Thursday, November 24, 2011

Friday's Five - What I'm Thankful For

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

Flickr/Lynn Friedman
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  In addition to spending the day with family, watching football, and my uncle's spicy sausage stuffing, I enjoy taking time to reflect on those people and circumstances that have helped me.  There are many things that I am thankful in my personal life, but I'm going to focus here on people I am thankful for in my professional life as a teacher.

  1. My former teachers - If the teachers that I had while I was growing up didn't foster a love of learning, I wouldn't be able to do the same for my students nearly as well.  Often people will talk about that one teacher who had a great impact on them.  I'm blessed to have had several "that one teachers."
  2. My professional learning network (PLN) - I cannot say enough how important my PLN has become to me, or how appreciative I am that I have a group of people who are willing to share ideas, give me feedback on my own professional practices, support me in times of need, and discuss best teaching practices.  
  3. My colleagues - The people I work with are fantastic.  Their commitment to the students and community in general inspires me on a daily basis.  Working in an collaborative environment with people who I respect is a blessing.
  4. My wife - I can't say enough about how appreciative I am that my wife is as understanding and supportive as she is (partially because she reads my posts).  In all seriousness, both of us being teachers helps each understand the others frustrations and successes at work in a way that is difficult for others outside the profession.  I wouldn't be nearly the teacher I am now without my wife.
  5. My children - I am thankful for my children in many ways, but professionally they have also had a large impact on me.  I now see my students differently than I did before I had children.  I'm more empathetic because I can imagine my own children in similar situations.  I also feel a sense of urgency to teach 21st century skills because I realize that my students will shape the world in which my children will live.  On a more personal level, I am inspired by the amazing curiosity and love of learning that I see in both of my children.  Seeing that makes me strive to inspire the same qualities in my students.
Now it's your turn.  What are you thankful for?  Who are the people that support and inspire you to be the person you are?  Please share with us by leaving a comment below and share the post with others on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear their points of view as well.  Finally, I hope that my American readers had a happy Thanksgiving, and that all of you, regardless of where you live, experience the joy of appreciating others in your lives at this beginning of the holiday season.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Supercommittee: 21st Century Ineptitude Exemplified

Yesterday, the "Supercomittee" in the United States Congress, charged with decreasing the country's deficit and debt made this announcement:
After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.
At a time when those in education and business are striving to promote the 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, effective communication, and innovation, has there ever been a group lacking in those skills more than the politicians we have elected to run our country?  They can't communicate or collaborate with each other.  They haven't been innovative or come up with any new ideas in the past decade.  It's painfully obvious that critical thinking and the ability to problem solve are non-existent.

J. Scott Applewhite - AP
Is it any wonder that the education laws and policies set forth by these people drive the 21st century skills out of our students?   Should we be shocked that our schools are forced to teach to a test that destroys critical thinking and innovation?  Are we really surprised that the preparation schools must do for that test makes teaching collaboration and effective communication of little importance?

What I'm baffled by is the fact that citizens of this country continue to allow those who are clearly unable to handle the complexities of the 21st century to continue to dictate how our children should be educated.  It's bad enough that they've made a mess of things for themselves.  They need to stop trying to mess it up for my children and students as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday's Five - Success Stories

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

The moment that one realizes that which they are passionate about is a special moment.  In an instant motivation and possibility are awakened, usually leading to amazing results.  If you've been lucky enough to hear Kevin Honeycutt speak, you'll recognize this as what he refers to as seeing someone "launch."

I've been lucky enough to see people around me have such moments this year: my students, other students in my building, and colleagues.  It's these successes that make teaching one of the most rewarding professions.  Here are some of the awesome successes that I've seen and heard about in my district so far this year:
  1. A couple of weeks ago a teacher in the faculty room during lunch was frustrated because her students were not taking any pride in the reports they were writing.  They were totally unmotivated.  The conversation turned to Project Based Learning (PBL), and she made the decision to try something a bit out of her comfort zone. Instead of having students write reports on marine animals, she would have act as marine biologists to design an aquarium exhibit.  Students would have to learn about the animals to be able to determine which could share tanks, and how best to teach the public about them.  Today, as I walked down a stairwell, I heard a student go up to that teacher bubbling with excitement as he explained to that teacher the research he had learned about an octopus.  Another student (who is also in that teacher's class) earlier in the day asked me if she could skip her recess to research some marine animals.  I don't think that teacher has to worry about lack of engagement or interest any more. 
  2. For the past few years our 5th graders have collected food for the local food pantry during November and December.  This year we wanted them to understand the importance of what they were doing in addition to simply collecting the cans.  Each of the three 5th grade classrooms was responsible for running an advertising campaign that included posters, a bulletin board, and a video commercial convincing other students that they should bring in food.  It was fantastic to see students authentically engaged in debate over how best to help others.  Below is the commercial that my students created without any help from adults.
  3. I remember a few years ago I had a conversation with a teacher in the faculty room about math.  She was complaining that her students were asking her why multiplying two negative numbers resulted in a positive answer.  She just wanted the students to memorize the rule so that they could get the right answer.  That same teacher has started using Number Talks, a program from Math Solutions, with her students this year.  This afternoon she was excitedly telling me how her students are understanding addition, subtraction, and multiplication, making connections, and learning so much more than just the rules she used to teach them.  She also mentioned how much she's enjoying learning some of those connections along with them.  Launch!
  4. One of our special education teachers recently introduced her students to some new web 2.0 tools, including GoAnimate.  All of her students loved playing with the new tools, but one of them absolutely launched.  He's now more engaged in class and is constantly asking to share what he's learned by using the tools.  As an added bonus, the teacher told me that for the first time all year he is checking his spelling with a dictionary or the computer because he wants the pronunciation on GoAnimate and the other tools to be correct when he embeds them on the class wikispace they are building.
  5. I recently shared the benefits of student blogging in a class I'm teaching on 21st century skills to other teachers.  At the same time I got my 3rd grade daughter set up with a blog to share some of the things she is learning both in and out of school.  Several teachers shared my daughter's first blog post with their students, allowed them to comment, and told them that they would have the opportunity to share their learning on a blog, too.  Those teachers have overwhelmingly reported increased interest from those students in writing, and learning in general.  Those students want to learn so that they have something to share.  Writing is no longer an assignment to be handed to the teacher, but rather a mode of communicating with the world.  
Now it's your turn.  Take a moment and share something inspiring that you have seen this year.  Have you seen a student "launch?"  What amazing things are you and your colleagues doing?  Share with us in the comment section below, and share the post on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Plurk so that we can hear from others as well.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's About the Actions, Not the Outcomes

I'm going to be a bit philosophical in this post.  Lately I've been feeling a lot of stress because I'm not happy with the direction we are headed as an educational system or as a country.  I've wanted desperately to change things in some way for the better.

I now realize that my ego got the best of me.  I no more have the power to change those things than I do to alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport people.  The only things I can control are my actions.  The outcomes are controlled by a power much greater than me.  If they are meant to happen, then they will.  If they aren't, there's not much I can do about it.

So, I'm going to focus on changing myself for the better.  I'm going to focus on giving my students the best education that I can.  I'm going to focus on teaching 21st century skills.  I'm going to focus on giving back to my community where I can.  I'll share what I'm doing with people if they ask.  Hopefully, that will make a difference in some way. 

Best of all, I'm going to let go of the stress that comes with feeling like it's my responsibility to change things.  It's not.  It never was.  That was just a product of my ego.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday's Five - Catalysts for Innovation

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page
Flickr: Ewa Rozcosz
In order for our students to become more innovative, it is important that their teachers become more innovative.  We need to model 21st century skills for our students to learn them.  In today's educational climate, teachers face great resistance to this type of change and are encouraged to standardize their practices.  Often they are told to teach canned lessons from a textbook.  Here are five changes that would act as catalysts for innovation.

  1. Switch the focus from standardized testing to formative assessment. - Standardized tests are taken once or twice per year and give a broad range of data on student achievement that is returned to teachers months after the student takes the test.  Formative assessment yields specific data on student understanding that is delivered to teachers and students within lessons allowing changes in instruction to happen instantly.  Teachers can then use that data to instantly determine the best way to change teaching in order to reach students that are falling behind.  Formative assessment allows teachers opportunities to do what is best for students in creative ways.  It also is proven to be highly effective in increasing student learning.  Standardized testing leads to standardization, the opposite of innovation.
  2. Showcase innovation. - Instead of faculty meetings and in-service days being spent on fire drill procedures, special education law, or months-old assessment data, administrators should identify the most innovative teachers and ask them to share what they are doing with their colleagues.   
  3. Replace textbooks with on-line versions created by teachers and students. - I came across an article yesterday about Minnesota teachers who created their own textbook.  In doing so, they saved their district $175,000.  Creating a textbook in itself is incredibly innovative.  Because the textbook is on-line and easily editable, innovative pedagogy, alternative methods, and new ideas can easily be added as teachers and students discover them.
  4. Limit filtering - Schools should embrace social networking and the exchange of ideas.  Creativity inspires creativity.  The more amazing ideas one is exposed to, the more likely they are to come up with amazing ideas on their own.  The internet is not something to be feared, but rather something to be harnessed. 
  5. Encourage risk taking by allowing teachers more autonomy. - Fear of failure never led to greatness.  We have a culture in education right now that places great emphasis on not being wrong.  There is no emphasis on learning from mistakes or trying new things.  Obviously, innovating is difficult in such a climate.  Give teachers the freedom to try new things and to learn. 
Now it's your turn.  What changes do you think could be made to current educational practices that would encourage more creativity and innovation?  What have you seen work in your school?  What do you see holding teachers back from taking risks and being creative?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, and pass the post on to others via Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and Plurk so that we can hear their ideas.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Open Letter to Legislators

The following is a letter that I recently sent to a state legislator.  I believe the sentiments are applicable to many locations and not just Pennsylvania, so I am publishing it as an open letter here.  Individual names have been eliminated from this version.

Dear Legislator,

Thank you for your e-mail keeping me updated on the status of the current legislation and your views.  I appreciate that you are looking at the legislation from many different points of view and that you have seen some of the ways vouchers will hurt the students in our district.

I would like to share the point of view of a classroom teacher with you, however.  I enjoy debating politics as much as anyone else, but I assure you the following sentiments are based on what I have come to understand as a teacher who is committed to inspiring my students to develop the attributes they will need to succeed in life.  These comments are not motivated by a desire to protect teaching jobs, or any other union agenda.  They are simply what I believe is best for students.

Any legislation using standardized test data in a punitive way will have a negative effect on students.  This includes legislation that allows students to use vouchers to transfer from "failing schools."  Even though there are no such schools in our district does not mean that students here will be immune from the detriments of such a law.  Administrators, teachers, and students will still face pressure to "pass" tests that do not focus on 21st century skills our students need.  Those skills will continue to be ignored, and our students will continue to graduate unprepared for the world into which we are sending them.

In the past decade we've seen a great change in the world.  As the internet has evolved, computers have become ubiquitous, and portable devices have become more prevalent, information has become easy to obtain instantaneously.  Preparing students for this world in the same way we prepared them before it is negligent and harmful.

I have also seen a change in my students.  They are increasingly unable to think critically.  They are less creative.  They are less comfortable working with others to complete tasks.  I believe the majority of teachers would agree with these observations.

For those of us working directly with students, it's easy to see the correlation between the above statements and the increased focus on standardized test scores.  I am not writing this because I am forced to teach to the test.  I am not.  I choose not to.  I choose to teach my students to learn 21st century skills like collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, and digital communication.  Most teachers are not as fortunate as I am.  They either lack the support of administration or lack the confidence to take a leap of faith.  In either case, good teaching is prevented by fear of a test that provides data which cannot be used to guide the teaching of students until months after the test is taken.

I am a huge proponent of data-driven assessment.  The assessments and data must be much more immediate than that which we get from standardized tests to have any impact on student learning.  Data must be collected within lessons and days.  There is much research to support this.

Just because data is easy to collect and organize does not make it the best data to use.  Standardized tests were put in to place to benefit many people.  Students were not among them.  Anyone who believes otherwise has either not spent enough time working with students or has a political agenda.  It is time we focused on what's best for students in education.  Any reform that doesn't is destined for failure.

Thank you for your attention and for your consideration of the above ideas.

Best Regards,
Michael A. Soskil
5th Grade Teacher

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why We Struggle to Change

Photo - snbeach:
Education has struggled to join the 21st Century.  While businesses are utilizing new technology, videoconferencing, and innovative practices to boost their profits, few educators are comfortable doing the same things.  Part of the problem is the culture of standardized testing we are immersed in.  I've written enough about that. 

Another problem is that few teachers are innovative by nature.  Most teachers chose this profession because they care about kids and because they liked school.  In general, teachers were the kids in class who did what the teacher told them to do and then beamed when they received praise for doing it.  We weren't challenging the system.  We weren't innovating.  Those things were frowned upon in school.  We were trained to learn facts in quiet, neat rows and then spit them back when asked.

Now we are the ones in front of the classrooms and we want our kids to be compliant in the same way.  Some are, but most know that the world has changed.  They realized way before we did that compliance and facts are obsolete. The 21st century belongs to those who can innovate.  It belongs to those who can think of solutions that others cannot.  Companies don't need book smart employees; nuggets of information can be obtained instantly on one's phone now.

So, we struggle to change education in a way that focuses on 21st century skills that many teachers don't possess and find threatening.  It's impossible to teach what you don't understand. 

Our teachers aren't at fault.  They played the game very well, but the rules were changed.  Now it's time to adjust to those changes, and for those in power to pave the way for this adjustment by providing professional development and policies that allow teachers to take risks.

We need to start recruiting innovators into the profession.  That will take time and resources.  We need our educators in the profession right now to embrace change instead of fighting against it.  We need them to both realize the new reality and take the difficult steps of changing their entire way of thinking about school. 

It won't be easy.  We are 12 years into the 21st Century.  How long are we going to make our students wait to begin building the skill set they will need in their futures so that we can feel comfortable?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Standardization is the Death of Excellence

The push in education for the past decade has been to standardize.  We have standardized tests for students.  Teachers are being asked to standardize their lessons, grading practices, and the pace that they teach.  States have made a push to standardize curricula by listing state standards in each subject.  Now the Common Core will standardize curricula in the entire country.

It's time to stop standardizing.  Standardization is the death of excellence.
Photo Credit: Jei-Are

Nobody goes to a car show to see standard models that rolled off a factory assembly line.

In a science lab, standardizing the experiments that all scientists are doing would be foolish and would prevent new discoveries.

You don't want all players on your favorite sports team to play at a standard level.

Nobody ever won an award for being the most standard in their field.

Standardization is not compatible with the world for which we are supposed to be preparing our students.  Innovation isn't standardized.  Critical thinking isn't standardized.  Students who are forced to focus solely on standardized testing in their school careers are prevented from excelling.  Teachers who are forced to standardize their teaching are prevented from being excellent teachers. 

In either case, innovation is impossible.

It's time to move in another direction.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday's Five - What to Do With Your Textbooks (Now That They're Obsolete)

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

Let me just get this out of the way upfront.  I despise textbooks.

I also have a big problem with anyone involved in education who cares more about political agendas and profit than what's best for my students.  For that reason I despise textbook companies.
Photo Credit: Michael Essany

That may sound harsh, but I'm not using hyperbole. Tamim Ansary, a former textbook editor, does a great job of summarizing the problem with our textbooks in his article A Textbook Example of What's Wrong With Education.  James Loewen, a former textbook author, describes many of the same problems in more depth in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Both are worth reading.

The good news, though, is that textbooks are becoming obsolete by the minute.  The ubiquity of computers, iPads, smartphones, and other portable devices makes accessing information instantaneous and easy.  I've yet to come across any information in the 5th grade textbooks that are provided to my students that couldn't be found on-line for free.  As an added advantage, differing viewpoints and opinions are offered on that information allowing my students the opportunity to analyze and evaluate that information.  You'd be hard pressed to find a textbook that made kids use those higher-order thinking skills.  At a time when school districts are facing debilitating budget cuts, textbooks are decreasingly being viewed as necessities.

When I've had discussions with others before and suggested that we should get rid of textbooks, I often get asked, "How will teachers know what to teach, then?"  My usual response is that they should try teaching their students.  Teachers need to stop using textbooks as a crutch that allows them to simply deliver instruction instead of teaching.

So, in the age of free and easily obtainable information, iPads, and Google, I asked my PLN on Plurk, Twitter, and the Teacher's Life for Me Facebook Page to suggest ideas for using the textbooks in your room now that they are obsolete.  I'm appreciative to everyone who chimed in with great ideas, both practical and satirical.  Here are five ideas for your textbooks:

1.  This idea came from @emprimrose on Plurk.  She suggested turning the textbooks into storage boxes for students.  In addition to being incredibly practical, it looks like a fun activity.

2.  In my classroom, I use textbooks to support our technology use.  Literally.  My classroom projector is propped up on old textbooks so that the image fits nicely on our classroom whiteboard.  One leg of the table in the front of my room is shorter than the others.  I've got an old book leveling that out as well.

3.  @SStephensC200 on Plurk suggested packaging up the books and shipping them to classrooms in countries that are less affluent like the Philippines and those in Africa.  She mentions that shipping costs are one drawback.  I can see a great opportunity for a service learning project here.  How great would it be for our students to help others in another country by raising the funds to send them books?

4.  Textbooks (and outdated encyclopedias) stack very nicely.  Allow your students to get creative by using books to build something.  @cmay inspired this idea by sharing the picture on the right.

5.  Lately, everyone from the CDC to Chinese police forces seem worried about the impending Zombie Apocalypse.  @nkrahn suggests saving the textbooks for just such an occasion, claiming that nothing kills a brain better than a college textbook - both when read and when used as a projectile.

Now it's your turn.  What do you think we can do with our obsolete textbooks?  Share your best ideas in the comment section below and pass the post along to friends and colleagues via Twitter, Plurk, Google+ and Facebook so that we can hear their ideas as well.  If you'd like to suggest and vote for future Friday's Five topics, or join in the discussion on ways to improve education, please stop by A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook and click on the "like" button.