30 October 2014

Why Teachers are Important: Insight from an 11 year old

As my boys grow older they are beginning to think about college, jobs, and careers. On a recent afternoon drive home from cross country practice, the boys started asking me about our evening. You know--the usual--What's for dinner? (pasta because they needed to carb load before their big cross country meet) When will dad be home? (late due to open house at the school where he teaches)  May we play computer games before homework? (no)  When I told them their dad would be home late, my oldest son immediately launched into all the reasons why he would "never become a teacher." I guess growing up as a child of educators, he's seen the good and the bad, but he mostly feels impacted by a desire to make more money than his parents ever have. While my older son was listing all the reasons why he would never become a teacher, my younger son piped up from the back seat "but, we need teachers or the world would be chaos." He went on to explain how he sees teachers as essential to helping students be well educated. It's true. Teachers are important, and they have the power to influence and impact change in our world. Teachers teach students to think, to dream, to create, to learn, and so much more, both academic and social.

26 October 2014

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online October 13-October 26

Social Studies has been an especially hot topic in the past couple of weeks, and since our family also recently visited historic Perryville Battlefield, I'll share history/social studies readings first.

Social Studies
Last Sunday I wrote a blog post about the draft social studies standards in Kentucky--standards aligned to the national C3 Framework. The post quickly became one of my most popular yet-I'm guessing because of the controversy. Anyway, if you missed it, check it out here.

A Kentucky teacher writes about how she appreicates the proposed Kentucky standards for social studies because they promote civic responsibility.

Thinking about Hybrids of Teaching for Historical Thinking by Daisy Martin on the Public History Weekly site is well worth your time and thought.

Common Core State Standards

Not surprising, since Kentucky was first to adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards, there's another great article/interview with the state education commissioner and former associate commissioner. 
Common Core interview with Dr. Terry Holiday & Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

What the Common Core Did for My Classroom by middle school math teacher Brooke Powers is a post full with honesty and excitement sharing how her classroom is now alive with numbers.

Teacher Time & Leadership
This report compiled by Kentucky teachers for a national organization highlights the differences between the way teachers spend time here in America compared to teachers in other countries.

It's not planning time if teachers are told how to use it by Llana Garon provides more details from a teacher perspective about this issue of teacher time.

In an Education Report article, Barnett Berry writes more about teacher leadership. It's an article worth reading.

Student blogging, writing, and learning
These 11 year old bloggers amazed me & I think blogging for kids is a great way to provide an authentic audience for writing.

Teens at Eminence High are using authentic Project Based Learning to learn and change the world, for real. Read an update of their work in this blog by their principal, Shannon Treece.

This Washington Post article recommends having students internalize texts to become better writers, and I couldn't agree more.

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.

: 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!