Yeah, but we will always need ditch diggers!

July 22, 2011

When talking on the topic of citizenship, workforce, and college readiness with a group of other educators recently, some one asked, “But what about the argument ‘Yeah, but we will always need ditch diggers!’?”  Being the graduate school educated daughter of a truck driver and a school cafeteria lady, that hit me hard.  I hopped up from my chair and went to a poster displaying our Vision, Mission, and Goals and pointed to the statement, “All learners believe in their power to embrace learning, to excel, and to own their future.”  I asked something like, “How do we ensure the student owns the choice to become a ditch digger and isn’t handed the choice because he was in the ‘low reading group’ in kindergarten?”

Our Vision statement is powerful in my mind, but it conflicts with the notion of “ability grouping” (which is most often actually “achievement grouping”) and other tracking practices.  The conversation didn’t move to this at all, despite my physical movement and “in your face question”.  The conversation went back to citizenship, workforce, and college readiness, driven by the question “What of our lifelong learner skills don’t apply to a ditch digger?”

ACPS Lifelong Learner Skills

  1. Plan and conduct research.
  2. Analyze data, evaluate processes and products; and draw conclusions. 
  3. Think analytically, critically, and creatively to pursue new ideas, acquire new knowledge, and make decisions. 
  4. Understand and apply principles of logic and reasoning; develop, evaluate, and defend arguments. 
  5. Seek, recognize and understand systems, patterns, themes, and interactions. 
  6. Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to new and increasingly complex problems. 
  7. Acquire and use precise language to clearly communicate ideas, knowledge, and processes. 
  8. Explore and express ideas and opinions using multiple media, the arts, and technology. 
  9. Demonstrate ethical behavior and respect for diversity through daily actions and decision making. 
  10. Participate fully in civic life, and act on democratic ideals within the context of community and global interdependence. 
  11. Understand and follow a physically active lifestyle that promotes good health and wellness. 
  12. Apply habits of mind and metacognitive strategies to plan, monitor, and evaluate one’s own work.

So, what of our lifelong learner skills don’t apply to a ditch digger or a truck driver or a school cafeteria lady?  I know my dad, who we refer to as “the original GPS” (granddaddy positioning system) because he has the map of the major highways in the lower 48 memorized, constantly evaluated routing, fuel consumption (there were financial bonuses for achieving fuel savings), safety (there were financial bonuses as well as the obvious benefits from accumulating “safe driving miles”), time of day, weight of the load, and made adjustments as needed. That’s at least 1 – 6 and 12 above, don’t you think?  The fact that dad would park his truck, after ensuring he had the time to spare, and call a cab to take him to visit sites like the Space Needle in Seattle or other places he couldn’t imagine taking his family to on vacation may partially illustrate 10.  I could go on and on about how my parents, neither of whom has a single college credit to their name, exemplify the lifelong learner standards.  And, I challenge anyone to sit in the living room while Jeopardy! is on!

So, to what extent did my high school educated parents “own their future”?  Dad started driving a coal truck when he was 16 because he didn’t want to be a coal miner.  He finished high school, went in to the Army for a short stint, and moved on to bigger and better trucking jobs.  When he and mom had been married for a while, he “left the road” to become a dispatcher for a few weeks and was miserable.  Mom and he decided it was better for him to be happy on the road than miserable in an office.  He went back to the road until his retirement.

Once my youngest brother went to kindergarten, Mom looked for a job that would allow her to be on the same schedule that her kids were on.  She found one as a substitute cafeteria worker and eventually worked her way up to being a cafeteria manager in a new school. She retired from that job and began substitute teaching and eventually took a job as a part-time special education teaching assistant.  She retired from that job and is now vice president of Dad’s company, Nap Incorporated (named by my niece who tends to call while Dad is napping.  Actually, everybody tends to call while Dad is napping.)

The message I got from my parents about my career path was to “use your brain and not your back.”  They wanted more for me than they had and they saw a white collar job as providing this.  I also heard over and over again, “We don’t care if you are a ditch digger, just make sure you make enough money to do what you want to do, love what you’re doing, and are the best at it.”  What is it about ditch diggers?

Do kids grow through school wanting to be ditch diggers?  Absolutely!  But, they go through school.  How do we ensure school prepares them to be citizenship, workforce, and college ready AND that they “own their future”?  I didn’t play well in school and DOZENS (yes, dozens) of educators recommended moving me down a level or from this academic program to that non-academic program.  It’s not that I couldn’t do what they were asking me to do academically, it’s just that I found no compelling reason to.  My Mom fought over and over again to keep me in the highest level of classes possible even if my grades were not very good (not doing homework does that to you when homework counts 20 – 25%).

Some may say that I “owned my future” when I chose not to do homework.  I say, “give me homework worth doing.” Regardless of how a student presents in school, we must be committed to connecting them with the most engaging experiences possible to develop skillsets and mindsets necessary to be citizenship, workforce, and college ready.

So, about two weeks in to the school year, walk around your school and look at how students are grouped.  Can you predict the next generation of “ditch diggers”?  How does their experience compare to the next generation of doctors you identify?  Who is getting the worksheets that require rote recall of useless facts?  Who is getting the Socratic seminar that challenges thinking and develops communications skills?  Who has your best teachers?  Who has the greatest access to technology?  Who gets pulled out more?  Who gets more or less time in Art, Music, PE, and other “specials”?  To what extent do your kids “own their future”?


On Technology and Schools

June 28, 2011

It’s pretty interesting to think about technology in schools these days. There is more stuff than there has ever been – in pockets, backpacks, and classrooms. There are more services to connect us to each other, our data, and our devices.

But, what difference is all of this making? Perhaps the means (aka, the technology) have changed, but what about the end? Are we still preparing kids for success on the test or are we looking beyond the test? If we are looking beyond the test, what are we looking to?

I am having a hard time thinking about attending sessions at ISTE 2011 that are centered on hardware or software. iDONTCARE about the device nearly as much as I care about what is being done with it. iDONTCARE to talk with vendors who can tell me a pricing schema but can’t talk to me about why their product is different from a competitor’s in terms of student control of the content and activity.

The only differences in technology in schools should not be around technical protocols and bandwidth. It’s not just about account management and interoperability. We’ve got to look beyond the letters and numbers with our technology as much as we do with our kids.

Making “School” Worth Remembering

May 24, 2011

“I never commit to memory anything that can easily be looked up in a book.”  Albert Einstein

I was sitting in a school library today talking to a fellow “product of” turned “teacher in” Albemarle County Public Schools about making school worth remembering.  What will the kids remember from having laptops assigned to them 24/7 as 6th graders?  Will they remember loosing them for the last month of school so they could be used for state testing?  Will they remember spending hours playing with screen savers and downloading virus ridden software from the web?  Will they remember doing electronic worksheets and on-line quizzes?  Will they remember having the “research and present” cycle be technology enriched?  Will they remember teaching their teachers how use some of the tools?  Will they remember revising their five paragraph essays a dozen times to make them perfect for publishing on the web?  Will they remember their teachers oscillating from being one step ahead to two steps behind the kids but coming back the next day to do it again? Will they remember using technology to learn and share about compassion?  What will they remember?  Will they remember the experiment favorably?  How do we use this experience to manage the memories of the next group of kids who are empowered by these resources?

Then, I remembered that this colleague is about the same age as I am and I asked, “Do you remember M.A.C.O.S.?”  She said, “Oh yeah, the Netsilik Eskimos!”  Then, we spent 20 minutes sharing very specific stories about class activities.  Occasionally, one of us would look to a younger colleague sitting with us who didn’t experience M.A.C.O.S. and provide a little more detail.  We had very similar experiences 34 and 36 years ago in two different middle schools in Albemarle with two different teachers and those experiences were so rich and meaningful we were easily taken back and pushed to recall details that were hung on masterfully designed concept-based experiences.

How can we make school memorable, M.A.C.O.S.-like memorable, in this day and age?  What role does the stuff vs the substance play in that? How can we compete with the rest of the world for precious space in the memory banks of adolescents?  How can school compete with Facebook and iTunes and RPG’s when it comes to the bandwidth kids will allocate to “school” or not?  How do we rethink we what expect to be memorized as factoids and shift to what we hope will be remembered as being deeply connected?  While I was easily able to find M.A.C.O.S. resources all over the web, I remember the activities because they were connected to big ideas in meaningful ways.  We laughed at the games of the Eskimo kids and we studied the games we played and how they reflected our own cultures.  How do we provide for similar experiences and opportunities for students to dig deeply in to matters that matter and not simply settle for prepping students for low-level recall of factoids that are not worthy of remembering 34 hours or days later, much less 34 years?

Note:  Each of the M.A.C.O.S. (Man a Course of Study) links in this post leads to a different resource.

New Addition or New Edition?

April 25, 2011

One thing I love about my school district, is that I have opportunities to engage in the work with others on so many different levels.  We’re large enough that there is ALWAYS something going on that is amazing and we are small enough that there’s a good probability I am at least aware of these amazing things and often involved in them beyond just my awareness.

One thing that is going on right now that is of particular interest to me is yet another construction project at Greer Elementary.  Greer underwent Phase I of this renovation in 2008-2009 and the School Board received an update on Phase II at its April 14, 2011 meeting.

My personal reflections on a planning meeting at Greer with Matt Landhal (@mlandahl, principal) and some of his teachers led to me kicking this blog post around with the current title intact.  Talking with Matt and his teachers about how they want kids to interact with space, content, each other, media, and the world in the new addition and how they are looking to connect it back to what happens (currently and in the future) in the current physical space has me kicking around a ton of questions –  how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  How do we leverage the new space without creating inequities for students who are assigned to the “old” space? Will some kids be “better off” in the old space or the new space?  How could we possibly know?  Where does the space drop out of the equation and the teacher come in to it?  How will we decide who is assigned to what space?  What difference will that make?

All of these questions and some I haven’t been able to get out of my head and to my keyboard come back to a larger question of how space influences learning or not.  This leads to a larger question of what influences a teacher’s decision-making.  I don’t believe any of us would argue that if you put someone who doesn’t know the curriculum and is either unskilled at or uninterested in connecting kids to said curriculum in to the “perfect learning space” that great things will happen.  I do not believe the space (including all of the stuff in the space) is at all causal, but I do believe it is influential.  So, now the question becomes, what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?

This question strangely connects me to my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shortly after it opened in 1993.  This museum has set the standard for how to use space to influence emotions and interactions.  I remember the changing lights and sounds changing my expectations of what was to come next.  I remember how the ducking and the turning made me feel herded and manipulated.  I remember watching out for the 70 plus students I had taken with me and noticing who was crying when and who was standing in silence and awe to pay more attention to what.  I remember this disbelief and disgust.  I remember the day as my single most rewarding day as a teacher.

I felt some of this same space-caused emotional roller coaster when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum – enough that I wasn’t disappointed but not enough to feel like I had sat at the back of a bus long enough. 

I was so disappointed when I went to the National Museum of the American Indian shortly after it opened.  After my last conversation with my half-blooded grandmother before she died, I was expecting a Trail of Tears exhibit that jerked me around like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Instead, I found nothing about what my family had lived through on “the Trail.”  I call it “The Museum for the Commercialization of the American Indian.”

Why did I go from thinking about new Kindergarten spaces to thinking about museums?  The central question of “what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?” connects these in my mind.  These Kindergarten classrooms will impact what decisions teachers can and do make and how kids react to these decisions.  What impact do we want to have?  If the walls open up and two classrooms can be connected through a portal, what will happen differently than if the kids actually had to go through a traditional doorway, out in the hallway, and through another traditional doorway to walk between classrooms?  How did I feel when I had to walk through a box car to get from one room to another, knowing that thousands of people had ridden this same box car from being rounded up to being murdered?  The pathway between two spaces matters on how the two spaces are perceived.

As I think about all of the questions and information tossed out between teachers and architects on that afternoon in the Greer library, I am humbled by the shear number of decisions at hand.  I am also intrigued by how those decisions will be made and then how they will influence what kids and teachers do in the “magical” spaces.

While I don’t think of Kindergarten classrooms as museums, the purpose of having the portal between the two classrooms took me back to my experience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Then, my mind shifted to the places in my division where I know opening a portal between two classrooms is possible and I thought about who uses this utility and to what end.  I am convinced that who gets put on either side of the moveable wall determines whether or not the wall will ever move and what the purposes of the movements are.  That the walls move simply represents an opportunity.  Whether the opportunity is realized is dependent upon the teachers.  Whether the “right” teachers are located on either side of the wall is primarily a principal decision that represents attention to a vision or not.

Should we plan for cubbies in the classroom or should we plan for them in the hallway?  If we put them in the hallway, do we need to put doors on them to provide a little protection and ensure they stay neat and tidy?  If we put them in the classroom, can we do it in a way that doesn’t take away flexibility in how we use the space around the cubby?  How does snack time look differently if the cubbies are in the room or in the hallway?  How will we manage the traffic flow and monitor the students?  This line of questioning took me back to a visit I made to another school when I went to three Kindergarten classrooms in the five minutes before shifting from class activities to specials.  One teacher put on a clean up song, and like salivating dogs the kids responded in a very well-conditioned manner and started cleaning up.  Another teacher clapped a pattern and flicked the lights and told the kids to start cleaning up and then began doling out strategic praise statements like, “I like the way Jack is cleaning up his space.”  The third teacher said, “Class, it’s almost time for PE.  What do we need to do to ensure our math supplies are where we can all find them tomorrow?”  In unison, the students shouted, “Put them away!”  and started working to make sure the needs of the classroom community were met.  Three different strategies with the same short-term end result in mind, but representing three very different visions.  The storage compartment shape, size, and location had nothing to do with these differences.

So, how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  What about what we are currently doing or not doing would we like to change?  What would we like to have remain the same?  Why?  How do we envision five year olds interacting with the world five years from now?  How do they interact now?  How does school prohibit, permit or promote this natural interaction with the world?  What role does space and stuff play in this?

Where will the teaching wall be?  Do we want a teaching wall or multiple teaching spaces?  Who is going to be teaching whom?  How often would we expect to see 4 or 5 students gathered around a teaching space engaging in something?  What would they need access to when they do this?  Would you design a teaching space differently than you would design a learning space?  What kids of interactions do you foresee?  “Teacher” to “learners”?  “Learners” to each other?  Everyone to content?

In many cases, there will be trade-offs we don’t really want to make.  If we don’t have a whole class teaching/learning space, how/where will we hold morning meeting?  If we do, how can we make it flexible so we can re-purpose it easily when we don’t need it to accommodate the whole class?  Overall, I would say the challenge is to provide the capability to do everything while not forcing anything.  Choice and flexibility for the teacher occupying the space so that he or she can provide choice and flexibility to the learners.  How can we provide this without a gazillion dollars per square foot?

One thing I know about all of these questions as well as the ones that never made it from my finger tips to your eyes is that there are no easy answers.  Perhaps the challenge is not to answer the questions but in understanding the questions we are asking.  Are we asking questions that point to “student-centered, inquiry-driven learning” or are we asking questions that point to something else?  What if we had kids come along with us on this journey?  Would they be asking the same questions or a whole different class of questions?  Will this be a new addition or a pathway to a new edition?  How will we know?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Albert Einstein

Time dilation, dog years, and our tolerance for rapid change

April 16, 2011

It’s time to stop using time as an excuse.

I used “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”  as the Albert Einstein quote in my last blog post and am using if for this one as well.

This quote doesn’t mean we can slow everything down so it doesn’t happen until we’re ready for it to happen.

A fellow educator whom I admire and was in a meeting with recently cited the research about change taking 3 to 5 years to become institutionalized.  Well, I first read that research in 1991 and it is now 2011.  I am skeptical that it still applies and tired of it being used as an excuse.

The world is changing very quickly right now.  The questions shouldn’t be around how to slow this change down or throttle it back like a cellular service provider.  The questions should be how we can take advantage of the rapid pace of change and use it to the advantage our young people.  If we don’t, someone else will.

It struck me recently that my district took seven years to decide on and finish installing ceiling mounted projectors in every classroom.  Seven years.  If you can’t get a techology-based roll out done from start to finish in seven months now you better not call it a roll out!  Just stick to “multiple installations” or some other phrase.

So, why the title?  Well, I would suspect most people have heard that Einstein had a theory of relativity and many people have seen commercials or other depictions of a person traveling around the earth really fast and not aging like a person sitting relatively still (pun intended).  Well, that’s called time dilation.  We cannot continue to believe we can slow down time in schools.  This approach is doing our kids no favors and is giving the public education critics fodder.  Let’s not just keep up, let’s lead the way.  The educators reading this blog are not the ones I am worried about, it’s the ones who do not engage in social media or other means of constant, public learning and public practice.  Use the strategy “each one teach one” today and print out an interesting blog post from me or someone else and hand it to a colleague who doesn’t have a blog roll or an rss feed or a PLN.  Suck them in.  The kids depend on it!

And dog years?  Well, I keep thinking about the seven year roll out of projectors.  The 7:1 ratio made me think of dog years as I thought a human year of aging was 7 dog years was until I found this article in preparation for this post.  Regardless, we can’t do this any more.  We don’t have the time.

Watching the Clock

April 4, 2011

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”  Albert Einstein

This is the time of year when Virginia enforces a 4pm burn law.  It’s also the time of year when campgrounds around Virginia open for the season and people who have suffered cabin fever can finally get out and enjoy themselves, seniors begin suffering from “senior slump,” others experience “spring fever,” and a host of other things are counted down to (like the MLB opening day and the last day of school).

How much of our lives is spent counting down to something or watching the clock to end something?  Why do we count down and watch the clock?  How can we take the energy and excitement behind the next great thing we anticipate and leverage it to enjoy right now even more?

As a teacher at a non-traditional, alternative high school of choice, I got a tearjerker of a letter from a parent that accompanied by a box of to-die-for cannollis bought on a trip back home to New York City.  The letter was lost in a classroom flood, but it had a line in it I will never forget.  “Thank you for giving me back my daughter.”  The mom went on to write something like,  “We put her on the bus the first day of kindergarten and she was so excited to go to school.  Slowly, school killed the excitement.  Until now.  Every morning, it’s like putting our kindergartner on the bus again.  Only now, she is a young lady.”

Do your kindergartners look forward to Friday?  Why?  Why not?  Do they look forward to Monday when they come back to school?  Why or why not?  How can we make Friday better in anticipation of Monday? How can we keep the kindergarten excitement alive and well FOREVER?

How does your school handle the last day before a break?  Do you consider this “lost time” with respect to “instruction”? 

My school system is on Spring Break this week and I took the week off to go camping.  I will wait until 4pm to start my campfires and I will follow the opening week of baseball using the At Bat Lite app on my iPhone.  When I return to work a week from today, I will work with principals to begin registering teachers for summer workshops, I will provide the Superintendent’s cabinet an update on a major project, I will lead a meeting with our district’s professional development team, and conduct a status call with a vendor.  While I will have enjoyed my week off, I will be happy to return to work because the things I do should be done and I am pretty good at doing them.

Some kids will come back to school, happy to be met with routines and boundaries again.  Some kids will eat better because school is in session.  Some kids will make something up when asked “What did you do over Spring Break?” Some kids will play down what they did.  Some teachers will know how many days are left until the last day of school.  Some will know how many until the first day of state testing.  Some kids and teachers alike will bounce in to school with kindergartener-like excitement and some will show clearly that this excitement is long gone.

How can we take the energy and excitement behind the next great thing we anticipate and leverage it to enjoy right now even more?

Measuring teacher quality and adding value

March 15, 2011

What makes a good teacher?  I remember as a kid looking forward to having this teacher or dreading that one.  I remember sitting in a high school math class bored beyond belief and writing down the words to Another Brick in the Wall so I looked like I was taking notes but could bask in the irony of the subversion.  I estimate that 60% of my elementary teachers were “good teachers” and the number just went down from there until my freshman year in college. What was my methodology?

Let me reveal my methodology by comparing my first and second grade teachers.


My first grade teacher saw me as an instigator at nap time (I actually got “needs improvement” on my report card for nap time) and I recall having to stand in the trashcan because the other corners were full of kids I had caused to act out some how.  My second grade teacher saw me as a leader and gave me very important jobs to do like making sure the kick ball came in from recess and stocking the chalk tray.


My first grade teacher made wrong assumptions about me and, because I am verbal assumed I was a reader.  I was placed in the high reading group when I should have been in the middle or low one.  I developed all sorts of strategies for not showing my inabilities to read like the other kids and still don’t think of myself as a reader.  My second grade teacher asked what we were all interested in and the very next day had stacks and stacks of books all around the room.  She told us where our stack was and that we should pick out books from the stack that we think are just a little too easy and just a little too hard.  We took the easy ones home to keep until we finished them (no check out and return date like the library) and she listened to each of us read the ones that were a little too hard.  She then paired us up as reading buddies.  We changed around every now and then as she constantly moved through the room listening to us read and asking us questions.


My first grade teacher gave up helping me improve my handwriting.  It turns out she had no standards for performance.  Changing out her bulletin board was more important than figuring out that I am somewhat ambidextrous and should have probably tried writing with my left hand.  When I am writing something for an elementary kid to read, I do it with my left hand. It’s more time consuming but more legible.  I figured that out whenI became an aunt.  My second grade teacher had high standards and was not someone I wanted to disappoint.  When I learned I was going to have her for second grade, I began studying the encyclopedia and taking notes in a college ruled spiral notebook.  No lie.


Other than nap time and hand writing, I don’t remember much from first grade except that we had spelling tests each week.  I don’t think my first grade teacher was still at the school the next year and I am certain she was not there when my younger brother was in first grade.


I remember my second grade teacher reading books to us and telling us stories.  I remember doing science experiments and having to change our teams in kick ball to make sure everyone had a chance to play with everyone.
What would Charlotte Danielson say about these two teachers?  My second grade teacher was definitely better at “Domain 1: Planning and Preparation”.  She also nailed Danielson’s other three domains – The Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities.


Would you get the same story if you asked another student who had both teachers, even in the same year?  Other students may have felt like Mrs. Milton (second grade) was too terse or spent too much time reading to kids.  Other students may have liked the leveled reading groups in first grade.  There are different things different kids like and don’t like, no doubt.


What about “teacher quality” and “value added” can be objective and what is inherently subjective?  Did both of these teachers add value to my life or not?


I am going to share this blog post with a media specialist in my school division who was in my first and second grade classes.  Really.  I am going to ask her to respond in a comment to this post, indicating whether or not she has any of the same memories and what she thinks now some 39ish years later.  Will we agree on “teacher quality”? How will she describe the “value added”?  We’ll see!

Evaluating teachers and quarterbacks

March 13, 2011

As a kid, I sort of cracked the code for the quarterback rating formula when I was in 4th grade or so.  If you’re interested in this story, you can check out my Learning a Hobby post.  I also had what I considered to be good and bad teachers throughout my school career.  I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what makes teachers “good,” but I haven’t thought of this in terms of a formula.  Until now.

Here’s a graphic from an article in the New York Times (login to a free account is required):

This is interesting to me.  How do you measure and assign a value to “student characteristics”? Does a poor black kid living with his grandmother who makes him do his homework and be respectful to his elders count higher or lower than a kid who has two professional parents who will always side with their son because he, like them, is entitled to the best in life?  How do you measure “true total school effect”?  What is the “student error term”?  Subscripts, superscripts, Greek letters as variables and summations.  I don’t buy it.

Here’s how the NFL rates passers (per Wikipedia):

where mm(x) = max(0,min(x,2.375))


It’s not the subscripts, superscripts, Greek letters, and mathematical operations that make these two formulas fundamentally different, it’s the nature of the “data” and the interrelationships between the values that make one formula comprehensible and the other not for me.

In a 16 game regular season, an NFL quarterback may have a few passes where there is a difference of opinion as to whether it was caught or incomplete or intercepted.  A few touchdowns may be called back because of a penalty or some other factor.  But, by and large, there is wide acceptance to what it means to complete a pass, to attempt a pass, to intercept a pass, or to score a touch down.  There is an accepted method for measuring the distance gained when a pass is completed.  The commisioner, owners, players, coaches, referees, announcers, and fans share in this body of knowledge and pretty much accept the outcome when the final decision comes down.

Teaching and learning is not this calculable.  What works for one student may not work for another.  Not all kids have the same resources at home or at school.  Not all teachers have the same level of support from their principals.  Not all principals have access to a supportive central office or others who can help improve learning in their school.  Not all PTOs can raise the same dollar amounts.  Not all school libraries are powerful centers for meaning making.

Another thing that I find amazing in all of this is the notion of winning or losing a game regardless of how well the quarterback rated.  Having a perfect quarterback rating for a game does not guarantee victory, which is what really counts in the end.  Just ask Chad Pennington and Bobby Hebert – they both had perfect games according to the formula but walked away losers.  And, the highest rated quarterback doesn’t always make it to the playoffs.  How will this play out for our teacher rating formulas?

On the future of wars and schools

March 6, 2011

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  Albert Einstein (1947)

Ask a typical student (if there is such a thing as one) in a typical school (if there is such a thing as one) in my pretty typical school division (Albemarle) in a pretty typical state (Virginia) today what they think of school and you will likely get an answer like, “It’s ok.”  Push them – “Is it as good as it could be?” – and they will say, “No.”  “What would make it better?” and they will describe their desire to learn things that matter beyond the test TOGETHER and without coercion.  They don’t want to have to keep up with thick homework packets, they don’t want to copy notes down from the board (“Can’t she just give us a PowerPoint or something?”) and they don’t want to solve the same problem 35 times with just different numbers.  They want to learn things that matter beyond the test TOGETHER and without coercion.

“So, if you could pick what you learned about in school, what would you pick?”  And the 13 year old young man responded, “You see, I am really in to music so I would like to learn more about it.  But she (motioning to the young lady beside him) is really in to graphic novels, so she would like to learn more about them.  But we come here (to school) and we have to learn about stuff just because the state or somebody says we do and it’s going to be on some test.”

“Do you think it’s possible for a teacher to teach you what’s going to be in the test through music?”  And the 13 year old young man responded, “Maybe in some classes, but I don’t think my teachers have time.  And, I don’t think they know enough about music.  I mean, my history teacher could let us listen to music from the olden days we are studying and that would be better than just reading about it and filling out worksheets and practice multiple choice tests.”

“So, you don’t think your teachers are very smart or creative”?  “That’s not what I am saying.  My teachers are smart and they work really hard, there’s just this test we have to take.”  “What do you think school was like before these tests?”  “I don’t know, my mom said she had homework, too, she just did it out of a textbook and not packets she had to keep in a binder.  They didn’t have the Internet, either.”

What was school like BEFORE these tests?  Did kids get to choose what they learned and how they learned it?  Were authentic performances of mastery commonplace and open to the public?  Were kids grouped by age or interests?  How were schools organized?  How were teachers assigned to groups of kids?  How did teachers work together?  How were teachers evaluated?  How did they get better?  Did all kids learn what they needed to in order to succeed in life?  Did kids learn to learn?

What will schools be like AFTER these tests?  Will schools even exist?  Will they be giving better tests?  Will they be organized differently OR at all?

What was the curriculum like in a one-room school house?  Was it provided by the government or was it governed by the teacher and the community?  Was it based on producing right answers or learning to read, write, compute, and think?  Was the one-room school house education 1.0?

What version are we in right now?  What happens when a new version is not as user friendly or as powerful as the one before?  What will the next version be like?


Learn with me, not like me

February 20, 2011

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”  Albert Einstein

How do you learn professionally?  When do you learn professionally?  With whom do you learn professionally? How does your professional learning change your professional questioning? 

I have not pushed Twitter on my colleagues but so much.  I have invited them in through emailing Tweets that fit interests and job-focus as well as pushing Tweets to Yammer, our walled micro-blogging community.  When someone from my district joins Twitter, I introduce them to a few others trying to help them connect but not overwhelm them.  I offer technical assistance with using a variety of Twitter tools like tweetgrid and TweetDeck.

When a few of us on Twitter started talking about having a Twitter book group on the latest ASCD member book Focus by Mike Schmoker, I invited a group of my district colleagues to join in and thought it might be the gentle Twitter-nudge some of them needed to see Twitter as a valuable tool for professional learning.  What I learned, though, is the folks I invited hadn’t received the book because they are not ASCD members.  So, I made sure they had information necessary to access our district account so they could read the book online and stepped back a bit.

I walked in to a meeting a little late on Friday and the informal discussion topic was “book groups.”  Obviously my Focus book group peddling had gotten some traction even though none of the other administrators I had invited joined.  As I was sitting there listening to a discussion about when different people want to talk about the books they are reading and what kinds of books they like to read and discuss and what kinds they just like to read, it dawned on me that I don’t really want my colleagues to learn like me, I just want them to learn with me.

“What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.” -L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society

I keep coming back to the notion of a “guaranteed and viable curriculum,” this time with respect to administrators.  This topic has appeared two other times in posts of mine – What does “reducing variance” mean in education? and Is it still “what works in schools”?  The fact that we have known for so long that this is the single-most important school factor in determining student achievement and we still don’t seem to get it right is one of the key points Schmoker makes in Focus.  If we can’t figure out the core experiences, content, and skills that connects all of our administrators some how or the other, why would we think we could do this for kids when we have 400 times more of them?

Does this mean I am suggesting a required reading list for all school administrators?  No, it doesn’t.  I think reading is a path to exploring but not the only one.  What I am suggesting is that all administrators should be grappling with Schmoker’s questions and statements – they are not unlike questions and statements also made by Marzano and Reeves.  We need to think about what we teach, how we teach, and literacy.  We should think about these with new information and together.  Want to join a book group about this with some of my Twitter buddies and me?