19 October 2014

Social Studies Includes History and Thinking

My two sons & two of their friends at Perryville Battlefield State Park
In Kentucky right now there's a little controversy stirred up about the new [draft] social studies standards for our state based on the multi-state-led c3 Framework (College, Career and Civic Ready Standards). Since I've written numerous times previously about how our family likes history, I decided to share some of my own thoughts following an historically enriching afternoon our family spent at Perryville Battlefield State Park not far from where we live.

History is important.

Based on what I've read in the draft standards, I don't think there's any doubt that history is important. Sure the standards don't dictate which events we must study, but they do require us to study history in order to think historically. Let's take a look at grade 6.


As a professional, I am given the freedom to determine which events from history we will use to make connections and classify them as example of change and continuity. Likewise, for each of the historical thinking stanards above, these standards honor my professional judgment for working with my individual students to determine which events from history we will explore.

As a parent, I like this approach because my child who loves history can explore the aspects of history which most interest him while still learning how to think critically. Additionally, as a parent I can determine which aspects of history we will continue to study as a family.  Sure, the standard doesn't say "explore the Battle of Perryville as an important part of Kentucky's participation in the Civil War." However, the standard doesn't have to state specifically which battle we will study in order for us to study a battle. Standards are the minimum students will learn, not the maximum, another important consideration.

 I appreciate this important consideration and the fact that the new standards don't articulate exactly which pieces of history should be taught. Instead, the standards encourage thinking and they leave the job of considering the specifics of what to teach up to the local districts, schools, and teachers. As a former English teacher I can't tell you how much I appreciate the freedom provided in this approach. Think about it--how would we feel if the standards demanded that we teach particular novels or selections of non-fiction with little regard for our contexts, our students' interests, or our own professional judgment?

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the C3 Framework. Notice the emphasis on honoring students.

"Readiness for college, career, and civil life is as much about the experiences students have as it is about learning any particular set of concepts or tools. Thus, the learning environments that teachers create are critical to student success. Students will flourish to the extent that their independent and collaborative efforts are guided, supported, and honored."



09 October 2014

Let Them Be Curious: 13 Year Old Shares His Ideas on Science Education

Note: This article originally appeared in Science Connection, a newsletter produced by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Since his toddler years, my oldest son (now age 13) has shown an interest in physical science, especially anything having to do with energy. From his earliest years, science books, gadgets, circuitry, and anything solar powered has fascinated him. He even spends spare time watching YouTube clips about science and Mythbusters. Now, before you get a mental picture of educators’ son (My husband is an educator, too) who’s just a nerd, let me tell you that this child is an average teen interested in video games and computers like most other teens his age. The other trait Ethan has in common with average kids his age is a curious mind interested in exploring and learning. What’s exciting to me about the Next Generation Science Standards is the push for greater exploration of scientific concepts and the opportunity for students to ask more questions. Since the goal will be for students to ask the questions rather than for teachers to create a lab experiment with step-by-step instructions, I recently asked Ethan about NGSS Standard PS3.C. His curious nature took hold as he explained to me how he would teach this standard if he were the teacher. Below is a portion of our conversation.
Ethan: An active teen


RB: Ethan, I’m looking at the Next Generation Science Standards being implemented in schools around the country, including Kentucky, and I’m looking specifically at a standard for middle school that says “when two objects interact, each one exerts a force on the other, and these forces can transfer energy between them.” What do you think?

Ethan: yeah, what about it?

RB: If you had to teach that standard to kids, how would you do it?

Ethan: Well, there are several ways you could do it. You could use magnets, or plastic combs or balloons, but you should really let kids explore and see what might happen before you tell them anything.

RB: What do you mean?

Ethan: So, take the plastic comb idea. I would gather the students around a sink, give them all plastic combs and tell them to make the water bend.

RB: What if they don’t know what to do?

Ethan: That’s okay. They’ll figure it out probably if you give them a chance.

RB
: But how would I give them a chance and still teach them anything? What if they just stand there?

Ethan: Mom, these are middle schoolers standing near a sink, they’re not going to just stand there. They’re curious and they will want to play around.

RB: ok. But what if they don’t figure it out?

Ethan: Well, after you wait a bit, you might have to start giving them hints.

RB: What kind of hints?

Ethan: Well, you could ask them questions or get them to ask you questions.

RB: What kind of questions?

Ethan: More than likely, the students will start asking questions and trying things out. They might ask—what will happen if I put this water under water? What will happen if I run the comb through my hair and then put it in water? If they don’t ask those questions or try out those things you might ask them how they think they could make static electricity with the comb.

RB: So, more than likely they will have some experience with combs and their hair having static electricity, right?

Ethan: yeah, then you could start explaining stuff to them like electrical charge happens when objects are rubbed together, so you will have charge when you run the comb through your hair.

RB: Tell me more.

Ethan: Negatively charged particles move from your hair to the comb. This makes the comb negatively charged. Electrons repel other electrons. If the negatively charged comb (from rubbing it in your hair) is near the water, it repels the electrons in the water. The water near the comb has a positive charge. The attraction between the positive charge and the negative charge bends the water.

RB: So how do you know this? Is this an experiment you did at school?

Ethan: No, I tried it in the bathroom sink one time. Plus I watched a YouTube video about it. It works the same way with strong magnets. But really, mom, you should try it and read about it too.

And, there you have it, a science lesson from my 13 year old son, and I would guess most science teachers already know this experiment, so the purpose of our sharing was not so much to tell you a cool experiment kids might enjoy. Instead, the purpose of our sharing this exchange and idea with you is to help you see just how curious kids are on their own, if we let them be. We don't have to provide step-by-step instructions for doing the experiment, and it seems the NGSS don't want us to do that anyway.

Some sites Ethan suggests for learning about bending water (just make sure you don’t provide kids the step-by-step instructions).





07 October 2014

Breaking Down the Silos Between School Finance & Teaching and Learning

Last week I once again stepped out of my comfort zone, big time. I attended an education finance training in Chicago where the majority of the attendees were CFOs or other business types who provide technical assistance to districts and schools as they align instruction priorities and finance decisions.

Several of the comments made by my table partners alarmed me, and I pushed back on them too. Take this statement--

"We can't have people so close to issues involved in decisions about how we spend money."
                             --anonymous person at my table

Really? Wow. No. I couldn't let that one slide. I believe there are teachers who are logical minded and plenty smart enough to help make decisions about how we spend money that will impact their students. So, of course, I calmly brought this up, and was repeatedly smacked back down. I'm not one to stay down for long though. Advocating for teachers as part of decision making processes is important to me, so that's what I did. By the end of the session, I had a couple of people beginning to see my perspective.
"Someone from leadership needs to determine what needs to be fixed and take steps to fix it"            
                            --anonymous person at my table
Another shocker. Why should it be someone at the top making decisions about how to fix problems? I learned recently about some of the best places in America to work, and each of those places values the input of everyone on every level in the company. Can't it be the same way in our school systems? Students, teachers, janitors, administrative assistants all are people who might have suggestions for budget issues in our public schools.

Beautiful Chicago at Night from the Air
Honestly, I can't say I've previously paid much attention to how money is spent in our schools, but I've decided I need to change my perspective on this, and I was inspired by Irvin Scott from the Gates Foundation who said he used to not think much about the finances either, and then he determined that if he was going to think about wisely spending money on the resources needed for instruction, he needed to understand the bigger picture. He recited a poem for the group and reminded us of the high expectations we need to establish and maintain for our students. Sometimes we need resources for helping us maintain these high expectations. The image he shared was perfect. We want students on their tip-toes reaching our expectations, and we certainly don't want students to stoop to meet our expectations. Again, all the more reason to think about how we spend our money to impact student learning.

According to reports from Smarter School Spending, only 8% of schools and districts compare investments based on student achievement. I'm not sure why this surprised me. I worked in schools and districts for nearly fifteen years, and countless times I saw money wasted on various fads or initiatives that were not necessarily aligned to any learning goals or objectives.

Educator friends, I encourage you to learn what you can about finance decisions made in your schools and districts. How? If you're all about instruction---step out of your comfort zone & learn something new about finances and make your voice known in a logical and smart way.

Finally, though, I think it's essential that we break down the silos between the people in finance and the people in teaching and learning. By working together, we have a greater chance of making smart decisions about how money in our schools is spent. If you need tools to help you make smarter decisions, you might consider checking out the tools I learned about last week.


03 October 2014

Let's Change the Test Scores Conversation

State test scores were released to the public today in Kentucky, and I can already hear rumblings. Our scores dropped, we didn't meet our goals, what are we going to do? More test prep! NO. Please. NO. We have schools full of unengaged and bored children and teens who don't even want to attend school. More skill and drill and continuous test prep will surely make them dread school even more. Plus, really, has it worked for you thus far? Have constant test prep, worksheets, overloads of boring homework improved learning and test scores. Doubtful that it has.


In the two hours since the scores have been released publicly, I have had at least a half-dozen friends who are educators contact me, I guess because they know I generally speak out about test scores, test prep, and my desire for a new way of thinking about test scores. I've blogged about it numerous times, and each time I say the same general thing in a different way.

Let's change the conversation
This morning, instead of thinking about the examples where we don't have it right, let's look again at some hopeful examples of teachers, schools, and systems who are focusing on engaged student learning based on the interests of students and based on the needs of the whole child.

Take Eminence High School for example, they do not focus on test prep at their school. Instead, they focus on engaging students and connecting them with their community. Read about this class that has plans to change the world using Project Based Learning.

In this post "I remember that worksheet said no student ever!" we also have the story of Shelly, a teacher in Woodford County, Kentucky. Shelly engages her students by empowering them. "Students are empowered as they become experts who communicate and share their ideas with an audience.  They are inventors and artists creating products for the future and dreaming of endless possibilities."

There's also Andrea, an elementary teacher who engages her students by having them explore historical artifacts. You see, it is possible to teach the required standards and meet the demands of the state assessments in interesting and engaging ways.

In Danville schools, a whole system is pushing back on the test prep ways and moving beyond dependence on traditional tests as they explore more performance based assessments for students to demonstrate learning.

Tricia Shelton and Patrick Goff, two Kentucky science teachers, are challenging each other and collaborating to ensure more collaborative and engaged science learning. Patrick shares his reflections on interactive learning including problem based learning on his blog.

Another one of my favorite Kentucky stories is a group of teachers in Louisville who teach a food literacy class. Here's another fine example of learning that doesn't involve test prep, and the teachers are finding great results.

My challenge to everyone today and throughout the year is for us to continuing sharing these bright spots. Instead of focusing on test prep and all the negatives associated with test score release, let's share positive examples that move well beyond skill and drill. Let's share examples of students engaged in genuine learning, examples of kids who want to go to school because they know they will enjoy it, examples of teachers doing what they do best--getting students excited about learning.

I know there are many many more. Will you join me in changing the conversation? Please post links to positive examples below in the comments. Thanks!

28 September 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online September 14-28

The weeks are flying by with plenty of online reading. Here's what I've read the past two weeks.

Women and Girls
I'm committed to continuing my part in raising awareness about violence against women, and so I enjoyed the article Why Global Violence Against Women and Girls Must be a New Priority

I read this article about girls in Afghanistan who dress as boys to obtain an education.

Emma Watson's speech at the UN is worth watching multiple times.


Teachers
My friend, Sherri, has been participating in a 30 day blogging challenge. This post where she shares her three strengths is one of my favorites.

One of my pre-service teachers wrote this great post about presentation styles as part of her reflection on our readings of Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks. Check it out!  Dancing Around Powerpoint

Like many educators, my husband and I have been discussing the concept of Teacher Time. This Huffington Post article, Teacher Time by Peter Green provides food for thought.

Aritcles I shared with my sons
My soft hearted and thoughtful eleven year old and I have had many thoughtful conversations in the past few weeks because he's concerned about the people in Syria. This article was topic for one of our conversations.Three Million Syrian Children Not in School

My 11 & 13 year old sons were disappointed when they learned Microsoft bought Minecraft, and in this article, My Son Says He Won't Play Minecraft Again , by David Boyle I learned my boys are not alone with their concerns. 


Homework Saga Continues
My ongoing quest to explore homework practices continues, and I was encouraged to see yet another educator and parent also begin to question homework practices. Read Brooke's post here.



Celebrating the Freedom to Read

With Banned Books Week coming to a close, I thought I'd take some time to blog about what I've been reading. This past week I read Escape by Carolyn Jessop, a former member of a cult, who fled the FLDS with her eight children several years ago. While reading the book I was alarmed by several of the cult practices, including censorship of everything and the poor treatment of women and girls.  I'll explore only the censorship aspects of the book here because it would take another whole post or two to comment on the mistreatment of women and girls (another topic about which I care deeply).

One of my former students gave me this Banned Books bracelet
You might remember Warren Jeffs in the news several years back when he was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for sexual assault of minors. Carolyn Jessop, was the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, one of Jeffs' top men in the cult. Carolyn's strength throughout the book is phenomenal, and over and over again, she gives credit for her ability to get out of the cult to her education because it helped her learn to think for herself and to question the cult's practices she experienced her whole life. Carolyn was more fortunate than many of the women and girls because she actually graduated from both high school and college. Many girls in the sect are not permitted to become educated because "education was seen as a threat…making them too involved with the ways of the world (p 666)."

Jeffs' power and brutality elevated in the years Carolyn was married to Merril Jessop, and education became "one of the first areas where his [Jeffs] imprint was punitive and spiteful (p 529)." Very few individuals (women or men) were permitted to attend college. In the end Carolyn was fortunate; many others not. The lack of access to education "created a population that was even more isolated by its lack of exposure to reading, critical thinking, and the arts. It also meant there was a real shortage of trained teachers (p 529)."

Carolyn became a second-grade teacher who taught young children while also collecting a library of children's books she could secretly read to her own children.  At the same time, she says "It was very common to get textbooks with entire chapters missing because they'd been cut out." She was a well-respected teacher because she could teach any child to read.  This, no doubt, made her an even greater potential source of irritation to Jeffs and her husband because she questioned the decisions of the leaders. Carolyn knew her real threat was Jeffs and his self-appointed power and brutality over the people in the sect. "In a cult, you have two identities: your cult identity and your authentic self." Jessop writes about how she operated from her cult identity most of the time because it was the only way she could survive.

As Jeffs' power grew over the years,  people began to fear changes even as they sensed danger. Infuriatingly, husbands were seen as the lord and supreme master who held exclusive power over the lives of wives and their children. Carolyn became more and more involved with her position as a teacher in the school system because she knew "well-educated children might one day think for themselves (p 535)." Unfortunately, Jeffs' power extended even into the public school system, and he crushed Carolyn's dreams to work on a new school plan in the community. "For the fist time, I began to see how religion could suppress something positive and life-giving. Failing to educate our children was unconscionable (536)."  Jeffs also ordered all books be destroyed, so the other wives of Carolyn's husband found her secret stash of children's books and destroyed them. Carolyn was crushed and even more determined to find a way out of the cult. Eventually, she did make it out, and after many court testimonies and struggles later, she also had custody of her eight children and was able to begin building a new life with them. The people who helped her escape told her she was in a better position than many others they had helped escaped because she had a college degree and work experience. Carolyn says "freedom was something I had always been able to imagine. It was the opposite of oppression, slavery, and degradation (p. 932)." She concludes the book with "my children and I now know what it means to be safe. Freedom is extraordinary, and love a miracle (p 979)."



Notes:
1. Page numbers referenced in this post are page numbers from my Kindle version of the book.
2. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterized the FLDS as a hate group in 2005.



15 September 2014

Building Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

Post #2 in a written conversation series between husband (PhD and first year high school English teacher) and wife (NBCT English teacher w/11 years in HS classroom and currently trying to impact the profession from outside the classroom)

Renee
In our last conversation, Chris, you referenced the stress of always having “to be on” as you maintain classroom order and you even acknowledged classroom management being a non-issue in your college classrooms. Since classroom management tends to be a big concern for first year teachers, I’d say you are not alone in your pursuit to determine the best way to maintain an environment conducive to learning. In fact, I remember my early classroom days well at Cherokee when I entered my first high school teaching assignment to teach a class that had been taught by a substitute for several weeks before I was hired. I had been warned of potential chaos and was told to be prepared. Well, I was prepared as I could be, and I also knew that my approach to classroom management would be based on building relationships with the students. Equipped with my student teaching experience in a Foxfire program, I knew I needed to learn as much as I could about my students and their lives because that would be the best means for ensuring an environment where we could all learn. Five years later, my reputation as a teacher who cared and held high expectations was well established, just in time for us to move to Kentucky and for me to begin at a new high school. Again, I was warned that the students could be unruly, and again, I planned for learning about my students and for building relationships. From reading their personal narratives, to attending the football games and school plays, I made it my job to know my students so that we could all learn together.

It’s exciting for me to see you taking this same approach. Instead of ruling with an iron fist/Dr. Boss knows everything approach,  I see you spending time getting to know your students and building relationships with them, and I’m encouraged because all the best teachers I have ever known use this positive approach. Clearly, it’s much more complex than just building relationships, but this is an important first start.

Christopher
So, yes, I think that I don’t know as much about Dewey as I should, but I totally buy into the pragmatic philosophy of life and teaching. That is, to be very pedestrian about the whole thing, I do what I see will be the most practical way to get my students engaged. In the climate that I teach, that involves showing them that I care about what is most important to them. So, my students are super involved in school sports. To show them my interest, I had them sign my shirt on the Friday of a game with the cross town rival. I’ve worn the shirt since then, and the students made comments suggesting that they really liked being able to do that. They got the sense that I cared and that I was willing to get over myself for the sake of their self-expression. I mean, who really wants to walk around with a shirt filled with student signatures. You get funny looks in public. But, it was totally worth it because I believe it helped me build relationships with them.

I’ve also found that being able to reference rap lyrics has been effective in building street cred with my students. I quoted Notorious B.I.G. the other day and I heard side comments like--”man, he even quotes the lyrics.” So, it’s just a way to connect. And students at this age need to know that you can and WILL connect with them.

Renee
In addition to your willingness to go to great lengths to build relationships, even when it means doing fun and silly things sometimes, I also enjoy hearing you tell me stories each evening of times you tell your students they have to read texts carefully and write essays because you care about their education. I believe your high expectations are also earning you a deeper respect from your students.

Christopher
They often enter class and sigh when I tell them we have work to do. Work I assign isn’t a set of worksheets; rather, it’s work that causes them make connections and think for a while. One day last week, they said, “C’mon Boss! You’re killing us. It’s Free Friday.”  I said, “Oh, my bad. I’m really sorry that I really care about your education and that you develop your mind.” I said that and I saw a couple look at each other and say something like “man, this guy’s funny.” I think the students want to know that we aren’t assigning work just because it’s “school.” They are really interested in knowing that what we are assigning is meaningful. And, so, if we are truly engaged in the work, and if we only assign work that is meaningful, I think they ultimately get that and on some level appreciate it--even if they come across as uninterested and “too cool for school.”

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