Give Me Something That Matters

In November of 2007, I found myself in the audience at TechForum, wondering what I’d gotten myself into as I had just recently taken the position of technology coordinator in the district I was working in at the time.  There were lots of things I did not know (I still hate you Adobe CS series) and I never felt like I knew the answers to the questions I was being asked.  Alan November was giving the keynote that day, and I’d not really heard of him much at all, only that people either loved him or hated him.  Needless to say, his message that day became a pivotal moment for me in that I really haven’t looked at education or learning the same way ever since.

Alan talked about ownership and outsourcing that day in regards to the work we do as teachers.  Essentially, teachers do too much of the work of learning, and students can and should do more of the work.  That work, however, had to be owned by them.

Yesterday, I revisited that moment with a group of teachers during the second of our spring TED Series when we showed Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?” talk from this year’s TEDxNYED.  Alan shared a few anecdotal stories from his past with the audience, none that I haven’t heard versions of, but it was clear to me that although his message hadn’t changed much, it was still holding its value now.

About five minutes into the opening activity, the room turned its eyes to the locked door, indicating to me that we had a late arriving participant, and upon first glance I was taken back.

It was a student.

I had opened all of my Spring workshops up to students this year, and I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fully expect to be taken up on it.  She came in and introduced herself to those in the room that did not know who she was and from that point on became as much as contributor to the discussion as any of us.  In fact, there were several junctures where we all fully leaned on her as the expert on certain matters.  At one point, after we had watched the talk, she said what to me, has become some an obsession lately:

“I mean, I agree with everything he (November) is saying.  If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

Dumbstruck, I was.  Why hadn’t we done this sooner?  Why did I wait so long to invite these voices into the room?  Shame on me.

To that end, my thinking since yesterday has been on fire, with ideas and hopes and dreams pinned on this new vision of creating opportunities for meaningful work to take place in my schools.  During my run this morning, I was full of ideas to try out and to push out into this space for vetting and hashing out, all predicated on these things:

  • Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
  • Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
  • Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.
In closing, during the beginning of the session yesterday, I asked the teachers in the room to quickly craft ideas for projects they would do if they were unfettered by the current curricular restraints.  They had to abide by the above three rules.  Here’s a brief sample of what we quickly crafted:
  • run a political campaign for a student to be in town office.
  • Feature magazine to include all aspects of creative culture within a school.
  • Architecture: designing your own schools.
  • Forms of communication: how did societies communicate with one another in the past and how did it evolve over time?
  • Special Ed students to leave a legacy behind to other special ed students.
  • Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

I don’t know how many of these will come to fruition, but I know it’s important for us to have these ideas and let them breathe for a while.  I do know this, my goal is to help them grow legs within our current structures, and hope they help us morph our schools into what we think they should be.

Opening the Doors to Discussion

I’ve opened up all of my workshops to students this spring.

Its something I’ve been pushing this around for a while now, nearly three years, but have yet to take the step to actually do it.  Here it is.

These are in-district workshops for teachers, mainly, but the addition of students just makes sense now. We are all learners here, and we’ll all need each other going forward.

Here’s the first one that I’ve advertised:

Yet Another Option for Readers

Yes, we have so many options these days as readers, not just in the types of material to read, but how we actually view the text.  In a conversation with a student today regarding the design of our media center, he plainly said:

“Look, I like books and all, but that’s just not how I read anymore.  If I want to read something, I always pull up a chair and go on the internet.”

Regardless of our emotions surrounding physical books, we must begin to adapt our teaching and our reading expectations to where the students are.  Let me clarify that a bit:

  • I do feel there will always be a need for paper-bound materials in schools and in life.  There is some sense of permanence, of romance for lack of a better term, in them.
  • I think the immediate future will see a mix of digital and paper-bound books, and, for schools, that is going to be a messy time.  We are so paper-heavy still, and any transition the other way will clearly have some growing pains.
  • Reading, truly and deeply, can be done on a variety of surfaces.

All that said, I’ve been doing some digging into ways to get more text in front of our students.  Here’s one from, of all places, the iTunes Store, that I think is completely under-utilized.

Additionally, check out Google eBooks for their collection of classics in the public domain.  I spent some time the other night cross-checking our lists of titles in our curriculum at the high school level with Google and iTunes U and found a surprisingly high number between the two sites.  That bodes well for students who simply struggle to read texts at the level of complexity of the books in the canon.

Is there a solution right before us?

Warning: somewhat of a tech bend to this post.

Last week, while I was on vacation we had a huge server meltdown.  While I am not an IT guy, I do understand some of the implications of what that means.  For example, our student information system (a great little product called Genesis), our wireless Internet radios, our Moodle courses, and many of our other essential services experienced outages that slowed workplace productivity to a crawl.  While it was a great week to be on vacation, it did bring to light some very glaring issues.

Jim Moulton, over at The Future of Education is Here, writes about a March article in eSchoolnews that cited:

Only 31 percent of respondents said their districts have enough IT staff to satisfy their needs; that’s up only marginally from 27 percent in last year’s survey. And 55 percent of those polled–the same percentage as last year–said they spend more than half their time reacting to technical problems, instead of working proactively on long-range planning and projects.

IT staffs in schools are traditionally understaffed.  In most districts I’ve been in, the ratios between number of IT staff and machines to service, not to mention servers and systems, is outrageous.  When issues like the one we ran into last week occur, an overworked staff becomes increasingly stressed.

Last October at TechForum Northeast, I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with David Warlick in which we discussed some hurdles to implementation of new thinking in schools.  One teacher from the audience lamented, much as Jim did in his post, that the tech staff in his building are guarded and unwilling to allow for teachers to experiment with open-source technologies for fear of corruption to the network.  If, this audience member suggested, teachers are expected to push the limit on what they can have students achieving in the classroom, should they be constrained by an IT staff that does not have the best interest of the students in mind?

It’s an interesting dichotomy, the students v. IT staff one, isn’t it?  On the one hand we have students who are growing up in a world where 11-year olds make huge profits by designing iPhone apps, and on the other we have them working in school environments that can’t give them access to the types of tools that would let them create such apps.

At the tale end of Jim’s post, he presents a solution, one that I have heard via Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez in the past: give the students the ability to aid the IT department.  We are not talking giving them access to the firewall, or the major components of the infrastructure, but rather allow them to handle basic repairs, quick imaging and system setups so that the IT staff can begin doing some of their own imaginative work.

Be sure to check out her list of GenYes Schools where this solution is actually in place.

Anagnoresis and Peripiteia

In my house, we are huge fans of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel (we call it “Yucky Jobs”).  I saw his name pop up in my iTunes library the other day in my TED Talks subscription and I wondered what this was going to be about.

Rowe speaks of two elements that arrived in his mind at a moment that no one can likely relate to.  These elements, anagnoresis and peripiteia, which I am sure I once used in a literary analysis back in the day, both deal with Aristotelian tragedy.  Anagnoresis, which is a literary device used to show how the protagonist moves from ignorance to discovery, Rowe used to describe the awakening he had at the moment when he was illuminated by his faulty reasoning, and peripiteia, the point in a tragedy whereby the tragic lead realizes the irony of the moment he or she is in (think Oedipus realizing that his wife is not who he thinks she is), he shows us that there may be a whole string of faulty reasonings that underpin his belief system.

Heady, I know.

The idea that it takes a moment of unexpected clarity or irony to show us our flawed assumptions is scary, in that we could last a long time in our own rut until that moment occurs.  Rowe’s ultimeate discovery is that he feels he should challenge all of his “platitudes.”  For example, in the talk, Rowe points out that if people took the advice and “followed their passion,” we would have a whole lot of economic difficulty within this country.  See this pig farmer’s story. Rather than follow a passion, what if we just “looked and saw which direction everyone else is moving in, and moved the other way.”  What if we just analyzed situations to find where the needs were, and acted upon that?

His ultimate understanding was this:

dirtyjobs

As I watched the talk and gained a new appreciation for Mike and the show, I did what I always end up doing–I related it to my own work.  What if the ideas I hold dear in education, the very things I have been focusing on over the last few years, are wrong?

It made me go back to my notes from BLC last summer.  I’ve mentioned this before, but on the last day of the conference I hadn’t planned on attending Dr. Pedro Noguera‘s keynote, but I ended up there.  Three things I wrote in my notes were triggered by what Rowe talked about:

  • Too often we use this equation: Talking=Teaching.
  • We shouldn’t be asking what does good teaching look like, but rather what does good learning look like.
  • We need to connect the way we teach to the way they learn.

I hadn’t thought about Noguera’s ideas that much lately, and hearing Rowe talk about anagnoresis and peripiteia brought them back.  What is it about education that causes you to lose focus on the big ideas that should be driving you?  I’d like to shift the focus onto student learning; I’d like to be listening to students the way Ryan has been and getting feedback from students on how they learn best, and I’d like to share that information with teachers that will act on it.  These are the types of discoveries that lead to real change.

I am guilty of trying to find out what “good teaching” looks like through my observation of teachers.  Perhaps I should have been looking at what the students were doing.

Prove It.

I’ll admit it: I just watched my own session from EduCon 2.1 on video.  Granted it’s not the whole thing, but it’s enough.

I didn’t know whether to take the athlete track or the celebrity track here: athletes do it without question, while celebs, when asked, never admit to watching their own movies.  When it came down to it, I decided that watching would be so much easier to stomach than knowing it was out there and neglecting the chance to reflect on the session.  Tony Gwynn used to do this for every at bat. Why can’t I?

After EduCon 2.0 last year, Dan and I came back a bit overblown by the whole thing.  We knew what we were walking into, but sensing the passion the presenters had and the depths to which many of these people were willing to reach to change public schooling made us really reflect on what we were doing.  What we heard was that “top-down” change was not enough.  Grass-roots change had to happen in order for systemic change to sustain itself.  We took that back and tried to make it happen through our actions.

That idea, that change had to be a marriage between administrative direction and teacher action, received yet another tweak as we learned through the weekend of January 23-25 that the student element was missing from our curriculum redesign process.  We took our two major redesigns last year, Technology Career, and Consumer Sciences and our critical thinking class called Connections, and put them through the ringer with what we had learned from the sessions we had attended at EduCon 2.0.  Now, a year later the idea that we haven’t included students to the level we need to is chasing me around as I plan to work with Visual and Performing Arts as they re-make their curriculum this summer.  What’s their role?  How much input should the greatest source of human capital in a school district have on the creation of curriculum? It’s no longer just a “top-down/bottom-up” issue, but instead it’s a “who should be in the room” issue.

Although he didn’t appear in the video of our session, Chris Lehmann popped into our session for the opening discussion.  I’ll attribute these words to him:

“If we say that we believe in something, we should point toward something in your schools that show, illustrate those values, those beliefs (and how they resonate in the school community)”

And, although he didn’t say it officially until Sunday, he implied it all weekend: if you believe in something, show me where your actions, your systems, and your decisions make it true.  We are at a point in our discussion and our study of what we know about about what works in education that we should be able to show in our own practice as educators what we are doing in light of our beliefs.  That works for everyone from superintendents to students themselves.  What are your ideals?  Where can you show me in your practice that these are reflected?  When we look at the inclusion of students in the curriculum redesign process, how does it reflect our beliefs about learning? About the students we teach?