Saturday, June 30, 2012

Real School Choice

Instead of letting parents choose their students schools, we should be talking about finding ways to give students choices in what and how they learn.

That's school choice that will make a difference.

The former is politically motivated, the latter learning-motivated.

Our reforms won't matter until we start focusing on the people who matter:  individual students. Every student's needs are different.  Every student has different interests that need to be tapped into, talents that need to be developed, and passions that need to be ignited.

Lets start having that conversation, please.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Year of Contradictions

Today was the last day of the 2011-2012 school year.  Looking back, it was the most rewarding and enjoyable year I've had in my fifteen years of teaching.  As I look back and examine the reasons for having such an excellent year, I'm faced with a few contradictions.
  • I taught less this year, and yet my students learned more.  As time goes on, I continue to learn ways to make students responsible for their own learning.  I find myself standing in front of the room talking less and walking around giving encouragement, feedback, and guidance more.
  • I graded fewer assignments and yet my students got more feedback to guide their learning.  My focus continues to shift from giving grades to providing opportunities for students to get meaningful feedback on their work from myself, classmates, and others outside my classroom.
  • My students worked harder, produced more on-line content, researched more, and learned about a greater number of  topics than any other class I've ever had, and yet I've been told numerous times by many students and parents that this was the best school year that they've had.  Since they had more control over their learning, school didn't seem like work as much as a chance to pursue their interests.
  • This year it felt like I worked less hard than at any other time in the past, yet I probably spent more hours collaborating with my PLNs, reading educational blogs, discussing education with other teachers, and reflecting on my practices than ever before. 
I've written plenty about how our educational system needs to catch up to the realities of the 21st Century in which we live.  As that happens, it will continue to be a struggle to balance the demands of a broken system with what we know is best for our students.  I feel like this year I made good progress towards figuring out how to do that. 

Maybe after fifteen years I'm starting to figure out this teaching thing a little.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nope. I'm a Teacher.

Yesterday our fifth grade students made cold salads, deserts, and rolled cold cuts for a deli platter in preparation for today's Volunteer Appreciation Lunch.  As I was in the school kitchen showing a few of our fifth grade students how to safely use a knife to chop celery and other ingredients for a pasta salad, one of our maintenance guys walked past.  He asked me, "Is there anything your job doesn't include?"

I answered, "Nope.  I'm a Teacher."

Because if there's something one of my students wants to learn, I'm always going to be there to help them learn it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Legalized Theft of School Tax Money

While driving and listening to the radio this weekend I heard an advertisement for a local cyber charter school.  Knowing that charter schools, even those run by for-profit companies, are funded by taking school tax dollars away from public schools, this seriously alarmed me.  This advertisement was paid for by school tax dollars that should have gone towards educating students.  Instead, the money is being used to drum up business, thus raising more money.  It's a fundraising campaign paid for by taxpayers.

 The more corporations push for "school choice" instead of seriously looking at how to best fix education for all students, the more schools will have to fight for students in order to survive.  Apparently, this is what is meant making schools more like businesses. 

But, schools are not businesses.  And students are not widgets.  Our focus should be on learning, not on profit.  Public tax money should go towards student learning, and not towards advertising campaigns, for-profit management companies, or any other corporate agenda, especially when state budget cuts and restrictions on the power of publically elected school boards have left many districts in the state severely underfunded.

Vouchers and "school choice" are forms of legalized corporate piracy in which those looking to make a profit can do so by dipping into public tax dollars that should be going toward students.

It's time to put students before profit.  Our future depends on it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Math Inspiration from No-hitter Graphic

As a lifelong Mets fan, Johan Santana's no hitter on Friday night was awesome.

Finding this graphic in my Google Reader account from this morning was pretty cool, too.  
If you haven't seen Dan Meyer's 101 Questions Blog, it's worth checking out.  It's filled with examples of short videos, pictures, and other graphics produced by math teachers with the hope of sparking student questions which lead to great learning (Check out hashtags #101qs and #anyqs on Twitter).  For more information on this type of math pedagogy, check out Dan's dy/dan blog.  

This graphic immediately made me think of mathematical questions like "What's the probability that the Mets will get another no-hitter this season?" and "What is the percentage of games with a no-hitter the Mets have now in their history?"  I wonder if my students will have a similar reaction.  I guess I'll find out Monday when I show it to them.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Need for Passion

Anyone who has been lucky enough to hear Angela Maiers or Sir Ken Robinson speak, or has read some of their work can understand the need for passion driven education.  Students who believe they matter and that they are doing something meaningful will learn.  Lately, I've heard many others promote education where each student is able to pursue their interests and their passions.  It's a positive trend and a discussion that needs to expand.

What worries me, though, is that teachers are losing their passion.  I can't think of a teacher who didn't enter the profession because they wanted to make a positive difference for the youth of the next generation.  Because of the punitive way standardized tests are being used, the forced use of canned lesson plans, and a system that promotes standardization over student growth, many teachers feel that they are unable to make the kind of difference for their students that they envisioned when they chose their profession.  When you add the anti-teacher rhetoric coming from politicians and business leaders, teacher evaluation systems that put importance on factors outside of a teacher's control, salary cuts, and a growing disrespect for teaching as a profession, it has become very difficult for teachers to maintain or grow their passion.  I've heard many teachers talk about how they would discourage their own children from pursuing a job as a teacher.  As someone who can't think of a job that could possibly give me a better feeling of "I'm doing good", that makes me sad.

It is important for each of us to help foster that passion in our colleagues.  It is imperative that we help each other focus on the positive differences we are making for our students, and not the ways others outside of our schools are finding new ways to put roadblocks in front of our students.  Students with passionate teachers learn more.  Schools with passionate teachers are better learning environments. 

If you see a colleague doing something positive with their students, let them know about it.  Better yet, tell them how it inspired you to do something similar with your students.  Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and we don't get positive feedback often enough. 

Share the great things you do with your students.  Talk to colleagues in the faculty room.  Blog.  Develop a PLN and share with them.  Send pictures and descriptions to the local newspaper.  Let your example inspire others. 

Collaborate, collaborate, and then collaborate some more.  Share your ideas with other teachers, even if they aren't complete.  Discuss ideas for lessons, projects, and formative assessments. Get excited together about really cool things you are going to do with your students.

There was a time a few years ago that my passion was starting to wane.  I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I was even leading professional development sessions on how to raise reading test scores by focusing on test-questions as a new genre.  It sickens me to think about it.  Test scores went up, but I didn't enjoy my job and I'm pretty sure my students weren't enjoying my class as much as they do now.  I was doing a great job of developing kids who could pass tests, but couldn't think, and I was getting little enjoyment out of my job because I knew that what I was doing really didn't matter.  I knew those test scores were meaningless for my students compared to the things I was ignoring, but I was trying to be a "good teacher" according to the rules set forth by those whose concern for my students lags far, far behind their desire to raise campaign funds for reelection. 

I am so thankful that I was introduced to Plurk (and later Twitter and Facebook) where I have grown networks of educators who inspire me daily.  Because of all of you and the interactions we have, I love being a teacher as much as ever, my students are loving school more than ever, and more learning is taking place in my classroom than ever before.  Developing my PLNs has allowed me to rediscover the passion I had for student learning, and helped me realize that the best way to be a "good teacher" is to follow one simple rule:  Do what's best for your students.

*** Special thanks to Maureen Devlin, whose question and follow up conversation on Twitter inspired this post.  Just another example of a way that building one's PLN can give inspiration!