Order Among Some Chaos

For a while now, I’ve been gathering a list of sites in Diigo that I’ve named “PD Topics” and I haven’t had time to cull through them.  What I am thinking right now is that with the impending close of the year and the expanse of the better part of the school year ahead of me, why not begin thinking about how to pull these together in a few different sessions for my teachers and for others.



What I’d really like to do is to bring in experts like yourselves who have used some of these sites (or created them) to speak to my teachers for a few moments via skype.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


It’s Comforting to Know These are not New Problems.

In his recent article at Slate, Vaughan Bell begins his article about the historical fear of media change with this outstanding lede:

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

I remember sitting with my fellow freshman during our high school’s student council election speeches.  A senior-to-be named, and he clearly annunciated this as he took the podium, Jake John Robert Hast, began his speech with a diatribe against the youth of the day being lazy, incompetent, and not nearly as capable or driven as the generations that preceded them.  He continued in his staccato tone for a good three minutes reading from his endlessly flickering notecards until he reached a dramatic pause.

He looked up from his note cards and informed us that this was just not true.

It wasn’t even written in our parents lifetimes, or their parent’s parents lifetimes.  He was reading from Hesiod, who wrote in the 8th Century A.D.

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

According to Bell, it’s at the age of 35 when we begin to look scurrilously upon that which burst upon the scene in the form of new media, and this being my 35th year, I am paying close attention to how I feel about my social networks.  I’ll admit, there are some I could do without, but that is no reason for me to begrudge those who gain from those interactions.

I was part of a conversation today in which the group I was in was asked what we thought were essential skills for students to leave their K-12 schooling with.  The things we came up with were completely soft skills associated with living well, not hard skills that we are used to seeing in our curriculum.  We spoke of things like discernment, empathy, and ethical behaviors.  Reading through Bell’s piece, it’s easy to see how older generations get their hackles up about skills like this, especially when the means that the younger generations use to express themselves is one that is foreign or extrinsic to them.  If we can’t see how they are attaining these values, we worry.

Image Credit: “steckschrift” from wilhei55’s photostream

Our Actions Say Otherwise

The study of world languages has been popping up quite often in the webosphere lately, and some of my colleagues have been extremely helpful in sending articles my way for review. The first article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, asked the question “Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?” Five notable authors take a crack at the question:

Some highlights:

from Susan Jacoby:

The situation is, needless to say, worse today as the recession has squeezed education at every level. But the utilitarian problem — we don’t have enough diplomats, spies and business people who know other languages — is rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American concept of what it means to be an educated person.

from Ingrid Pufahl

In contrast, many U.S. elementary and middle school language programs only offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency. The only programs here that achieve high proficiency levels are immersion programs, where at least 50 percent of the school day is taught in a second language

from Bruce Fuller:

We must learn the language and engage them at a human scale as first steps in appreciating the strengths of East Asian cultures. These virtues already lift America’s best universities. Over half of Berkeley’s undergraduates are now of East Asian descent.

My initial response to the title was skeptical after having sat through some of our Mandarin classes and been in awe of what these students were doing, but in light of the fact that my view of language is much similar to most of my generations’ which is that of learning language through grammatical structure and conjugation, I think we have a fair shot at being successful in the near future. Dan Fost’s recent post in Edutopia regarding the benefits to the teaching of world language, quotes Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society describing the language learning experiences of past generations and how they affect our attitudes towards it now:

In fact, some of the greatest obstacles to world-language education are parents who recall their own miserable experiences. Many Americans were introduced to foreign languages in middle school or high school classes that emphasized conjugation of verbs and other dull grammatical tasks rather than relevant communication skills. “Language teaching in the U.S. has been ineffective,” Stewart says. “We start it at the wrong age. Teacher skills are not great. There’s a focus on grammar and translation.” The result: “Adults who took three years of French don’t speak a word,” she states.

That’s it. That perfectly describes the ways in which I was taught languages. Here in New Jersey, our World Language standards were entirely streamlined last year from three strands into one. The name of that strand–no it’s not conjugation–is Communication. So when I think back to my days in a Latin class or a Spanish class, I think of all of the grammar I learned, the cases and the tenses, and wonder why I can no longer recall any conversational bits, but only how to conjugate jugar in the present tense (yo juego, tú juegas, él juega, nosotros jugamos, vosotros jugáis, ellos juegan–so there). Our focus, in any language, should first and foremost be communication. To do that, as Fost points out, there are many ways to connect your students to native speakers that don’t involve a large parental bankroll and a passport. Let’s immerse our kids in the richness of another culture, because I feel that if we don’t do this for them, they won’t do it for themselves. Just ask ol’ Teddy Roosevelt about American attitudes towards other languages:

“We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”

Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Children

Larry Cuban, or rather his guest writer Dr. Joel Merenstein, has a rather interesting take on how to best help people learn new material. 

Very simply, he says, focus on two things: getting them actively engaged in material that matters to them, and ask that they teach that material to some audience.  The question he poses though, is does that hold true for younger students? 

What do you think?  Is that what your classroom looks like?

Selling Their Wares

Last Sunday featured an interesting article in the New York Times by Winnie Hu, “Selling Lessons Online Raises Cash and Questions,” in which she unveiled, at least to me, that the sale of finished lessons by teachers is a booming business.  I knew it was possible to purchase lesson plans online, but I had no idea that is was actually a profitable endeavor.  Some of the teachers profiled are making a killing.

As the title suggests, there are a lot of issues that this brings up for society as a whole.  There are the usual:

“To the extent that school district resources are used, then I think it’s fair to ask whether the district should share in the proceeds,” said Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

regarding the intellectual property of teachers in which they use the resources that taxpayers provide them with to turn a personal profit.  And there are the professional, brought up by Joseph McDonald, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University:

“Teachers swapping ideas with one another, that’s a great thing,” he said. “But somebody asking 75 cents for a word puzzle reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession.”

This one hits at home a little for me, which after my initial shock at the dollar amounts that could be made subsided, was the next gut reaction.  Does the fact that we are no longer just sharing through our networks cloud the nature of collaboration?  Or does the minimal dollar amount automatically take that off the table?  Some may not see the harm in paying an iTunes-equivalent fee for a great stock lesson on Beowulf, but the cumulative effect could be much greater.

Where I am with this as I right this in a wholly new direction, however.  Could this be the beginning of freelance teaching?  a return to the time when a teacher found a good spot in the center of town and hung up a sign that said “Great knowledge here.  Be enlightened for small fee?”  This sounds odd, yes, but think of how easy it is to set up an online portal that tracks student progress, provides immediate feedback, exposes their work to a global audience, and allows for real-time collaboration and communication.  It’s something we all might be able to create with a web server, a good friend who can code and will work for food and beer, and a little marketing savvy.  Is this the future of learning as we know it?

We are still in the infancy of online learning and virtual schools, but as we see more teachers and schools embrace it, the shift may be for teachers to gather together and form their own schools this way, because, let’s face it, it’s not rocket science to set up these portals.  Also, how many teachers that you know truly believe there is a better way to do things than is being done in the schools they work in?  This might just be the way to create the schools they want to create, or at least one in which they have the locus of control.

Seth Godin has been quoted as saying the following:

If you think the fallout from the newspaper industry was dramatic, wait until you see what happens in education.

Could this be what he was talking about?

Late edit to this post:  Larry Cuban has an excellent view on the call for technology to change schools that fits nicely with this post here.

Do Something That’s Worth It.

From Jim Moulton over at The Future of Education:

I think Cisco is on target with their ad campaign that celebrates the human network. I was reminded of just how important the people side of things is when I had the opportunity to sit next to  Walt Ratterman on a recent flight from Atlanta to Portland, OR. He is the power behind SunEnergy Power International, described this way on its web site: “SEPI [as a 501(c)(3)]develops and implements humanitarian renewable energy projects in remote, rural parts of the world. It is the mission of SunEnergy Power International to promote an increased quality of life in remote, rural regions of the world through the use of renewable energy.”

He was on his way home from Senegal where he had been working with local folks to install solar power generating equipment for schools across that nation. Beyond the details, I met a man who has great technical skills and knowledge.  In and of itself, the technical conversation around solar was interesting. But it was what he was doing with his knowledge and skills to help real people do real things that made his story so powerfully fascinating.

So – how are learners using their knowledge and skills where you and yours live and learn?  I sure hope it is for more than getting good scores on tests and passing from grade to grade. They need to do more, and the world needs them to do more.

The emphasis is mine.  I really like Jim’s thinking, and it dovetails nicely with the thinking that I have been doing lately on the types of things we should be learning and teaching with our students.  It’s key here, too, that Jim mentions the brilliance of this man within his solitary discipline, but then expands upon it by showing that it’s simply not enough to just be good at that.

The question he asks is perhaps the most important idea driving me right now.

An Admission

I feel more connected to family and friends because of social technologies.

There, I said it.  It felt a little dirty, I’ll admit.  That statement, in some circles and according to some pundits is completely off-base.  Social networks, while revolutionizing both mainstream media and our own personal connection to media, are shouldering the blame for a lack of interpersonal skills exhibited by students in our schools.  The video game industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief now that Facebook has become the main target of these barbs.

Granted, I am not basing this on any scientific research, just conversations among teachers over the course of the last few weeks; however, the verdict among the teachers I speak with is clear: social networks are changing the ethics and definition of the word “friend.”  What we share within our online networks, be them Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, MySpace (does anyone still use this?), or in any other of the numerous networks, is much more than we have ever been able to share in our face-to-face networks.  Is that bad?  Is hyper-social a negative?  Is it that the opportunities for us to share have never been so numerous or easy, and we would have done this generations ago if our parents had simply let us talk on the phone all the time instead of the 10-minute chunk of time we had per evening?

But that’s not the real issue that I’ve been hearing about.  It’s the questions of what they are sharing and should they be sharing it at all.  Call it what you will: digital citizenship, new literacy, digital ethics, digital footprint, the fact of the matter remains that students ages 5-22 are doling out personal information to people they consider “friends” whose very inclusion into said category would not match the traditional standards of that term by their parents’ standards.  So we need to get a working definition here.  What is a friend?  How do your students, colleagues, or close personal contacts define the term?  Google says it’s these:

  • a person you know well and regard with affection and trust; “he was my best friend at the university”
  • ally: an associate who provides cooperation or assistance; “he’s a good ally in fight”
  • acquaintance: a person with whom you are acquainted; “I have trouble remembering the names of all my acquaintances”; “we are friends of the family”
  • supporter: a person who backs a politician or a team etc.; “all their supporters came out for the game”; “they are friends of the library”

Taking these, the third one looks to bear the most resemblance to what most students are using as their defining criteria.  Are our student tossing around the moniker of friend when they really mean something more akin to acquaintance?  The difference, while subtle, is huge in the connotation of the word.  Friend is deep, acquaintance is shallow.

Personally, since I have been a participant in the networks I have created, I’ve noticed deeper connection to those individuals in my life whom I would call friend in any context, and I’ve been able to acquaint myself with many individuals with like interest in the areas I have rooted interest in.  In the chances where I have had to meet individuals from the networks I am a part of and share a conversation, it’s added a dimension, or should I say removed a barrier, to that relationship.  We’ve had a chance to converse in some form before actually meeting, or even speaking in most cases.

We lament the ease with which our students share information about themselves and to whom they bestow the title of friend.  But to what extent are they doing much the same things that we are, only in a manner that speaks to their rooted interests?  Understandably, we need to make sure they are being safe and they understand the rules of the “game” but has this become a question of mere semantics for them?  Is a friend a friend, or is it not?

It’s OK. You Can Let Go.

Last year, I used a book on assessment from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in a study group with teachers.  When I saw their name attached to this morning’s panel discussion on Literacy in the 21st Century, I was intrigued.  My thinking was that they would have some great foundational elements to add to the what I’ve been thinking lately.

What happened was much more than what I thought.  Amy Sandvold, a colleague of Angela Maiers, was also on the panel as well.  Here is what I pulled out.

Fisher, Frey and Sandvold advocated a Gradual Release of Responsibility in the relationship between teachers and students.

grrA few years back, when I really began this journey, I saw Alan November present about the need for teachers to outsource what they do to the students to prevent them from being the only voice in the classroom.  What they advocated and described here is exactly that.  Focused instruction, according to Fisher, is pointed modeling of expert thinking and behavior. It’s in this mode of instruction where we help students build the requisite background knowledge and vocabulary they need for success in higher level tasks.  This argument, which is raging throughout the educational world right now, about content v. skills, then becomes moot.  Is there direct instruction in this model?  Absolutely, but it is followed by gradually removing the emphasis on what you as a teacher do in front of your students.  Once you model and instruct, move into more collaborative and shared modes of teaching and learning, until the end result is full on student responsibility.

And this from Frey:

Students and teachers must know stuff in order to do stuff.
Teachers now stuff.
Students know stuff too
Teachers and students learn from one another by interacting and collaborating.

I truly believe that learning takes place in many forms and through many processes.  One that I will recommend to anyone is that of conversation and communal learning among students and teachers.  Even today, sitting there discussing our greatest learning experience we ever had (my partner had a great one where she remembers finally being able to move from snow-plow skiing to parallel skiing), I didn’t realize my own until we began talking to others in the room and listening to the stories of people learning.  Collaboration is a powerful tool for learning.

There is so much more to come out of this session, but I am finding that it’s hard to process, especially in light of what occurred directly after this session.  That’s coming too.

I Have Become That Student.

I have not been a student in the traditional sense for some time.  I have not sat in a classroom, at a desk, and listened to a teacher or speaker discuss and run a class centered around a central topic.  Everything I have done over the last few years has been focused on my own learning and those elements that I deemed necessary for me to focus on: technology, school change, leadership, curriculum, educational theory, methodology, state mandates, assessment, differentiation, learning styles, visual literacy, Web 2.0, or any other of the most current buzzwords the field of education.  In the last seven years, that time that has passed since I have last entered a graduate school classroom where my primary role was that of “student,” a lot has changed in me.  Never was this as evident as a lecture series I sat in on Monday and Wednesday of this week.

Dr. Eric Davis, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, came to our district to engage any of us interested in a conversation about how to teach our students to better understand terrorism, its root causes, and a means to combat it in an enlightened way.

I was an anthropology major in college, and took enough history to obtain a dual degree (have to check on the status of that one).  It’s my bag, and I am lucky to work with a department that is rife with history junkies.  So when one of our teachers arranged for Dr. Davis to speak with us about his work in the Middle East, we were all excited to work up some intellectual sweat.

Dr. Davis ran his class like many of our classrooms are run: he used a slidedeck laced with his overarching objectives, followed by rationale, example, and explanation.  He also, at any moment, took questions or requests for further clarification from us.  No different than many of the history lectures I attended in either high school or college.

What was different was me.  In those previous situations, the only source for information I had was Dr. Davis, his syllabus, and the recommended books on that syllabus that I was to have read for that day’s class.  In Monday and Wednesday’s class, I had all of you, I had video, I had Flickr images, I had Amazon’s recommendations.

As Dr. Davis spoke about Fareed Zakaria’s work on how to win the war on terror, I popped out and linked my notes to his book on Amazon.  The same with obscure texts like those by Olivier Roy.  As he talked about and showed us startling images from the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the treasures that were lost, I realized I wanted those images too, so I pulled them into my notes from Flickr.  He discussed the use of Iraqi student blogs with his undergraduates; I conducted a quick scan of my twitter network and of Davis’ own resources and and found several examples.

We all asked questions and contributed to the discussion.  I chronicled it in a way that I never would have.  My notes look vastly different and more robust than anything I could have done ten, even five years ago.  His lecture, his class, took on a whole new life in my notes.  I dropped in questions to myself that I’ll look back on and that will help me go in new directions later on.
The best part, for me at least, is that I shared them with everyone in the seminar via Google Docs, and I asked them to drop in their notes and thoughts as well, or to just use mine to springboard even further.

I am now that student–that student that wants more than just what is front of me, and knows how to get it.  We had all types of students in this seminar: those that listened, those that talked, those that hand-wrote notes, and me.  The best part about it is that it doesn’t matter at all if no one shares their notes with me in the collaborative document.  Their interactions in engaging Dr. Davis became part of my thinking and my documentation.  They contributed to my learning, and the least I can do is give back to them this document.

It Never Was an Either/Or

This week I have spent a good portion of my time working with teachers in grades PK-2 talking about creativity and innovation.  Due to the changes that New Jersey is proposing in the new draft standards, which came about through their membership in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (among other factors as well), the elements that are stressed in the P21 manifesto have populated themselves into the new standards.  Themes such as:

  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Health literacy

and skills like:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration

are all now written into our standards from PK-12.

If you come from middle or high school teaching into an administration position in which you work with grades PK-5, you will understand how stressful it is to work with elementary teachers.  They are wonderful people; I should know, I am married to one.  But when you look at all they have to do in a day and the limited time they have to do it in, having them sit in an afterschool meeting to work with curriculum is daunting.  To introduce these ideas to our elementary teachers, we used our good friend Sir Ken Robinson.  We took a page from the P21 Framework that centered on creativity and innovation and had the teachers use it as a backbone for writing down ideas that struck them while watching Sir Ken’s TED talk from 2006.  From there, we had them answer two prompts in groups of 4-5:

  • Identify the structures in place in your classroom that promote creativity and innovation either in your students or yourself.
  • So what?  What Now?

The responses were phenomenal, especially in relation to the areas where Sir Ken spoke about finding creative capacities and working with them instead of educating them out of them.  However, one thing I have learned in administration in regards to any kind of meeting is that you have to be ready for the “don’t waste my time question of the day,” which is the part where you have to make it matter to them.  A teacher asked the question very bluntly:

“where is this going?  How are we to fit these ideas, which by the way we all believe in, into what we already do?”

My answer wasn’t great, I’ll admit, and it had a lot to do with explaining where the ideas behind the new standards revisions came from, but it stuck with me.

Last night, in my reader appeared an article from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack in which he debated the mode of delivery that the P21 people have chosen.  This gem was smack in the middle of it:

The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other.  This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills.  No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary.  How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills?  How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?  How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects?  And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy

One does not go forward by jettisoning the skills with which we gathered. To me it’s not about introducing new content, but rather how we engage students in content using the “soft skills” that we need them to develop. The ability to have a lasting understanding is our goal here, and providing relevant context to what we do in the classroom is a great way to get there.  So my answer to that question is not to change the content of what you do, but to use the same skills you are trying to develop in the students in your own practice.  Be innovative, be creative, be prepared to fail often, collaborate, model the behaviors you want to see in your students.