26 July 2009

Push It

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a meeting where the quality of the image being projected was awful. We were supposed to be able to read a document---and even though it was in focus, the contrast was terrible. After I realized that everyone else was just going to accept things as they were, I waited for a break in the action and went up and adjusted the projector. Voila! Now we could actually read what we were provided.

The reaction from other participants was...interesting. Grateful as they were, it had never occurred to any of them that they could make things better themselves. I must, by default, possess some mystical knowledge of LCD projectors---I had a magic touch. The truth is much simpler than that: I'm just not afraid to push a few buttons. The image already sucked---what was the worst that could happen by pushing the "menu" button and navigating via the arrow keys? The machine wasn't going to blow up. No people or animals would be harmed.

Is it really so terrifying to play? Is it so much to ask that when faced with a situation or decision, that we stop for a moment and ask ourselves "Is there a better way of handling this?"

I have come back to this theme in my mind a couple of times since the Great LCD Projector Event of 2009. I was sitting in (yet) another meeting a few weeks ago where several players needed to coordinate a calendar of events. Their solution? Develop a calendar in Excel that they could e-mail to one another and update. Okay, so that is one way to accomplish the goal. I happen to think it's a rather poor one. How do you know who has the most updated version? Who "owns" the document and communicates changes? What do you do when more than one participant needs to work on the document? We weren't going to put any secure information on the calendar---merely due dates for the different people and elements involved. Wouldn't it be better to use something like a Google Calendar that everyone could have access to at once and update/edit/view?

I watched several teachers struggle over the last two weeks with what are (to me) some very basic elements of Word and Excel: adding rows, wrapping text, inserting graphics, editing headers, and so forth. We didn't ask the teachers to do anything fancy, mind you, but as I watched some of them labor over trying to do things like add a row to a spreadsheet or table...I realized that my future job will be much more challenging than I first realized.

How do I move teachers into using web-based tools and other technology when their mindset is not based around "There must be a better way."? When they're either not curious or are afraid to just push a button?

25 July 2009

Empty Nest

Every teacher has at least one drawer or file box of blood, sweat, and tears: the hard copies of articles, activities, and ephemera collected from conferences or constructed over countless summers and Sundays. Sure, we have electronic versions of many things, too, but there is something about the physical representation of the work. Those manila file folders are sometimes the only evidence we have for hours of toil.

But what does a teacher do with these collections at retirement? Or the change of a grade level or subject area? Or other change of job assignment? We're not willing to throw away these files---we know how much thought and care was taken to bring them into the world. And yet, having these items molder away in a basement is hardly a fitting end, either.

My classroom stuff has been in just such a limbo for some time now. I have felt guilty every day as I head into and out of my garage. I thought I could hear those files whimpering to be used again...how unfair it was to keep them cooped up and away from kids. And yet, I wasn't sure about where I might end up jobwise. I had a "just in case" excuse I kept in mind, knowing full well that even if I went back to the classroom, lessons would need remodeling.

This week, it was finally time to let things go. There was a passle of science teachers at an event I attended this week. I took seven boxes of books I had accumulated over the years---only two boxes worth went unclaimed by teachers. I found a teacher who is just about to start teaching AP Bio for the first time---and I gave her my files: lock, stock, and barrel. I gave away bulletin board supplies, posters, and other items. Not only did I regain some nice space in my garage, I also let these items have the opportunity for new life in classrooms all over the state. I feel like part of my teaching life is living on, even as I explore other job opportunities.

The nest is not completely empty. There were a few things I wasn't quite ready to part with and I am sure that there are others hiding in boxes I didn't open last week. But there will be other groups of teachers I see and other opportunities to gift some treasures. Oddly enough, I don't feel a loss as evidence of my classroom life ebbs away---I feel richer for having shared.

22 July 2009

Working It Out

In my last post, I suggested that we in education might need to revisit our concept of "seat time." Sitting in a designated spot for a pre-determined number of hours per week does not guarantee quality work (for either students or adults).

But what about homework?

In a serendipitous confluence of events, ASCD sent me a new book (Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott) at the same time two articles about classroom work showed up in my RSS feeds. Seems like many are thinking about student products this summer.

Personally, I'm kind of a moderate regarding homework. I'm not at this end of the spectrum (as reported by Teacher Magazine's "How Much Homework Is Too Much?"):

"I don't believe that there's any use for it," said Harris, of Federal Way, Wash. "I think that's a complete waste of childhood."

...but I'm not here either:

One standard that many school districts are turning to is the "10-minute rule" created by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper. The rule, endorsed by the National PTA and the National Education Association, says kids should get 10 minutes of homework a night per grade. A first grader would have 10 minutes of homework each night; a fifth grader 50 minutes.

I've long argued for an expanded definition of "homework," because I don't think it has to include student products (such as worksheets) and I don't think there is a magical standardized amount that applies to every student. Rereading notes taken in the classroom should count...so should time talking to parents about what was learned during class. Some students need more practice with ideas---others are ready for different things. Is there some way we can get away from "one size fits all" when it comes to homework?

And then, I'm not sure I want to go quite so far as what the New York Times is terming "credit recovery." Okay, so nearly every school district I know has some sort of similar program, but these particular examples were rather eyecatching:
A year after reports showed that New York City high schools were offering failing students a chance to earn credit simply by completing worksheets or attending weeklong cram sessions, educators say the system of making up schoolwork is still abused, and the state is seeking to crack down on it.

At William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn, for instance, a nearly illiterate student racked up many of his credits through after-school remediation programs. He was promoted to 12th grade still unable to write full sentences or read a line of text, his teachers said.

At Mathematics, Science Research and Technology Magnet High School in Queens, several students were awarded credit last school year for clicking through questions on a computer screen until they got the right answer, teachers said.
In other words, just the act of doing the work is enough to earn credit---there is no expectation of actual learning. But New York is running into the some issues along the way in terms of regulation. Sure, you can impose several layers of regulations and oversight, but it won't keep some from finding ways to game the system and there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. Those are just issues at the surface. They never really address the real question: What does it mean to learn something?

Can we, as a system, work out a way to get past a reductionist view of learning as a number of hours and worksheets into something more meaningful for each student?

19 July 2009

Seat Time

I've been thinking a lot about "seat time" recently---and whether or not it equates to anything meaningful. Mind you, most of my thoughts have been related to my personal situation with determining whether or not to take the new job. The leadership philosophy that goes along with my current job kinda boils down to seat time. The idea is that the absolute most productive way to get the job done is for me to spend 40 hours/week in one chair at a particular location. I just can't quite buy this. Maybe it's because I'm more of a "learner-centered" educator...maybe it's because I think that accountability should be a higher bar than butts in seats. I may very well be off the mark---I can't deny that in the classroom, students who are habitually missing from class often struggle to meet the standards. But I'm not talking about being absent from a job---just sitting in a different location during the work day. I'm looking for a "blended model" of in person and on-line working environment. From what I've been reading, it would appear that many students are, too---and those who find this situation are successful.

The U.S. Department of Education has released a study finding that good teaching is further enhanced with technology.
A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning. Of these, 46 met the high bar for quality that was required for the studies to be included in the analysis. The meta analysis showed that “blended” instruction – combining elements of online and face-to-face instruction – had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online. The analysis also showed that the instruction conducted wholly on line was more effective in improving student achievement than the purely face to face instruction. In addition, the report noted that the blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions...

Few rigorous research studies have been published on the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students. The systematic search found just five experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K-12 students. For this reason, caution is required in generalizing the study’s findings to the K-12 population because the results are for the most part based on studies in other settings, such as in medical, career, military training, and higher education.

“Studies of earlier generations of distance and online learning courses have concluded that they are usually as effective as classroom-based instruction,” said Marshall “Mike” Smith, a Senior Counselor to the secretary. “The studies of more recent online instruction included in this meta-analysis found that, on average, online learning, at the post-secondary level, is not just as good as but more effective than conventional face-to-face instruction...”

One of the things I like about this report is that it makes the case that technology is not just stuff. It's not about the Interactive White Boards. This is not about using cell phones and/or "clickers" in the classroom. It's not about how many handhelds you have. It's about extending the classroom in space and time through on-line options. Hardware is awesome---but it cannot necessarily have the universal applications that a blog, wiki, or cloud computing can have.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report that students want more on-line options. (See? I'm not the only one who wants to work from home now and then.)

Despite a growing interest in online learning among students, the availability of online classes in K-12 schools and districts hasn't kept pace with the demand, according to a new report from Project Tomorrow and Blackboard Inc.

According to the report, more than 40 percent of sixth through 12th graders have researched or demonstrated interest in taking a course online, but only 10 percent have actually taken an online course through their school. Meanwhile, 7 percent of middle school students and 4 percent of high school students instead have pursued opportunities outside their school to take online courses--underscoring the disconnect between the supply and demand for online learning in today's schools...

The report suggests that K-12 students want to pursue online learning to gain more control of their own learning experience, have access to more courses, and work at their own pace. But middle and high school students continue to have different priorities for taking online classes, the report says: Older students were most likely to desire online classes to earn college credit, while younger students would pursue online learning to get extra help in a subject.

There is a lot of talk about "personalizing instruction" these days. I don't know that on-line options are the best for every grade and/or subject, but I do think that this is one way to reach some students.
When asked why learning through an online class might make school more interesting, 47 percent of nine through 12th graders, 39 percent of six through eighth graders, and one in four third through fifth graders said they want to learn online to "be in control of my learning." Students don't expect courses to be easier online, but they do expect the online format to make it easier for them to succeed, because they can review materials when they want and are more comfortable asking teachers for help.
Being in control of one's own learning (or work) doesn't seem like such a terrible idea, does it? If we are after lifelong learning and independent workers, it would seem that we need to broaden our definition of seat time.

16 July 2009

Time Is On My Side

Yes, it is.

I gained six hours this week. Well, not yet...but I will. And when I do, I will have six extra hours every week.

You see, I accepted a new job which will start on September 1: a job which will allow me to telecommute two days a week (meaning 6 fewer hours of commute time). Six hours might not sound like a significant change to you. For me, it will change my whole world.

The change means six more hours a week to work in my garden...or write my book...or spend with friends. It means that on Friday mornings, I can once again meet my elementary teacher peeps for breakfast and still be to work on time. It means 14,500 fewer miles on my car each year (and lots of money on gas and service). This change enables me to not have to take a vacation day so I can meet the plumber to fix my toilet (after 5 months of not working properly). I don't have to wait weeks to pick up my birthday gifts at the post office because I can now get there before 5 p.m. I can tell local schools that I am available to volunteer at after school events (or be there for early morning tutoring). For two days each week, I don't have to come home with a tension headache and completely fatigued from dealing with traffic. I won't have to pay bridge tolls or parking.

Some of the change is sad. For the first time in my career, I won't be working in the sciences. My role will be tangential to them---as well as every other k-12 content area. I will greatly miss the people I've been working with for years. I will also miss my current job---I really do love the work I'm doing, but the supervisor will not entertain my need for six more hours to have a life. When faced with a choice between an amazingly wonderful job (and no life) and a job I hope to grow to love (and have something of a life)...I picked having a balance. It's not a happy choice for me, but I feel like it is the only one I could make.

If the housing market was different...if the economy and job opportunities were different...if I had a spouse at home to take care of all the other of life's duties while I was away...then I might have other solutions to the 6-hour issue. But I can't operate under those uncertainties any more than I can in a job environment that insists I live an unhealthy lifestyle. I have to respect myself more than that. And with six more hours a week, I will.

12 July 2009

Summertime Blues

When I was a classroom teacher, July was always a prized month---the only month of the year that I didn't have to go to work. This is not to say that school was ever far from my mind...or that I didn't attend workshops, take classes, or think about the upcoming year. But how I spent my time was my decision.

And this July? Other than the state holiday on the third of July, I work the whole month (including two Sundays). It's an odd frame of mind to be in. All the teachers I run across are giving up vacation time---and are starting to look refreshed and rejuvenated from time off. Me? I look like something the cat dragged in after nearly 11 months on the job and only two official vacation days in that time period.

However, my mind is taking time to wander and wonder. I finally had a breakthrough in how I want to organize my book on grading. I'm ready to write (if I only had the time). I've made some decisions about which direction to move my career and some even more difficult personal decisions. I've enjoyed my yard---doing lots of gardening and making plans for the future of my little home.

I have to admit that I miss the "old" July---so full of "want to's" and not "have to's." But right now, there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

03 July 2009

Evolutionary Effort

From the Education Week article on Effort, Engagement, and Student Learning:

Schools that often emphasize fun, student-centered classroom activities in instruction, and evolutionary processes over many generations have helped shape humans’ interest in those engaging social activities.

Yet for students to tackle new and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel” material in reading, math, and other subjects, schools need to emphasize effort and persistence.

That’s the argument put forward by David C. Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a study. It was published in the October edition of the journal Educational Psychologist but publicized this month by the university’s press office. It focuses on the connection between evolution, culture, and the role of schools, which the author describes as “evolutionary educational psychology.”

The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.

Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.

This makes me wonder about the whole "Why are we learning this?" question from students. For "effortless" activities, perhaps students don't have a need to prompt teachers with this query. When it comes to Newtonian physics, then they do (except, perhaps, for those few students who are gunning to learn it).

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this information---I just find it interesting. For me, it leads to deeper questions about what should be included with a curriculum and the purpose of education. Do students need "evolutionary novel" material? Why? And, if so, what's the best way to teach it---because from what I'm gleaning, constructivist methods aren't going to cut it.

02 July 2009

Turn on, Tune in, Don't Drop Out

The other day, I was shopping for some garden needs at Home Depot. An enthusiastic young man helped me pile bag after bag of mulch onto a cart---and even loaded them into my car. I chatted with him, asking if he was done with school for the year. "I don't go to school anymore." Hmmm...I thought. He seemed high school age. He went on to explain that he had dropped out because his mother had become very ill and he needed to support her. He wants to get his GED someday and perhaps an AA from the local community college...but in the meantime, it seems rather sad that this boy didn't feel like he had any options when he had to make the choice of family vs. finishing high school.

Usually, dropping out of school is not a single event, as this young man described. Typically speaking, students who leave school before graduation disengage over a long period of time. Not showing up to school one day is just the final act. It is estimated that one in four students in Washington state doesn't reach the finish line---and I would expect our rates are fairly average. This creates quite a burden on the rest of us, whether or not we realize it. From my dissertation:
Students who drop out of school not only affect their own lives, but also have a societal impact. As a group, dropouts earn lower incomes and experience higher rates of unemployment (McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun, & Cochrane, 2008). For the more than 1.2 million students who did not graduate in 2008, this represents a loss of over $300 billion in lifetime earnings (DeyĆ©, 2008). In addition, dropouts have a higher rate of substance abuse issues and health problems, costing Americans over $17 billion during their lifetimes. There is also a greater than average cost for crime prevention and prosecution in those geographic areas which have a concentrated population of dropouts (McIntosh, et al., 2008). In looking at the benefits to society by increasing graduation rates, it is estimated that more than $300 billion could be added to the American economy if by 2020 students of color graduated at the same rate as their white peers and there is a potential $8 billion reduction in crime spending if the percentage of males graduating high school increased by a mere five percent (DeyĆ©, 2008). Finally, Murray and Naranjo (2008) point out that there are societal costs to the dropout issue which are difficult to quantify: “negative effects to the knowledge base, creative contributions, scientific progress, and democratic processes” (p. 146). Although educators tend to frame the dropout issue in terms of high school, these problems begin much earlier. The act of dropping out is a culmination of many factors and it is important to begin the examination of these issues, including student motivation, during early adolescence (McIntosh, et al., 2008). The ability of society to solve the issue of dropouts is critical to effecting change on many fronts.
I was thinking about this again after reading an article from a recent edition of Education Week (reg. req'd) on Preventing High School Dropouts Can Start in 4th Grade:
Risk factors for dropping out include low academic achievement, mental health problems, truancy, poverty and teen pregnancy.
But here's a shocker from Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., a small faith-based alternative program for dropouts.
Strathman says the one thing that she consistently finds is that "the last time these students felt successful was the fourth grade."
That's right: Fourth grade. Which means parents and teachers may be ignoring years of red flags.
Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:
  • Adult responsibilities, from work to child-rearing. Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 percent drop out of high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Udell said boys who become fathers are at higher risk too.
  • Truancy, learning disabilities and mental health problems. Strathman said kids who can't succeed academically often become truants because school is "so frustrating to them. They're labeled that they're lazy, but they don't know how to function in school because of a learning disability or a mental health issue." Low achievement leads to behavioral problems: "They felt like failures, and they made themselves get kicked out."John Stack, administrator of the Life Skills Center of Akron, Ohio, an alternative school for kids ages 16-22, said it's not unusual for dropouts to enroll in his school "at a fourth-grade reading level. We're trying to get people to understand that if these kids go from a fourth-grade level to a seventh-grade level, that's progress."Only 64 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.But kids from affluent, educated families drop out of school too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens may be academically capable, but often come from "a family where there's a lot of chaos, where parents may be divorcing, or where there may be alcoholism or mental illness. I don't suggest we have to tolerate or excuse the behavior. But it requires quick, constructive intervention and skilled professional help."
  • Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant.
  • Lack of extracurricular activities. Stacy Hansen, drama director of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, says kids who aren't engaged outside of class risk becoming "disconnected to the high school community." A club or activity "creates an immediate family, a place where they belong and they can just be safe, a place where they're known by their first name and they can connect, whether it's arts or athletics or mock trial or dance, or outside of school, a church group or tae kwon do," she said.

While I admit that this list is fairly reductionist, I have to think that the things listed here are a good start and do not represent insurmountable issues by schools. At the very least, the costs to implement them have to be far less than what taxpayers spend to deal with dropouts later.