Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Schools That Learn

The discussion that Farryl and I had this evening was very in depth and energizing. We discussed the many concerns and issues that we face in trying to provide leadership in our schools, and the sometimes daunting tasks that face us (and many teachers) in trying to bring change to our schools. It was particularly enjoyable because the discussion involved just the two of us, and allowed us to get deeper into our understandings of what challenges each of us face.
In my case, I worked years ago in a tough school district in East Harlem that lacked much in the way of resources, and perhaps more importantly, had much in the way of challenges facing the students. Farryl's circumstances are very similar to that, and she faces daunting challenges in dealing with them at times. In Schools That Learn (STL), we shared our thoughts in particular about the "moral imperative" teachers face in these circumstances: "If we fail to undertake that kind of inquiry into the moral nature and consequences of our actions as educators, then our practices remain unquestioned. Even those practices that have devastating consequences for certain students will continue, unquestioned." (p. 278). In reading that passage, and listening to the quandary that Farryl is facing, I was reminded of the pressures I too felt when faced with such circumstances. That is, if we know in our hearts that something is needed, how can we day after day ignore it? If we know our students need a certain group of skills, or a way of learning, and each day they don't have the chance to obtain that, then what the hell are we doing?
So then we think, we'll get the resources we need and change the world, right? Well, not so fast. I've learned that having the resources removes an obstacle, for sure, but we're still left with the question of what does learning in these times look like, or what should it look like? It's easy to acknowledge that moral imperative that I mentioned above, that self-imposed pressure to "do the right thing." But that just pushes us sometimes into unhappiness, into finding reasons why something can't be done. If we want to effect change, we know in our heart of hearts that we also have to provide a positive direction for ourselves, and we have to find leadership (whether within ourselves or from others) that will help to move things in the direction so many of us feel the need to move.
One of the most provocative parts of the sections of STL that I read involved the discussion surrounding our "core purpose." It narrowly discussed that question surrounding a university's department of education, but the questions, "Why do we exist? What do we want to accomplish? What do we stand for? What do we believe about teaching and learning?" Cambron-McCabe, p. 312) can (should) be the types of questions that EVERY teacher asks. The answers to those questions can be fluid, not necessarily written in stone, but we have to ask them of ourselves and our schools, and we must use them to drill toward our core beliefs. I have faith in my colleagues, I trust that everyone shows up here each day wanting to do their best, and these questions, if we can begin conversations about them, may be the energizing factor that will help us to change our school for the best.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What does "Support our troops" mean?


Sen. Chuck Hagel is a Vietnam vet and a Republican, Sen. Jim Webb is also a Vietnam vet and a Democrat, and they proposed a new GI Bill to support the troops fighting in Iraq, similar to the GI Bill that came about after World War II.
The Bush administration is against it, so the threat of a veto makes it impossible to pass with just Democratic support in the Senate. The bill would therefore need 60 sponsors to be "veto-proof," and that means Republicans like John McCain would need to sign on. But most Republicans, including McCain, have refused.

McCain's reasons were in today's NY Times Magazine:
"...When Webb and Hagel (a close personal friend of McCain’s) proposed a bill to give troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan more time at home before redeploying, McCain, whose 19-year-old son has served with the Marines in Iraq, forcefully opposed them, saying the troops were needed in the theater. More recently, McCain has found himself on the opposite side of Webb and Hagel again, this time over their “G.I. bill” that would offer education money to every returning veteran. McCain and others want a more limited bill that would encourage rank-and-file soldiers to re-enlist rather than return to civilian life."

Also in that same article today:

"...In his book, Chuck Hagel writes of listening to declassified tapes from the mid-1960s in which Lyndon Johnson admitted to advisers that Vietnam probably couldn’t be won but rued that withdrawal would make him the first American president to lose a war. “I wish someone had told me when I was sitting on a burning tank in a Vietnamese rice paddy that I was fighting for a lost cause just to save a president’s legacy,” Hagel observes acidly."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why change anything if we're doing well?

During our Marratech session, the observation was made, “If 50% of New York City students are dropping out, something’s not working.” The problem for most of the rest of us though, is that we are shielded from the worst consequences of such outcomes because we work in districts where such numbers are safely far enough away from our outcomes. That reduces the pressure to try something new, anything, in order to address those devastating outcomes. As long as our students score in the 90th percentile, who will ask if anything better can be done? What’s missing is a sense of comparison, that if we only measure our students against each other, then a general consensus of failure will insulate us, which is what I think is happening.
Many times in my classroom-teacher past, I have performed miraculous demonstrations of incredibly complex concepts, leapt across great chasms of misunderstanding, and landed on the opposite cliffs of understanding,* only to look back and see the empty looks of students who didn’t get it. At that point, I could of course resort to blaming the students, since my own performance as a teacher was beyond reproach, but one thing kept nagging me: The sense even as I was performing that this wasn’t going to work, no matter how great I performed Why? In simplest terms, because you can’t tell everybody everything, you can’t tell everything to somebody, and you can’t tell some things to everybody. I knew that something else needed to be tried. Luckily for me, those reflections came while teaching in East Harlem, where I was not shielded from the knowledge that many of our students weren’t making it, even out of 6th grade.
At about this same time, I had experience while working in various international banks with tools called computers, which I knew had the potential to help with some parts of the teaching and learning in my classroom. So I started emptying out the closets filled with Apples and Macs and set them up in my classroom and began the imperfect, still-under-way transition from non-differentiated instruction, sage-on-a-stage, single modality of my first classrooms toward a vision of differentiated instruction and activities, and a place where students were valued as having their own knowledge, understandings and abilities that could be valued and could contribute to the success of my classrooms.
My current work mostly in the computer lab of Center Street School seems to be all over the “Paradigm Map,” depending on the class, circumstances and goals. Some days the students search for information themselves, create their own content, questions and solutions to problems. Other times the instruction is more directed, the goals more modest. But compared to my earlier forays, this at least most times has the feel of being real, of connecting to the needs of my students and eliminating the blank stares so often encountered in my classroom teaching days.

*(Tongue planted firmly in cheek here)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Which Way Is It?

I'm in a kind of strange position when it comes to technology. Most of my job involves acting as an evangelist for the kinds of change that technology can bring. My role is to promote the promise of technology and to help with its implementation in any way possible, certainly a role I embrace. And yet any teacher who has been in a classroom for more than a few years quickly learns that too much technology is not teacher-driven, but rather foisted upon us by those with other agendas. TV's were supposed to change learning, so were projectors and film clips. B.F. Skinner even promised teaching machines back in the 50's. I have seen the reality that technology can distract teachers from real learning ("PowerPointlessness"), that it sometimes only promotes commercial interests over educational (closed-circuit TV's paid for by Coke, free computers from Apple and others), and that it often seems to be enhancing inequities among schools and students instead of diminishing them.
The technologies that are seen likely to be implemented in the near-term, such as grassroots video and collaborative technologies, clearly demonstrate this dichotomy of possibilities. On the one hand, the power of video and other collaborative technologies is indisputable in reaching out to people and connecting them in new and powerful ways. Yet I've seen too many times where this ability is its own rationale, that the assumption becomes because we can do this, that we must do this. Too many times in my career, I've seen teachers scared into embracing technologies not because they need them or understand how they can enhance learning, but because they fear the scrutiny of not being on board with the newest thing. Heaven forbid that you are the only teacher in your grade who hasn't published a podcast. My somewhat different position on that is, you should understand the technology well enough to use it when it does something that you could not do otherwise, or as well. But that is not the pressure placed on teachers. Instead, the pressure to embrace the "latest thing" comes from outside the boundaries of what is educationally appropriate, and that (any veteran teacher will tell you) just drives us nuts.
And then, further down the road, teachers hear of technologies such as "collective intelligence" (wikis, etc.) and "social operating systems" and with a panic realize, oh my, we better get on board with this before some parent, administrator or school board member sees us as the only one NOT using this technology! From my work inside the classroom, working with teachers on how to embrace and exploit technology, I have tried to develop a sense of not cynicism (which too many colleagues do embrace), but rather a professional sense of judgment about which technologies should be used, and how they enhance learning. I worry that the unexamined embrace of technology will lead to situations that do not help teachers, students and learning. For example, in the article, Which Technologies Will Shape Education in 2008, there is a quote about weaving the connections and clues of our lives together, "and use them to organize our work and our thinking around the people we know." That notion clashes (mashes?) with another critique I read recently about social networking, that what is happening is that it is connecting people only with people who think like they do, which is most definitely NOT what the goal of teaching is about.
I feel that the more fully I can help to empower teachers to make their own professional judgment about the use of potentially useful technologies, the more that the embrace of those technologies will be truly deep and meaningful, not merely public relations.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Revolution in the Classroom?

I don't necessarily disagree with Dr. Weston's assertion that there will be (maybe is) a revolution in the classroom, especially in terms of technology. There has certainly been the veneer of change with regard to what students do each day, compared to when I started my career. I think what gave me reservations was the sense that this may not be universal, or worse, may not ever reach a majority of students. I would LIKE to see a revolution in terms of how we educate students, and I certainly have dedicated much of my professional life to trying to effect that. But I'm pessimistic about how far-reaching it might be. And from a longer perspective, it may not happen at all.