25 November 2015

Grateful for Creativity, Life, and Hope

I remember fondly listening to Elizabeth Alexander read her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Obama's first inauguration. Newly out of the classroom, I watched with a colleague from a television at Capital Plaza Tower in Frankfort. After the hearing the poem, my colleague, also a former teacher, turned to me and said "can't you just imagine several days worth of lessons from that poem"? Yes. I said. I could imagine students engaging in conversations about the poem and the historic day. You see, when we study poetry and art we connect our experiences to universal ideas. Art offers us a way to express ourselves freely. Art offers hope and life.

The same year Elizabeth Alexander read her poem for the inauguration, I met her here in Lexington, Kentucky at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. She participated in a conversation with other women writers and then read her poems for us at a keynote session. All these memories came back to me when I recently read her memoir The Light of the World. My review posted on the Cake and Whiskey blog today.

In addition to appreciating Alexander's beautiful language, free-expression, and artistry, regular readers of my blog will understand I also appreciated Alexander's mention of her late husband's dream of opening a school..."a school about self-expression...it will be great seeds for healing and peace." I, too, dream of opening a school, a school where we explore creativity and students' interests, a school that offers hope for inequitable situations in life. I also dream of public schools reimagining their approach and offering all students equal learning opportunities.

Since I learned recently that the Ford Foundation named Elizabeth Alexander as director of their Creativity and Free Expression program, I decided to check out other work happening at the Ford Foundation and was pleasantly surprised to see that they also seek creative ways to target drivers of inequality and improve the world. It's refreshing to see a large organization with a focus on improving humanity. In addition to their program for creativity and expression, they also have programs for youth opportunity and learning.

Equity. Social Justice. Creativity. Self-Expression. Learning.

If large foundations can embrace these ideas, shouldn't we embrace them in our schools, too?

15 November 2015

My 10 Most Stated Phrases and Questions

Early in the weekend, a science teacher friend of mine, Patrick Goff, shared what he titled his Pearls of Wisdom or things he frequently says, and he encourages others to share their own.  So...here are mine, and I hope you might also share yours. Regardless of your role in education (teacher, parent, administrator, community member, etc) this is an interesting way to capture what you find yourself saying most frequently.

1.  Remember to convey purpose in instruction.
2.  Students are more than a score.
3.  Stop the test prep!
4.  We need more creativity in schools.
5.  Student choice and interest are vital for making learning meaningful.
6.  Do your best.
7.  Do you use Twitter to connect to other people in education?
8.  Have you thought about blogging?
9.  Why is this important?
10. I'm interested in equity and excellence.

What about you--what are your most stated phrases?

25 October 2015

Testing Action Plan is Step in Right Direction

My sons' individual state test scores arrived in the mail last week. I found them in still sealed envelopes under a bunch of junk mail this morning. I didn't even know to look for them until a parent friend of mine at a dinner party Friday night mentioned receiving scores for her sons.

Conveying her frustration with all the test prep in our public schools, my friend said all the test prep seems to be hurting her sons more than helping them. I wished I had more positive news to share with her, but earlier in the week conversations I had with educators and parents from around the country reinforced her view point. Too bad the news release about the Testing Action Plan wasn't made public until the next day. Multiple friends who know me and my stance on the issue shared links to various press releases while I was out and about with my young athlete all day.

Convo #1: an educator shared his work in a school where kids have been "ability grouped" into high, medium, and low groups. Decisions about which group a child would be placed for all subjects in were determined based on 1 source of data (a mathematics placement test). As they reviewed their state assessment data and considered gaps, they noticed disadvantaged students and students of color were predominately grouped into the low groups and were being taught by the newest teachers at the school.

Convo #2: another educator told me her school reviewed state assessment data and decided (because of her state's emphasis on "novice reduction") that teachers must not worry themselves with the students who are already scoring proficient on state tests (kids like my sons and my friend's sons) because they will be fine. Therefore, they should "teach to the low kids" to ensure those kids can score proficient on state tests next time. Not only should they cater to the kids who struggle, they should do more test prep and become a skill and drill factory, taking away any sort of imagination, creativity, or personalized approaches to instruction.

Convo #3: a parent told me her elementary aged child is provided only literacy and mathematics instruction with limited opportunities to create and explore science, social studies, art, and music. He's offered daily worksheets, a fifteen minute recess once per day, and physical education only once per week.

Convo #4: a family member told me she worries most that all the test prep causes her children to hate school and to be disengaged. That's been a concern of my own for years now. I've seen in it in my sons over the years, and some years are better than others.

Lest this post be all doom and gloom, I'll mention the update on standardized testing we saw this weekend from President Obama and the United States Department of Education who released (after I heard all the above convos) a testing action plan. In it they articulate what should be happening and say "No one set out to create situations where students spend too much time taking standardized tests or where tests are redundant or fail to provide useful information."

I believe the testing action plan is a step in the right direction. The thing is--we have to change the way hold schools are held accountable, too, because as the system stands right now, schools feel compelled to jump hoops and play a game that raises their overall ranking in the state and nation. We must change the overall system of public education in America.

10 October 2015

Most Likely to Succeed Film and Book

More than a half-dozen times now I have watched Brian's eyes light up with an I did it--I created something that works expression, and I have watched Samantha's confidence shine as the all female play she directs garners applause from an audience of family and community members. I have also watched Scout's father, film director Greg Whiteley, acknowledge his daughter's feelings that "this whole thing called school is B.S."

The compelling storyline in the film Most Likely to Succeed speaks to me as a parent, educator, and community member. I've sat in parent/teacher conferences not unlike the one Whiteley's daughter and wife endured and even once was told by an administrator that I should have my son read boring books at home so he would be better prepared to read the boring texts on the state standardized tests. More positively though, I have also observed the I created something and it works look in my son's eyes when he built a computer.

As pointed out in the beginning of Most Likely to Succeed, our education system was designed in 1893 by a Committee of Ten men who wanted more efficient, compliant, and educated factory workers for the industrial age. A standardized education system with a teacher who dispensed knowledge provided what the economy needed at the time and guaranteed workers "a perfectly average job, with a perfectly average family, a perfectly average home, and a perfectly average life, and a perfectly average funeral."

We no longer need as many factory workers because more and more jobs have become automated. We have knowledge at our finger tips as we consider access to the Internet a basic right in our developed country. We need students who can think critically, communicate effectively, solve problems creatively, and collaborate productively to make our world a better place. Most Likely to Succeed does not offer a panacea for the issues in public education, but it does open eyes and convey a sense of urgency needed if we are going to make sure kids receive the education they need in our ever changing world.

In addition to seeing the film multiple times, I have now also read Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. I am encouraged, empowered, and more ready than ever to continue my personal and professional mission of
 re-imagining public education.

As Dintersmith and Wagner acknowledge in their book, we could have completely redesigned our education system, the position advocated by Ted Sizer founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, as we headed into the twenty-first century. Instead, our country chose to "push for incremental improvements and rely on policies calling for curriculum homogeneity, more pervasive standardized testing, and teacher accountability tied to student test score performance (26)."

Unfortunately, we are paying a price for this choice as "student and teacher engagement levels have plummeted in the face of a steady diet of test prep (27)." We've turned public education into a series of hoops to jump and games to play (just ask my 9th grader). The book is not all depressing though; the authors offer examples of how we can re-imagine school. Think about their suggestion of what we might consider as the purpose of education.
"The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make their world better (44)."
If we decide this is our purpose, then we must respond as such and we must offer students--
choice, opportunities to learn from failure, lessons that require critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. We must also teach students to communicate effectively both in writing and in speaking. I've written on this topic previously.

Dintersmith and Wagner don't stop their conversations with K-12. In fact, one entire section of the book is devoted to ideas about college degrees. They say they "don't subscribe to the view that a college needs to revolve around practical courses (169.)" Rather, they give college faculty, administration, students, and parents plenty to think about. As a liberal arts graduate, I was pleased with this perspective--
"Today, employers look for graduates who exhibit critical skills, ask great questions, and demonstrate perseverance and grit. These critical skills can be taught in traditional liberal arts pursuits as well or better than in business courses (170)."
Re-imagining public education has been on my mind for nearly as long as I've been out of college. It started in graduate school when I read works by Ted Sizer, John Dewey, Deborah Meier, John Goodlad, and Maxine Greene. I began teaching in a high needs school in North Carolina and committed myself to teaching with intentionality, even writing "purpose in instruction" at various places around the classroom as a reminder to myself to keep our studies, projects, and lessons meaningful.
Read about how I helped arrange Ted Dintersmith's visit to KY
I'm not alone either because I know dozens of committed teachers throughout the United States who work diligently inside our flawed system to provide students the deeper learning experiences they need. I also know parents who advocate for change and who work together on re-imagining the system. I'm optimistic about what we can do when we work together.

In the past nearly four years, I've used this blog as a place to share my voice about how we need to re-imagine curriculum, instruction, assessment, and the overall system. Blogging has connected me to others and taught me more about what we can do if we speak up and work together. We need to remember that all of our voices can have impact. We can, together, make a difference to bring the change we need in public education. We no longer live in 1893. We need a bottom-up approach led by teachers, students, and parents demanding change to the system.

I urge you to see the film and read the book Most Likely to Succeed because once you do I guarantee you'll be ready to join me.

01 October 2015

Students And Teachers Are More Than A Score

As the leaves turn beautiful hues associated with fall and students around Kentucky take some time to rest and relax with their families, test scores in our state are being released to the public.  Each year around this time I write yet another blog post about my hopes and fears or about stopping test prep approaches to teaching, or I write something encouraging everyone to change the conversation. As long as we continue emphasizing the almighty test score, there will be public demand for news related to scores and rankings.

Since the Kentucky scores were released at midnight, I awoke to my Twitter and Facebook feeds full of commentary from colleagues, friends, and news reporters. Of interest to me was this tweet by education reporter Toni Konz.

I appreciated her taking the time to reply to my suggestion that we share bright spots and stories from schools about more than test scores.

Her reply saying she likes to write those stories when she's allowed has me thinking that we have work to do as a community. If we keep demanding the ranking and we keep making decisions about where we buy our homes or send our children to school based on test scores, we are doing nothing to change the conversation, and we perpetuate the cycle of rankings based on standardized test scores.

Thankfully, I also had educator friends post today on Facebook with statements such as "let's remember the full picture" or "this is my least favorite day of the year...let's remember students and teachers are more than a test score..." I couldn't agree more and wished for a million likes on these posts.

We can do better. We can provide students more authentic learning opportunities like those we see in the film Most Likely to Succeed. We can do this. We must do this. Our children depend upon us!

21 September 2015

Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning Book Review and Giveaway

I don't know about you, but I'm one of those parents who has been reading books for every stage of my children's development. It started with The Birth Book and then The Baby Book both by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., and then The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well by the same authors, and then The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and then Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

From the time my children were born, I relied not only on intuition but also on books and blogs written by other parents. When my sons started school, there were no books to help me understand how to parent school aged children in public schools. I was a teacher and so was my husband. Surely, we had this covered. Not so fast. Parenting school aged children and teaching teens are two different things and when your personal views on education conflict with the current status quo, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated with the school system. Thankfully, we can turn to one another for advice and encouragement, and we can share our ideas via blogs and other social media.

Even more incredible, now we have a new book written by parents available to us. Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning by Bonnie Lathram, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, provides tips, resources, and encouragement for parents like you and me who want to be involved in our children's learning. The book isn't only for parents--it's for anyone who wants schools to recognize children as unique individuals with individual learning needs.

The authors snagged my attention as early as the preface when they wrote about schools preparing our children for the future in a world of expanding innovations of the Digital Era. The focus on student-centered learning further pulled me in as I continued reading about how I, as a parent, can be informed, inspirational, intentional and involved in advocating for my children. As an educator, I'm an advocate for student choice in learning, and as a parent I want the same for my children.

Personally, I'd also add empowered because that's how I felt when I read this quote about valuing the uniqueness and unique smarts of each and every child.
"We must expect and require our school systems to figure out how to help each child use his/her smarts to live a happy life and achieve at the highest levels possible (p.46)."
The focus on helping our children learn at high levels and be happy runs throughout the text in both informative and inspiring segments. Various frameworks link out to other resources and stories relevant to topics such as social and emotional learning, deeper learning, and growth mindset.

"In front of our children, how we model our own ability to persevere, set goals, work through challenges and continue to try, despite failure or success, proves critical (p.46)."
Key ideas early in the book include inspirational and informative thoughts about smart parents and smart students. You'll find school spotlights from schools in California to schools in Kentucky and parent perspectives along with links to the parent toolkit, which makes up the entirety of part 2 of the book.

While I'm a huge fan of student choice in learning and intentional personalized learning, my biggest questions arose in chapter two of the book with all the talk about digital personalized learning. Don't get me wrong here, I believe in student-centered learning focused on interests and needs of students, and I think when intentionally and carefully pursued, our students have the best chance possible to succeed in school when offered choices about how they learn. The authors answered my questions about personalized learning not being a "put a student in front of a computer and walk away" approach when they wrote--
"students become actively involved in designing their own process and take responsibility for how they learn. They also have authentic choices about what they learn (p. 72)."
In fact, as described by the authors, an individualized learning plan provides students more than another task to mark off in the computer lab before they graduate from high school. It's actually a learning plan created by the students together with their parents and teachers and includes a vision statement, goals list, specific projects list, and tasks. Personalized learning is not one size fits all. It's blended and includes providing students a chance to learn at their own pace as they achieve competencies in skills and subjects.

We also learn in Smart Parents that students can learn anytime, anywhere. Using ideas from mobile learning apps, maker clubs, blogging, and mobile maker apps, parents can even take their children on the road without worrying about required "seat time." Imagine the opportunities to travel and vacation at times of the year when it's off season and less expensive and not interrupt learning for our sons and daughters!

If you want to feel empowered as a parent to create a demand for change in our schools or if you are an educator wanting to understand how to encourage parents to be involved in powerful ways, read Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

***Note: All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone but I'm thankful to Smart Parents for providing me with an e-book version of the book to review and a paper version of the book to giveaway***

Win a free paper copy of this book by commenting below and sharing a link to your favorite parent blogger and telling why you enjoy learning from this parent. The book giveaway starts September 21, 2015 and ends September 28, 2015 at midnight EDT.

13 September 2015

How Do You Make Time to Read a Book a Week

When I began my book a week journey a little over 18 months ago, my commitment to myself was to enjoy more time for myself doing something important to me--reading. People have asked me over and over how I find the time because they don't have time to read much at all let alone a book a week. Really, it's the same as anything else you wish to devote time to. I prioritize time for reading. Some people enjoy cooking or baking or training for a marathon or hiking or playing music or making art or gardening or _______(fill in the blank). People make time for what they find important.

Here's how I make this one important part of my life work

1) I read what I'm in the mood to read. 
Instead of joining a book club and feeling obligated to read a particular title in a given week or month, I read what I feel like reading each week. Some weeks (in fact, most weeks) I read nonfiction. I'm inspired by the lives of other people, especially the stories of women who work hard or who overcome obstacles in their lives. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for professional texts and I let myself read and count those texts as part of my book a week goal too. Other times, I'm in the mood for fiction, especially fiction that transports me to another place (because I love to travel).

2) I always have reading material with me.
Last year I surprised myself by learning to read e-books like I never had before. While I still love a great paper book, e-books are just so convenient. I have multiple e-reading apps on my iPhone which is also connected to my i-pad. Most of the time my e-reading happens on the iPad, but if I don't have it with me when I'm waiting at the school to pick up my sons from cross-country practice, then I always have my phone with me and can access whatever book I'm reading there.

3) I let myself stop reading books I'm not enjoying.
Gone are the days when I must power through just for the sake of finishing a book. There are too many great books in the world to make myself finish reading something I'm not enjoying. Granted, I always give books the benefit of the doubt and I finish the majority of books I start, but if a particular title looked better by reading the cover, the back of the book and the reviews on Goodreads than it does when I read the first few chapters, I'll let it go. Sometimes I'll return to it in another year or month when it's of more interest to me. Other times, I just move on to a new title I like better.

4) I don't watch much television.
Television isn't very important to me like it is to so many others. I will watch some T.V., but I'm not one of those people who can't wait for the next episode of a favorite show (with the exception of the time I binge watched all of House of Cards in a single month). That month I fell behind in my reading, but I caught back up once the series was over and I re-committed myself to making reading top priority in my free time.

5) I don't give myself a hard time if I do fall behind.
At times, life happens and I do fall behind. Instead of stressing out or giving up, I commit to catching up as I can. Sometimes I catch up by giving myself one entire day on the weekend to avoid household chores and social outings. Other times I catch up by staying up too late to finish books I can't put down. Most of all, I don't beat myself up over falling behind because doing so would hinder my enjoyment of reading and my personal goal of reading an average of a book a week throughout the year.

6) I find ways to be active and to keep my brain stimulated.
Walking and reading have to be two of the best activities for the mind. Mentally and physically, I'm on top of my game and am a better mom, wife, employee and person when I make time to be active. Walking and hiking are my two favorite ways to be physically active. Reading provides an outlet for reducing stress in a way similar to walking and hiking, but the actual movement is necessary to me too. Exercise and reading have at least one thing in common. Both are good for us.

As a mom who also works outside the home, I not only balance home and work life but also community involvement and time for myself. By modeling the importance of balance and taking time to do what I enjoy I show my sons the importance of finding this balance in their own lives.

What about you? What's important in your life and how do you make time for what matters to you?

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