27 June 2011

Please Try Again

Are you old enough to remember the message below---the one you heard if the phone company thought you tried to reach a disconnected number? (Sound file from here.)

This blast from my past kept rolling through my mind over the last several days.I kept feeling like what I was seeing and hearing was completely disconnected from what I hope the reality of education will be. I've been at meetings on behalf of the state since Thursday, listening to not only what others are doing, but what various vendors are providing. All of them are very passionate about what they believe and knowledgeable about a variety of programs.
  • One vendor promoted his company by remarking how schools would be able to get rid of their foreign language teachers. A colleague from another state nodded in agreement and added the idea of individualized instruction as a bonus. Is this really a plus---thinking that moving teachers out of the classroom is a good thing?
  • I heard two vendors describe how you could plop your remedial math students in front of their computer program. And that made me sad. Not only do students need teachers, I think that the struggling ones are those who need personal relationships the most...who need the very best teacher they can get. Again, is moving teachers away from students really the goal we need to be pursuing? 
  • I am amazed at the push to put tools or digital content in teachers' hands, without ever including them in the conversations. One state described a 1-to-1 initiative that was rolled out in 6 months (just in time for the school year) and then complained about the struggles to get high school math teachers to integrate netbooks into instruction. You know, maybe a graphing calculator is really okay. It's sad to see the volume of money wasted on iPads. Not that these won't be good classroom tools at some point, but they just don't seem ready yet. The content format (print, digital) doesn't make a damned bit of difference if it doesn't match standards, student needs, and instructional purposes. 
Perhaps I have officially moved into the "old fart" phase of my adult life. Or maybe it is some other sort of ennui that doesn't get the "Oooo shiny is better!" attitude that is pervasive here. Where are the discussions about what is meaningful for students and teachers? Where is the connection to other national groups and initiatives? EdTech has seen its federal support be taken away, and yet there seems to be no lesson learned from that: become relevant to and effective with what is really happening in the classroom...or die. Your call cannot be completed as dialed, EdTech.

Please try again.

26 June 2011

Minus Six

One of the nice things about traveling for work---and there are very few niceties---is the ability to mesh the online and offline worlds. So many of the people I am in regular communications with live far away from Washington. Going out of state means grabbing opportunities to put faces with avatars.

So, tonight will be another round of decreasing six degrees of separation through the magic of shrinking geotemporal relationships. In other words, I'm meeting some edubloggers (and kin) at a bar.
  • Jenny Orr, who I've gotten to see a few times (most recently at ASCD in March), is always a delight.
  • Laura Varlas, who manages the ASCD Inservice blog and Twitter feed will be joining us. We met Laura in March and are looking forward to having her join us again.
  • I am particularly enthused about meeting Karen Traphagen. As one of the key players in organizing ScienceOnline and making it a success, I have been hoping to get to know her for some time. She is bringing her daughter (techielit), an English teacher from the Philadelphia area. I am most anxious for Karen and Laura to chat. The ASCD/ScienceOnline connection really needs to happen---not that I would expect anything in particular to emerge from that, but there is such potential for building some understanding of how online environments develop and flourish.
  • Also new to me will be Tim, from Assorted Stuff. He's another long-time edublogger and has been on my blogroll for years. Finally, we get to sit down together and have a beverage.
  • Doyle, a/k/a The Science Teacher, looks to be a game time decision. We are all very much looking forward to meeting him (and his lovely wife). Keep your fingers crossed that he will be able to set aside his work for a few hours and play with us.
Are you in the Philly area and need some dinner dates for the evening? Let me know. We'll be happy to put "+1" at the table and "-6" for degrees of separation. It's the very best sort of math

Update: Squee! Just heard that Organized Chaos is coming to dinner.

Update #2: Thank you Tim and Ann, Organized Chaos, Karen, Hannah, Jenny, Laura, and Angela for a wonderful dinner last night at the Good Dog Bar. Definitely the highlight of my trip. You've done my teacher heart a lot of good. (Doyle, you were greatly missed. You owe me a trip out to Seattle.)

10 June 2011

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

I have a weird job. No...that's not quite right. The job itself is not weird, but the circumstances in which I attempt to accomplish it are. For example, when I was blissfully ensconced in a classroom with students, I never received a message telling me that someone was going to have to miss a conference call because he was meeting with the president of Mongolia. This is not to say that classroom life doesn't have its own headcocking oddities. They just don't play out the same way.

I'm finishing up my third year outside the classroom. I work in a place which has the sole purpose of overseeing education in this state---and yet, I am one of only a handful of teachers within it. So rare are we, amongst those influencing ed policy, that other workers tend to make a point of it when we are discovered. We are sheep who have infiltrated the pack of wolves: A highly dangerous place to be. The fact is, we shouldn't be the odd ones out...but as long as we are, let me pass along some hard truths I've learned.

Teachers have enormous power inside their classrooms. This is as it should be. And yes, I can hear some of you yelling at your screens. You're saying, "Have you seen the Pacing Guide the district gives me? Have you seen the Internet filter Mordac uses to restrict my students' learning?" And I will nod in agreement that you do not have complete control of every factor which impacts your teaching. You don't make the bell schedule, set the income level of families, determine bus routes, or choose what gets served in the cafeteria for lunch. But you are the ones who are with the children. You have the power to influence their thinking and learning. Don't point out to the wolves what you don't control---they will treat it as weakness and reason to form policy. Stop confusing control with power. Use your power.

Outside the classroom, you have only as much power as any other citizen. You can get your ranty-pants on (as Sci Curious would say) and blog. You can tweet what you think are bon mots from "experts." You can march and demonstrate, if it makes you feel better. But don't fool yourself for one moment that the wolves are paying attention or that you're making a real difference. If you want their attention...if you want change...then you're going to have to learn to speak Wolf---because there is no way they will make an effort to understand Sheep.

Yelling louder at the wolves is akin to speaking loudly and slowly to someone who doesn't speak your language. If you're serious about wanting something different, then you're going to have to change the content of your communication. What does that sound like?
  • First of all, stop blaming the wolves for job woes. I'm not saying that they aren't to blame---they have played a major role in earning it. But if you want them to try to understand your position, you have to make a similar effort first. There's a lot of bad policy out there. There aren't a lot of bad people. Get to know some wolves as individuals. Relationships are king here, just as they are in the classroom. You're probably not going to be able to get on Arne Duncan's calendar, but there are plenty of state officials you can sit down with. Just don't let your utterances be completely negative. You will be given as much credibility as a toddler throwing a tantrum. 
  • Get involved. Join a state level committee and participate in some of the process---especially something you hate. Don't think that if you belong to a union that it matters beyond the confines of your district. They might have clout there, but they are nowhere to be seen amongst the wolves when deals get done. You have to be the advocate and you can't effect big change without understanding all of the angles.  Classroom experience is the most important lens you can bring, but stop fooling yourself into thinking it's the only one that matters. (Do you really think anyone at my agency cares that I clocked 17 years of experience in the classroom?) You're far easier for wolves to ignore when you just stay in your little box. Don't make it easy for them. Get in their territory (and pee on a corner).
  • Pay attention to the right things. Some people will make an analogy between sausage-making and laws, but it's really more like a magic show. There's a lot of misdirection involved. The wolves will guide your attention in the direction they want you to look while the real action is happening elsewhere. I don't really know how to advise you to know where you should be watching, but a place to begin is to carefully look at staffing and hiring changes. In our state, there are probably 2 or 3 easy pressure points that would blow the wolfpack apart, and yet not a single blogger has sniffed them out. Look for the things no one is talking about...and talk about them. A lot. Do it with a big smile on your face so they can see your teeth.
  • You're going to have to learn to negotiate by making the wolves think they're getting what they want. This is not so simple. For example, when you gripe about state testing, you let the wolves win. Why? First of all, their hands are tied by the feds. The tests aren't going anywhere. You will win no arguments against testing based on what you think makes a good test. The posts by teachers I've seen show an incredibly poor understanding of statistics. This type of ignorance on display does not help your cause. And really, the tests themselves are not the real problem (see "misdirection" above). The real problem is how the results get used---and why. So if testing isn't going away, then you are going to have to leverage the other pieces. But most importantly, you have to be willing to make a trade. If the reason for testing/AYP/miscellaneous punitive NCLB items is ostensibly to increase accountability for helping every child learn---then you have to provide another plan. You can't just fuss about what you don't like with the current one (see "toddler tantrum" above). Getting the tests to go away and letting teachers pick whatever they want to teach isn't going to cut it. There were decades of that which is part of what triggered the current accountability environment. You want control back from the feds or from your state? Offer an alternative which meets the same goals. Tell them you understand what they want (you don't have to say you agree or like it) and why your plan will be better to achieve those goals. That's how you get them to fight for what you want.
I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying I enjoy these diplomatic forays. I'm just trying to tell you what you will have to do if you want something different. How much do you want that? Bad enough to step up, learn the system, and figure out how to repurpose the pieces? Do you crave it enough to put on some wolf's clothing instead of bleating from the field?