The Best Thing I’ve Done Online, Wanna See?

On July 28th at 10:00 am the second iteration of the best thing I have done online will begin. The Reform Symposium began as an offhand comment on Twitter, evolved into a conversation on Google Wave (remember Wave?), then turned from an idea into an event. The conference brought together a disparate group of presenters who were willing to donate their knowledge to everyone who wanted to listen. To me it represents the full potential of social media and what can happen when motivated, like-minded educators are given the tools to collaborate. I have never actually met any of my amazing collaborators, but I consider them to be my dear friends. Try to imagine organizing a global conference for educators ten years ago. Would you be able to do it with free online tools? So if you are looking for some free professional development take a look at the schedule and see if there is something you are interested in learning. Better yet, volunteer to moderate one of the sessions. Hope to see you there.

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My Rage Against Grading (How Can We Rate What’s Beautiful)

Needing a respite from the relentless grading that occurs at this time of year, I thought I would share something I read this morning with you. After I have finished grading state standardized exams and local benchmark exams I finally get the chance to look at the projects my own students have submitted at the end of the year. My seventh graders have been experimenting with poetry. Many of them loath it, especially at first, but slowly and eventually many of them create something beautiful. Here is one of the poems that I read this morning.

I gave you everything I had.
I loved you, I held you when you were sad.
Like sisters, you and me.
I was the beach and you were the sea.
And after all these years
You left me in tears.
I thought you were my best friend.
That you would be there ’til the end.
I believed and trusted you
And all that you said.
You were everything to me.
But then you tossed me out.
Like a teenager getting rid of you favorite childhood toy.
I need you, I need you, I need you.
And I need you now more than ever.
I need you to tell me to do my homework and to watch my language.
I need you to talk to me and love me like we used to.
I have everything you gave me.
All the birthday cards, the postcard from greece, the shirt.
I hold them on my pillow at night and talk to them.
Like I used to talk to you.
Waiting for an answer, waiting for you to hug me,
To tell me everything’s okay.
That you’ll take me back forever and always.
My angel, I need you to tell me those things.
But you never will.
I gave you all I had . . . And I always will.

I honestly got a little misty when I read that. I thought it was too good to be original so I googled it to check and it seems to be an original. My existential question is how do I now assign a number to this work of art that means anything? While her classmates are writing about Xbox cheat codes, she has gotten it. She has created something truly beautiful and assigning it a grade, even a 100 diminishes it somehow. I want to meet with her and nurture this talent, tell her that I appreciate the way she has put words together and suggest other poets she might like. But I am certain she will want to know what she got on it. What have we done?

Help Me With My Parent Outreach Program

I need help. I really want to begin a parental outreach program at my school to increase the amount of positive parental involvement. At the moment I feel that parental involvement is merely paid lip service. I don’t want to waste time blaming the system or the individuals that make it up, only to make it better. The problem with most of the parental outreach I have experienced is that it is kind of like bad professional development, someone has a great idea that has a positive impact for a limited time but then it is not sustained or follow up on. Something like a community picnic is a great idea to get parents to the school once, but what do you do once they are there and how do you keep them coming back? Has anyone implemented a parental outreach program in their school? Do you have any ideas to help me get started? I hope to work on this program over the summer and begin it when the new school year begins in September. Thanks in advance for any help.

Dealing With Burnout: Teach Outside the Bell

Teaching is hard. It has always been hard, but recently it has been getting undeniably harder. Many of us are getting daily reminders of just how much education costs and how much it is perceived to be worth. But here is the bottom line, times are tough all over and we are either going to have to learn to live the new realities of teaching in a public school or we will have to quit. I don’t want to quit (at least today), because when all of the vitriol and bureaucracy is stripped away I still love working with kids. I love that moment that we’ve all had when we are explaining something to a student and the look on their face changes, and you know that they’ve got it. Lately these moments have either been harder to create or harder to see. One of the things that has really helped me deal with the daily frustrations of the public school and brought me back to the reasons why I wanted to be an educator in the first place is teaching outside of the classroom. Let me explain. Even though extra-curricular activities have been trimmed all over the place and there seems to be less and less opportunity for students to learn beyond the school hours, those opportunities still exist. Interacting with young people in an environment that is not the classroom can be really rewarding for both the teacher and the students. I have found that I get to learn a great deal more about and from a student in these moments outside the bells. So if you are feeling burned out, I have found that one possible cure is to get involved in extracurricular activities. Volunteer to be a timer at a track meet or follow a script at play practice, chaperone the school dance. You’ll find that the connections you make at these events will continue into the classroom and enrich your time spent at the school.

2010 Edublog Awards Nominations

This is the first time I have participated in the nomination process for the Edublog Awards. As trite as it may sound this was quite an arduous task, taking me nearly two weeks to complete. There are so many great blogs out there, these are my favorites.

Best individual blog: Spencer’s Scratchpad

  • I’m reasonably sure there is no blogger out there that I admire and respect more than John Spencer. Like a pragmatic philosopher, John eloquently and truthfully reflects on teaching and living. His writing simultaneously inspires me and makes me fume with envy, that’s how I know its great.

Best individual tweeter: Joe Bower

  • Joe Bower’s antagonistic and rabble rousing tweets about abolishing the grading systems in schools have inspired me to question, if not actively undermine the status quo. Joe’s tweets are like 140 word punches in the arm.

Best group blog: Connected Principals
Best new blog: Connected Principals

  • Although new on the seen the Connected Principals blog deserves to be recognized for giving a united voice to innovative administrators.

Best class blog: Mr. C’s Class Blog

  • Not only has William Chamberlain created the amazing #comments4kids, which has had a direct impact on my own students, but he also maintains an amazing blog for his class. With this blog William’s students are reflective and engaged. I wish my own children could have William as a teacher.

Best resource sharing blog: iLearn Technology

  • Kelly Tenkely and her blog really need no introduction, but no one works harder or with a happier spirit to share tools and best practices with educators.

Most influential blog post: The 30 Goals Challenge

  • This is more than one single blog post, but it is the most influential I have seen. The 30 Goals Challenge has lead to action and has made a tangible contribution to culture change in schools.

Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion: #edchat

  • Edchat really needs no introduction. It is the reason I came to Twitter and the reason I stayed.

Best teacher blog: Teacher Reboot Camp

  • The magnitude of Shelly Terrell’s contributions to education can be overwhelming, but don’t overlook her excellent blog. Her blog is practical and useful and contains something for everyone. From interviews to challenges this blog has it all.

Best school administrator blog: The Principal of Change

  • The first time I got the chance to interact with George Couros was during and after the Reform Symposium this summer. His sense of humor makes him easy to relate to but it is his ideas about education and school culture that will stick.

Best elearning / corporate education blog: Edutopia blogs

  • The Edutopia blogs are a great resource and a lot of really great writers post there. Read it.
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When Zero Tolerance Isn’t, and the Complicit Bully

This summer, New York State passed the Dignity For All Students Act. This is a comprehensive bill intended not only to intensify punishment for perpetrators of bullying, but also provide schools with proactive measures to prevent bullying, while promoting tolerance. I feel that this law, in principle is a great first step toward curbing this problem and given some of the recent tragic headlines regarding bullying and teens, a necessary one. But we are collectively fooling ourselves if we believe we can legislate our way out of this problem.

The instant this bill became a law my school enacted a zero tolerance policy regarding bullying. Institutions small and large are enamored with zero tolerance policies because of their intoxicating simplicity. These policies transform the fluid dynamic of a crowd into an if-then equation, allowing the controlling power to make decisions without having to do any evaluating or reflecting. Normally the liberal in me would never stand for such a policy, but under these circumstances this might be the most appropriate and effective solution. But people must enact policies of course, and zero tolerance policies are polluted with bias and apathy.

In a zero tolerance environment I am a complicit bully. Every time I hear a student say “That’s so gay,” and not turn them in or at least correct them I am complicit. Every time I overhear two students quietly humiliate another in the hall I am complicit. When I continue to eat my lunch as adults disparage the “strange kids” in their classes I am complicit. Every time I ignore an untoward email forwarded to me by a colleague I am complicit.

But it isn’t just me. The institution is complicit. A zero tolerance policy is never really zero is it, its more like zero, unless ____________. Maybe I’m tired and over sensitive, but I feel like I have noticed more and more students taking joy in the anguish of others, while more and more adults ignore it. Either we need to enforce the zero tolerance policy with an iron fist and an iron resolve or we need to approach the problem from a completely different direction.

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In Defense of Speak, and Rally Cry Against Intolerance

Before publishing this post I just finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s follow up to the article I’m referencing. It appears that my leap to her defense is somewhat tardy, however I still want to leap.

Where am I living? I am living in a country where inflammatory, baseless rhetoric has replaced actual or thoughtful debate. Where the person with the most money or the loudest microphone or the most powerful friends actually defeats the person with the superior ideas. A country where intolerance seems to get a free pass when it is wrapped in the cloaking blanket of morality. All the while these injustices go unchecked because the silent majority is too busy trying to make mortgage payments until Wells Fargo and Citigroup can stop giving bonuses long enough to pay our money back. Something is happening in America, something that has me furious. That something is indignant religious intolerance masquerading as some kind of moral avenger for America.

I am a public high school teacher. I teach English. I have taught English for twelve years. I work in a school located in a town with no industry, where the population has made a casual exodus for a decade in search of waning prosperity. Fifty five percent of the students in my school receive state assistance to pay for their lunch (frequently comprised of government donated food), those are the ones who’ve overcome the embarrassment to apply. The others feign indifference or pretend they’re not hungry or duck into the bathroom for the period. Given this backdrop of poverty, every year I begin my class with a simple poll. I ask the students in my class how many of them read a book for fun over the summer. Can you guess the results? Without exception the percentage of students who read a book for pleasure has declined every year since I began. Even through the glut of adolescent wizards and sparkling vampires this trend continued. There is no need to complete your degree to interpret these results. Most kids in my district hate to read.

The problem has become so pronounced that for the past two years I have no longer given students reading to take home. Instead my pace slows to a crawl as I require students to read in the room in my presence. Maybe they can’t read and that’s why they hate it. I’ve thought of that, seems like a large percentage to be completely illiterate though. I think for many of my students the answer lies in what they are reading rather than the skills they bring to the book. I come to this conclusion because with some books, certain particular books the students are engaged. With certain books they are willing to engage in the most abstract or critical conversations. With certain books students seek me out or stop me in the hallway to talk to me about them. Speaking from my own personal experience these books have nothing to do with prepubescent boys marooned on an island or talking pigs named after short French generals.

I started teaching Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in 2005. I had heard about the book in young adult literature circles, my administration trusted me (key to teacher success by the way) and I ran with it. I was astonished by my students’ reaction to the material. Firstly, they loved the protagonist’s honest portrayal of high school. They could relate to her voice, and because they could relate to her voice I could teach them about voice. When Melinda was arbitrarily ostracized by former friends I could see a twinkle of understanding in the eyes of formerly unreachable students. The novel turned out to be so successful for me that students wanted to talk about it all the time, this was when I created my first student blog (which I just checked and is still up). The experience of teaching this novel was transformative for me in the sense that it shook my steadfast reliance on so-called classics and encouraged me to listen to my students more.

Given this experience I was shocked and dismayed to read this entry from Anderson’s blog asking for help defending Speak against a baseless attack. Anderson makes an eloquent defense herself, which I won’t reiterate and I encourage you to read her post. I would like to say this: wholesale banning of books is wrong. It is always wrong. Just as it is wrong to force all children to read the same book. If children are never exposed to ideas, how can we ever discuss them. Sensible teachers can make sensible decisions about curriculum. Sensible parents can make sensible decisions about whether or when their children are exposed to a book. Self-aggrandizing rhetoric like that of the esteemed professor Scroggins does nothing to help parents or teachers discuss big ideas like the ones in Speak. Instead it merely enflames a trusting public who may have not read the book. Just as an example, to say that Speak is a book about rape is like saying Avatar is about wheelchairs.

Incidentally, and in the interest of full disclosure I have met Mrs. Anderson who was kind enough to sign a book for me. One that I keep in my classroom and fawn over each time I begin the book.

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Are You a Teacher Or a Person Who Teaches

When I was much younger and had more hair I would go to a little establishment in Saratoga Springs called Cafe Lena. This was one of those special places where the true artists and truer wannabes would gather for folk songs or poetry readings or student written one-act plays. After putting on a torn flannel shirt and snatching up my obligatory copy of On the Road I would head up the narrow stairs to the tiny stage. I frequented this establishment quite often, especially when there were poetry reading, considering myself to be quite a scholar and scribe of verse myself. On one of these occasions I witnessed something so simple and profound that it stayed with me all of these years. Near the end of one of the poetry readings an older gentleman with a beard the color of grey clouds got out of his seat and took the stage. He was carrying a dulcimer. He sang some songs that he had written, which I’m sure were remarkable but it was what he said at the end of his set that stuck. He said something like: “I know a lot of you in here like to write poetry, but how many of you are poets?” I glanced around quickly, a pang of guilt, and anger rushing through me. He continued: “A poet sees the world in a particular way, and it is not only when he holds a pen. He sees the world this way all the time, because this is the only way he can see it. He is always a poet.” And then he grabbed his dulcimer and left the cafe without saying another word.

I’m certain what the old man said was not novel, and he was probably paraphrasing something he had heard somewhere else. But for me it was like a bell had been rung in my brain that would not be silenced. I think of this story every now and again, and I try to retell it to my students in a way that makes sense to them. I thought of this story again yesterday when I went into my classroom for the first time to begin preparing for the new school year. I ran into a number of my colleagues who were swarming around the office of our network manager, to receive their new Macbooks. Many of them offered me excuses for not attending the Reform Symposium, for which I had invited each one. Some of them told me that they must have missed the email I sent because they never open their email in the summer. I snickered a little to see their mouths gape when I told them that I had done all of the work for the conference without a scrap of monetary compensation, and they quickly retorted that they would never attend professional development for free.

It is here that the positive energy of my PLN breaks down. They are not with me in my school. In my school a teacher who attends free professional development during the summer is either crazy or has too much free time. But this is not how I view it. I am a teacher. A teacher sees the world in a particular way, and it is not only when he is in a school. I am a teacher all the time. This is different from a person who teaches. A person who teaches puches an inner clock, even if that clock counts time outside of the classroom, all the while thinking what will I get for this time rather than what will my students get. I realize now that I can never help those who only teach, and I will continue to be frustrated if I try. But I am going to do my best to find all of the teachers in my district. So which one are you? Are you a teacher or a person who teaches?

Photograph: Hugh Morton via http://www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton/

Invite a Skeptic to the Reform Symposium

All of this social networking is starting to pay off for everyone! For the past month I have been working with some really amazing educators to put together a free summer conference. I have never met any of these amazing people (Shelly Terrell, Jason Bedell, & Kelly Tenkely), yet this was one of the most successful collaborations I have ever been a part of. None of use have received any reward for the time we have put into planning the event, monetary reward that is, but somehow this has been an incredibly rewarding experience. This seeming paradox lends credence to the argument Daniel Pink makes in Drive, that money isn’t a very good motivator when it comes to intellectual endeavors.

Working on the Symposium has been an empowering experience. It is empowering because by harvesting the power of connections, and everyone’s desire to improve education we can all get together for summer professional development. No one is paying anyone, no one is getting paid. Many educational conferences have costs that are so high that we cannot attend, and what do we see when we get there….great educators talking about what they are doing in the classroom.

So in the words of The Monkees, I’m a believer. PLNs work! Making connections works! I suspect many of you are nodding your heads right now, that’s because most of you believe too. So here is your charge: invite a skeptic to the Reform Symposium. Not just a doubter, a skeptic. Offer to have them attend a session with you. Sit right next to them, help them click the right links. Make bargains to get them to agree. When it is over tell them about PLNs and help them sign up for Twitter and follow up with them over the year. Do all this because if you can convince a skeptic about the power of connections that is powerful, and that skeptic will talk to other skeptics, and this movement will grow. That is how reform will happen.

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Call to Arms on School Reform

I felt so strongly about the topic of this week’s (7/6/10) #edchat that I needed two days to collect my thoughts. This week’s #edchat centered around what we as educators can do to move from discussion of educational reform to action. I have been participating in #edchat since November and this is unequivocally the most important topic that has ever been covered. Many participants in the chat answered the question of what we can do to enact substantive change by saying that they were already doing it in their classrooms, meaning that they are taking the things discussed on #edchat and other social forums and applying them to their teaching. This tactic employs a trickle down strategy and hypothesizes that simply by doing it in their classrooms others will eventually take note and decide to change themselves. This strategy does not work and we know it. You don’t have to look any further than certain classrooms in your own building. There are teachers who will NEVER change their teaching styles no matter how big the smiles are on the students exiting our rooms. To employ this strategy to reform is to put your head in the sand as that student exits your room and enters the other room down the hall. This illustration needs to be multiplied by ten thousand to get the picture around the country. There are some schools where there are no teachers attempting to change the system by example. What happens to the students that happen to reside in that district? On a building level really reform has absolutely no prayer of succeeding if the administration is not on board. Only administrators can force wholesale, building level change. Take what some of the things administrators who particpate in #edchat are doing, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal), Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal), Deron Durflinger (@DeronDurflinger) for example. Reform is happening at their schools. But what if the administrators are content with the status quo, what then? Will they be influenced by the teacher in room 115 who’s students are totally engaged? Maybe. But maybe simply isn’t good enough anymore. There are students getting a simply terrible education in this country waiting for bad teachers to take notice of the good ones, and we can’t wait any more.

Another tweet that kept popping up was that we needed to have specific reforms in mind, not just some abstract pipe dream of the perfect school. This idea seems to fly in the face of the other idea. It suggest that there is in fact a power higher than the teacher out there that needs to be convinced that reform is needed, and that it is happening. Never the less here is my list of essential education reforms:

  1. Deemphasize so-called teacher accountability. Teachers are accountable. They know it. Rather than having teachers afraid for their lives they could focus on innovation.
  2. Deemphasize standardized testing in favor of more authentic measures of learning, which of course, we know are different not standardized.
  3. Give students more autonomy over their own learning.
  4. Emphasize skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving. So that students will be able to deal with problems that don’t exist.

A critique often leveled at the #edchat group is that it is simply an echo chamber where everyone involved is simply voicing the same opinion in a different way, preaching to the choir if you will. Although there is an element of truth to this I don’t think this is such a criticism. All of us discovered #edchat in the same way, we were hungry to be in control of our own learning, just as our students are and we went looking. Since we are like minded we can speak with a collective, deafening voice. If we truly want to have an influence on education reform and not simply talk about it on Tuesdays we need to think beyond the walls of our own classrooms. Start following your state government, who is making the right votes that benefit students, help them. Find out who is making the wrong choices for students and vote them out, or support their opponents. I have decided to attempt to form a political action committee with the purpose of influencing legislation to reform education. I have to try to do something to help the students who are not lucky enough to have a reformer in the room.

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