29 May 2009

Jumping the Shark II: Teamwork

Last fall, I posted about an educational term that I thought had more or less "jumped the shark": Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). I have nothing against PLCs themselves, but the term is being applied like a giant band-aid for whatever isn't working in schools. I expect that any day now, we will read about how PLCs are being used to cure cancer and end world hunger.

The real PLCs out there are collaborative groups of educators focused on student instruction. While they are not quite as mythical as unicorns and virgins, they are a bit of a rarity. I do see and hear a lot of efforts to develop these functional groups. I think that discussions about professional practice and how it makes an impact at the student level can only benefit kids.

As always, I have a big "but" where this is concerned.

First of all, there should be choice as to whether or not to participate in a PLC---with no stigma placed upon educators who don't want to take part. I was thinking about this over the weekend after reading an article in The Big Fresh about Lone Wolves in the teaching ranks. The basic consensus is to just form whatever relationship you can and not drive yourself to distraction because the person is not a team player.

Which brings me to my current thinking about the word "team" as it applies to the educational workplace. As I've mentioned here before, I find its use somewhat offensive. I'm a person---not a thing---I don't want to be referred to as a collective noun. More importantly is the association of the word "team" with "competition." Education is not a game. We are not out to beat anybody and run up the score. We are here to do the best we can for each child. Meanwhile, "team" implies that there is a "captain" who gets to do as they please while the rest of the group works to satisfy his/her goals---rather than goals in common for student ends. Education is about collaborative action on behalf of a student. A collaborative effort means that everyone's voice is important and each person brings value to the discussion. In a team, one person's voice will always be important and the rest only have value inasmuch as they agree with that person and or can do the specific work s/he wants.

I sat in on a meeting recently where the leader used the word "team" seven times in 30 minutes. Some of us have been keeping count at these meetings (although no betting pool has been established yet about the number of times the magic word will be used. Too bad it's not a drinking game---would sure make meetings more fun.). What we've come to realize is that being part of this person's "team" has nothing to do with collaborative action. The term is used to mask the intent...to offer a false sense of participation so that we might not notice that we're being crapped on (with nary an umbrella in sight).

Diana Senechal, who was guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs' place, wrote about The Worship of Change and how those who don't automatically embrace new ideas in education are viewed as impediments and are defective. (Reminds me a bit of the Fundamentalist and Believer theory.) There is some truth in that observation---and I certainly count myself among the guilty in making that assumption on occasion. But I think that a lot of how you look at it has to do with the intent of the Lone Wolf/impediment/not-a-team-player. If their motivation is just to be obstructive, regardless of issue, then yes, a person is a real impediment in the derriere. However, some people slow down processes because they can't see how the change would be good for kids.

This is where collaborative action---not teamwork---comes in. This is where there is discussion and search for common ground. It's not a time for the captain to lead to the field and crush an opponent. Teams may well have their place where games are the focus and winning and losing matter, but they have no more use in educational settings. RIP: Team.

25 May 2009

Memorial Day Amusements

I think the last state holiday was in January...so the Memorial Day weekend has been a long time coming. We have gorgeous weather here in western Washington and I'll be out enjoying the sunshine. If you're stuck inside, however, perhaps these suggestions will give you reasons to smile:
  • There are new babies in the edusphere. Visit Jonathan Pratt and Leesepea and wish them well on their adventures in parenthood. Both have had small additions to their family in the last couple of weeks.
  • We can only hope that neither Jon nor Leesa will ever be featured on Awkward Family Photos; however, those who are now immortalized there will have you hoping no one scans those pictures hanging in grandma's hallway.
  • I don't know if Jon or Leesa have an artistic bent, but if they do, they may one day discover themselves taking requests from a Tiny Art Director. This is my new favourite find. I love seeing how much the preschooler's view contrasts with our own.
  • Criggo is always good for a giggle, too. There are scans of newspaper advertisements---ads gone awry, as it were. Kinda makes me wish I subscribed to a newspaper just to scan for these sorts of things.
Time to go acquire a sunburn. Enjoy your holiday!

24 May 2009

There's Always Room for Grading

For those of you who may be thinking that in a month filled with travel, data collection for dissertation, mother with brain tumor, and job upheaval, that I haven't been engaged in much that is related to grading practices. While it might be accurate to say that I haven't had a lot of headspace for this topic, it has been on my mind for a number of reasons.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event where a teacher sought me out to introduce himself. He had seen me present at the NSTA conference six months ago and wanted to tell me how much my information had impacted his thinking. It was a good reminder for me of a couple of things. First of all, the things I share really can make a difference. I don't always know anyone sitting in the audience---let alone their backgrounds and reasons for attending---but those opportunities are powerful ones. And secondly, there continue to be people hungry to move forward with putting best practices in grading.

This was also reinforced for me when I had a merry band of teachers invite me to spend a few hours with them thinking about their implementation plans for classroom grading practices for next year. Mind you, this was a Saturday morning...they weren't being paid to work or meet...they're just enthusiastic. The discussion and ideas were refreshing. Energizing. I am looking forward to sitting in with them some more...and even more excited to hear what happens in their classrooms next year.

All that being said, when I cruise the edusphere, I see that there is still a long way to go. A sampling of things I've been looking at over the last few weeks:
  • Some of you may have seen the rants over at Ms. Cornelius's place. I find these disappointing for any number of reasons, especially the "torches and pitchforks" comments made by some visitors. It's embarrassing that so many people see their gradebook as the ultimate weapon---their proud method to mete out punishment as opposed to a tool to support student learning. Even worse is the "my shit don't stink" attitude that comes along with it. Apparently, some of the teachers over there have never needed a second chance in their lives and accomplish all tasks perfectly the very first time. I'm guessing that they never drive faster than the speed limit, jaywalk, violate Fair Use regulations in their classrooms, or bend rules in any other fashion---and therefore they can be judge, jury, and executioner for the rest of us. Demi-gods in the classroom who would rather point fingers than be reflective. It's stunning to think of what life for kids in these classrooms must be like.
  • Joanne Jacobs noted the age-old disparity between "inflated" high school transcripts and underprepared college students. I would really like to do away with the notion of grade inflation. It would be much simpler to just focus on what the grades represent. My hunch is that the "inflation" is caused by teachers who give grades that include the behaviors Ms. Cornelius's commenters rail against. As long as a kid gets points for "participating" and attendance, who cares what the student really knows and is able to do? No wonder these kids struggle in college---they never had to learn the basics associated with knowledge. In high school, they just had to sit still and be quiet to get an A.
  • But my favourite item comes from Bill Ferriter over at The Tempered Radical. Grading is tangential to the point of his post, but it is still intriguing. He uses a fight in Ottawa over grading practices to illustrate the difference between fundamentalists and believers within school systems. He hosted an amazing Voicethread conversation with the author of these ideas. I highly recommend taking the time to peruse the comments and ideas.
As the school year winds down, teachers thoughts often turn to fancies about the next year. With all of the islands of practice I keep running across, I think that grading will be front and center for many classrooms next fall.

23 May 2009

Crossroads

This week there were different contractors to work with...and they were delightful. I have to say that I haven't laughed as much in the last several months as I did this past week. It was nice to have a collaborative and supportive environment---it reestablished my belief that there really are people working on the fringes of the educational world who actually make their decisions on what is best for kids. And it shed a very pale and unflattering light on the other environment in which I often work. The very same environment that reached out to me by phone this week to blithely remark that I'm being RIF'ed from it.

I suppose I should be upset, if not by the news than from the graceful way in which this whole event the past few months was handled. Instead, I'm rather ambivalent.

There are no easy truths here. What I can say is that I'll miss about a couple of programs I will not be moving forward with. I'm sad that teachers and kids aren't going to have someone reminding other leaders that we serve them---not the other way around. What's left will likely drive science education to very selfish ends. I find that heartbreaking. However, I am also a bit relieved that I don't have to be dragged down with it. No more waking up in the morning and wondering if I can call in sick rather than have to deal with certain individuals one. more. time. I will be free to speak my mind on any number of topics I have had to mute this year. This can only help teachers and schools make better informed choices. I can once again do what's best for kids, not best for someone else.

So, it is a time of opportunity. I have half a job after June 30 (and full benefits). It looks like I can expand that half into a whole either through the department who still owns half of me...or through another department which has some interests in another area of my skillset. I might also be able to work full-time for a completely different department, moving away from science and into data use and educational technology. Or, perhaps I keep my half-position and beat the bushes for consulting and/or contract work. Maybe now is the time to hit the road with the standards-based grading show.

I am looking for balance at this point---work that fires my passion and time for my home, friends, and self. This is not much different than what other educators are continually seeking. And I am more fortunate than many these days---losing all of their job and benefits. I have choices and options at this crossroads.

16 May 2009

Pros and Cons

I'm not a paid consultant (nor do I play one on tv); however, I do get asked by schools and districts to support their efforts. I see part of my work as listening carefully to teacher and student needs and then tailoring my message for those targets. The work teachers do is most important. I see my role as doing whatever I can to help things along.

I worked with a professional consultant this past week who did not see his role as one of support. It was an ugly experience...and if I ever make a foray into consulting, I will take the lesson from this week as one of what not to do. I'm not sure what was most offensive. Maybe it was the fact that the earnest questions of teachers (who had given up a week of time with students) were either ignored or responded to with cutesy platitudes. Or perhaps being talked down to was the worst part. Could have been the fact that I was looked upon as his personal slave: retrieving a soft drink for his lunch. But it might have been the third time in three hours that he asked me to check three rooms to see if anything was left on the walls. I'm not sure what he thought had magically sprouted there after the first time. Overall, for someone who came well recommended for the job, there was very little professional about the work...few pros at all to the situation. Just a big ole Con.

11 May 2009

Common Ground

Bug Girl pointed me toward this website asking Why Is Science Important? Oddly enough, this is a question I've been pondering a lot this year. While I have my own ideas around the topic, my job this year has shown me that as a state, we have no cohesive purpose when it comes to science. There are lots of cliques each pursuing their own goals. In some ways, this is all right. We don't all have to be doing the same things at the same time. We serve different stakeholders and fill various needs.

However, I do think that it would be beneficial to have some agreement about why we're doing it. This is the piece I'm missing as I travel around the state. I never hear anyone speak to the purpose of science education. Why should I care about one particular group's goals if they leave their mission up to my interpretation?

We will never have agreement here on some things. There is a large number of people who believe that the entity of science is more important than kids and teachers. What's best for science is their bottom line. And me? I and many others have the reverse viewpoint: Kids first. Science second. Either way, there must be something we feel is essential about learning science in the first place.

So maybe this question just needs to become part of my repertoire as I'm out and about. I wonder if I'll be surprised/repulsed/affirmed by the answers. More importantly, I wonder if there will be some common ground.

10 May 2009

Be Yourself

video


I've got money in my pocket
I like the color of my hair
I've got a friend who loves me
Got a house, I've got a car
I've got a good mother
And her voice is what keeps me here

Feet on ground
Heart in hand
Facing forward
Be yourself

I've never wanted anything
No I've, no I've, I've never wanted anything
So bad...
So bad

Cardboard masks of all the people I've been
Thrown out with all the rusted, tangled, dented, goddamned miseries.

You could say I'm hard to hold.
But if you knew me, you'd know
I've got a good father
And his strength is what makes me cry

Feet on ground
Heart in hand
Facing forward
Be yourself

I've never wanted anything
No I've, no I've, I've never wanted anything
So bad...
So bad

I've got money in my pockets
I like the color of my hair
I've got a friend who loves me
Got a house, I've got a car
I've got a good mother
And her voice is what keeps me here

Feet on ground
Heart in hand
Facing forward
Be yourself

Heart in hand
Feet on ground
Facing forward
Be yourself
Just be yourself
Just be yourself

Feet on ground
Heart in hand
Feet on ground
Heart in hand

---Jann Arden; Good Mother; Living Under June; 1994

Happy Mothers' Day to one and all.

09 May 2009

Why Didn't I Think of That?

In my most recent years in the classroom, I became a fan of using a Think Aloud (sometimes called a Read Aloud) to illustrate different reading strategies. Science textbooks are not the easiest things to read and comprehend, so I liked modeling my own metacognition for kids when I could. I even did this for AP Biology students. They were good readers in that they had the mechanics down, but the college level science text would often kick their butts. They struggled to modify their strategies applied to reading novels for English class.

As much as I liked this strategy, it ran the risk of being overused---just as with any other classroom tool. I was kinda sad that there weren't more things like it. It seemed like there were many areas in which students could have used more support in me modeling my own thinking.

And then, Clay Burrell posted this incredible idea on How to Write Timed Essays That Aren't Crap. It is about how he noticed that students were struggling to let go of the almighty Five Paragraph Essay scaffold as well as create something meaningful from the prompt for a timed essay. What did he do? He made a screencast and basically did a Think Aloud for writing. He posted the screencast for students and it was their homework to watch and comment.

It's freaking genius. But beyond that is my personal "D'oh!" moment in which I keep wondering why I never thought about doing something like this. Sure, part of it is that the technological aspects weren't readily available when I needed them...but beyond that, just getting away from seeing Think Alouds as purely a reading strategy stymied me.

Now, I'm thinking about other applications, especially in the realm of PD. What ways can I support classroom teachers through modeling my own thinking about how I organize my gradebook or deal with grading or a host of other things?

06 May 2009

Clearing Out the Cobwebs

Although this is a personal blog, I don't put a lot of my personal life here. It is typically a place for my thoughts and ideas about what's happening out in the Edusphere and a bit about my working life. But things have been rather quiet around these parts as aspects of my personal life are demanding more of my time.

Some of you know that in February, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. The tumor is about the size of a baseball. Its location did not make surgery a possibility. Chemotherapy was attempted, but left her so immune compromised that she can never have any more chemo. Radiation is also suspended unless her bone marrow becomes functional again and health improves. In the meantime, the tumor will continue to grow and take away her brain function.

In between dealing with this situation on a mainly long-distance basis (I have just made a trip to visit and will do so again next month, if she is with us), trying to keep up at work, and wrapping up my doctoral study, I haven't had a lot of headspace leftover for the blog. However, that hasn't kept me from marking things in Google Reader to comment upon or ended my interactions with teachers around grading practices and other things. It's just slowed them down. I hope you'll stick around.