Friday, December 17, 2010

Now What?

As I listened to a keynote by Kevin Honeycutt, something he said struck me over the head like an anvil. I'm paraphrasing (badly), but in essence, he said that we hear all the time about how we NEED to change, but then the motivational speaker leaves and we're left scratching our heads asking ourselves how to get to the mountaintop. In the last couple of years, I've paid a lot of attention to the dialogue on school reform. I know lots of reasons to change, and I know a lot of the things that need to change, but the fundamental piece that is missing is how.

One of the things that keeps me up thinking at night is that even if we had a set of steps that one school took to make the changes to become everyone's shining example of 21st century teaching awesomeness, the steps would only be applicable to a few other schools in the country. We all do things differently in our little spaces of the world. We all want to know how to do it in our rooms, with these students.

I'm convinced of three things:
1. Education as we know it must change drastically-and fast-in order for the United States to remain relevant in the global marketplace, and
2. No one knows how to change the American public education system.
3. Teachers will make or break any reform efforts.

I don't have any answers. I have more questions. All I can do is start a list and begin plugging away in my own little corner of the world. Maybe that's all any of us can do. Maybe the big changes won't come to the system until the people within the system break it.

Here are just a few of the things we know need to change, and some of the challenges with changing them:

-Teacher Centered classrooms
How are teachers supposed to run a completely student-centered classroom when all they've ever known is the didactic, teacher-led model?

-21st Century Skills
It's pretty difficult to teach 21st Century tools when most districts limit teachers' and students' access to those same tools with filters and firewalls.

I have never met a teacher who wouldn't like to provide individualized instruction for every student. I have also never met one who was able to do it. Class sizes, lack of resources, even a basic lack of plan time make it extremely difficult for teachers to provide true differentiation.

-Authentic tasks
It's about time we start answering the age-old question for students: "Why do I need to know this?" The problem is that we are often teaching things that students don't really need to know. Sure, there are reasons for learning everything, but often there is a hug disconnect between what we teach students and what they will ever need in their lifetime.

-Higher-Order Thinking Skills
I'm going to loosely lump problem solving into this category as well. This is nothing new. There is no good reason why we still have a deficit when it comes to good questions. I'll blame the standardized tests for the culture that has us always seeking the one right answer rather than the divergent thinking needed to solve complex problems.

-Highly qualified teachers in every room
I love teachers and have the utmost respect for the profession, but like surgeons, there isn't any room in this job for those who can't hack it. We need a better way to get good ones in, pay them well for the job they do, give them support they need to continue to grow, and to help others who can't handle the rigors find other lines of employment.

I don't buy into the "unions are the devil" scenario portrayed in the media more and more these days, but I don't think they are the saviors of education, either. They are somewhere in the middle, and there is no doubt they complicate things when it comes to making personnel changes. Kids ultimately lose in this system. Kids are too important for us to continue in a system that alienates their needs and puts adults' comfort above student achievement.

This is a short list. There are tons more, and there are even more factors contributing to each one being difficult, or next to impossible, to change on a large scale with any haste.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the only way to make changes this big; this important; is to make it a grass-roots effort at every school. The change has to start from the bottom up. If the students are at the bottom, teachers are next. The students have already changed. Teachers need to begin doing anything they can-NOW.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What can we do this week?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Listen...Can You Hear the Change?

If there are still any teachers out there who refuse to learn about using technology in their classrooms because they feel it's just another passing fad, they should listen up. They may just hear the reasons for being a lifelong learner in the hallways outside their classrooms.

About a year ago, my then 7 and 3 year old boys were singing a song. I didn't recognize it, because being young often results in some similar-but strange-lyrics to familiar songs, but it was familiar. As I listened to the tune, I finally pinpointed its origin: the 80's. Where had they heard this song that came out when I was in the third grade? Rock Band. Rock Band II, specifically.

What does this have to do with education? Simple. What kids are bringing with them to class is paramount to the teacher, as this is the prior knowledge and schema that we use to hang new knowledge upon in hopes that it will stick a little more firmly. The connections of new learning with existing learning is a trick every skilled teacher uses daily. What kids are bringing with them today is vastly different than even ten years ago.

Example? Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. Just a few years ago, none of my students would have known about this song. Now, many students know all the lyrics.

As we struggle to keep what we are teaching relevant to our students, we must be vigilant about staying current in their world so that we can find those connections. We cannot let ourselves become obsolete, pretending the world around us hasn't changed just because our content hasn't.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How do we trust and regulate at the same time?

My position often pits me against others in the district in terms of policy. I fight for policy that treats teachers as the professionals they are, or at least ought to be, but I'm always fighting against several others who say something like, "But if we do x, then some people will y". They have a great point. There are certainly those who will abuse any right or privilege they are given. There are others, though, who are trying to forge a path into 21st Century teaching and learning, only to find roadblocks at every turn in place because of their less than professional colleagues.

My usual answer to this argument is that it is a management issue. Teachers who violate policy, whatever the policy is, need to be documented and shown the door if their actions continue to be a detriment to students (I am assuming here that the policies are in place to benefit students in the first place). Today I had a conversation with a librarian whose husband is a principal, and it got me to thinking differently. Her point, and again I have to concur, is that the administrators are not available to "police" their buildings, whether they want to or not. They are often at meetings in another location, or tied down with administrative duties that restrict them from documenting anything going on in classrooms outside of scheduled evaluations. It is a struggle just to complete all of the evaluations, and that is when not everyone is evaluated every year.

So, back to my original question: how in the world can we open things for teachers while getting those who would ruin it out of the classroom?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Funding Learning: A Monumental Disconnect

Every time I turn around, there is a roadblock in the way of getting to where we need to be as an education system. The frustrating part is that the roadblock is almost always the same: money.

In my little corner of the world, a lack of funds places itself between where we are and where we'd like (or need) to go in all kinds of ways. If I want to train anyone to do anything, it takes money. If I want to offer incentives, it costs money. If I want to improve access to technology resources, it costs tons of money. Basically, anything and everything we need to do in order to move forward costs money. This isn't a problem, as long as everyone recognizes the importance of education. Right?

Apparently, I assume too much. Sure, every government entity and figurehead, every politician will talk about how important education is, but then guess what is usually first to appear on the chopping block when cuts need to be made?

Educating our citizens should be priority number one, and money should NEVER be an object. Sure, we should scrutinize spending and look for ways to be more efficient whenever possible, but to cut spending, or even to limit spending when it comes to educating the next generation of Americans, is anti-American. If you love your country and want it to be the best it can be, you better believe in having intelligent citizens capable of critical thinking and problem solving, regardless of their eventual chosen endeavors.

So how or why do I arrive at the opinion that government leaders don't care about this priority? Despite the fact that the Department of Education talks a good talk in a recent publication advocating for systemic change nationwide (see netp documents and information at, they still fail to fund the lofty goals contained within its pages. On the contrary, one only needs to Google "government waste" to find a mind-boggling amount of information on just how little government does to shore up its own spending, which could easily afford the national public education system a nearly unlimited budget. Take a look at the Heritage Foundation's list of the top 10 examples of government waste, for starters. (

After the last round of elections, I'm afraid the GOP will look to education yet again to increase available spending elsewhere in the state budgets. But what could possibly be more important than an already underfunded system intended to prepare American citizens for world leadership?

Government leaders: Quit stealing from our kids. Go pick on your own departments and hold them accountable before giving the education system any more of your mandates tied to underfunded programs. Figure out what you can do to ease the burden on teachers so that they can spend more time with students. Find the billions of dollars that are spent each year by people you don't know on things you can't find before you talk to us about accountability or efficiency.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Educators as Life Long Learners

One of the things I hear about all the time in my position is, “I don’t have time to…” fill in the blank with whatever technology it is that I’m trying to help teachers learn. It’s probably the single most irksome thing that I deal with, and I’d be happy to tell you why.

When we ask ourselves what we want educationally for our students and our own children, “lifelong learning” appears near the top of every list in some form or another. Why, then, are we as a collective group of educators NOT modeling this very behavior?

How did it ever become acceptable for an educator to refuse to learn something vital to their students? How many times have you heard that it is important for teachers to model the behavior they expect from students? What message does it send, then, when we say we don’t have time to learn something that is critical to our students’ education?

Maybe the last point is where I lose some of you; you don’t agree that technology is an important part of the education for all students, and so you have been holding out on learning new skills in the hope that it will just go away, like so many other educational initiatives. Two things are wrong with that logic; one is that I don’t believe anyone can argue that at least SOME of their students would benefit from the use of technology in the classroom (and if even one student needs it, you should be using it), and the other is that this is not an educational initiative-it’s the way the world operates now. It’s time to catch up with it. Just because teaching hasn’t changed much in the last several decades doesn’t mean that most other professions haven’t. If anyone would like to debate this issue, I welcome the discourse.

I should clarify what I mean when I say “use technology”. I don’t want anyone to use technology in a classroom if it doesn’t have an impact on the learning. Sometimes the impact comes in the form of motivation when using a “cool” tool, but that’s not what I advocate. Nor do I advocate automating tasks to free up time. Sitting students at a computer to do drill-and-kill types of activities is NOT good technology integration. Yes, the instant feedback offered by many of these sites and programs is supported by research, but true integration goes much deeper.

Good technology integration uses appropriate tools to accomplish tasks that students couldn’t do without it; it helps them to think more deeply about subjects, interact with peers and experts all over the world, create and publish authentic work that is both useful and relevant, interact with the world when disabilities would otherwise be a roadblock, analyze information that was once held by one person in the room, provide access to all the world’s knowledge collectively, and the list goes on. Hopefully the difference between these approaches is clear.

Back to my argument-how is it acceptable practice for teachers to refuse or avoid learning how to empower students with these tools?

When I was in college studying to become a teacher, my professors made a point to remind us that we would not have much of a life outside of school; that if we were there for the summers, we needed to choose another career. It was made painfully obvious to us that continuing to learn would be an integral part of our professions. New things are discovered all the time. Maps change, books are rewritten, scientific discoveries are made, opinions change, and on and on. This should not be news to anyone. Why, then, is it acceptable to keep up on whether or not we call it Istanbul or Constantinople, but still not know the difference between a blog and a wiki? Let me put the period on this point by asking another question; when you go to the doctor, do you expect him or her to be using the latest advances in medical technology, or would you be fine with them pulling out a jar of leeches to suck out the evil spirits causing your ails?

Now let’s talk about the ‘time’ issue. When you consider all the things that technology can do-from removing roadblocks to providing a platform for expression, thought, and growth-it should be the top priority for every educator when they budget their time.

I am a former fifth and sixth grade teacher. Believe me, I understand the fact that there are hundreds of things teachers are responsible for above and beyond simply working with kids. We’ve all seen the comparisons of what we do today vs. what we did a hundred years ago. Sometimes it feels we are solely responsible for the upbringing of an entire generation. I get that. But, when you look at all of the tools at your disposal to accomplish the impossible, how is it that we tend to overlook the fact that technology may be our greatest “multi-tool” for getting there? Time is precious to all of us, and technology can help you accomplish more in less time, and with better results. So when we look at how to spend our time, we should recognize that learning how to better use the technology tools at our disposal is maybe the most efficient use of it.

Teaching is an art, and technology can provide an entirely new and vast set of brushes, let alone canvas on which to paint your learning experiences. The time to embrace that concept is long overdue.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Too Important to Fail: How Schools Fall Victim to Corporate Greed

"Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." - James W. Frick

I wish I were friends with Dennis Miller. I’m having trouble coming up with words strong enough to properly convey my frustration, anger even, with the current situation in America’s schools. The comedian known for his rants would be able to put things in perspective with some colorful choice words and scathing criticism. However, I’m just a guy working for a school system in central Kansas and this is not HBO. My audience includes children, for crying out loud.

So let me just say, “Only in America”. Only in America can a company grow so large, become so greedy, and be so irresponsible with their finances that they are actually rewarded for it. Yes, rewarded. Here we have not just companies, but entire industries that are so corrupt or fiscally irresponsible that we-the very people who made the top executives rich in the first place for doing such a horrible job-have to give them even more money so that they can continue ripping us off and making bad financial decisions.

These spoiled brats, er, companies, nearly drove the entire country into a depression. They caused people across the country to lose jobs. They caused people all over the world to lose jobs, as the United States economic health is closely tied with the success of markets worldwide. They helped tons of people part with their hard earned money-with financial tricks that would be considered criminal in most places. They made good and honest people think they finally had a chance at the American dream, only to see their house sold from underneath them, their finances and dreams shattered.

What does our country do when bullies push us around, lie to us, deceive us, all for their own gain? We give them money. WHAT?

Meanwhile, the economic meltdown caused by these fat cat pocket stuffers has far-reaching effects on our future for years to come. A recession may be temporary, but the effects it has can be much longer lasting. Allow me to elaborate. I have a son in the first grade. By the time funding at his schools returns to normal, he will be in high school-if he hasn’t already graduated.

Does an entire generation of students deserve to have less than those who came before them, simply because the country in which they live bails out banks and automakers but leaves schools to flail and flounder for every penny?

Add to this sobering thought the FACT that in my state, lawmakers were actually sued a few years ago for not funding education adequately. The lawmakers, like most in their position, denied that this was the case. After all, why buck the trend of spending more to put someone in jail and keep them there than to educate children? They hired an independent study to prove that they were right-those spoiled brats (talking about the students, now from the view of the lawmakers) were getting plenty of money. Do they really think they deserve more?

Things didn’t go according to plan, as the study found inequities in the funding formula, and the courts ordered them to change it. Lawmakers did change it, to their credit, and began funding schools more fairly until-you guessed it-the corporate greed of a few individuals living somewhere outside of reality came crashing down on every man, woman, and child within our borders.

Now, the very people who make the laws in my state are intentionally breaking it. How this is even allowed, I will never understand. Apparently, you can break laws during hard times, but only if you are a legislator who helps to make those very laws. I have heard that being ignorant of the law is no excuse for breaking it. These men and women wrote the laws, know them as well as anyone, and break them routinely. Why do we allow this?

Breaking the law to help yourself during hard times will still land you in jail if you are a working man who is laid off and you have to steal for your family’s food. But, you can be a legislator and steal from children and that is OK.

I can hear their grumbles from Topeka: “These are hard times, after all, and what would you have us do-raise taxes? Then we might not get re-elected!”

Children need more from their schools today than ever before. We are in the midst of a near-crisis mode in education as it is. Schools are beginning to face the fact that they need systemic change to meet the needs of 21st Century Learners. Schools need more of just about everything from counselors to computers.

Instead, we’re taking things away from them. Why? Because it’s apparently more important in our country for big business to continue ripping people off than for our children to learn how to earn an honest living.

These companies may be too big to be allowed to fail, but schools are too important to be allowed to fail.

Only in America.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Time Vs. Time: How the 21st Century Initiative Should Jump-StartEducation

I am not a good blogger. A good blogger not only has a lot to say on subjects that are of interest to their audience, but they update their blogs frequently enough to keep the conversations going. Since starting my blog early in the ‘09/’10 school year, this will only be my third posting. I simply don’t have time to write about things when there is so much to do. It gets put on the back burner more often than not.

But, I’m not a teacher and my blogging isn’t something that will directly affect my students’ learning in my classroom. If it were, you could bet it would be at the top of my to-do list.

If you ask any teacher what they need more than anything, most of the time they won’t say they need more pay. They usually don’t say they need help with things, or more respect from the community for the job they do, or even complain about having too many things to do. Instead, they most often want more time to do the things they know are important.

The question I want to address in this post, then, is: what is stopping the teachers I serve from taking the time they need to do what they think is important-especially when the opportunity presents itself to vote in an entire day to do those things-with pay?

There is a committee of teachers who plan these optional extra days, and they are the ones who suggest the topics for themselves. Yet, when the vote goes out to teachers (which must be approved with a 2/3 majority to pass) they routinely vote it down. This is baffling to me for a number of reasons, but most of all because the biggest complaint I hear is, “I need more time.” Here is an opportunity to have just that-an entire working day’s worth-and they turn it down.

I’m not going to speculate as to the reasons for this discrepancy, instead I am going to discuss the reasons why the trend needs to change.

Let’s look at some facts:
1. Education, as an institution, is very slow to change. Sure, we get new initiatives and the infamous pendulum of various schools of thought swings back and forth as we adjust new research and learning to what we know as best practice-but change happens very slowly.
2. Technology changes very quickly. We have all heard the figures about just HOW often it changes; from the “doubling every 6 years” to the amount of data on the web that is added daily or hourly, to the reports of this or that new gadget available every other week.
3. The world has changed since the models we presently use in most educational settings was established.

The point I’m going to make here is that we already have a LOT of catching up to do, and in the race to be fluent in the 21st Century, we are getting lapped by our students.

Enter the 21st Century Initiative, a movement intended to “…facilitate the emergence of new approaches to learning that draw upon a range of insights in to the human brain, the functioning of human societies, and learning as a community-wide activity.” ( ) Obviously, there are others out there who recognize the fact that most teachers in America are still teaching in ways that were designed to prepare students for an industrialized, factory-laden society that has all but already disappeared. The global economy has changed, but the way we are preparing students to participate in it hasn’t.

We are looking down the double barrel of a loaded societal shotgun and daring the rest of the world to squeeze the trigger-unless we change-and change quickly.

There are some fundamental things that need to happen in order for this vision to become reality.

Maybe most importantly is the need for support for teachers. They need to feel like they are allowed to deviate from the drill and kill that has become the norm in our test-happy system and practice moving into a more student-centered environment. I think most teachers really want to teach in a way that fits the NETS-T standards; becoming more student centered, problem based, etc.-but feel that if they dip in their test scores, they may lose their jobs.

Unfortunately, this and many of the other things that need to be in place for this movement to take off are out of teachers’ hands. One thing teachers have total control over, however, is how we use our time. Time waits for no one, and we as educators owe it to our students to be more than we are-regardless of how good we are already with the things that worked a century ago. We are way behind, and it’s time to catch up.