21 February 2010

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Conversations in education are so thick with references to the Common Core Standards these days that one can hardly swing a virtual cat and not hit a blog post about them. All but two states are currently dancing with the math and literacy standards. Kentucky has already adopted them without having seen the final version. And while the hoopla will continue throughout the spring, something else has quietly started: a new set of national science frameworks are underway. "Once the framework is final, it will be used as the basis for teams from three national organizations—the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, a group formed by governors and business leaders—to collaborate on writing the standards." (from Work Begins on 'Next Generation' of Science Standards at Education Week)

Our state completely biffed its opportunity last year to do something positive with the state science standards. Instead of focusing on what was best for kids and the opportunity to deeply explore a set of fundamental concepts, we have a shotgun approach and an overwhelming amount of tediousness. This sad state should make me more excited at the prospect that we might get some "new" ones via the Common Core Standards initiative, but it doesn't.

First of all, the committee which is writing these new frameworks hasn't a single teacher. Scientists? Sure. People who actually understand what happens in classrooms and schools? Nope. I understand that there may be opportunity later for teachers to become involved, but if the process used to write math and literacy standards is any indication, there will be no educators included. Fail number two is simply the motivation behind this work. New standards will not lead to change in science literacy. You can only get there through instruction---and there is no money targeted for this.

If you live in a state where the Common Core Standards are on the table, be sure to ask your education leaders about the motivation in participating with this initiative. In our state, there has been no discussion about whether or not these standards and the ramifications of using them are in the best interests of children. Teachers participating on the review committees have told me that it has been made clear to them that the state is interested in the funding it might get by adopting these (or gaining funding freed up from other sources if the state doesn't have to create its own tests). Teachers in these groups feel the review committees are all for show---that neither state leadership nor the national groups are truly interested in feedback or comment about whether or not the state should move forward to adopting these. If this is true, I find this information deeply troubling.

I have to wonder if this is true in other states. Are we so out of balance in our education system, so overwhelmed with recession and unfunded mandates, so fixated on the bottom line, that the needs of kids have been completely pushed aside for the almighty dollar? I like the promise of a standards-based education---but it is useless without the needs of children being at the center of every decision along the way. From what I'm seeing and hearing, I'm very afraid that it isn't.

17 February 2010

Tiny Bubbles

The Southern Fried Scientist recently updated his post explaining How to Brew Beer in a Coffee Maker, Using Only Materials Commonly Found on a Modestly Sized Oceanographic Research Vessel. For me, this post represents the essence of scientistness. It is the sort of innovation which is often found in research labs---but for very good reason, never makes it into the news. Scientists are playful creatures. We are problem-solvers. True blue MacGuyvers.

But there are times when we are too inventive for our own good. And @SFriedScientist's story reminded me of one such event. Where I taught, we often did a fungi unit in the fall. It was good timing as that point in the year had mushrooms springing up everywhere. Their variety, pungency, and shapes (I'm looking at you, Morels) was certainly attention-grabbing. So, in the spirit of the moment, we had classes make root beer. Mind you, I only did this once. Cost, storage, and less than stellar results were all enough to realize that this was an idea best left to others. One of my colleagues did not come to this same conclusion and continued to have students crank out root beer each fall as an extra credit project. This would not have been such a bad thing if the results had stayed in his classroom. They didn't. He would bring them to department meetings---old 2L bottles of root beer (made with baker's yeast, for cryin' out loud) and dixie cups, pouring shots for each of us as if we were involved in some sort of perpetual double dog dare. A circle of Hell undocumented by Dante. Eventually he retired, but the root beer lived on. Bottle after bottle was found squirreled away in his prep room. No dates. No official labels. No way we were opening any of it. I can't claim to have had root beer of any kind since then.

It is probably a very good thing that it wasn't real beer, as proposed at the start of this post. I think I would miss that. But I have to wonder how many similar experiments are going on in labs everywhere. I think there should be a poster session at the next ScienceOnline for people to share the various gerryrigged items they have constructed. I know there's more out there besides tiny bubbles.

15 February 2010

Everything You Never Wanted to Know*

*...and were afraid someone would ask.

My ScienceOnline 2010 interview with Bora is available for your reading pleasure over at A Blog Around the Clock. Enjoy!

The Awful Truth

One of the conundrums associated with educational technology is that for all the power that is associated with the various tools, instructional practices are changing very little. An interactive whiteboard (IWB) can be used as little more than a glorified mouse pad in a teacher-centered environment. Blogs, podcast, voicethread presentations, and wikis require access---both in terms of internet filters, computers for students, and broadband. Few places have solved the management issues that arise from having cell phones as educational tools in the classroom. There may well be some stigmas attached to being "techie" in the classroom---or perhaps a resistance or philosophical basis to become so if there are other instructional models which work just fine.

Whatever the reason, there is a clear separation between those who embrace tech in the classroom and those who do not. Until recently, I didn't think the twain would meet. They still may not, but I came to terms with an awful truth this week: EdTech lacks a compelling voice. There are many superstars within the EdTech community, but they have come from within. There has been a lot of ridicule from this same community about Robert Marzano and his current foray into researching interactive whiteboards and other tools. While I agree that the circumstances for his research (i.e. being paid by a IWB company) do not engender trust for the results, the EdTech community has failed to recognize something very important: They need Marzano. Why? Because he is well-respected in the curriculum and instruction world---the one outside of technology...the one most schools and teachers live in. Marzano will be the first crossover star, much like artists that move between musical genres. It doesn't make his message any better, it just means that he will be a Pied Piper leading a lot more people toward EdTech...more than would have ever looked at the realm on their own. Those who have risen within the EdTech ranks are likely to be typecast there. A crossover will not happen from there---it must come from the non-tech side.

I am hoping that EdTech will make its peace with Marzano, instead of continuing to wage a turf war. If not, then I hope that they will find a partner elsewhere on the "outside" that they can work with. Pick a Wiggins, Stiggins, Tomlinson, or McTighe. Get a Reeves, Popham, or Guskey. Because until you capture the attention of that sort of leadership, you will not have their audience. You will not be seen as having a meaningful impact on instruction and assessment, no matter what you know to be true.

12 February 2010

Everybody Lean

I was recently notified by Google (Blogger's daddy) that in about a month, they will no longer support the method I use to create content for this blog. This came as a bit of a shock to me, as I have been happily "FTP-ing" for nearly three years. My options at this point are...

  1. Allow the googles to move my entire blog to a blogger managed URL.
  2. Export my content and then import it into WordPress.
  3. Create a subdomain at my current URL for blogger to use as a "custom domain" and publish there.
  4. Start over with a new blog.
  5. No longer blog.

Out of all of these, number 3 will probably be the option I choose. The reason why #1 isn't a good option is that I would lose management control of my blog---no way to keep the trolls away from honest readers and myself. No thanks. Option #2 is the back-up plan as it would allow me to keep publishing to the same domain; however, 5 years of content is a lot to move (and/or lose...including comments) and would also require a complete template redesign. I think I mentioned in a recent post that early March is off the charts in terms of scheduling. Not the best time to have to overhaul things online. Options 4 and 5 don't appeal to me on a personal level. I'm not ready to start over and/or stop writing---although those are always possibilities for the future.

The Great Googly has promised to write code that will automatically redirect to the new digs and maintain search results/page ranks. I'm not sure when I'll be transferring my content or what glitches will occur along the way. So, hang on. We'll keep leaning to and fro on this rollercoaster.

11 February 2010


In an interesting confluence of events, I have six different presentations to give at three different conferences in two different states between March 4 and 14. The good news is that all of these presentations are on topics I've delivered before. The bad news is that the information I have needs to be retooled to fit different audiences and/or timeframes (because there is no universal session length, apparently). For the most part, this is not a big deal. I have enough variety in my slide decks these days to pull samples and arrange them to fit the occasion.

But one of these events is not like the others. In less than a month, I'm off to dance at the biggest ball in education: the ASCD national conference. As I presented to a group of teachers last week, I thought to myself that my slides and materials need to be kicked up a notch. Part of this realization is driven by the shift I'm seeing from presenting to having conversations. A lot of that is due to the audience. People I see now have the basic ideas and mechanics behind standards-based grading practices and they are moving into problem-solving and deeper connections with the classroom environment. I can reorganize my presentation to be less about "how to" and more about richer questions. It's a very exciting place to be.

Beyond that is figuring out how to have these conversations in a room of 150+ people. I haven't presented to a room with more than 100. Working with a group of 75 teachers (as I did last week) was a challenge in its own right in terms of how to make the experience personal in such a large room. ASCD is a very different venue and I want to make sure I create the best learning environment that I can.

Right now, I have a bit of calm before the early March presentation storms. It's a good time to have some headspace for thinking about all of this retooling and the road ahead. If you live in the San Antonio area and/or are going to be at the ASCD conference, drop me a line and perhaps we can carve out some time for a visit (and margarita).

08 February 2010

Hurts So Good

There are not a lot of perks in my job. I have not had a full week off of work since August 2008. I earned more as a teacher, considering the length of contract. And I have a ton more nonsensical bureaucracy to navigate now. But there are a few perks I mentioned last fall. In addition, I do get to work from home one or two days a week. Best of all? I get all the time I need for planning. I used to love this part of teaching---the creative energy that comes with sitting down with your materials and putting the pieces together in meaningful ways.

It is just as big of a rush to plan staff development for adults as it is lessons for students. The difference is the timeframe. With adults, I typically have anywhere from 90 minutes to 16 hours of meeting time. Quite often, I only get to present the material once. This can be a maddening thing. When I started doing staff development several years ago, the original Boss Lady told me that there is usually a 3:1 ratio of time for these events: three hours of planning for every one hour of delivery. It is a luxury that could never be afforded for classroom work (although I would argue it is more important there). There are 15 hours of content I will be managing next week during my assessment group meeting---which means that more than a work week should be devoted to planning. A part of this planning is easy, because this group does need time to work. All I have to do for that is set the task and budget the time, then support the process during their efforts.

Some of this planning, however, is mind-bending. It would be embarrassing to admit that I needed five hours to put together just a single hour of content (presentation plan, slides, materials), if the results weren't so good. I keep thinking that things will be easier as I accumulate experience---that I will be able to just crank out staff development. I suppose I could if I didn't care about quality (or didn't have the time to devote), I could easily whip out some PD. Doing so would probably be more painful for participants to sit through than it is for me to have to be so very tedious with my planning. I can't let that happen when it hurts so good to put something magical together.

06 February 2010

The Importance of Play

My assessment group will be meeting again soon. There is a very ambitious plan developed for our time together and I know that this group of educators will be focused and work hard on the tasks at hand. Those who work hard also deserve to play hard---not just at the end of the day when Happy Hour cranks up, but during the work sessions themselves. The brain likes a little novelty...some opportunity to think about different ideas and be creative.

At the first meeting, I kept things fairly simple. I used Paul Rogers' Name That Movie posts to construct a series of slides. I inserted the slides at different break points during the work. Below is one example---the only movie no one in the room was able to guess. (Can you recognize it? If you need a hint, it represents a Hitchcock film.)

Not everyone is a movie buff, however, and there are a variety of ways to engage an audience without having to resort to the cutesy icebreakers that send educators screaming from a session. Pull a few questions from an old Trivial Pursuit deck you have lying around the house. Find a few good riddles. Print a list of brain teaser questions. Pick up or draw your own Droodles. Or, use my favourite: The Name the Baby Contest.
Jim and Jane Roe are the proud parents of a newborn son. What should they name the baby?
If you want to play, leave your best suggestion in the comments. This question is a lot of fun to leave in the staffroom (or to play over email) with teachers. You'll get some very creative answers.

The first key here is to know your audience. Select adult-friendly items (read: items that won't be perceived as insulting to intelligence or dignity) that reflect your group. You also want to look for items that will allow people to choose their level of engagement. Even those who lurk will still have something different to think about, if only for a few minutes. It only takes one to two minutes of change for the brain to be ready to focus again and you will stimulate some creative and critical thinking for the next task. This is very helpful when you have 90 minutes of writing rubric descriptors lying ahead of you.

My next challenge is to find a way to work in the graphics and post-it wall modeled in this TED talk by Tom Wujec:

I really like the idea of including visual elements that people create. Not only does it require them to represent information in different ways, but it allows them to manipulate the various pieces we are trying to put together. We can share ideas in a different way---take them out and play with them. It seems important to be able to provide this opportunity for learners of all ages, including what happens during professional development for educators.

05 February 2010

Reach Out and Touch Some Learning

I mentioned in my last post that I don't believe in grade inflation. I also don't believe in "learning styles." There is no such animal as an "auditory learner." With the exception of those with hearing loss, we are all auditory learners. We are also visual and kinesthetic learners. Our brain processes information in different ways. All of these methods of input have an impact on our learning and memory.

I have been thinking more and more about the kinesthetic part as of late. As we move further into a digital age, what will become of "hands on" learning? I understand that an online dissection can replace a real one...that a flash-based simulation can model experiments that students might not be able to complete in a school setting...that open-source tools can put powerful options into the hands of kids to create new meaning from the knowledge they've gained. There are amazing wonders to be had...but what will we lose in the process?

I haven't looked around to see if there is any ed research out there comparing the learning that occurs in a digital environment vs. real world manipulative one. I'm sure that each can be effective in their own ways. What I'm most interested in at the moment is how a teacher would determine when to use one or the other---is that based on the student or the content? Does the purpose of the learning and cognitive demand necessary make a difference when selecting one form or another?

It would seem unlikely that hands-on opportunities will disappear from lower grades. I have a hard time imagining elementary schools without scissors, glue, paint, sand, and other bits of analog exploration. At upper grades, as 1-to-1 programs become more popular and learning is moved beyond meatspace, will we forget what it is like to reach out and touch some learning?