Tag Archives: Education

Once a Teacher

A poster called Choose Your Own Adventure in Technology Land with four items: Making and Makerspaces, Hour of Code, Augmented, Virtual and Virtual Worlds, and Edutainment.
Choose Your Own Adventure in Technology Land poster

My twitter feed is filled with pictures of my K-12 teaching friends as they begin the year, eager to connect with their students. I am excited for them and, even after decades of being out of the middle school classroom, I always have a pang of regret that I took a different path in 2001.

That unconventional path has provided me with a variety of opportunities to work with educators across the country. But, I don’t necessarily think of that as teaching. I was engaging in professional development, which to my mind has a different quality than teaching. I have continued to teach, however, working with students in a formal setting where we have time to develop relationships, explore curriculum and create knowledge together.

This fall, I am teaching two courses, one for Old Dominion University and one for University of Richmond. Both are graduate courses related to instructional technology for a mostly K-12 educators. The two courses represent the ends of the spectrum in terms of how teaching and learning is done in higher education.

The Old Dominion course is designed for career switchers, people with degrees in other fields who wish to become teachers. It is always a wonderfully diverse mix of individuals as they come, in some cases, from all over the world. The course is completely online and asynchronous. But, we still create community using tools like Flip and Padlet to share and explore. I don’t have a lot of leeway with the content as the course is taught by multiple professors, but I am able to bring my own personality and practices to teaching online. But, it is a still a very different relationship than my face to face course.

At University of Richmond, I have taught School Technology each fall to students in the graduate education program for many years and it is most definitely MY course. Pre-COVID it was fully face to face with perhaps one virtual meeting to give them a flavor for learning online. I revisit the content and curriculum each year as well as the way I deliver the course. We have been almost completely online for the past years. This year, I am experimenting with a hybrid format that allows for us to connect as a whole group and then give students time for their own exploration and work.

Basically, I have front loaded the content into September. We work together on campus until fall break. Last year, I began using a textbook: the small but impactful volume, Closing the Gap: Digital Equity Strategies for the K-12 Classroom. I am continuing with that this year as the authors cover the big picture with the lens of equity that helps connect various topics in a useful way. They also provide a framework for students to consider their own problems of practice that lead to their final, individual projects, which they work on in November.

In between, October is given over to the students to explore on their own. I created a Choose Your Own Adventure activity that focuses on four different areas of ed tech that I don’t have time to cover in any depth. They learn a little about each one and then choose one to explore in more depth, with the goal considering how they might roll it out in their schools. A secondary objective is for them to think about how they use technology to research, reflect and report. What tools do they for curation? Collaboration? Communication?

We meet tonight for the first time and I am a little nervous, as always.

Begin Again

Solomon's Seal and Dragonflies
A favorite spot in my spring garden

This blog post is inspired by two people. Tim Stahmer has been blogging consistently since the early naughts. I’ve had blogs setup as long as he has, but I never got into the rhythm. But, like many of us, he found himself feeling unsettled in this era of the unknown and it impacted his writing, partly because he wasn’t sure what to say.

Jennifer Orr, meanwhile, has been giving us all a glimpse into the world of teachers right now. As always, her courage to share her deepest fears and griefs and joys inspires me.

I started the year with good intentions and enjoyed blogging in January, partly because I gave myself permission to write about whatever I wanted. I posted a few thoughts early on in the crisis but, like Tim, I ran out of energy and wondered what I had to share.

I admire Jen’s courage to speak her truth. Through her eyes, we also see the lives of her students and their families. And, she reminds us that the wires and switches are about connecting people and supporting community. We can fix the technology problems, but there is an emotional toll that will be harder to repair. We need more teachers to tell their stories all the time but never more so than now.

So, to Tim’s question, what can I say? I think I’m going back to my January philosophy and writing about what comes to mind. I am back to baking regularly with two different sourdough starters. My flower gardens are coming together and there are lots of lessons to learn while weeding. Meanwhile, my husband is putting in extra tomato, squash, zucchini and cucumber plants this year,  thinking that our local community, a food desert, will benefit from fresh produce this summer. I will be channeling my grandmothers as I pickle, can, ferment and freeze. I’m back to reading after struggling with concentration.

For now, I’ll end with a potentially helpful resource for those who are struggling with connectivity. The Commonwealth Coalition, of which VSTE is a proud member, has created a wifi hotspot map for the state:

I like that one near me is at Moores Swamp Church. But it is a picture of inequity as well. Rural folks expect to drive longer distances for services but, at this point in time, Internet is like electricity. It needs to come directly to the house.

Inspiration from the Feed

I am inspired by Austin Kleon on a daily basis and eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book. The first chapter grew from this post about doing the work every day even if it is small steps.

So, today, instead of starting with Twitter, I started with Feedly, and the writers and thinkers I have assembled to challenge me with their ideas. Here’s my brief reaction to two items in this morning’s feed. I would encourage you to explore both these writers in more depth.

Jose Vilson, in his piece Writing as Threat, points to the challenges faced by writers of color who must operate in space controlled predominantly by white people and cheers those who are meeting that challenge:

My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist

But, his description of the insecurity of writing is universal. Jose and I share a love of language and reverence for the writers who can wield words like swords or solace. It makes us hesitate to call ourselves writers but, I agree with Jose, his own words have called him out. He is a writer.

Tim Stahmer, in his post No, They Are Not Skills?, reflects on a question I used to ask during leadership workshops: can we teach creativity? We would do a needs assessment around those “soft” skills like creativity and curiosity and then ponder how we get them into an already packed curriculum. Often, the participants came to a similar conclusion as Tim: creativity is a mindset rather than a skill and one that needs space and time to develop, something that may simply not be possible to do in our current iteration of “school.” At some point in the workshop, someone might ask how we define creativity, and that is a whole other discussion but just consider your answer to this: am I “creative” when I build a Lego model from the directions provided?

What Are Our Values?

This is the question asked by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund at the end of a powerful essay that describes the deep cuts being made in education programs.  Education has not been a big part of  the Republican debates unless they are talking about reducing the federal government’s role.  And, indeed, the track record has not been good for the feds as they have led to a national obsession with test scores and now with teacher evaluation.

The government hasn’t always been such a detriment to education.  The response to Sputnik spurred new interest in science and federal money helped fund summer programs and teacher development.

Unfortunately, helping poor kids succeed doesn’t seem to compare to concern about the Soviets as a national crisis, and yet we know that those in poverty are more likely to drop out, which leads to a whole host of issues from higher incarceration rates to lower employment earning.  But there seems to be a desire on the side of conservatives to blame the poor for their lot, suggesting it is easy to escape the cycle.  Most of these suggestions, of course, are made by people who have never had to worry about paying the rent or feeding themselves.

So, while we say we value education, we have all sorts of excuses for why we don’t show those values in both access and funding.  It’s a simple, but powerful question: what are our values?

Education Nation?

I realize it’s been a long time since I posted but here we go…I’ve been dropping in and out of NBC’s Education Nation coverage this week, mostly because when I listen for too long, I find myself frustrated and lecturing my non-educator husband on how they are simplifying an incredibly complex issue and also dancing around the real issues. So, take this for what it is: a rant.

If one more NBC personality says how proud they are that they are sponsoring this earth changing event, I am going to cancel my cable. Are you kidding? Somehow, with your sound bites and your condescension, you are going to do what educators have been struggling with for decades? Get over yourself. The “debates” you are holding are so rhetorically empty with little or no practical guidance for the real educators, the ones who day after day face classrooms of kids with varying levels of preparation, family support, and personal motivation. The ones who must often beg to get resources for their kids by signing up for charity sites or shopping at yard sales and thrift shops. The ones who would love to have the luxury of lots of time for reflective practice but without any real planning time built into the schedule. The ones who supposedly enjoy the summer off and yet often teach summer school or hold down other jobs to supplement their salaries and who often cannot afford to live in the districts in which they teach.

Are teachers under attack? That was the question at the teacher town hall. Yes, they are, and by the very people who should be supporting them. Why do we have failing teachers? Could it possibly be because no one in authority provided them with the kind of mentoring and support that would have made them better? So, what’s the answer? Fire them. Great…because from what I hear, there’s a long line of people waiting to go into the teaching profession. (Sarcasm intended.) What about the superintendents who allowed their school district to become failing? What about the school board members who came on board to push their own agendas, which often focus on cutting costs and running schools more like businesses? (Just to be clear, which business is that: Lehman Brothers or GM?) What about the principals who spend time fine tuning the budget don’t know much about instruction or are themselves so overburdened with paperwork and meetings that they simply can’t do more than a quick observation or hallway conversation? What about the parents who never come to PTA meetings or Back to School Night but show up the minute little Johnny is disciplined for an infraction, ready to sue everyone in sight? This is a SYSTEM with systemic problems and just holding teachers more accountable is not going to fix anything but probably end up driving good people away. Oh, wait, from what I hear, that’s already happening with a frighteningly high teacher attrition rate. Each semester, I get a new crop of fresh-faced eager students at William and Mary and I wonder how many of them will stick with it in the face of all the negatives.

And those negatives…so far I haven’t seen anyone question standardized testing as either a quality measure of student achievement or teacher performance. So far, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that if we could decrease the poverty and unemployment rates in cities like DC and Detroit, the schools might also improve. So far, I haven’t heard that the horribly unequal funding of schools through taxes might be an issue. Every time I turn it on the problem seems focused almost solely on teachers and what needs to be done to make them better or get rid of them.

As for charter schools, I’m here to tell you that the jury is still out. In fact, I just heard a superintendent speak about his school district last week and after instituting some very specific reforms, he showed us the achievement picture. Of the ten or so schools in his district, nine had moved into the highest level of achievement defined by the state. The tenth? Oh, it was doing OK but it wasn’t exemplary like the others, and he offhandedly mentioned that it was the charter school.

And, finally, a word of caution to the perky girl who decided that unions and tenure were the problem. She wanted to hold Saturday study sessions with her kids but the union wouldn’t let her. The pundits suggested that this new crop of teachers just didn’t get the unions or tenure because they perceived that they were standing in the way of good education. I’ve dabbled with the unions over my tenure in education, participating in a strike in Pennsylvania and then heading the teacher association in Virginia. (I won’t call it a union since there’s no collective bargaining.) It’s all well and good to criticize the unions because there are times when they seem to be in support of bad teachers and bad policies. But now, they seem to be on the side of those who are attacking the teachers…it’s all about better evaluation, according to Randi Weingartner. But if you get rid of the unions, then to whom will teachers turn when the option of holding Saturday sessions becomes a mandate with no additional compensation and you would prefer to spend the day with your own kids? When, as happened in a division in which I worked, the school administration lengthens the school day by 45 minutes, not to provide time for more instruction but to accommodate a new bus schedule and you have to be there even though it doesn’t give you any more time with kids? When, in order to meet the crippling budget cuts, the school must take away the already pathetically short planning time so you can cover lunch duty? But, since this is television, no one ever had the chance to ask those questions. Tenure can be your friend in a profession in which you are being painted as the bad guy and in which false accusations can ruin your career in a heart beat.

Finally, no one seems to want to challenge the 800-pound gorilla in the room: standardized testing. I have yet to hear details about what a humane teacher evaluation system would look like. But I think the Salt Lake Tribune is at least recognizing the problems with evaluating teachers based on test scores and suggesting the “student achievement” and “teacher accountability” may be terms that need teased out a bit more:

We have supported merit pay for Utah teachers as a way to reward teaching excellence and to boost student achievement. But we agree with teachers’ union leaders who say relying on test scores to determine how well students are learning is unfair and shallow. Test scores are influenced by many factors that are largely outside a teacher’s control, such as a child’s home environment, his attendance, learning disabilities and ability to communicate in English.

Aah, someone who is at least hinting at the complexities of this system. Yes, folks, there are bad teachers out there, just like there are bad lawyers and accountants and bankers and doctors. Do some need to be fired? Sure. But do more of them simply need support in terms of resources, ongoing education, and time for planning and learning? Absolutely.

I could, clearly, go on and on here…like about China, whose teachers have about half the number of classes and students during the day as their American counterparts, freeing them to do in depth planning, preparation and professional development.

Blessedly, if you’ve been reading this far, I have to get started on my real work. But if anyone from NBC is out there listening, how about some real talk about real issues? How about putting Michelle Rhee and some of her teachers in the same room? How about finding some Chicago folks who don’t think Arne Duncan represents a true progressive view of education? Here’s just one more article that illustrates the complexities of the system, something for you to chew over as you go about your day.