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Posted by on in General

ocean wave

This article is actually from 2014, but it touched a nerve that has been raw since I was a student in the 1970s. The author is talking about the issue of students asking "Why do we need to learn this anyway" and after setting up the problem, he drops this:

The best solution to this problem is to make every lesson relevant to each student. However, given the impossibility of achieving that goal, I offer a few teaching tips that can mostly make that dreaded question about relevance a thing of the past. 

And to make matters worse, the link to this article called it "Three Ways To Make Your Lessons Relevant."

No. No no no no no, and also, no.

The instant you decide you want to "make" your lesson relevant, you've lost, because you have admitted that the lesson is not actually relevant. After all, you don't look at the ocean and say, "We'll have to find a way to make that wet." If your spousal unit says, "I'm looking for ways to make myself like you," that is not a good sign.

 
 

Your lesson should BE relevant, and you should know why it is relevant. And if your students ask why it's worth their time, you should be able to answer that question.

Put another way-- if you don't have a good reason for teaching the lesson, then why are you teaching the lesson? Note: "Because we always have" and "Because that's just one of those things teachers do" are not good answers. "Because I've been told I have to," is not much better, but in the current day and age, it is sometimes the honest answer.

So any time you find yourself trying to think of a way to make a lesson relevant, take a step back and instead ask yourself why you are teaching that lesson at all. As teachers, we have been given stewardship over a sizeable chunk of our students' lives. The most fundamental responsibility we have is to avoid wasting any of that precious time.

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Posted by on in General

back to school shopping

I'm a little late on this, since most retailers rolled out Back to School displays months ago and are currently starting to clear those out so that they have room for Christmas Sale displays. But I always mean to write about this because like so many things from which people can make a buck, Back to School shopping has gotten out of hand.

So as a father and a professional educator of several decades, I have an important message to parents about your back to school shopping.

Chill.

People are trying to get you to panic. Do not do it.

In some cases, the pitch is strictly commercial. Which is fine. That's what businesses do. Work your way into Office Depot's Back to School offerings. Everything you could conceivably or inconceivably need is here, with the exception of the Winnebago needed to cart all of this stuff to school, because for a place like Office Depot, Back to School is Christmas and Mother's Day wrapped up in one revenue generating package.

But here's the non-business Great Kids website, offering parents a list of Back to School necessities that may also necessitate a second mortgage (if, as a parent, you are able to afford a house in the first place).

Back to School supply lists seem to have the longevity of cockroaches, surviving unchanged over centuries. For instance, like many other sources, Great Schools includes this on their list of "basics."

Scissors (blunt ended for younger kids, pointed for older ones)

Um, no. Do not send your older children to school with pointy-ended scissors. And while Great Kids recommend highlighters, they do acknowledge that these "are probably unnecessary for kids in kindergarten through second grade." Yes, because five-year-olds have a tendency to highlight walls and desks and their own faces.

What about a site like Real Simple, the website/magazine devoted to helping wealthy folks make their consumption less conspicuous?  Their "essentials" list includes an art smock for elementary and pre-school students. Okay, fine. My own children had art smocks at home (from the popular dad's Old Shirts brand). But essential for school? I'm imagining twenty-five children arriving on the first day and asking the teacher, "Where do I put my smock."

And glue. Specifically glue sticks. Every single list has glue sticks on it. Do we have a national epidemic of Unglued Things in Schools?

Oh-- and these. I see them on lists, in stores, in the mall. Everywhere, in fact, but in actual classrooms:

The worst notebooks ever! You can't make mistakes, and when you rip one page out, another one falls out, too. And if you've taken important notes elsewhere, you can't add them to this, unless-- oh, wait!! NOW I understand the glue sticks!

Backpacks, folders, organizers, twelve different kinds of writing utensils, seventeen different kinds of bound and unbound paper, lunch boxes, a dictionary and a thesaurus!! Cozi gets a bonus point for putting a flash drive on their list, but most lists are composed of the same classic items that Great-Great-Grandma's mom was guilted into buying for Back to School.

So, parents, here's my Back to School to-do list for you.

Step One: Wait

Prior to the first day of school, do not buy anything except things you want your child to have. If your child is organizationally challenged and needs the world's most aggressive trapper-keeper, go ahead and get it. If you and your child agree that a Phineas and Ferb lunchbox is essential to get off to a great new start, I applaud your good taste. Go for it.

But if you are eying the glue stick display or the utility box loaded with 143 colored pencils strictly because you think the school will put your child back on the bus if she shows up without those items, just wait.

Neither my wife (elementary) nor I (high school) expect students to show up on the first day with anything other than a sleepy smile and a hopeful attitude. If the school actually needs your child to bring anything to school, they will tell you. Backpacks may have to fall within particular guidelines. Teachers may want particular notebook configurations. And every school now comes with its own batch of tech requirements.

Contact

Talk to your child's teachers before you need to. Go to open house. If scheduling is tight, make a phone call or an e-mail. Let your school and your teachers know what your expectations are. These are easier conversations to have when you're not in the midst of a child-related crisis. The school or teachers may give you the impression that they are too busy to have a non-critical conversation with you. Too bad for them. Have it anyway, but be focused and businesslike. Whenever dealing with teachers and schools, it's helpful to remember that we measure time out in very short increments. "Just one more thing," may mean nothing to your schedule, but to your child's teacher it may mean the difference between getting to pee or not today.

Gather contact information. Know who to contact about what, and how best to contact them.

Build partnerships

Some of the most effective work for Getting Things Done or Fixing Screwy Policies involve partnerships between teachers and parents. We know what is going on, but you are far more likely to be listened to. I can tell my boss that the new brown widgets are a terrible idea, but it's when the office starts taking phone calls from cranky parents that things will actually happen.

Where there is bad policy (and right now there is bad policy everywhere), parents and teachers have to build coalitions to fight back, as well as fighting back in their own ways. As a parent, you're going to have to find out who your allies are within the system.

Find out what the needs are

My school does not need glue sticks. On the other hand, the district stopped buying facial tissue for classrooms a few decades ago. My sister-in-law would send boxes of kleenex to school with her kids every month or so. It was greatly appreciated. Just ask a teacher-- what is something you're going to have to buy with your own money that I could get for you.

But mostly, relax

Despite what the world of consumer marketing is suggesting, there is very little that your child must absolutely have for the first day of school. There's little data to suggest that students who show up without art smocks and glue sticks all end up working for sub-minimum wage and living alone in a one-room apartment over a bar while eating cat food warmed on a hot plate.

What your child needs the first-through-last day of school is a positive attitude and support, along with constant reminders that school is important and that the child herself is a valuable and worthy human being. Yes, the ritual of Buying New Stuff for Back to School can be a great way to build excitement and enthusiasm for school, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Meanwhile, the school year is a marathon, not a sprint. I've seen hundreds of students hit that first day bright and happy and full of hope, fully intending that This Year will be different, but the dailiness of school wears it away. They don't need your support on just one day, but every day.


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Posted by on in General

There isn't a teacher shortage. Not really. But there is a shortage of districts and states that are successfully attracting people to teach careers. If I can't get a dealer to sell me a Lexus for $1.98, that does not mean there is an automobile shortage. The "teacher shortage" is really a shortage of $1.98 teachers.

Something is wrong. Not only do we have a drastic drop in the number of proto-teachers in the pipeline, but the profile of the teacher pool is off. The teacher pool is overwhelmingly female and white. Males and minorities are not represented in the teaching force in numbers that remotely resemble the demographics of our student population.

So how do we get and keep the teachers that we need?

After all, it ought to be easy. No other profession gets to pitch itself to every single young person who could possibly pursue it. So what are we missing?

To understand how to recruit teachers, we just have to remember how the teachers we have found their way to the classroom. And the most important thing to remember is how they start.

It's not a deep, complicated thing. Almost every teacher in a classroom started out as a student in a classroom, and that student had two simple thoughts--

1) I kind of like it here in school.

2) I can see myself doing that teaching thing.

That's it. If we get a student to harbor those two thoughts in his teenaged cranium, we have successfully created the seed from which a future teacher could grow. But looking at those two thoughts can also tell us where our edugardening has gone awry.

Kind of like it here.

No excuses. Speak when you're spoken to. School to prison pipeline. Assumption that black and brown students are a problem. Crumbling buildings. Lack of even basic supplies like books and paper. Curriculum that is centered on test prep. 

None of these are going to make a student feel as if school is just like a second home. And schools that carry the greatest weight of discrimination and mistreatment are the greatest anti-recruitment. If you have made a student feel unwanted, unwelcome and unsupported in school at age fifteen, why would that same student consider returning to school at age twenty-two?

I can see myself doing this.

The most fundamental part of this is the modeling of staff. It's hard (not impossible, but damn hard) to imagine myself doing a job if I can't see anybody like myself doing the job.

Beyond that, students will be influenced by what they think the job is, the job that they see teachers doing. Are male teachers of color responsible for breaking up all the fights in the building? Do coaches get to follow a different set of rules than other staff? Do lady teachers have to keep their heads down and never talk back to a male boss? Do some teachers spend half their time doing drill and drill and worksheet band dull, boring drill? Any such unwritten rules are noted by students, and factor into how appealing the job might be.

Do students see that teachers struggle financially, holding down extra jobs to make ends meet? Do students see their teachers treated with respect? Do students see teachers supported with resources and materials, or do they have to buy supplies out of their own pockets? Do they see the job turned into a low pay, low autonomy, de-professionalized drudge? These factors also affect whether students can see themselves living the teaching life.

The Path

Of course, there's more care required for these early seeds reach full flower. College teacher programs may support the fledgling teacher or throw more obstacles in the path (I often wonder how many male teachers of color we lose to repeated "Well, what the hell are you doing here?") Then we get to the luck of the draw with the match-up for student teaching, and finally, the problem of individual district hiring practices.

The Circle

And then we arrive back in the classroom, where the person who was once a student may have to withstand one more assault on their desire to teach. And we don't have time to get into all of that yet again.

Retention is a huge problem, easily as big as recruitment, but here's the irony-- the recruitment problem and the retention problem are the same problem, because the best way to recruit the teachers of tomorrow is by giving support and respect to the teachers of today. You cannot dump all over today's teachers and expect students to say, "Oh, yeah, I'd love to jump into that pool of pooh."  You cannot reduce teaching to mindless meat widget drudgery and expect students to say, "yes! Someday I want to be a soul-sucked functionary, too."

Of course, there are folks out there for whom the death of the teaching profession is a goal, not a problem. But for the rest of us, the path is relatively simple and clear. Elevate and support the teaching profession, and the people who look at it in action every day will want to join in. If you want good seeds, you have to tend to the plants that are already growing.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

steam engine

Personalized Learning is getting the hard sell these days. It's marketable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that nobody really knows what Personalized Learning is.

What it suggests is something appealing, like Individualized Education Programs for everyone. Personalized Learning fans like to trot out exemplars like Chugach, Alaska, a remote, tiny town where a school system created a system in which each student had her own personal path to graduation, with projects, content, and assessment.

While there are plenty of problems with the Chugach thing, it's a good example of what most of us think Personalized Learning would mean. An educational program custom designed for each individual learner. Custom designed like a meal at a restaurant where you can choose the protein and spices and sauces and dishes and means of cooking and order exactly what you are hungry for.

But as Personalized Learning rolls out, that's not what it's like at all.

From the College Board's personalized SAT prep courtesy of Khan Academy, through bold plans like this IBM personalized education pitch is something else entirely. This is just path-switching.

The Brand X that we're supposed to be escaping, the view of education that Personalized Learning is supposed to alter, the toxin for which Personalized Learning is the alleged antidote is an education model in which all students get on the same car of the same train and ride the same tracks to the same destination at the same time. That's not what's actually going on in public schools these days, but let's set that aside for the moment.

Real personalized learning would tear up the tracks, park the train, offer every student a good pair of hiking shoes or maybe a four-wheeler, maybe even a hoverboard, plus a map of the territory (probably in the form of an actual teacher), then let the student pick a destination and a path and manner of traveling.

But techno-personalized learning keeps the track and the train. In the most basic version, we keep one train and one track and the "personalization" is that students get on at different station. Maybe they occasionally get to catch a helicopter that zips them ahead a couple of stops. (Think the old SRA reading program.)

Pat completes the first computer exercise in the module. An algorithm (cheerfully mis-identified as "artificial intelligence" because that sounds so super-cool) checks Pat's answers and the particular configuration of incorrect answers, by which the algorithm assigns the next exercise to Pat. Rinse and repeat. Pat is still on the train, but now there's a small web of tracks that he must travel. But Pat is still a passenger on this train, choosing no part of the journey, the destination, nor the means of travel.

That is in fact one of the key ways to identify whether you've got actual personalized learning or not -- how prominent is the voice of the student. If the pitch is "Our super-duper AI will analyze student performance and assign an appropriately awesome module to enhance learning swellness," this is not actual personalized learning, but Algorthmically Mediated Lessons (h/t Bill Fitzgerald) which is not personalized learning at all.

That's the bait and switch to watch out for. The promise is a hugely flexible and open-ended, even project-based, learning that is adapted to every individual learner. The delivery more often is the chance to pay big bucks for what is essentially a proprietary library of exercises managed by a proprietary software algorithm for doling the assignments out based on a battery of pre-made standardized tests and quizzes. That is not personalized learning. You cannot have personalized learning without persons. That includes persons making the decisions about hat the students do. That includes using knowledge of the person who is the student, and not handing out materials created by someone who has never met the students (and created the exercises before the student ever stepped into the classroom).

That impersonal education is not automatically terrible, and often has a place in education-- but it's not personalized learning.

And it's worth noting that the one train, one track model was abandoned by public education ages ago. Differentiated instruction, IEP's, authentic assessment, project-based learning, and a thousand other methods have been tried and adopted by classroom teachers who routinely work to meet students where they are and craft instruction to suit their personal needs. That's one of the great ironies of the bait and switch, the algorithmically mediated lessons - in the majority of US classrooms, when it comes to personalization, Faux Personalized Learning is actually a step backwards. The personalized bait-and-switch is about getting teachers to trade in their shiny hoverboards or rusty steam engines.

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Posted by on in Education Technology

The cliché is a fifty-year-old asking some ten year old student for help in making the computer work. Having trouble making working with your device or your software? Just grab one of those digital natives to handle it for you!

Well, not so fast. Here's Jenny Abamu at Edsurge saying what I've been arguing for over a decade-- our digital natives are hugely naïve about technology.

With the adoption of any new technology, there's a curve. In the 1910s, if you owned an automobile, you were also a reasonably savvy mechanic who knew how to work on his own machine. But in the century since, cars have become advanced in a way that has led to fewer and fewer car owners who could actually repair their own vehicle.

It's a simple fact of marketing-- early adopters may be willing to know the nuts and bolts of the tech, but to expand my market, I have to be able to say to non-savvy buyer, "Don't worry-- the tech will take care of everything for you." I have to make the tech user-friendly, and the friendlier it is, the less my customers need to know. The goal is to move from a product that only an aficionado can handle to a product that any dope can use. We are well into Any Dope territory with computer tech (spoiler alert: Linux is not the PC wave of the future).

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I could count on a few students in each class who could code. I used student helpers to build the school website from scratch. But nowadays I have to explain to my students how to save a photo the like on line, or how to use a Google doc. And students at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference echo that:

“Something you can do to prep your students for college is to have one day where you host a workshop on using Google Docs,” suggested Alejandra Cervantes, a junior at UCLA, in response to a question from an educator about the best way to support high school students heading to college. “Something simple like that can be pretty instrumental in helping them succeed in classes in the future.”

And yes-- that quote and the article its from raise its own set of issues. Because Google is working hard to inject themselves into the ed world, and they're not doing it just to be great humanitarians, so pieces like the Edsurge piece are meant to keep banging the drum that your student must know how to use Brand X Software or she'll fail at life.

And yet there is all this cool stuff to use, and my students don't have a clue. They know Snapchat, Instagram, a little twitter, and whatever the hot app of the week is (developers who think they can come up with an educational app that students will use enthusiastically for a year, starting months from now-- those developers have a naivete problem of their own). There are pieces of software that let them collaborate on projects-- they don't know how to use any of them. There are tools for including art and images and videos in one project and they don't know how to use any of them. And why do we keep reading stories about somebody who lost a job or a college spot because they posted something stupid on line? Because the vast majority of my students have no idea how the interwebs actually work.

In some cases it is tunnel vision-- they just use what they use, which is what they picked up from friends or the pre-loaded software on their device. In many cases, it's lack of access. A Pew Research Report from 2015 says that 17.5% of households with children have no internet access. That does not seem out of line with my own student population (though virtually all of my students have their own smartphones).

I have beaten my head against this cyberwall for years. I was hugely excited about the possibilities of web-based projects in which students could take 15 or 20 different works of literature and show a web of relationships between them-- far more complex stuff than could be managed in a traditional paper. But when I gave them the assignment, what I got was a traditional linear paper with each paragraph on its own page, linked so that the reader could go forward or back a paragraph.

I am not a thoughtless technophile, and I never implement tech just to do it. If it's not useful, I don't care. Where it is useful (I have replaced the traditional English teacher keep-em-writing practice of a paper journal with mandatory blogging for my students), I embrace it. But I have had to train and explore and learn myself first, because my digital natives are like people who have grown up in a big metropolitan city but only know their way around their own two-block neighborhood and don't even know the actual names of the streets there.

If you want to get your students into the technofuture, you are going to have to lead them there, just like you have to with Shakespeare and critical realism and new vocabulary words. That's the implication of this kind of article for teachers. The implications for people who think giving standardized tests on over-the-net software-- well, that's another discussion (spoiler alert: it's a bad idea).

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