Friday, March 2, 2012

Thought of the day: Price of Love

The best children books are crayon covered with finger-stained and tattered pages-these are the books that have been loved... So too, my school, bears the scars from many years of being loved by its students. 

~This is how I describe my school to other educators who have never seen it... and if you have visited, you know already know this. It is a beautiful, magical place!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Technology Integration Matrix: A Must Have!

Coolest thing since sliced cheese? Perhaps... This baby is packed with more tools than a swiss army knife! Providing a common vocabulary for schools to use when reflecting on their own technology integration programs, the TIM incorporates five interdependent characteristics of meaningful learning environments: active, constructive, goal directed (i.e., reflective), authentic, and collaborative (Jonassen, Howland, Moore, & Marra, 2003). The TIM associates five levels of technology integration (i.e., entry, adoption, adaptation, infusion, and transformation) with each of the five characteristics of meaningful learning environments. Together, the five levels of technology integration and the five characteristics of meaningful learning environments create a matrix of 25 cells (TIM, 2011). The updated 2011 Matrix is HOT and will be a game changer as we move forward with 1:1 technology initiatives. The matrix is a must use for all school districts evaluating their technology use in the classroom. As if the common vocabulary was not enough, the matrix adds videos that highlight each of the matrix components in each of the core areas. Simply amazing! Do not take my word for it, check out the University of South Florida's website for yourself and take a step towards shrinking the elephant in your classroom.

“Matrix.” TIM. Florida Center for Instructional Technology. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I Belong to the 10%

I belong to the 10%. I am the product of an educational system that worked for me. All of my classes were “accelerated/intensive” classes. All of my friends were also in these classes, they too belonged to the 10%.  I loved school, I lived at school. Early-bird gym to late night choir rehearsals, I was addicted to learning and surrounded myself with others who shared in my passion. As a part of the 10%, I did well in college and as a part of the 10% I was able to find a job as a high school science teacher in my home school district.

It was in my first year of teaching that I was introduced to the other 90%.

My world was rocked! Like finding out the earth is not flat, I was terrified of this revelation and intrigued to explore more. It was my ignorance to the needs of my students that kept knocking me down and it was my persistence that kept me stumbling forward. I was too stubborn to quit (although it came to mind). I made all of the rookie mistakes... and they (the students) played me like a violin.

Threaten them with their grade, they only became less compliant. My class was frequently skipped and homework was never handed in. It was a world that I did not know existed. It was a world I did not understand.

There was a detachment in my interaction with my students. They did not understand me and I most certainly did not understand them. I was teaching in my hometown and was only 4 to 5 years removed from my students, however the disconnect felt like a lifetime.

I began journaling, started jogging, and did a whole lot of praying and discovered this truth: “People need to feel validated.” My students needed to know that I cared about them. I needed to know that they cared enough to participate in class. They needed me to provide them with relevant topics of interest and they needed to be pushed beyond the Ditto Machine reserves I had been using. This is what separates the good, the bad and the great. It is what makes teaching an art.

This personal revelation would help me to conquer my 10%-90% dilemma.

Education is flawed.. and the system is broken. Catering to the 10% cannot/will not work or to be allowed if we are to prepare this and future generations to meet the pressing global demands of tomorrow. Competency based learning is in.

I want to know what students can create, what they can do-not how well or fast they can memorize random facts and copy down information-those jobs are for the telemarketers...those are the jobs that have been outsourced.

Factory model schools are reinforcing our broken factories. If we are to be truly great once again as a nation, we must provide opportunities for students and teachers to create and be innovative together. A transformational classroom, without walls, without chains to cookie-cutter/one-size assessments. These classroom experiences can be messy in an organized-chaotic sort of way, they are unscripted as are the problems of tomorrow. They are the authentic, real-world experiences that students will never forget and the type of learning that will allow students to exercise and stretch to their creative limits. They are the projects and events that will prepare us to answer the questions of tomorrow.

To get there, it is time for teachers to open up and share, time for school districts to become transparent and time for administrators to trust in the creative judgment and direction of their faculty.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Human Element: Public Service/Social Action in the Classroom

Without question, education is experiencing a dramatic shift, one needed to meet the demands of a more digital, global world. Author of The Flat World and Education, Darling-Hammond states, “The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services… candidates will have to be comfortable with ideas and abstractions, good at both analysis and synthesis, creative and innovative, self-disciplined and well organized…” This shift encourages content and standards be taught with purpose to complete an end product with real-world relevance within classrooms that encourage inquiry and investigation to provide a business model with collaboration and organization, communication, and innovation. Several classrooms have been transformed into vehicles for public service where empowerment through real-world action is developed and fueled.

Additional literature addresses creative uses of technology to encourage the aforementioned innovation. As quoted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, “Creative uses of technology require us to go beyond ‘functional fixedness’ (the manner in which the ideas we hold about an object’s function can inhibit our ability to use the object for a different function) so that we can innovatively repurpose existing tools toward pedagogical ends.” Unfortunately, often technology is viewed as an automated system, and many believe its very nature limits productive social interactions and constructs barriers. But, if utilized in an innovative manner, technology can be used to fuse humanity rather than to divide it.

Therefore, we must encourage the very characteristics that make us compassionate, empathetic humans. As members of an undoubtedly global world, we need to provide curriculum that does not simply touch on global concepts or use special units that cover multiculturalism or diversity. We should not constrict our lessons to cultural months or culture fairs. Our curriculum on any given day should appeal to the globe, diverse cultures, race, SES, and/or sexuality to list a few. Our curriculum must be anchored by global concepts, not highlighted with global topics. And those concepts might appear in seemingly simple, not so blatant forms: audience, language, inference, sensitivity, etc. Regardless of how we intertwine those concepts, those concepts are imperative to teaching the human element.

It is possible to combine these components: creativity, innovative technology, digital and civic literacies, and cultural/global awareness to ignite human experiences. It is possible to meet state/national standards and cover content via a project-based approach, using the classroom as a channel for public service and a catalyst to social action. And those on the outside, those gracious enough to provide us a platform for this experience, they will find that the human connection is reciprocal. There are profound outcomes to human experiences. Beyond the fact that the standards/content are received in a meaningful way - students gain a desire to connect.

To view evidence of social action in the classroom, please visit the links below:

The Strength Project (in progress):


The Library Project:

Great Books: A Transdisciplinary Semester (in progress)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quantitive Passion

I am sitting on a stage in front of a large crowd of mostly superintendents/administrators from across the state.  Sprinkled throughout the crowd are also business folks and the occasional teacher. The entire school year has lead up to this moment. Sitting with me is a team of teachers representing different core subjects, a parent from the community, my building principal, but most importantly, a few of my students-some of which are 4.0 students and have continued their successes here in this new program and others on the stage, prior to this year, would have been considered “D” and “F” students, of which many teachers might even have predicted would become high school dropouts. I could not be more proud of my students in this moment. Dressed in their best attire they nervously anticipate questions that will allow them to share their class work and projects from the year. The year has been long, trying, full of doubters and people resistant to change in education. My students, my team, my administration, my every move and anything related to this program has been under the microscope this past year. It was a giant leap of faith on the part of the students and parents who signed their kids up for this new program almost one year ago. It was a risk for a new superintendent and the administrators that followed him, and not all did, some choosing to leave the district in favor of schools that did not have the problems that we had been facing for quite a while now. So much change has taken place in less than a year…an idea so incredibly out of the ordinary for this once very traditional river town in Iowa.
In our school, for years now, mandatory state test scores had fallen short of our districts set goals, numbers that always seemed just out of reach, reinforcing doubt that had long since crept into the minds of teachers about their practice. Similar to other surrounding school districts, our school turned its attention to finding a solution to “fixing” this dilemma. “Focus lessons” were developed that would ask students sample questions similar to what they would come across on the state tests. Teachers were required to take time out of their instruction and “teach” these focus lessons weekly-regardless of whether or not they were aligned to their current and ongoing curriculum. The district tried its very best to ensure that students were placed into classrooms that would better “suit their academic needs.” Students who traditionally excelled in their classes were put into “intensive” classes, and students who performed poorly were put into “general” classes. These “general level” classes typically consisted of students whom needed the most help on the state tests. If it was possible, special education co-teachers were assigned to these classes to help meet the needs of the struggling learners. It was in these classes that an even greater emphasis was placed on focus lessons, and why not? These were the kids that needed it the most…
More ideas were generated in finding ways to increase our test scores. Perhaps students would perform better on the state tests if they took the test outside of the school, in a more “professional setting,” similar to college entrance exams…and so all of the students were corralled across the street from the school to take the tests at one of the local churches. As a school we tried placing students into “Homerooms” that would meet every day for 20 minutes, creating a micro community of trust. These students would then take the state tests together, allowing for an environment that might enhance student test scores. Homeroom teachers and students alike were bribed with promises of pizza parties and donuts for the highest classroom test scores. Students’ names were entered into a raffle for scores that showed improvement from the previous year and door prizes and gifts were handed out to the winners. SO much time, energy and effort was devoted, not just by my school, but by the other surrounding districts to these state tests. I have now worked in three different schools in two neighboring school districts and in each of these; all of this was common practice.
No matter what was done, year after year tests results came back the same. What was even more disheartening was that the high school drop out rate continued to increase. Only 3 out of 4 students or 75% of students would make it to graduation. It was even worse when looking at who was being “left behind.” In some of the elementary schools, where poverty was the highest, only 50% of the students would make it through their senior year.
Fingers were pointed in many directions; everyone was to blame, and the excuses were endless. Examples included (but were not limited to):
“But it is a big school, bigger then most in the state, with more diversity and poverty than most of the schools in the state.”
“There are language barriers, most of the parents can’t even speak English.”
“Parents don’t get involved with their child’s education.”
“Middle schools just pass on students, regardless of how poor they perform, setting students up for failure when they get to high school.”
“We don’t have the resources we need.”
“I don’t get paid enough to babysit these kids.”
“Teachers get paid too much and don’t even do their job…”
I could continue with the list… but none of this is news. However, every once in a while, a news story comes out about a school district that has defied the odds, where a once, academically demolished, poverty stricken school has risen to overcome these obstacles and what should be a rejoicing moment for educators who are stuck in a failing system, becomes a moment instead of cynicism. Furiously many educators pick at these schools, combing for flaws or weaknesses. How can this be? We have tried everything! Surely they must have students with parents who care… or the poverty level in their school is not the same as our situation.
In a strange sort of way it makes since that in these schools, which have been cornered, with nowhere to turn, that the most miraculous, progressive changes are taking place. A blessing in disguise, only when bled to the point of no return, when all hope appears to be lost, do these schools prove unbelievers otherwise.
The schools of Iowa have not escaped the redundancies that have plagued the factory model of education (a point to be addressed at a later time), however, pushing forward they cling to what they know. Like many school districts across the nation, weakened by the perception of inadequate test scores, many schools in Iowa believe any change to an already unstable system would be disastrous.
And so, I find myself sitting on a stage. Sitting by my side is the team of teachers and students that began this journey a little over a year ago. We have all spent the last year changing the face of education. We have made a difference, but…the audience appears less interested in our enthusiasm as teachers as well as the obvious passion and creativity illustrated in our students’ vibrant examples.
Blinded, they want numbers, data, and proof. They can not see as I do.The students of mine who were once habitual skippers, now putting all of their creative energy into their work/projects and my straight “A” students, having to redefine their ideas of success, many being asked for the first time to create and demonstrate their classroom understandings outside of the context of a paper test. Students relying on each other for support and each one recognizing the others talents and gifts. No, the audience cannot see as I do, not without experiencing it for themselves. Some want to know how can I guarantee that such a program will work for them? One teacher inquires about our test scores...  I feel bad for these people in the audience. They cannot see past the carrot that has dangled in front of them for most of their careers, believing that the measure of a student or teacher or schools worth can be quantified in a test. Until we can quantify passion, we will always be attempting to measure the immeasurable.