather than taking away for what is not)? What if teachers were to use a blend of the current system with a standards-based portfolio where students get to choose the assignments they want included for the overall grade?

I keep ruminating about these things. It is this sort of idea that will likely drive me back into the classroom---because I do want to put it into practice. In the meantime, it does bring up questions for me about how to talk about this with other secondary teachers. I think the newbies I work with would have a good time talking about some case studies...but I can think of few other touchier subjects for seasoned veterans than how they set up their gradebooks. I'm not interested in proclaiming I have the answers, mind you, but I don't know how many of the teachers I work with are willing to consider any conversation around these ideas.

I am doing a bit of reading. Some of our elementaries have been knee-deep in Ken O'Connor's How to Grade for Learning and I am psyched about joining a lit circle at one of the schools to talk about this book. It's not a book specifically geared for use with elementary grades, it just hasn't trickled up in my district. I have also been looking at Overcoming Student Failure: Changing Motives and Incentives for Learning. This book does take a more secondary focus and has some great things to say about changing the grading dynamic and how to do this.

I don't know where all of this will lead at this point. I don't think my own paradigm shift is done...shifting...but I'm appreciating the chance to learn and think at this point in my career. Maybe this old dog has a few tricks left to learn.

23 September 2006

Time to Lighten Up

Things have been pretty heavy around here recently. And hey, it's the weekend. Don't we deserve a little fun?

Pratie Place shared this wonderful link to the Science Fair SWAT over at Something Awful, where two writers break down projects such as the one shown below.

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Head on over. Enjoy the Donuts, Lumpy Milk, Skittles, and the Spurt. You'll laugh...you'll cry...it'll be much much better than Cats. Want more? Then check out the Return to the Science Fair.

22 September 2006

Friday Night Lights

I grew up beneath the Friday Night Lights of west Texas. If you read the book by the same name (or saw the film), I am here to tell you that people's lives really do revolve around high school football. Yes, I do know many families who held back their sons an extra year before kindergarten because he would be a bigger football player later. I've seen marching band programs with budgets in the tens of thousands. I've watched dancing mascots and halftime shows comprised of border kids singing songs from "Hee Haw." I even saw a documented case of mass hysteria take place one Homecoming evening. I've been on buses going to towns where the only way to navigate things was to look for the stadium lights and drive toward them.

I can't remember a fall evening where the stadium wasn't full---not just with people from town, but from the "vistors"' town, too. I miss the cool autumn nights...Frito Pie...and all of the social activities. There were road trips, crazy fans with guns, and more.

When Friday rolls around now, I get the itch to see a game. There's just a different sort of energy with high school football---a vibe you don't find anywhere else. Here in the northwest, football isn't as serious of a sport. It is a game and not a way of life. It is still the only time staff at my school ever got together (other than an end of year party). Tonight is the annual "do." I'm no longer officially associated with the school, but was still invited along to celebrate the Friday Night Lights once more.

I have a lot of fond memories of time beneath the Friday Night Lights. I am glad to see that this tradition continues to thrive...across generations and across the country. Go get your popcorn and enjoy the show.

21 September 2006

Happy Dance

I got to go and do a bit of celebrating on Monday night. I helped a fifth grade teacher last year with science instruction. Her students had fared poorly on the state assessment the previous year and she decided to see what could be done to help her current crop of charges. I went out and worked with her students twice. She used released items from previous assessments to gauge their progress---we looked at things together and talked about what else kids could do. Then, we held our breath for the results.

Her kids did very well. She tripled the number who met the standard...and had another three within five points. That accounts for nearly half of her students and was a far cry from the three who passed the previous year.

She deserved to do her happy dance. She actively sought out help, cared enough to keep trying, and is further enthused about learning and sharing with her peers. You know things are good when someone's husband stops by your desk twice to thank you, too.

She's worried that I'll be too "popular" this year to come out and work with her students again. It's true, I do have more on my plate and more teachers to think about. But her kids are my kids and I'll make some time to go out. She's also worried about getting her peers on board...how to be enthusiastic without gloating. We'll work on that, too, through the cadre. I'll take these little victories any way I can get them.

20 September 2006

The Rare Breed

I was duly warned: kindergarten teachers are a different sort of nut to crack. This wasn't intended to mean that they were bad people, but it certainly must take a certain kind of person to take the raw materials that enter our school system and make the first experience those kiddos have be a positive one. In our district, kindergarten teachers are a dying breed. Enrollment is decreasing and as long as the state only supports a half day of instruction, we need half the number required for other primary grades. It's even a more rare attribute to find teachers willing to leave their classes after 10 days of instruction and come to professional development---but members of that group did just that for us yesterday.

We kicked off our math and science cadre. (More info here.) Kindergarten teachers from across the district turned out for some time to talk about what their little ones need to be able to do in math and science, share ideas, and generate some enthusiasm to take back and share with other teachers.

The math specialist and I took very different approaches to our sessions, both of which worked well. I started teachers thinking about thalidomide as a way to get at form and function. We then looked at a nutrition label for caramel corn (while they munched some) and pictures of molecules (fats, carbs, proteins) to talk about form and function some more...all the while leading to what kindergartners need to be able to do in science: know that things are made of smaller parts and these parts do different things. It turned out to be a nice way to have teachers think about the "end user"---how we actually use a skill in the real world and that is first developed in kindergarten. Kids need that skill...science can't be "skipped." Anyway, I was really pleased with how it got them thinking about things. They must have been happy, too: they clapped for me at the end of their session and said they wished I'd been their science teacher when they were in school.

I tried to pay attention to my body language and voice. I sat down in front of them a lot---and not behind a table, but almost amongst them. I wanted things to be more conversational. I have absolutely zero expertise where teaching kindergarten is concerned, although I hoped to be looked at as a sort of peer...not someone from The District telling them what they need to be doing. Their kids are my responsibility, too, after all.

The one major insight I had from the day was that they don't know anything (or very much) about building background knowledge for students. I asked them about the kinds of things they might be doing. I clarified that many kids might come from homes where experiences were limited. We all need "pegs to hang ideas on," so how do you help kids acquire those "pegs"? The teachers suggested a few things about reading stories to kids, but not much else. As I think about the achievement gap that we have between our kids who are on free/reduced lunch (a measure of poverty) and those who are not, we need to do something to support the acquisition of background knowledge. If this isn't starting in kindergarten, then where are we doing it? Are we not doing that at all? It's not a pretty thought, but it's something we can talk about more with the cadre. I believe it's a conversation we really have to have as a district.

I've survived another trial by fire in this district role. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this good beginning will continue through the remaining six grade level meetings. First grade teachers arrive in the morning and we'll launch into a look at Balance and Motion. I'd like so much for math and science not to be the taught by a rare breed of elementary teacher.

19 September 2006

The Not-So-Pretty School

Mike was recently talking about his school being the "red-headed stepchild" of his district. I have certainly been in that position---and it ain't fun---but it almost seems worse to be have a school within the district which firmly believes that one of its purposes is to crap on everyone else. And better yet, we should like it and agree with them that said crap doesn't stink, because hey, they're the Pretty High School.

The pretty school has been on Newsweek's Top 500 high school list. It has had fairly good WASL scores at 10th grade, but currently, the other high school in the district matches PHS in Reading and outpaces them in Writing. Their science data are below. Notice a trend? Hmmm...PHS is the one school in the district which consistently refuses to engage in any professional development with me and will interfere with district initiatives whenever possible. Their science scores are better than the other school, but the gap is definitely closing and the other school is stronger in some of the strands of testing.

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Last spring, secondary principals in the district (at the request of many on their staves) agreed to set aside four dates of common planning time for teachers to have district-wide subject area meetings. When I met with science folks in August, I handed them a list of the dates and a plan for the year.

Pretty High School is unhappy. Why, the first meeting is the same date as their Open House and they always get to have that time to prepare. Their principal screwed up and as a result, the entire district is being held hostage because they don't want to participate. Other principals don't want to move the date because agreements are agreements. The fact is, Boss Lady 2.0 could mandate teachers attend the meetings---it is contract time and it was determined to specifically be used for subject-are meetings. The Union has even said that she can do this. I'm not convinced that she should have to clean up the mess on this one. Seems to me the principal needs to tell his staff what the expectations are. Currently, this nonsense has taken up four days of time to sort out...and it still isn't settled. My guess is that some departments from PHS just won't show up for the meetings. If so, they won't be provided with any resources. Too bad.

The entire district was treated today to PHS's opinion about this inocuous e-mail: "Flex Plan Open Enrollment Meeting Reminder; Tuesday, September 19; Board Room 4:00 - 5:00; A representative of Flex-Plan Services, the District's administrator for our Health Care and Dependent Card Flexible Spending Accounts, will be available to answer your questions about the plan, the extended grace period, and the new Benny Card option."

Here is the response a member of PHS sent to the entire district as a reply to the e-mail: "We did not have this kind of disconnect with Central Administration in the past, at least to my knowledge. Perhaps more training on staff communications needs might be warranted. I received the notice too late for me to change my schedule." Hello? Do 1700 people need to read this?

Perhaps I'm not the only one tired of PHS. Even though it clogged the inboxes of everyone, two people in the district were kind enough to reply. "In our building, we received substantial packets (via our personal mail boxes) with all pertinent information. I don't recall the exact date, but we have had notice for some time now" and "I have known about it via a letter sent home and an e-mail for about a month now."

Pretty High School needs to understand that it is, indeed, part of this district. If they don't choose to participate, then they certainly don't need to make the rest of us suffer in the process.

Whew. Rant over. :)

Tomorrow, I'll talk about my glorious day with the kindergarten teachers...and my celebration with a fifth grade teacher.

18 September 2006

Welcome USA Today Readers

USA Today has an interesting article about teacher bloggers in today's issues. Stop by and give it a read. If you're coming here from the article---welcome! I hope you'll look around and leave a comment.

17 September 2006

The Reset Button

Sunday is the best reset button I can think of. I have no schedule to keep...no place to be...and no other "musts." After all the stress of the previous work week, it's time to relax and go through the mail that has accumulated. The clothes get washed and put away. The floors are cleaned. A mid-day nap is a wonderful treat. I know that Monday is just next door on the calendar, but there are still plenty of sweet moments left for today---time for me to choose which direction the day takes and tend to my own needs instead of solely focusing on everyone else. Have a good week, everyone!

16 September 2006

Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

One of my resolutions for this new school year is a stealth project: Save the Julio! Julio is one of those teachers who drives me to have conversations like the one below.

INT: Hallway at central office. Science and math specialists are walking from opposite directions. The math specialist is scowling.

Science specialist: Is everything all right?
Math specialist: I...I think I might be bald by the end of this school year.
Science specialist: Oh, that's nothing. I was just sitting at my computer reading e-mail and realized I was going to have an aneurysm. That would be it. I'd just slump over at my computer. I have to take a little walk now.

Julio is an energetic and intellectually curious man. He has a passion for teaching but no clue about student learning. There are unit binders full of pre-printed notes for the overhead. The idea is just to have kids copy down the notes. If they don't learn from that, too bad...because, hey, he taught it, right? So my mission this year is to shake Julio up a bit. It's a good time as he's picking up a program that I once taught---and is receptive to mentoring.

I saw Julio on Friday morning as I was moving between different schools. He was stressed about getting a lab set up for next week. "Gee, should I come back after school? I could help you set up." He liked that idea and it was the perfect "in" to having another session with him to talk about things. He has already tried a couple of ideas from our previous talk and is happy with the results. I just need to keep him from reverting to his old habits...and then see if he'll transfer any of these ideas to other classes he teaches. We're having some good conversations for now and that is useful.

Julio does care about what happens in the classroom, it's just that his entire focus is on himself. I may very well be wrong in thinking this, but I think that what happens in the classroom should be about kids. Can I get him to to move more to that side of the continuum this year? I think I might...as long as I don't have that aneurysm first.

15 September 2006

What the Beginning Teacher Mentor Saw

I carved out some time this week to visit the seven beginning teachers in our district. Six of them are hard at work in the building where I spent the previous 10 years of my career, so it's a comfortable space for me to be. One of the teachers said that it helps her to know that I have a history with the building in case there are things about the culture she wants more information about.

I have to admit that I haven't been very enthusiastic about doing this program this year...and in some ways, I'm still not. I have far too much on my plate and nurturing beginners is too important to be treated as an "add-on." I also have to admit that I really enjoyed being in classrooms this week.

One of the best parts of being out and about has been the ability to spend some time looking at programs that are very different from science. Do I know anything about working with autistic 6 year olds? No. Have I ever instructed a set of students on using a computer program to create three dimensional objects? Not once. Could I tell you the best strategies for a introductory PE course? Absolutely not. But I can tell right away if kids feel safe...if they look happy...if the teacher is being able to develop positive relationships...whether or not there are high expectations for every student...if procedures and routines are in place...if the space is inviting and well-organized. In most cases, the noobs are off to a good start.

Are there things that were disappointing? Indeed, there were. But now is the time for me to help coach them and help them develop. I'm finding that it's a very fine line to tread. I am not an administrator nor evaluator. Anything that I see I can only talk about with the teacher alone---confidentiality is most important. My words of wisdom can be ignored and I need to couch them in such a way that they are not authoritarian and yet still get the point across. For example, giving kids half the period to just sit around is not okay, but I can't say it that way. Phrasing is everything. I find myself using "I wonder what would happen if..." or "Good teachers..." instead of the more blunt approach. I offer to be with them when they try a new strategy. I encourage them to spend time observing other teachers. I hope I can coach them into developing the kinds of habits and behaviours which help all students learn.

I know the statistics. I know that within two years, many beginning teachers (nationwide) will be lost from the profession...half of them by year five. The odds are against all of us, but I will try to do my part to help the newbies in my district. My hope is that I can help them not merely survive, but thrive.

14 September 2006

Mythunderstandings

Another science supervisor forwarded an eight page article to me about the "Myths of Science Education" from the CalTech Prescience Initiative...although I can't find the article anywhere on their website. Really, it's just an opinion piece. I would think, though, that any professor who circulated the statements below would offer more support and substantiation for these. (Who does he think he is---a blogger?! :) )

Here is the food for thought that Dr. James M. Bower is offering:
  • Myth 1 - The problem with public science education is that a large percentage of teachers are incompetent.

  • Myth 2 - Teachers are under motivated to teach science because they do not understand how exciting it is.

  • Myth 3 - The primary reason teachers do not teach science well is a lack of science content knowledge.
  • Myth 4 - Supplemental teacher training is necessary because too few teachers especially in the early grades, have been required to take science classes in college.

  • Myth 5 - The key to scientist involvement with teacher training is to provide complex information in as digestible a form as possible.

  • Myth 6 - The problem with science education is a lack of good curriculum and therefore we must develop it.
  • Myth 7 - One reason to develop new curriculum is to introduce modern scientific techniques derived from current laboratory experiments.
  • Myth 8 - Training a few highly-motivated teachers will produce "trickle down" reform when they return to their school.
  • Myth 9 - If teachers are motivated enough during training, they will find a way to obtain the material necessary to teach science in their classrooms.

  • Myth 10 - Reform can be accomplished with existing resources if they are simply allocated more efficiently.

Since Dr. Bower is using his experience as evidence against these myths (with no cited works), then I think I'll do the same. With the exceptions of numbers 4 and 8, I don't think these myths are actually out there. They're certainly not things that I've run across in fifteen years as a public school science teacher. I would say that number 4 (lack of science content knowledge) is an issue with some teachers. Having worked at the high school end of things, I have had lots of kids come in with misconceptions ("The blood in your veins is blue and the blood in your arteries is red.") and admit that is what they were previously taught. Many of our sixth grade teachers are a tetch nervous about their new curriculum this year because of the physics involved. Yes, you just have to know more than a sixth grader, but there are still some intense concepts that teachers need to feel comfortable with.

As for number 8 (the "trickle down" effect of training), all I can say is "We'll see." My district is banking on our elementary math/science cadre to trickle on their peers, so to speak. This tack wouldn't stand much chance of success, except that principals have already set aside specific times for teachers to meet with their peers and talk about what was shared at the cadre and work on common planning. We will provide "talking points" and other resources in order to direct the stream (of information).

If anyone is interested in the whole piece by Dr. Bower, I'll be happy to forward it to you. Just send me an e or leave your address in the comments!

13 September 2006

McSchools---Microsoft Style

“I hope that Philadelphia becomes the center of a debate that asks, ‘What’s a better learning environment that we can create?’” says Microsoft’s Mary Cullinane. For her, that doesn’t just mean new lesson plans. It doesn’t just mean new computers. It means “better strategic practices, better hiring practices, more efficiencies — not going back to looking for the silver bullet that’s going to change education, because that silver bullet does not exist.” Now, an adaptive, continuous, relevant bullet just might be another matter all together.

This excerpt is from an article recently published in Philadelphia Magazine about the "School of the Future." The name, for whatever reason, engenders an image for me of the 1950's and all of the space age futuristic items that were supposed to come to our homes and make life easier. The other image I get is of Tom and Jerry trapped in such a place. What we're really supposed to be talking about here is the new $65M high school that Microsoft designed for Philadelphia at their urging of their superintendent.

170 freshmen are about to walk into a brand-new building at 41st and Parkside in West Philadelphia. They’ll pass through a hidden weapons-detection system and step into a wide corridor dubbed “Main Street.” They’ll swipe their “smart cards,” and a screen will display their photographs and register their attendance. They’ll move quickly, carrying only a small laptop from class to class and home at night (no more overloaded backpacks). Passing the administrative offices and the “interactive learning center” (read: a library without books), they’ll come to a mall-style food court, where purchases will be tracked with the same card. (No more telling Mom you had broccoli while really subsisting on Kit Kats and Snapple.) In the gym, plasma-screen televisions and video cameras will bring pro-style instant-replay access to the varsity level, and outside, a futuristic anti-graffiti coating on the walls will make washing off tags easier. This technological utopia of high-density fiber-optic cable will be virtually paperless, although there will be printers on hand (just in case). And the entire building — a green building, complete with solar panels and grassy roof — is wired, powered and online.

Microsoft was even generous enough to design a "competency wheel" with 37 characteristics they determined to be important. The wheel comes with interview questions to guide the hiring process and suggestions for developing the skills—and not only do new hires have to demonstrate the competencies, but the students have 11 competencies of their own to master before graduation.

There's much more to be found in the entire (and lengthy) article, but it's this statement which haunts me: ...Microsoft model may have laid the groundwork for corporations to design high schools from scratch. Am I the only one who finds this idea a little more than frightening? In a time where government seems to know better than local parents and teachers what kids should do, are we really interested in extending this role to corporations? I do think that there are places where business and schools could learn from one another, but the bottom line is that schools are not making widgets. We have human beings inside of our walls that we are valiantly trying to prepare for life outside of those walls. We expect them all to attain a certain level of skills and do our best to nurture their dreams---yet, we aren't making Big Macs. The author of the article does seem to realize this and appears to view The School of the Future with a wary eye: Microsoft might help students video-conference with Tanjiang, but it can’t create a parent who helps with the homework, or a neighborhood free from drug corners, or friends who don’t think studying is for losers.

I will definitely be interested in keeping an eye on this grand experiment. I'm not cheering for its failure, but I also can't imagine it being successful.

12 September 2006

Who Tells Who?

A teacher I work with (and infrequent reader here...let's call him "Joe") has some very interesting things going on in his classroom. It energizes me to hear his ideas and discoveries...and makes me want to rattle the cages of other teachers.

Exhibit A: Living vs. Non-living things

Joe is providing a list of different things, some which might be more obviously associated with living (e.g. bacteria) and others which might be more difficult to discern (virus). The kids will think about the list, make a continuum of the items, and generate a basic definition of what it means for something to be alive. This definition will be revised throughout the year as kids move through different parts of the curriculum.

The other teachers are talking among themselves about how many qualities of life should be on the list. This book has six and that book has seven. What will we tell the kids? In other words, what will go on the overhead for kids to copy down and be tested upon? There can only be one answer.

Exhibit B: The Scientific Method

After an opening activity, Joe asked his kids to write about what it means to do science. Their paragraphs provided him with some eye-opening moments about the misconceptions that they have. This has allowed him to structure some further activities and conversations with students to help them correct their ideas and progress toward the standards. It also means that kids are learning to conceptualize parts of the scientific method (like controlled variables).

The other teachers are lecturing about the parts of the scientific method in the same way that kids were exposed to material in earlier grades and then doing a lab to see if the kids get it. If they don't, teachers will move on to the next point in the curriculum. Steps and vocabulary are to be memorized independent of experience.

Sigh.

Whether or not you cotton to the constructivist ideas for teaching, I still think that there's something to be said for letting kids do the work of learning. They need to be telling us what they know and we need to be generous enough to ask them about their learning...and quiet enough to hear the answers.

11 September 2006

Growing Pains

Following a lot of discussion and heartburn, my district determined that it was in the best interests of our students to manage our own science kits at the elementary school level. This has meant that there have been some particularly nasty moments as we refused to resign the contract with the local consortium who had been supplying kits and a great deal of uncertainty in the meantime. Will the budget really add up as planned? Will we really be able to provide teachers with all that they've requested? Can we find staff who can fulfill all of the varied tasks? What will happen with science scores?

There are still a lot of unknowns. The school year is now a week under way, but the space for the center is still not ready (the previous occupants were there until August 31). Hiring has been delayed as HR negotiates things with The Union. We are opening things with two subs, who started today. I'm not terribly impressed with them, but we'll make the best we can of things. (Shouldn't someone who routinely subs for secretaries be able to do basic things in Excel?) I ended up bringing home a ton of work for the evening, because I lost so much of my day trying to help the subs get things done.

I don't regret our decisions. We have already been able to do some things for teachers that we could never have done in the past. I just have to remember to take a few deep cleansing breaths and make my peace with the idea that this year is going to be full of growing pains as we get this program up and running. The bottom line is that all of this is for kids. As long as that remains our reason for making decisions, I don't think we'll be wrong.

10 September 2006

The Inertia of Secondary Education

In another week or so, I will be working with a whole group of kindergarten teachers all day. What the heck do I know about teaching kindergarten? Nothing. Will the kindergarten teachers care about that? It's highly unlikely. This is one of the odd, but pleasant, things that I've discovered in my district role of Science Goddess. Elementary teachers are very welcoming of those who don't have the same pedagogical knowledge. I think it's because they're expected to have expertise in all content areas, so anyone who can provide them with guidance and support is encouraged to do so. The teachers will fill in the developmentally appropriate information.

This reverse of all of this is not true. Secondary teachers are content specialists already and most of them snub their noses at the idea that there are things to learn from those teaching the younger grades. And in the meantime, secondary education remains quite stubbornly stuck in its ways.

Our elementaries have, for the most part, embraced constructivist principles, instructional coaching, and standards-based planning, assessment, and grade reporting. As much as I complain about their lack of focus in science, I have to give them props for being quite progressive in their work with students. This doesn't mean every single teacher is on board and/or excited about all of these items, but there is enough of a critical mass of enthusiasm to keep carrying things along.

The Union here has stated that standards-based grading will never be a part of secondary, because those teachers "won't stand for it." The same is true for other initiatives and it makes me wonder why elementary teachers are more adaptable...and what it will take to shake up our secondary teachers and get them to really think about what they're doing in the classroom and why. How do we get away from the "same-old, same-old," and move to a more learner-centered practice? How do we respect the content knowledge of our secondary teachers while encouraging them to improve their pedagogy so that kids love the content as much as teachers do? What do we do to help teachers understand that standards are not a threat and that equity in what we do for students is imperative?

New Neighbours


My amom sent this picture last night. I'm not sure if this is mom or dad skunk, but apparently there is a family, including two little ones. The neighbour puts out some food for her cats, calls "Kitty! Kitty!" and the skunks come running every evening. Pavlov would be proud, I'm sure. It's all rather amusing...and hopefully no one will have to deal with the business end of the skunk.

09 September 2006

Thanks for Nothing

We're a fairly large district. Even with our declining enrollment, we have about 12, 500 students, k -12. There is a single position devoted to ordering, purchasing, and managing all of the instructional materials (primarily textbooks) for all of the associated programs and students in our district. This also includes teachers' resources. As you might imagine, this is not a simple task, especially at the beginning of the school year. We have a new person in this role for the first time in many years---and she is doing amazingly well.

When our junior high teachers had training on the software associated with the new materials' adoption, the information about getting students access to the on-line versions of their texts and other resources was not available. Two days later, however, those pieces arrived and the textbook secretary sent them out. Teachers had them by the first day of school.

We have had one school administrator, however, that has spent the better part of the week claiming that her teachers absolutely had to have classroom sets of books because the on-line versions of the books would not be available until December. The secretary and I ended up devoting a lot of time and phone calls reassuring her that this wasn't so. The admin told the secretary that she'd better have an answer for her by Thursday...or else. I asked the secretary, "Or what?" Was the admin threatening us because we'd done all we'd could do and she was unable to figure things out on her end?

Things finally concluded yesterday around lunch---after I'd lost most of the morning double checking with the publisher's rep and tech support that there was no reason for the school not to be able to access the on-line versions of the texts. I even opened the spare set of codes we had and was able to set up a fake class with students and the necessary information within a few minutes. I sent a rather curt e-mail to the admin about all of this...and a couple of hours later, the secretary and I got a message that gee, the admin had everything working now.

No apologies for our time that she wasted. No comments about her threats of the secretary or that we'd been right the whole time---she and her teachers had exactly what they'd needed for days. Nope. Instead, she said that they needed extra books for each grade to have in the library as resource materials.

Sigh.

I do plan to bend Boss Lady 2.0's ear about all of this. I know the admin and while her behavior was annoying, I can let it go. But there is no call for her to harass the secretary and I don't want her to think that this will be acceptable in the future. If nothing else, a simple "thank you" for the help and patience would suffice.

07 September 2006

Going Gray

Working in Curriculum is a bit of gray area. We are teachers working under the same contractual obligations as other certificated staff, but we are often not viewed that way by peers. We are more likely to be seen as administrators...or worse yet, one of the nameless "them" so often blamed for whatever is perceived as wrong with the district.

I'm thinking about being in this nebulous zone because of a conversation I had with a principal this morning. She wants some professional development around science instruction. She hopes to learn what she's looking at when she watches what's going on in a science classroom. She'd like to have the same confidence that she has when trying to help math, English, and social studies teachers---and I admire her for trying to seek out some support. In one sense, good instruction is good instruction, regardless of grade or content---but on the other hand, there are a few science specific strategies she could learn to recognize. I agreed to do a few "walkthroughs" with her.

Walkthroughs are a recent trend in education. They're not specifically meant to be evaluative, but rather tools that give administrators a chance to do short visits and then share with teachers what they saw and guide some reflection about the event. The walkthrough provides a 5 - 10 minute snapshot of a classroom over several different days during the year, rather than one or two extended sessions.

When I got back to my desk, I realized that doing the walkthroughs together to help the principal get started is a great idea. What's not a great idea is doing it with her staff...at least not together. I am not their evaluator and I really don't want to be viewed that way. Since the principal and I can't help but talk about what we see in the classrooms, then I'm not sure teachers will clearly separate that we would be doing this to help the principal learn about science...and not that we're making judgments together about things. I think it's too big of an opportunity to set up some real mistrust---and this is a science staff it looks like I'll be spending a lot of time with this year.

I sent a note to the principal and asked that we go to another school together to do a few walkthroughs. I think this might be the best way to get her the help she wants without putting a strain on her staff. I haven't heard back yet as to whether or not she'll go for that. This is one of those times where I'd prefer to stay in the gray.

06 September 2006

The Cadre

As much as I am willing to tow the party line in this district, there are some places where I just can't. I respect the people who are in a position to make decisions and I understand that I don't have access to all of the same information as they do---perhaps I would make the same choices if that was so. Instead, I have to consistently renegotiate for things. One of these is our "Math and Science Cadre."

This is actually a brilliant compromise, although I can certainly take no credit for the concept. Principals at our elementary schools have chosen to focus their staff and resources on writing. This isn't a bad idea, but our data don't show that kids need the most support there. They need more help with math and science. So, while every building will have a half-time literacy coach to model lessons in writing and conduct professional development in scoring prompts and planning, math and science is being pushed aside. The math specialist and I were finally able to convince Boss Lady 1.0 that to give us 21 days out of the curriculum sub pool (literacy gets the other 159) plus enough money to fund some additional subs so that one teacher from every grade level (k - 6) at every elementary (there are 14) could come together three times this year for some intense professional development in math and science. While this isn't as nice as having math and science coaches who can meet with every teacher district-wide, we are able to get our feet in the door in this other way.

The first meeting is just less than two weeks away, with five happening by the end of the month. I am very excited about all of this, but it is also a lot to plan. It has to be fun...intensive...worthwhile...differentiated for levels of expertise...and more. Every grade level will be different and no lessons will be reusable. I plan to develop their content knowledge in a variety of ways and also have them do some of the junior high and high school labs so that they get an idea of the "end point" for kids and how the elementary curriculum plays a crucial role in getting them there. The new math specialist and I will meet tomorrow to divvy up the days and talk about working to develop teacher leadership capacity in the group and additional support.

My hope is that the cadre will be successful in two ways. One, of course, is for students. Supporting their learning must drive all of our work. But secondly, my wish is for the cadre to generate enough momentum and enthusiasm and to be the critical mass necessary to unseat the focus on writing. We have to find a way to make enough noise and get administrators to look at the data and to think more about how to use our dwindling resources to help students.

05 September 2006

Does Pre-School Count?

If pre-school counts, then today is the first day of school since 1972 where I wasn't in a classroom one way or another...if it does, then make my answer 1973.

Things kicked off today in our district and it was an odd sensation not to be part of a classroom situation. The day was full of the myriad of details which go into supporting teachers and students in the classroom, but not the kind of excitement one feels just before walking through the door to make some magic happen.

But I must confess that I didn't miss it.

It's such an odd thing for me to say. I always got so much energy from being with the kids and learning with them...and I know that I will again when I go back. At this point in my life, however, I have a different sort of role in education and my enthusiasm is directed toward new-to-me sorts of projects and challenges. As a friend observed, "Perhaps this will finally be the year when you can concentrate on doing your job and enjoying your time off...without knife-wielding insane roommates or emergency abdominal surgery." One hopes, anyway. Goodness knows that after 30+ years of starting September off in a classroom, a change could do me a lot of good.

03 September 2006

The Research Ahead

Tuesday is not only the first day of the school year in this district, it is also the start date for the next course in my EdD sequence: Research Approaches for the Teacher Leader. This is actually the first of three courses involving research design (courses that focus specifically on qualitative and quantitative aspects are up next). I am really looking forward to these as they're areas where I already have a basis of knowledge. It also means that I can hone in on a question and begin to think about my own research.

What will be my focus? Originally, I wanted to use the (re)building of our elementary science program, but now I'm not so sure. I'm thinking of poking around the intersection of gender research and brain-based approaches to learning. I might also want to see if I can apply a systems approach to district initiatives---can you make communications "viral" within a district? I hope to be purposeful about combining my district duties with my doctoral studies. It seems like there should be several points where there can be natural overlap, and it would certainly simplify my life if I could make that happen.

02 September 2006

Resolutions for 2006 - 2007

Sure, most of the western world celebrates the flip of the calendar on January 1, but if you're involved in any way with education, September 1 feels like the time for a fresh start. Although focus always seems to shift a bit once the year is truly underway, it's still time for me to think about my goals for this year. (Last year's version is here.)

  • Elementary Math and Science Cadre: The elementary math specialist and I have set a goal to train a grade level expert for every building (there are 14 schools, each with seven grade levels) in the district. The plan is not only to deepen the content and instructional knowledge of teachers, but help them see the connection between their grade level and others all the way through high school. We will also be doing work with each group to increase their teacher leadership skills and build their capacity to make change happen in their buildings.
  • Since I have been charged with overseeing the entire k-12 science program, I can't leave out initiatives for our secondary schools. Here, too, there will likely be some sort of Leadership Group for Secondary Math and Science. This idea is still in its infancy, but the secondary math coach and I need other teachers to step up. Now that "jobs alike" groups are starting to meet and work on their alignments and classroom goals, one person can't facilitate all of them. We'll be recruiting over the next month to work on some transformational leadership with teachers to grow our programs and make a greater impact with students.
  • I can't forget about my charges who are beginning teachers. I have eight who are new to our hallowed profession this year, and I need to develop a program for supporting newbies. I do have access to previous program work, but now that this is a .2 position (instead of a .5) and one which is new to me, I need to put some thought into making it my own and sustaining it.
  • I'm on a mission this year to Save the Julio! There's a teacher I'm working with who is enthusiastic about his content, intellectually curious, and consistently models lifelong learning for his students. However, everything that happens in the classroom is about him---and not about kids. My personal goal this year is to help him start to shift more toward a learner-centered classroom. I took a solid step on that path yesterday afternoon. I hope I can keep moving along. Meanwhile, I also have a desire to keep learning all that I can about working with teachers, fostering positive relationships, and supporting their work however I can.
  • It's going to be an ugly year in the district. With a $5M budget shortfall staring us in the face, no program or school will be safe from deep cuts or elimination; however, I have to keep advocating for science. This is especially true for my work with principals. The elementaries are completely focused on writing, which makes no sense. The secondary principals need to learn more about what quality science instruction looks like so that they can properly monitor what happens in the classroom. Right now, they do no more than rubber stamp every teacher and wonder why the scores never change. I also need to keep working with Boss Lady 2.0 to ensure that whatever resources Curriculum does retain after this year are more balanced toward math and science.
Perhaps these are enough to focus on for the time being. There is a lot more to juggle than I what I've outlined here, but these are the major ideas and all other work will go into furthering these initiatives. I continue to be excited about the road ahead and am looking forward to another year. Let's pop some champagne and ring in the New Year!

01 September 2006

Small Victories

Last September, a fifth grade teacher in the district contacted me to say, "Help!" The previous school year had been her first back in a regular classroom after being an elementary PE teacher for several years. Standards and testing had passed her by...and only three of her students (all of them identified as gifted) had passed the science WASL. She wanted better for her kids.

I knew nothing about working with fifth graders (a year later I don't know much more), but decided to jump in and see what we could do. We did a bit of "Bubbleology," some work with expository writing, and a few other strategies...and then we waited for the WASL results.

At first glance, things looked good. As a school, the grade 5 science scores increased by 8 points. This is a statistically significant gain and represents a nearly 50% increase in the number of kids who met the standard. But the teacher I worked with was not the only fifth grade teacher in the school.

The teacher called me today to give me the skinny on how her kids did. This year, she had nine students meet the standard, and three more within five points of doing so. Out of the nine, only one was identified as gifted. In other words, her work toward focusing her instruction made a real difference with real kids. This was incredibly exciting for her and I couldn't be more pleased with her success.

We're scheduled a celebration in a couple of weeks. I am anxious to toast this small victory.