31 August 2008

All Out of Bubblegum

Guilty Viewing Pleasures: They Live by ikrichter CC-BY

It's not one of greatest movies ever made, but They Live has one of the best lines ever written. In the film, Rowdy Roddy Piper (yes, the wrestler) plays a construction worker. He discovers some special sunglasses that allow him to see the real messages the government and media are pushing (e.g. "Obey" and "Conform"). Worse yet, some people aren't really people at all. Of course, Roddy has to make the world safe again for the rest of us.

In the best scene of the movie, Roddy walks into a bank wearing his sunglasses and carrying his selection of firearms stolen from a police car. He sees the attention he is creating, smiles, and announces to the people in the bank, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."

Let's face it. Working in education requires this sort of outlook. Most days, you've got to go into the classroom and walk that fine line between innocuous and hardnosed. Blogging can also be that way. It's your turf. It's your space where you define the rules of participation by yourself and others.

Are you an edublogger? One who is all out of bubblegum and kicking some ass? Leesepea thinks I do even though I can't rock the plaid shirt thing the way Roddy does. (Thank you!)

Personally, I'm groovin' on the elementary/primary blogs out there for the moment. Organized Chaos continues to be a major favourite (if you do nothing else today, please please go read her post on the future President she had in class) and who can resist Mimi over at It's Not All Flowers and Sausages? Did you see Unlimited's post about how her wee ones applied their view of the real world during story time? You cannot make up the stuff they post. It is both inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. And I, for one, feel a little better knowing that they're out in the world doing their thing in the classroom for kids and on their blogs for us teachers. You go, girls!

30 August 2008

The Surreal Life

Now that I've been on the job for a couple of weeks, I'm getting a lot of questions about it. As in, "What is your job?" I'm still figuring that out, but am starting to get my mind wrapped around some pieces of it. When I'm asked about what I think of my new role and work, the best answer I can give is that "It's surreal."

You know those ed policymakers you see or read about in the news? These people are now at the table when I go to meetings. I might have heard Mr. Such-and-So's name hundreds of times during the years I've been in Washington; but until now, I never moved in the kinds of circles which would have provided contact with him...much less talked strategy and science. Teleconference with a well-known scientist? One you have to get a bit toe-to-toe with over some upcoming professional development? Um, yeah, I can do that. (And did.)

The days are a string of events like this, all wrapped up in the greatest amount of bureaucracy that I've ever encountered. I was warned that it would take two weeks to get a pencil. I fear that person may be right. Knowledge is assigned in very discrete units---no two support staff know the same things...and to get some information updated or changed nearly requires a legislative mandate. But, it's all good. I have no interest in fighting the system. As it is, I'm just marveling at the machinations. What a challenge it is to navigate, let alone, understand them.

While I can't speak to any specific examples, I will say that I am very impressed with the quality of people who work in the agency. That's not to say that everyone gets along---and make no mistake, starting a new job like this is akin to marrying into a very large family with both favourites and black sheep---but everyone is passionate about doing what is best for kids. This singular focus on students is a positive one. We might disagree now and then about what this will look like...or squabble over the limited resources to achieve the goal...but you can't fault people for keeping kids at heart. I respect that. If I could change anything about how people do business there, it would be to encourage them to step outside the "echo chamber," and network more. If I just stay in the science circle, then I've limited what I can learn and apply. I think teachers and kids deserve more from me than that.

I keep thinking that this job will sink in at some point. As teachers, we are often too humble about our profession. "I'm just a teacher." And while that is not the best approach to take, it does become part of our self-image. I am still a teacher, but I am also one in a very different kind of role now. As surreal as it may seem, I get to sit at the same table as some of the people who have had a hand in setting the course for classrooms around the state all these years...the "them" we sometimes shake our tiny fists at. I have to overcome the "just a teacher" mentality on behalf of my peers and do what I can to improve their classroom realities.

29 August 2008

Safe for Whom?

Did you see that Nebraska has a new safe haven law? While it is the last state in the U.S. to adopt one, it is unique in "allowing parents to abandon unwanted children at hospitals with no questions asked...It goes beyond babies and potentially permits the abandonment of anyone under 19."

"All children deserve our protection," said Sen. Tom White, who helped broaden the measure. "If we save one child from being abused, it's well, well worth it."

White said it doesn't matter if that child is an infant or three years old or in the care of a parent or baby sitter. As for what constitutes a minor, he refers to common law, which interprets it to be anyone under age 14.

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the original bill dealing only with infants, agreed to the compromise after the bill became stalled in debate.

"The main interest I have is that it gives the mother or a parent another option of what to do with a child before they do something drastic," he said.

The measure, which took effect July 18, does not absolve people of possible criminal charges -- for example, if a child had been beaten.

And since the law does not specify, it technically allows anyone, not just a parent, to legally surrender custody. Most other states narrowly define the role of the person surrendering the child.

Some hospitals have fielded questions from the public about the law, but no children have been dropped off.

"I hope there never is one," Stuthman said.

Pertman, who directs the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said his research going back several years shows safe-haven laws are not accomplishing what they intended. Women who are distressed enough to want to abandon their children are not the ones reading billboards or getting the message about these laws, he said.

Pertman finds Nebraska's law particularly alarming because it is not focused on infants and parents.

Casting such a wide net "circumvents every rational practice in child welfare that I'm aware of," he said. "That's as nicely as I can put it."

California, for example, allows parents to legally abandon a child at a hospital or other designated safe zones within 72 hours of birth.

Remember when your parents threatened to sell you to the gypsies if you misbehaved as a child? Now, they just need to tell a kid that the next family trip is to Nebraska.

28 August 2008

After School Science

I was recently chatting with an elementary school principal who is feeling the pressure to significantly reduce or eliminate science instruction. While it was already a small part of classroom work, increasing demands for better performance in reading and math means that they will get even more of the lion's share of attention. The solution in mind is to bring in more outsiders to showcase science: the science bus from an area museum, science assemblies, etc.

I bit my tongue. I didn't want to, as I don't think this is the right answer; but I also understand the position the principal is in. I don't think this is the first choice that would be made for running the school---but others in the district are in charge of that choice. I wrote about this "Catch-22" for science and literacy back in May. I imagine that I will still be writing about it months from now.

Interestingly enough, the Curriculum Matters group at Education Week recently mentioned a new report on Assessing After School Science:

After-school and informal science education programs have become a fixture in school districts around the country. It's easy to see why. They offer a way to introduce students to the natural world in a fun and pressure-free (free of tests, for example) environment.

But how can educators and parents judge the strengths and shortcomings of those programs? And how can researchers evaluate them in a consistent way?

A new study, prepared for the Noyce Foundation, attempts to provide some answers to those questions. It recommends the development of specific criteria for judging informal science programs, in areas such as student engagement and students' acquisition of science content knowledge and reasoning skills. It recommends the creation of an online database with tools for evaluating programs, which could be used by evaluators and updated continuously. It also suggests the creation of quantitative tools to assess the progress of students taking part in afterschool and informal science.

The authors of the study, which was released by the Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency at Harvard University and McLean Hospital, say they are seeking comments on the document. You can send them to pear@mclean.harvard.edu, with "Science Assessment in Out-of-School Time" in the subject heading.
I applaud this sort of endeavor, but I also have to wonder who at a school or district is going to set up and maintain such a database. In an era of ever-shrinking budgets and continued devaluation of science education, will anybody really care about quantitative outcomes? It is the right thing to do for a wrong approach to science ed (assuming after school programs are the only opportunity for kids to engage). Does your school track enrichment---science oriented or otherwise?

27 August 2008

Feast for the Senses

It's Wednesday: Carnival Time. So, beat your feat over to the last one before school kicks off for another year.

Since the word Carnival implies flesh, why not also visit Fleshmap: Studies of Desire? Most of it is safe for work (if you're reading this from there); but know that there are images of body parts of all types in case your employer might frown on such things. The site contains an amazing display of information on the senses of "touch, look, listen." One of my favourite visualizations relates to music (click to embiggen, or better yet, go see the original page):

"What do we sing about when we sing about the body? The chart, based on a sample of thousands of songs, tells the story. The size of the circle corresponds to how often that part is mentioned in a particular genre." Anyone want to guess which column represents hiphop? :)

Enjoy your Wednesday. Get out and give all of your senses a feast to remember.

26 August 2008

Maybe They Made It

WASL results were released today. It is the earliest I ever remember the data being available on-line. Scores were always made available to schools by this point, but not necessarily the public. So, of course, I had to spend some time looking at a few schools and districts of interest.

My students from last year are somewhere in the mix. I don't have direct access to their scores, although I have a couple of leads on getting a copy. For now, I'm looking at things within the context of the whole school. The Not-So-Pretty school is posting an increase of 12% in its science scores. It sounds snazzy, but when you look again, you see that it's not quite the whole story. It does represent the increase in percent of kids in the class of 2010 who met the standards; however, many students (especially the brainy ones) chose to take the test when they were 9th graders. Kids who waited until their sophomore year only beat the previous year's mark by 3%: not a significant difference. In other words, it's the junior high teachers making the greatest difference in achievement. When you look at the overall cohort, that's when the 12% shows up.

Here is what I think is interesting:

Every ethnic group is trending up (not surprising considering the overall change), but look at the Black students. For the record, the increase is from 13.6% to 41.7%. No other group had the same rate of increase: more than triple the previous year. Hispanics and Asians doubled their pass rate. I really hope that the teacher who thought my brown male students were little more than trash sees these scores. Ditto for The Tree Killer, whose instructional approach and attitude routinely runs off most anyone who isn't pale. I used to wonder why the feeder junior high had such a diverse student presence in its advanced science program...but the high school did not. I don't wonder anymore. Will anyone else, now that I'm gone? Will anyone see my students in here and encourage them further? If my population, which was drawn from the same "low" mix as The Bad Neighbor's, performed significantly better, will anyone care?

I am dying to know, of course, about how the kids did...how well their performance was predicted by the grading practices I used last year. I might never actually find out, but I'd like to think I will. I'd like to think that my kiddos made it.

Group Learning: Yes. Group Grading: No.

There was a letter in the Washington Post last week about group grading. The parent writing the letter was concerned that her child seems to be the one continually saddled with leading things while the hangers-on benefit from her diligence. Hey---we've all been that kid's shoes, but that doesn't make it okay for this classroom practice to continue.

In the reply, it is noted that for that particular district, it is policy that "Grades must be based on individual demonstration of skill and understanding."; however, it is unlikely that group grading has gone the way of the dodo bird. Why? "Teachers will be less likely to say they are giving grades for group work, but the ones I know have found that, for some students, cooperative projects reveal important skills, such as imagination, leadership and bargaining, for which their final grades will look better than they might otherwise have."

What a crock. The information described there is about behaviors---not learning. (And how exactly does one score "imagination, leadership, and bargaining"?) Even if group grades were acceptable, you will still need to base your evidence on learning targets in order to make a valid judgment.

We know from educational research that cooperative learning experiences can be valuable to students. But, as the name suggests, these strategies are to be used while learning---not for assessment. One would hope that school districts are being vigilant about this sort of practice. We owe it to students and their families to give them the best information possible about individual progress and performance.

25 August 2008

Poop in a Pile

As a teacher, a good planbook was usually enough to keep me on track from day to day. Working in a district level job meant becoming accustomed to an Outlook calendar that others could see. I needed a slightly different system for hard copies of information, simply because there were more stakeholders and events I needed to track. And now? It's a whole other ball game with the new job. I still have my Outlook calendar, but now there are several people using it---adding on meetings on my behalf, creating new contact information for me, and so on. I'm not quite as in charge of my own destiny anymore. As for the meetings I attend and the events I am a part of? That is changing, too. There are far more projects to track than ever before...more details than is reasonable to keep in my agenda. So, I'm moving to an index card system for now.

Here is the front and back of what I will use for meetings:

And the front and back for events:

The idea here is that when something pops up my calendar, I can start a card. The cards can either live in a pocket in my agenda, or in a Card Bleacher like this:

They will be easy to carry to meetings or hand off to support staff. And when the meeting/event is done, I can simply archive them in a card box. They'll be ready to pull out at a moment's notice in case there are any questions later on. While I know that all of this could be done digitally, these options are not so simple "in the moment." What I mean is that with a Palm or Apple device, quick notetaking during meetings isn't that easy. I can certainly see that either scanning the cards or taking a photo of them that this then uploaded to Evernote might be another strategy for archiving when all is said and done.

The goal here is to keep my poop in a pile. I have more people than ever counting on me to do so. Perhaps the new tools will help keep the pieces in place. If I find some others along the way, I'll share those, too.

24 August 2008

Re: Miss

Jim over at Teacherninja was kind enough to pass along this award a couple of weeks ago, and while I acknowledged it in the comments, I've been remiss in proffering a more formal "Thank you." It is always nice to have recognition from one's peers and I am greatly appreciative of the online community and its continued presence in improving my professional knowledge.

Keep blogging and learning during the upcoming school year. Let's have a great one!

23 August 2008

Catching Up

It's been a very busy first week at my new job. As with all fresh starts, it takes awhile to settle in. Most of my time has been spent studying up on various programs and initiatives, meeting people, and dealing with logistics (workspace set-up, meeting people, learning some "how to's"). The other major part of my day is my commute. By the time I get home in the evening, I have very little energy left, especially for blogging. My hope is to put some posts in the queue over the weekend so I can freshen things up around here.

I've been valiantly trying to keep up with my Google Reader feeds, a task made more difficult by Google. As you might know, they have a bit of the Amazon.com approach of "If you like this...you might like this one, too." I end up adding at least a couple of blogs each week, and I don't remove very many from my list. My recent discoveries include Secrets of a Middle School Secretary (about darned time we heard from their ranks, don't you think?) and two math teachers: f(t) and Teaching Statistics. Ms. Frizzle has re-emerged and is now blogging at Gotham Schools with another editor.

The edusphere theme of the week has seemed to be "Back to School." There are lots of posts on the horrifying ritual of meetings to start the year and pretty pictures of classrooms all ready for students. My favourite reads, however, have been those posts from new-to-the profession teachers. This is the first year I have seen them. Student teacher bloggers have finally graduated into the ranks of the profession...bringing their blogs with them. I admire the trailblazing they're doing, but I also like the documentation of the transition they are providing. Blog on, Full of Bees! and Not Quite Grown Up.

As for me, I'm still working on getting my sea legs in terms of my job and other changes. I hope to do a lot of catching up over the weekend.

21 August 2008

When are we "ready"?

While I'm running around hither, thither, and yon today, here is the question I'll be pondering. Perhaps you wouldn't mind thinking about it as well---and offering any ideas you have in the comments?

How do you know if something is developmentally appropriate?

The "something" could be a toy, behavior, or a grade level standard. Games may be labeled as being good for those "8 and up"...all 8th graders might be expected to be successful in algebra. We can look at classroom concepts and break them down into smaller steps and bites, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we just work backwards from there and assign each piece to a different grade level.

I don't really want to get into whether or not the labeling aspect is a hot idea (that's a whole 'nuther post)---what I'm more interested in knowing is how you decide. Are there references or resources available? I'm sure that experience (especially if you've worked with a particular age group for a long time) comes into play.

What goes into the decision making?

19 August 2008

Best Evidence

Charles Murray thinks that For Most People, College is a Waste of Time. The op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal suggests that a bachelor's degree has an "inflated status" and advocates for some sort of system of certifications instead.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

An interesting proposal, no?

I find my thinking to be somewhere between. While I agree that a BA does not necessarily communicate a certain skill level as it applies to a profession, neither does a certification test. I am certainly living proof of that. If we think only about education for a moment, would there be any test which would be able to measure one's facility in the classroom? What is the best evidence of the ability to teach?

At the end of the WSJ article, Murray writes
Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.
Is the answer for teachers something different? Perhaps a graduated license, as many states do with driving? Some kind of permit to start, with a teacher receiving intensive mentoring for one or two years...at the end of which would be a recommendation for a provisional license for a few years...and finally something more permanent five years into a career? (By the way, I think administrator certs should follow the same path.) Many teachers are gone by year five, but would this also help move low-skilled teachers and administrators out of the path of students more easily?

I agree with Murray that there are some antiquated aspects of our higher education system. However, it's not going to go away and is going to be incredibly resistant to reform. If any change is going to be made, it's going to have to come from employers. When evidence other than college degrees is required to get a job, the Ivory Tower might start to pay attention.

18 August 2008

Over the Hump

What does this mean? It means that when you tell people you write, read or listen to blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks and online video - if they give you a funny look, it is now officially them that's a freak, not you.

Too bad the new admin at my old school isn't likely to read this article on how the Fastest Growing US Companies Are Rapidly Adopting Social Media, as it is he who refers to social networkers as freaky.

A one year follow up on a study of social media adoption at 500 of the fastest growing companies in the US has found that familiarity with and use of blogs, podcasting, wikis, online video and social networking has skyrocketed in 2008 to nearly double what it was in 2007. 77% of respondents now report at least some use of a social media tool in their business.

What does this mean for schools?

It means that internet filters have got to be lifted. While they will never be completely removed, school administration has got to get out of bed with their tech nazis and on the side of preparing students. As Scott McLeod points out in his post (shown in entirety below), From the Head of Zeus:
Most schools currently expect students to somehow (maybe magically?) be responsible, successful digital citizens upon graduation from high school - able to navigate all of the intricacies of a digital, global world - despite having little to no opportunity to learn or meaningfully practice what that means during their 12+ years of schooling. Continuing my analogy from my previous post, we have to stop pretending that students are like Athena, able to burst forth fully-formed from the head of Zeus (or the cocoon of schools), ready to successfully function in a complex adult world without prior practice or experience.
I saw a lot of angst last year in the edusphere. Lots of posts expressing frustration with outdated and narrow internet policies and closed-minded IT departments and colleagues. Now that we as a society may be over the hump in terms of how we view social media (Huzzah!), perhaps we can use this momentum to bring others into the light.

17 August 2008

Youth State

The Horatio Alger Association has released its report on the State of Our Nation's Youth. Findings were summarized in a recent Education Week article (reg. req'd):
  • The proportion of students reporting that pressure to get good grades creates a problem for them increased from 62 percent in 2001 to 79 percent this year.
  • Over that same period, the percentage of those reporting grade pressure who classified it as “major” has risen 19 percentage points, to 45 percent.
  • In the latest report, 21 percent of students said they spent more than 10 hours a week on homework, up 9 percentage points from 2005.
  • The latest survey found that the proportion of high schoolers feeling hopeful and optimistic about the country has fallen 22 percentage points since 2003—from 75 percent that year to 53 percent in 2008.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the 1,006 public and private school 9th to 12th graders, ages 13 to 19, who were surveyed in April described themselves as confident, and 66 percent said they were optimistic about their own futures. Peter D. Hart, the president of the Washington-based polling company Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which conducted the survey, said in a statement: “What emerges from the research results is a portrait of a generation who believe in themselves and their abilities, despite anxieties about the country.”
  • Despite intensive efforts to improve public schooling in recent years, the grade point average high schoolers assigned their schools this year—2.7—is the same as it was in 2001.
  • As for their own grades, the proportion of students reporting that they got mostly B’s or better on their latest report cards has fluctuated—from 61 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2004 to 67 percent this year.
  • In this year’s report, 70 percent of respondents said they were headed to bachelor’s-level institutions—down 6 percentage points from 2005. Over that same time span, the proportion of students reporting plans to attend a community or technical college after high school rose 5 percentage points, to 23 percent.
  • Surveyed teenagers reported spending more than 13 hours online per week communicating with friends and entertaining themselves, compared with not quite five hours per week online for homework.
  • On a list of possible improvements to their schools, students (38%) say more up-to-date technology would have the biggest impact.
  • Students (34%) believe science and technology classes are the most important to take when it comes to succeeding in the global economy.
  • Two-thirds (64%) of teenagers report spending time each week playing or practicing a sport for an average of 10.3 hours per week.
The snapshots here are interesting, if difficult to summarize into a cohesive picture. I find it interesting how grades are used as measures within the surveys---can we really relate average GPA to school quality? I also think that the statement about "more up-to-date technology would have the biggest impact" is telling about how today's youth want to learn. Ed research says that teacher quality is the greatest factor for student achievement. Students might not agree. They may be more interested in using various resources to teach themselves, with teachers as facilitators. Social networks are integral for them, but these are the very first things we take away when kids walk through the school doors.

What, if anything, do we do with this information? Is it important that building hope and optimism be a focus---while deemphasizing grades? Should we change the goal of "college readiness" for every child to something broader...something that represents the variety of post-secondary options? How do we take these pieces and make a more personal experience for students in our classrooms?

15 August 2008

Eyes and Ears

Do you remember that fantasy you had when you first decided to go into teaching? It comes right after you believe that you are the one who will save the world. It's the one where you just know that your kids will hang on your every word. You'll be up in the front of the room doing your thing and every functional eye and ear in the room will be enraptured by your teaching.

Then, you get into a real classroom with real students...and you don't live the dream life.

I have to tell you, though, that the biggest lesson I've learned so far in my new role is that one should be careful what one wishes for (or dreams about). Like E.F. Hutton, when I talk, people listen. I'm used to working with teens. I'm not used to seeing a whole table of people stop and turn to look at me and listen to every word when I'm just wanting to make a small contribution to the discussion. (My BFF mentioned that this is akin to an Alan Greenspan effect...or perhaps the papacy. Same thing, right?)

What this means is that I can't really participate with teachers the way that I like to. I just want to be a collaborative voice at the table. A font of wisdom, I ain't, but they view me as such. Any training I mention or resource I might have seen in the last 17 years is viewed as "The state is recommending...", when that certainly would not be my intention. It is an odd position to be in. I have ideas I'd love to share, but if I do, it may end up being like some version of The Telephone Game...so instead, I withhold information. I'm not thinking about work in progress or other information which shouldn't be shared freely. I'm thinking about a book that might support some work a district science person is doing. Do I share the book idea and risk the information being overblown...or do I keep quiet and hope the teacher figures it out on their own. I don't know how to balance all this yet, so I'm erring on the "quiet" side. I don't like that, but until I can find the middle ground, I also don't have to worry about getting myself (or the office) into trouble.

I don't have my head wrapped around this job yet. Am I expert enough to merit all the eyes and ears that are on me now...and make some dreams come true for teachers along the way?

14 August 2008

An Awfully Big Adventure

By the time Blogger posts this for me, I'll be far far away from my little house and the quiet life I've lived over the past few weeks. It's the first day of school for me, in a sense: My first day of my new career.

I don't remember my first day of school as a k-12 student---not for any grade level. All I remember from my first day of college was the huge crush of people, after I went from a town of 5000 people to a campus with 50,000. My first day as a teacher? Positively amnesic about it, although for some reason, I do remember the dress that I wore (navy blue, sailor style...with a white belt). I suppose firsts should carry some significance. Maybe this next one will.

There are some advantages to being the n00b. It's never okay to be stupid, but it is acceptable to be ignorant for the first few months. One can say "No." far more easily while learning the ropes. There will be any number of odd situations and trials by fire that will make for great stories later. I will have to expect the unexpected and be ready to jump into all sorts of things I would never have anticipated as a classroom teacher. Federal grants? Standards revision? Presenting to legislators? Working with science coaches across the state? Developing k-12 training materials? All part of what may well be on my plate...the makings of an awfully big adventure.

13 August 2008

End of Summer Carnival

With all of the changes in my life, it's nice to have some things to count on. This includes the Carnival of Education, hosted each week by someone in the big wide edusphere. This week, Joanne Jacobs has taken on barking duties and has put together a fine selection of posts.

I start my new job dark and early in the morning. So, I'm headed out to enjoy the last day of summer holiday. Enjoy your Wednesday!

12 August 2008

Kid Stuff

One of the projects I've been working on this past week is cleaning and reorganizing things I have in storage. I used to be much more of a packrat, but in the last five years, I've realized what a burden "stuff" can be. I am okay with holding onto things that have sentimental value...or things which might become keepsakes...but once I year, I like to look in at least some of the boxes and see if I really want to keep them, or if it's time to let go.

In one of the boxes this morning were some reminders of former students. I scanned my two favourites. Here is the first:

This was from a chemistry class I taught 8 or so years ago. There was a task where students had to put a nail in some copper sulfate solution and then determine the moles of iron leftover at the end of the reaction. Students designed the whole set-up, and there was any number of beakers. Labeling was very important, because every setup was unique. Most students just wrote their name and the class period. But Tim? A delightfully quirky young man---the kind of kid who is bright, but just floating through high school. He's the one you look at and know that as soon as he figures out what his passion in life is, he's going to be freakin' brilliant. Tim used a piece of masking tape to label his beaker as if it was wearing a name tag: "Hi, my name is Tim." It was just so unusual (I never saw another like this in the past 17 years) that I had to keep it after the lab was done.

And then, there was Sarah---a 15-year old who was completely obsessed with Harrison Ford. This, too, was nearly a decade ago. Harrison Ford information ended up nearly everywhere. She had a special stick figure with a whip that she drew next to her name. He had a starring role in a pop-up book about worms that she made (complete with googly eyes). In spite of the teasing by her peers, she was unwavering in her devotion. Here is a sticky note that was turned in with one of her assignments:

I hear from Sarah about once a year. I haven't asked her if she is still such a fan. I should send her a note today and find out what she thought of the most recent Indiana Jones adventure.

I don't have very many pieces like these---reminders of the delightful playfulness and imagination of teens and the fun I had watching them grow up. I threw out a lot of other things today, but not these. I still need to hang on this kid stuff.

11 August 2008


I've wandered lots of "Back to School" aisles recently. And even with my fetish for office supplies, I have managed to resist most of my urges. This year, I don't need to stock up on glue sticks or colored pencils. I won't need a cute lesson planning notebook or a box of green pens. The fact is, I don't even have a solid job description yet. I won't see my office space until my third day on the job---so I haven't a clue what I should take to my new place. My professional library? Artwork for a wall? Files? It feels odd to show up to a new job with nothing more than the clothes on my back.

And yet, the start of another school year brings out my nesting instincts. While other teachers are busy setting up their classrooms, I can only anticipate what might lie ahead for me.

I replaced my 9-year old car. I have a new lunch box, haircut, and have tried to stock up on toiletries and other home sundries so that I can just focus on the new job for awhile. I have a couple of bags of stationery goodies to stock my new workspace. I bought some blank CDs and have been loading them with songs and audiobooks for my new extensive commute. I've made oodles of phone calls to deal with different accounts/issues and had many more pleasant visits with friends. I've run errands to take care of all those little things I've been putting off---like getting a bag repaired. I cancelled my Netflix (for now) and reordered my favourite pencils. My computer has all of its updates installed. Ive had lunch at some of the places I like best, knowing it may be some time before I get to enjoy them again. Laundry and dishes are done. Miscellaneous filing and household chores are complete, too.

At first, I worried that starting work on Thursday would be too soon...that I would need more transition time. But with all of the nesting I've been doing, I think I'm actually ready to fly.

10 August 2008

Plugging in the Community

I ran across an article in Education Week that made me think, at first, that this was going to be another "blame the adults" scenario. While I am all for teachers being responsible for creating a healthy learning environment, I also believe that it is up to students to choose to engage. With the advent of NCLB, teachers and schools are having to take on too much of the "blame" for low student achievement. I admit they're a key piece---and we know that teacher quality is the strongest influence in the classroom---but they are not the only factors in a child's life.

What I ended up liking about Reversing Reluctance in Education Week is that it showcases a program that holds the community accountable---not just the schools. Supporting students is every adult's responsibility as part of the Communities in Schools program. They appear to be getting some good results from their efforts:
While fewer than half of all low-income and minority students in the United States complete high school, 85 percent of CIS students do, and two-thirds of them go on to some form of postsecondary education. In Georgia, the birthplace of the CIS “performance learning center” model, more than 75 percent of center students who were classified as seniors in the fall of 2006 graduated in 2007. Nearly all of them had either dropped out or were on their way to dropping out before joining the program.
The program has two major components. The first is a focus on relationships between families and school. This includes everyone in the school, not just the teachers. Secondly, these relationships are leveraged to help students "discover" the "I cans...": (1) I can learn; (2) I can have a reason to learn; (3) I can control the learning process; and (4) I can help others learn.

Community is the difference-maker. As CIS co-founder Bill Milliken writes in his book The Last Dropout, this is really an adult problem. It represents the failure of adults to, as he puts it, “provide and model a community that acts as a safety net for young people.” Communities own schools, but frequently forget, ignore, or abdicate their responsibilities to children for most of the day and year. Kids are in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 180 days a year. But they are in their homes and communities from 3 p.m. until 8 a.m. during school time—and 24/7 for the remainder of the year. In fact, from birth to the age of 18, children spend more than 90 percent of their lives outside the schools.

Our group has learned how to bring together the people, agencies, and organizations within the community that can support schools by doing the things that schools themselves cannot, particularly connecting to those students whose academic success and social well-being are threatened. We’ve had success linking external supports to the schools and aligning them to support the schools’ responsibility for attendance, grades, and graduation. These include domestic-violence interventions, job training and placement, dental care, mental- and physical-health care, child care, parent education, and more.

When we listen to the stories of students who dropped out, struggled in school, or became overage and undercredited nonachievers, we are often struck by these young people’s creativity and intelligence. Many have survived challenges in their lives, within their families, and on the streets that would have crippled their peers headed to Ivy League schools.

Their failure is at least as much a failure of school systems and communities as it is their own. We need new forms of schooling that teach key academic content in ways that engage these students and prepare them for successful futures, and we need to help them build strong relationships with adult mentors who will support their efforts to stay in school and succeed. And we need to link schools and communities in mutually beneficial, two-way relationships that provide young people with a healthy preparation for a productive future.

Schools have too much on their plates these days. Most of the mandates have their heart in the right place (student achievement), but don't have the necessary funding and support pieces to help schools make this a reality. We're going to have to reach out more to the community. I hope it will reach back.

08 August 2008

Passing the Torch

With the Summer Olympics kicking off, as well as another school year, it seems like a good time to talk about Passing the Torch. I have been thinking about this while reading various blogs by new to the profession teachers. I wish I had starred the one post where a teacher talked about how her first classroom was starting to feel real and that she just wanted to close the door and make snow angels on the carpet. (If anyone knows the post I'm talking about, I'd love to link to it.)

Do you remember that feeling? I do. Even the ugliest room in the school would have looked sparkly in my eyes. My classroom. Oh, how wondrous that seemed.

I also remember the learning curve---how each person at central office or support staff at school would give new directions and paperwork, as if they were the only ones doing so. It was overwhelming at times. Reading Not Quite Grown Up's posts about getting settled in her first job remind me of all those things. This is also true for experienced teachers who are changing schools and/or grade levels. There is lots of learning that has to occur when the kids aren't around.

I feel like I've been on my own "Farewell Tour" this week, ostensibly to celebrate my new job, but in some ways, to say "Goodbye." I will still be in the area---I'm not moving---but time will be very limited. Tuesday evening, I had martinis with some girlfriends. Wednesday, I had lunch with a teacher I mentored and with whom I have enjoyed working over the last few years. He is ready to take on the full meal deal of standards-based grading and is also very interested in pursuing the cell phones in the classroom ideas and some other things I was thinking about. I feel like my teaching will live on, in a sense. I like that.

Today, I'm headed out for a coffee date with some elementary teachers I worked with this past spring. I loved that school and am still sad about not getting to go back (I fell victim to budget cuts in that district), but I think it means that my tenure in elementary schools isn't done. At some point in my career, I am going to have to go back and fully scratch that itch.

It is common around the edusphere to provide bits of wisdom to new teachers as the school year begins. It is the perfect time for all of that "advice" that was contained within June's graduation speeches, but no one really remembers now. What is the very best thing we can say to one another to send out a message of support to our peers? If you were to Pass the Torch to another teacher, what would you use to stoke the fire?

06 August 2008

The Blog, It Is A'Changin'

Sometimes when I toodle around the edusphere, I feel positively ancient. My little corner of this on-line world is not quite four years old and it has seen a lot of change in that time---not just in my own life as a professional, but in the community in general. I am delighted to find new writers...and grieve the fallen bloggers among us. Oh, how I miss Graycie and Mr. Lawrence. Ms. Frizzle has moved on to new career adventures. I hope you all are well and happy.

I am certainly not ready to hang up my blogging shoes, but I have to admit that my focus has really had some major adjustments. I went from being in the classroom 80% of the time...to 20% of the time...to none of the time...to half time. I've tackled elementary science, new to the profession teachers, an EdD, and delving into grading/motivation. I've learned how to make learning meaningful for adults as well as first graders. I got to both attend and present at conferences. As someone who is more interested in the journey than the destination, this has been a wonderful time in my life.

But change is coming again---good change for me. After twelve years in one spot, I have tendered my resignation. The school district is going down paths that I cannot follow. It has been noted by many that "all of the good ones are leaving." I've seen the people I respect the most already make their way to greener pastures, and it is now my turn. It makes me sad that we are having to abandon something we love and the students we've cared for to leadership (both administrative and union) which has no interest in doing the right thing, let alone the integrity to carry it through. The supe is fond of saying that "You're either on the bus, or you're not." which is oddly reminiscent of others I can't identify with. I've made my choice, as have many others I know. My friends who have already emigrated remark at how much more enlightened other districts and programs are. They have not found Utopia, only relief. This used to be an amazing place to work. Perhaps it will be again, someday. I hate to think of exactly how derelict it will become in the meantime...but I can do no more here.

As for me, I have a new job and a wonderful future. I have a very big job working with the state---a job I'm not sure that any mere mortal can actually do and do well. But I will try. And starting next week, I will launch myself into all sorts of new experiences and start growing as a professional in ways that I would never have anticipated when I started my career. This old dog is going to have to learn all kinds of new tricks.

I'm not sure what this will mean for this space. I do plan to continue blogging, but there will be a lot about my work that I won't be able to share. (My hunch is that it would make for very dry reading, anyway.) Now that I will be away from a school, I think it's more important than ever that I stay connected to the conversations happening around the edusphere. I need to keep tuned into what is happening with teachers---and most importantly, kids. I can't be effective as a leader if I am removed from all of that. My hope is that my transition will be good fodder for talking about how to make large scale change happen...that I can make the legislation to classroom process more transparent (although it's doubtful I will be able to make it be logical)...and that having this role will provide a different kind of perspective and voice in the edusphere. I don't know of any edubloggers who do the kind of work I will be doing.

Hang in there with me. The blog may be a'changin'.

05 August 2008


I recently read about the need for certain edubloggers to step outside the echo chambers they were in. The idea being that if you're an ed tech person (for example) and you only read and comment upon other ed tech blogs, then whatever message you feel is most important likely isn't going to be effective: You're always preaching to the choir. And yet, we can be a rather cliquish bunch at times.

It seems like summers are a time when I try to step outside my traditional feeds a bit more. Last year, I delved into the edtech world. This year, spurred on by experience working in an elementary last spring, I've enjoyed looking for blogs that document life in the primary (and pre-school) classroom. What I am loving about these is that it gives a glimpse of the kind of social learning that we don't see at secondary---as sad of a statement as that is.

For example, here is a recent post from Organized Chaos:
a little one leaned over as i was reading him the riot act and placed his fingers on my forehead. slowly he traced my furrowed brow and asked what was happening to my head.

ah, to have just turned 5 and live in a me-centered world where you have not yet learned to read others' emotions on their faces. welcome to school. next time my forehead gets like this you'll know what it means. this time though, let me make myself very, very clear while you're in the thinking-spot.
While I can easily picture this entire scene, I have to say that it isn't something I've ever experienced at the high school level. I don't have to teach kids how to stand in line or put their things away or worry about someone pooping during group work. We do talk about developing the social order of the classroom, but I admit that our conversations don't go quite like this one as documented by Kindergarten Chaos:
My kiddos came up with these rules for our classroom, with a bit of guidance of course. Without the guidance of many combining rules into one, we would have a list 100 feet long*.
  1. Listen to our teachers.
  2. Always use our brains.
  3. Be careful with our stuff.
  4. Always take good care of each other.
If everyone lived by these rules, the world would be a happier place, don't you think?

*some gems that were combined under a broader idea:
  1. Don't poke people and make them bleed
  2. Don't push someone down and make them bleed. (Sense a theme?)
  3. Don't bump people.
  4. Don't kick people on the carpet.
  5. Don't spit on people.
You get the drift...
I look at the posts from Mrs. Sommerville on setting up her classroom and I can't help but think how much fun it would be to see children learning there. Even if these teachers experience the same kinds of frustrations that we all do, their view of learning is unusual (at least for me). I am truly enjoying having them in my Google Reader feeds---and more will certainly start showing up in my blogroll.

If you haven't had a look at these blogs, I highly recommend them---even if you aren't interested in working with primary students, the questions they provoke are just as relevant for every teacher.
Have you stepped outside the echo chamber recently? Any good finds?

04 August 2008


I had an administrator ask me last week how I was able to make such dramatic changes in my grading practices. The question came from someone who is wanting to guide these sorts of changes in her own staff---and, perhaps, has already tried. It's one thing to understand that change can be painfully slow. It's quite another to be faced with staff who don't change at all. She was looking for a catalyst. Maybe in listening to my own story she would find a nugget to use with others. I don't think that I was of great help, but the question has made for some nice reflection.

In terms of grading, what I said was that until a few years ago, I wasn't even aware that there were alternatives. I only had one kind of system used with me during my own schooling. Grading was not something that was discussed during my teacher education courses. And I have yet to have any formal professional development offered to me regarding grading practices. We talk about instruction a lot. We even talk about assessment. Evaluation, however, never seems to come up. I suppose that sounds silly---never to even question the way grading is done. Bertrand Russell said that "In all affairs, it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." While I can be certainly be accused of having some sense of intellectual curiosity about teaching...I never did about grading. How many experienced teachers would say the same, I wonder?

I told the administrator that when I did have the opportunity to do some reading, thinking, and chatting with colleagues, what I found was that these practices were a good match for my own philosophy about the classroom---that what happens there should be about kids. I was a traditional grader for most of my career, but to her, it appeared that this was something that was always part of my teaching life. I think this was because best practices in grading are so congruent with what I believe about education. When I finally stumbled upon them, the only intelligent response was "Duh."

The level of cognitive dissonance around grading practices is jet engine in scale for most teachers. It is too noisy to comprehend. I've seen several who take a look at things and can't talk about it for awhile...and still others who understand what they should do, but can't take that final plunge. They inch toward the edge, making small changes as they go---no more zeros, only considering summative information, and so on. But the full meal deal is too frightening a prospect for them. I don't have an answer for this. Maybe it's okay to go with small changes. Or perhaps we as professionals need to shout "Cannonball!" and just dive into the deep end, pulling our colleagues along with us.

In the end, I didn't know to how to steer the administrator. On one hand, I think she is well within her rights to insist that best practices be used---as long as she is willing to support that with intensive professional development and other help. I don't want to go to a doctor or other professional who justifies doing something the same way as was done 100 years ago for no other reason than "That's how I've always done it." I think our children at all grade levels deserve evaluation of their learning based on a reason better than "That's how my work was graded when I was in school." Using best practices doesn't devalue a teacher's professional judgment---that is still going to be a large part of evaluation. Instead, we can be assured that we are doing the right thing for our students. Jump on in, teachers and admins, to the standards-based grading pool. Take off the water wings. I know you can swim.

02 August 2008

One More Try

Last week, I blogged about Advancing the Gradebook. Maybe gradebooks should be treated like the six million dollar man: The electronic gradebook. A tool barely useful. Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first meaningful gradebook. X will be that tool. Better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster. You get the idea.

Since my original post, a couple of things have happened. First of all, Paul over at Markscan sent me a link for the software he masterminded and had developed. His goal was to have something which would allow Ontario teachers to comply with the requirement that they use the most recent/most consistent level of achievement in determining grades. The image below is from the website for his software.

The idea here is that formative and summative assessments are different shades (and you can display one or another or both), with the width of the bars communicating the weight of the assessment. There are some good features here. I like the graphical display and the ability to distinguish between types of assessments.

Another thing that has happened in the last week is that I've been in contact with the Microcharts people. They do offer a 15% discount for educators, which is a start. This is a company based in Germany and therefore immune to the NCLB hoopla. I think they're missing a huge market here; however, I do want to give things a try.

Finally, I mocked up something in Excel:

It's not perfect. I did not use conditional formatting or formulas for this---I was more interested in seeing what something could look like at this point. However, I do want to go back and see if I can get the program to reproduce the results.

I have the bullet graph broken down into three colours representing the Response to Intervention levels of intensive (red), strategic (yellow), and benchmark (green). This would allow a teacher to easily see who needs reteaching/interventions and group accordingly. Secondly, I wanted something that shows progress (or at least a range). This is what the horizontal lines on the bullet graph are for. The vertical hash marks on the graph indicate the median scores. In two cases (Linus and Pigpen), we have students who are performing consistently, albeit at different levels. One might not worry so much about Linus (other than wondering if we're challenging him enough), but Pigpen is troubling. An alternative to the graph would be to just use conditional formatting in Excel that would change the colour of a cell automatically depending upon the score entered. You wouldn't need this for every cell. Instead, you could just choose a column to represent the median score of a range of other cells, then have it ready to turn red, yellow, or green depending upon that information. Personally, I would prefer a graph that can also display range. A sense of progress is important to me. Maybe a kid hasn't reached benchmark yet, but if they're growing, that's still good information to have.

I showed this at my presentation this week and one of the participants had a very good question about the time that this would take to set up and use. She was concerned about the "old dog new tricks" impact on more experienced staff members. First of all, I don't think that everyone should have to use the same tool for tracking grades. Reporting is different, since the information has to be integrated and accessible to others, but for day-to-day classroom a teacher needs to find what best suits the way they work. Secondly, I'm thinking that setup in Excel would only need to happen a couple of times a year. Once you know the formulas you want to use, you're good to go.

I'm still pondering the "dashboard" idea for integrating either all of a student's information or all of a classes information into one display. It's still summer for a few more weeks, so I still have some time to play with that.

Any other gradebook ideas to share?

01 August 2008

Five Things I Wish Ed Policymakers Understood

Nancy, the always delightful Teacher in a Strange Land, has offered up a meme concerning the five things educators wish policymakers understood about the public school system. I feel honoured to be tagged by the first group she named for the meme: Stories from School: Practice Meets Policy. Besides, we Washington edubloggers have to stick together.

And with that, here we go...
  • Change is slow. Perhaps we all wish that it weren't, but the reality is that just because legislation is passed one day doesn't mean schools can implement it the next day. There are always discussions of who will do the work, how resources will be made available (and which will be taken away in order to make time for the new), responsibilities for accountability measures, and more. Meanwhile, we're not working in a vacuum. When we change one variable, it impacts everything else in a school community---and not always for the best.
  • Along these lines, don't pass any legislation that doesn't have specific funding sources attached. If you want to require that schools fulfill certain obligations, then you need to provide the dollars to do so. Most districts are already at the breaking point trying to fulfill all of the various mandates. They should not be forced to choose between providing a school band program and buying books for classrooms.
  • It may be that policymakers don't realize the totality of the financial strain they place on schools. I think this is because they don't take time to look at the big picture. What are all of the pieces of legislation schools are trying to manage? What new ones are you trying to pile on top this time around? Take a step back and look at all that schools are supposed to do. Consider SPED, transportation issues, technology needs, standards and assessments, fine arts, nurses, and so forth. If you are going to add something to the plate, think about what you might take away. The various committees and groups need to talk to one another. Don't try to push through a change in the law based on one letter from a constituent or news event. Be holistic in your approach.
  • If you really want to change what happens in the classroom, you have to change the instruction. Changing graduation requirements for kids isn't going to get you there. Invest in high quality professional development, such as instructional coaches or other job-embedded support. We might not be able to get a superstar teacher in every classroom, but we can do more to make teachers effective.
  • It is time to do away with closed shops/forced unionism. While these laws may have originally been written as a protection for teachers and working conditions, they have resulted in creating places for poor teachers to hide. Unions protect the lowest common denominator in our schools. Our children deserve better than that.
I believe in standards-based education. I believe that all children deserve access to a rigorous curriculum---whatever that may mean for the individual student. And I believe that we can make social change happen. In order to do that, however, policymakers are going to have to engage in some learning of their own about what day-to-day operations in schools are really like.

This is a meme where anyone can play. So, please do join in if you would like. I am going to specifically reach out beyond my state's borders to
  • Clix at Epic Adventures Are Often Uncomfortable. Her east coast perspective can balance out us westerners.
  • Athena from Texas. She can chime in from the south (and from a small town).
  • Mr. McNamar from The Daily Grind. He's a former Washingtonian, but is now ensconced elsewhere. As he spent the last year dealing in contrasts, I'll bet he has a worldly view to share.
  • I would love to hear from someone who works with the pre-school or primary crowd as their experiences serve as forecasts for the rest of us. Mrs. Sommerville, are you interested? Elbows, Knees, and Dreams? Organized Chaos? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
  • Finally, I'd like to see some administrative input. Perhaps one or more at LeaderTalk would be willing to chime in? Stories from School did some nice modeling on group blogging in this area.
What do you think? What should our policymakers understand about education before constructing legislation?