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?