Sunday, December 4, 2011

Are We on Digital Overload? Can We Protect our Kids?

Many people today watch the expanding role of digital media in our everyday life with—let’s be honest—mostly feelings of fear and dread. They focus wistfully upon things that we are losing or moving away from, in the changing cultural climate: things they value, such as silence, long stretches of uninterrupted time, or the act of reading a physical, bound, made-of-paper book.

And they worry—a lot.

While he's clearly not a young student, this man is juggling many different kinds of inputs. Is he on "overload?" Are our kids?
They worry that our digital gadgets put us on “overload,” and that this goes double for students. They feel that these devices keep kids (and all of us) too over-stimulated, that they load too much of the wrong kind of artificial light into our eyes, and that they keep us too sedentary on our ever-expanding buttocks.

They also live in terror that through social media their children will become entrapped by sexual predators and identity thieves, that they will become addicted to pornography from exposure too young, or that they will become addicted to games.

They worry that in the name of “multi-tasking,” we are doing more and more things superficially, distractedly, and just plain badly.

Online predators are a genuine threat to young Internet users.
Unfortunately, all of these things can and do cause problems. People who have concerns about digital media and the “information” or “services” they can deliver have many very valid points. There are a vast array of downfalls, dangers, and unintended results associated with digital media. And all of those fears/worries go double for the people who run schools. In most parts of the world, educators are operating in loco parentis legally. All sorts of bad results could rain down upon them if they fail to keep the students entrusted to their care safe from such threats.

How do they attempt to protect kids? Usually they clamp down, restrict access, and seek to control as much as possible how and when students use the Internet. They install blocking software, patrol computer labs relentlessly, and the best practitioners also talk seriously and frankly with students about the dangers that can lurk “out there.”

This is perfectly in keeping with a custodial role. But we need to think carefully about what we restrict and how we restrict it—or we can end up impeding the very education we are attempting to enhance.

Take as an example the story told by Susan Einhorn about her daughter and some of her classmates. They were preparing for an exchange-student trip to France. They developed friendships with their French “opposite numbers” through Facebook . . . but they couldn’t communicate with each other via Facebook at school, because the site was blocked.

This single example is hardly definitive, and it in no way diminishes the genuine dangers touched upon here. But it represents a dissenting opinion. As this series continues, I’d like to explore some of the ways that the use of digital media has become controversial, and some of the new and imaginative ways in which it can be used to deepen learning and enhance thinking skills.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to the University of Phoenix for the "distracted man" illustration, which they ran with an essay about digital distractions. The "online predator" illustration appears to have originated in Latvia(?), but I was unable to track down the artist's name. I first located the (unattributed) image in a post about tips for parents on the "Tech Welkin" blog. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

My Work for Teaching Tolerance

The Teaching Tolerance logo
I'm Honored to be part of the Blogging Corps

I have been following the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its Teaching Tolerance project, for several years, and I like what I have seen.  Their message is compatible with my own philosophy of showing genuine respect for all.

I therefore was very interested when they sent out a call for experienced teachers to write blog posts for them.

To my delight, they accepted my two "Tryout" posts, which both have now been published.

Better yet, I've just been informed that I have been added to their blogging corps!  They post a new item every day, and the result is a daily dose of insight, inspiration, and encouragement that when we struggle to make our students' live better, we are in good company.

If you'd like to see the posts I already have written, I've embedded the links below.  Watch for future links in this space, as well!

My first post, which they titled "Detention Leads to a Lunchtime Community," was posted August 30.  The second went up just a few days ago, on October 5: "Graphics Class Offers Success for All."

IMAGE CREDIT: Many thanks for the Teaching Tolerance logo to Gary, a fellow educator and blogger for Teaching Tolerance, who tells a similar story on his "Follow your Bliss" blog!  Best wishes to him!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reality Check for TFA

A meditation on respect for the Teaching Profession

I've talked a lot about respect for students in some of my recent blog posts, but today I'd like to address one aspect of respect for TEACHERS that I think needs to be examined.

McCoy Elementary in the KCMO School District was closed in 2010.
I recently talked with a friend who is one of the few remaining veteran teachers in a Kansas City, MO elementary school. Such seasoned veterans are actually somewhat rare, because of recent moves by the district to close approximately half of their schools, and to lay off hundreds of  teachers.

I asked my friend how things were going.  She sighed deeply, and said that this year much of the staff in her school is drawn from the ranks of Teach For America

TFA is the darling of the hour, but if you look closely you may not like what you see.
We both knew what that meant--much of the staff is recruited from college graduates who plan careers in other fields, but have taken an intensive course in one summer, and committed to working as a teacher for a couple of years, before they get on with their "real" careers.  

This also means that they are much cheaper to hire than fully certified teachers--but also that they are less thoroughly prepared. I know that's a controversial statement in the current political climate. And I also know that schools of education are not doing an overly awesome job of preparing new graduates for the rigors of urban teaching, either.  

But my friend's report genuinely shocked me.  She said that the "TFA kids" in her school have been given basically no support or mentoring, now that they actually are assigned to classrooms. That's insane, I thought: Once a person is actually in the classroom, that's when MOST of the practical questions arise.

Wendy S. Kopp, founder of  TFA,
frequently speaks about its benefits.
According to my friend's report of what the TFA group has told her, they did their practice workshop in a private school in California that was nothing like the urban elementary where they are now. As one of the very few veterans left in her school, she finds herself not only struggling to keep her own "head above water" with an overlarge class of boisterous second-graders, but she is the go-to "wiser head" for all of the TFA kids who, in her words, have been "thrown to the wolves" with no mentoring or support.

As someone who has taught in urban schools myself, I know very well how it can devour someone alive, if one is not properly prepared and supported. Urban teaching offers rich rewards, but it is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. What my friend described is unconscionable. If this is truly the TFA approach, then it deserves NONE of the kudos it so frequently receives!

Actual, certified teachers with urban experience were let go again this year to make room for the new TFA group. This serves neither the children of the district, nor the idealistic kids who signed up for TFA and now come to my friend in tears on a daily basis. It is a classic case of the bureaucracy serving its own interests before those of the students in the district, because of budget cuts that force wrenching decisions.

And it is precisely this kind of situation that we must avoid if we are serious about an ascendant future for the United States.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pushback from the Education-Industrial Compex

Textbook publishers resist the digital trend.

"Bye-Bye"? Maybe not yet.
Apparently, some industries insist on replaying their own version of the 1990s music industry's resistance to digital music--and the major publishers of textbooks are totally there.

In my last update I talked about the potential of e-textbooks as opposed to traditional, printed and bound "dead trees" textbooks. My post focused on the versatility and vastly-expanded possibilities e-textbooks could offer.

Unfortunately, that kind of versatility and useability do not describe the way things are right now.

Just like the old record companies, textbook companies are doing their best to resist the new realities of the digital landscape. Some of their techniques make digital textbooks a very bad "deal" for students.

They persist in charging high prices, yet often make their books "expire" after 6 months--making them more of an overpriced rental than a purchase. Sometimes they embed copyright enforcement measures that make digital textbooks impossible to sell, and they place stiff restrictions on sharing, as well.

All of these measures hinder accessibility, jack up expenses, and hinder the use of the book. (And in spite of all this, textbooks still get pirated anyway.)

Add to these problems the unpredictability of platform options, and you begin to understand why such an apparent "no-brainer" hasn't really taken off yet.

Reading textbooks on laptops, with their backlit screens, is hard on the eyes. But other options are unpredictable.

Cautious districts are sticking with paper versions for now.
Will the Kindle fizzle out or take off, as a textbook platform? Will more people adopt the Nook, the iPad, or some other platform for textbooks? Will the book for any given course be available in the right format? Will any of these suffer the same fate as the HP Tablet?

To continue with the music industry comparisons, no school in this age of shrinking budgets wants to be caught with a storage closet full of expensive "8-tracks" in a world that has settled on something different.

 In spite of all this, I think grassroots demand is likely to turn the tide eventually. Especially on the college level, we're beginning to see it rather strongly. Some colleges are pushing for all e-text adoption, or e-textbook rental. I know of more and more professors who are beginning to eschew single, or even multiple "dead-trees" textbooks in favor of online resources. Most scholarly journals are available online, and have been for some time.

The world as a whole is going digital. How long can the textbook companies resist?

The "Bye-Bye Textbooks" graphic is from the website. 
Many thanks to The Beaumont Enterprise newspaper for the image of piled-up "dead trees" books.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Troglodyte Textbooks for Digital Natives

Why do US schools miss an apparent "No Brainer"?

For anyone who actively uses digital media to explore their world, it seems obvious that schools need to move away from the traditional "dead trees" textbook format, and begin using digital textbooks.

The advantages are many.

Inkling from Bulent Keles on Vimeo.

The digital option offers an interface that:
  • Can open from the main text to a variety of detailed supplementary information.
  • Is capable of being lavishly illustrated with zoom-enabled photos, video or audio clips, and interactive maps, charts, and graphs.
  • In the best-designed examples, allows individual users to tag, annotate, bookmark, and/or archive notes and passages.
  • Is near-instantly searchable on a wide variety of variables.
  • Costs a fraction of what a copy of a traditional textbook costs.
  • Weighs only as much as the digital device into which it has been loaded.
  • Requires no special accommodations for storage, beyond digital memory capacity.
  • Will always be a "brand new" copy to each user.
  • Can be updated frequently by authors and publishers, because updates can be done at relatively little expense.

By contrast, traditional textbooks:
  • Offer only a single "static" text with at most a few sidebars.
  • Are limited by practicality to a handful of illustrations, charts, maps, etc. on any given page--none of which can be made interactive.
  • Generally cannot be annotated by individual users without leaving a permanent mark.
  • Can only be searched via laborious visual scan or a (limited) index.
  • Cost a lot of money to buy.
  • Are often heavy and cumbersome, especially for younger children.
  • Take up a lot of storage space, when not in use.
  • Are subject to wear, tear, and vandalism.
  • Are difficult and expensive to update.
Back problems from too-heavy school backpacks reached a peak of awareness around 2005.

South Korean students in Goesan use tablet PCs as textbooks.
"Everybody" (on the blogosphere, anyway) seems to believe it's the way of the future, the coming  trend. South Korea and Singapore already have begun riding this wave.

But the switch to digital textbooks in the US has been hit-and-miss, emphasis on the "miss."  Why aren't more US schools joining this trend?

I think there are several reasons, and most of them stem from the basic institution, which is structured so it must prioritize its own needs above those of students.

Politics is one major dis-incentive, in at least three ways.

Federal, state, and local education budgets have been slashed repeatedly, throughout the last decade. Digital textbooks may be a fraction of the cost of traditional ones, but schools already have storage rooms filled with traditional textbooks. And outfitting an entire school or district with e-readers is not cheap. Many schools just don't have the money.

A significant and vocal group of voters is old enough to look upon digital devices in schools as an extravagant luxury, and therefore a waste of money. They tend to complain, and they unfortunately are more likely to vote than more moderate thinkers. Thus, their views sometimes dominate school budget battles.

Finally, US school districts have traditionally been governed by the decisions of a local school board. Unlike Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and many other nations with widely-admired educational systems, our schools are not centrally managed by the federal government so that all schools are treated the same. Local control and dependence on local property taxes for a financial base make US schools an uneven patchwork. No Department of Education recommendation can decree that all schools will use e-textbooks. You may see that as a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the way we operate. Districts will (or won't) adopt digital textbooks individually, as they see fit.

This illustration demonstrates textbook capabilities of iPad tablets.
Another important dis-incentive to using digital textbooks is the confusion and discomfort many educators feel about e-readers. Even those who have mastered web surfing, email, and Facebook may be baffled by the dizzying array of options in the rapidly-expanding e-textbook field.

How should educators evaluate the merits of a Nook (left) or a Kindle (right)?
What kind of digital reader should they use? The wrong choice means a whole lot of money ill-used. But there are arguments both for and against using the iPad, Nook, Kindle, and a whole slew of other devices. Which give good advice? Which are just glorified ads?

Textbooks must offer sound, readable information that is aligned with the school's curriculum--and most educators understand how to judge a traditional-format textbook. But what makes a good digital one? And if they do find a good digital reader, is it supported by all of the textbooks their school needs?

They may be dog-eared, but most schools have piles of textbooks.
No wonder so many schools are still relying on the laptop cart in the corner of the classroom, and digging their old paper-bound-in-cardboard textbooks out of the library storage room each year! Besides, with all the other things they have to pay attention to, what educator has the time to do a genuinely-rigorous comparative evaluation?

Institutionally, public schools have never had either the funding or the functional incentives to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Unlike businesses, they have faced no compelling need to compete, so they have had to be dragged, late and unwillingly, into the computer age.

Will that history repeat itself for digital textbooks?

The video clip at the opening of this post is from the iPad In Schools blog/website's "The Future of the Textbook" post. The three views of iPads as textbooks is from the same site's "Why the iPad Should be Used in Classrooms" post.
The cartoon panel from Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse comic strip came from the Eclipse Wellness website.
The AP photo of the elementary students from Goesan, South Korea is from the Daily Herald (Chicago area, IL) online.
The photo of a textbook on a Nook is from the Barnes & Noble Booksellers website. The image of the Kindle is from the GEV website
Finally, the image of piles of traditional textbooks came from the Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont, TX) website.
Many thanks to all of these sources!

You may also find these articles interesting:
The website's "Digital Learning: Final Chapter for Textbooks?" page.Classroom Aid's post, "It's a Digital World, Why not a Digital Textbook?"
Statistics on the Worldwide Center of Mathematics Blog website, in the post "The state of the Textbook Industry: Facts and Figures," by Brian L.
The Kindle-adoption experiment at  Clearwater (FL) High School, as described by the Techno Buffalo site.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Slight Delay in the "Digital Natives" Series

    Next time I'll consider digital-vs.-dead trees
    I apologize for another slight delay in this series. I am running another art show, and it's pulling me away from this effort a bit more than anticipated (stuff always takes longer than you think it will!).

    I hope to have the next installment of this series posted during the upcoming week!

    My topic will be the relative merits of digital textbooks vs. the dead-trees version!

    This image is from the interesting blog of Dr. Patricia Fioriello, on K-12 Education Practices and Issues. the particular post from which the image came is "Digital Textbooks Online."

    Friday, July 29, 2011

    Teaching Like It's 1980

    Rethinking the way Schools (dis)Respect Digital Natives

    Most classrooms still look like this
    2010 photo of a 4th-grade room.
    Most of today's educators were born too soon. We are not digital natives. Moreover, developments that you might call "market forces" in the last several decades actually have held most teachers back from fully participating in the digital revolution.

    As a result, we really don't "get it."

    All too many of us are still teaching as if it's 1980 . . . except with a computer cart in the corner, to use sometimes.  Oh, sure, some of us have "smart boards" where our blackboards used to be, and some of us are required to keep in touch with parents via email.

    But most educators just fundamentally see digital media (by which they mean "computers") as a sort of add-on.

    • We still think of textbooks as physical, printed-and-bound objects.
    • We make our students turn off or put away their cell phones when they come to class.
    • We restrict access to the Internet, except for narrowly-defined assignment objectives.
    • We often absolutely ban Facebook, Twitter, and other social media from our classrooms.
    • We demand undivided attention when we are speaking to the class.
    • We believe that, to be readily available, facts must be memorized.
    • We call it "cheating" when our students look up answers.
    • When we make websites, they are almost invariably really lame.
    I am pretty sure we have managed to get all of these things (and more) exactly backwards.

    That's because it isn't 1980 anymore.  I actually remember teaching in 1980, and a whole lot of my colleagues do, too. For us and for our students, that is unfortunately a problem. Today's students have grown up using technology that never even existed when we were growing up. This has changed the way they see and interact with the world. It also has fundamentally altered the kind of world their future holds. A "1980" education is simply not going to cut it, for these kids, even if we do pull out the computer cart from time to time.

    In upcoming posts, I intend to explore each of the points I've listed above, and look at the reasons why we should revise our practices regarding every single one.

    Many thanks to "Gourmet Spud" for the fourth-grade classroom photo from the "Parent-Teacher Night" post on the Food Court Lunch blog. 
    Enthusiastic appreciation also is due to the Tulsa Public Schools Department of Instructional Technology for the Pirillo & Fitz cartoon.

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Gone Again!

    I may get to see this scene in person, this week! 

    By the time this is posted, I plan to be in San Francisco. Yes, I know I just started posting entries again.  Those reasons were highly stressful.  This reason is not.

    The vacation was an unexpected opportunity, not to be missed! Passionate as I am about education reform, meeting deadlines and doing my work as usual is not a helpful way to enjoy a vacation.

    So I hope you'll enjoy this prize-winning view of the City by the Bay, until I return in a couple of weeks. While you're at it, you might enjoy other views of US historic landmarks that won the 2005 contest, "Imaging Our National Heritage." This view of the hillside, bay, cable cars and Alcatraz was photographed by Thomas Fake, and won first prize in the competition, which was sponsored by the National Historic Landmarks program of the National Park Service.

    By the time I return, I hope to have been in fruitful contact with all of my digital-native respondents, and have one or more posts to offer, about ways that schools can respect the needs and perspectives of the current "digital" generation.

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    Respect for Military Families and their Students:

    Recent publications paint an ugly picture

    We've seen a lot of flag-waving recently.
    How sincere is it, really?
    Memorial Day. Flag Day. Independence Day. Elections coming soon.

    Seems as if we've seen a whole lot of flag-waving and "support our troops" slogans, recently.  But how is that working out for our military families?

    Anyone who's been paying attention to the news has a pretty good idea of the answer to that.  The families of active-military personnel have been faced with repeated, extremely long deployments in recent years. Returning National Guard veterans often find their old jobs have been given to others, and all veterans are discovering than in this economy it's extremely hard to find new ones.  Veterans' mental health care, particularly in the case of PTSD sufferers, is frequently inadequate.

    This is a dilapidated roof at Clarkmoor
    Elementary at Ft. Lewis, WA
    . Photo by
    Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.
    Now add to all that the fact that apparently their kids aren't being at all well served in school, either.

    Just this week, "Daddy, Why Is My School Falling Down?" was published in Newsweek. The article, based on a longer one by author Kristen Lombardi originally published in iWatch News, focuses on the dilapidated, often unhealthy and unsafe condition of many schools on US military bases.

    This closet is part of a 73-year-old Nazi
    barracks, now Boeblingen Elementary
    on a US base in Germany.  Photo by
    Jenny Hoff for iWatch News.
    Reading these articles, I was repeatedly reminded of the horrifying schools for poor children, described in Jonathan Kozol's landmark 1991 book, Savage Inequalities.  Leaks like "Niagara Falls," cracked bricks, termite-infested walls, and backed-up toilets all sounded hauntingly familiar.

    The principal of Geronimo Road Ele-
    mentary in Ft. Sill, OK
     can slide his
    finger into some of the wall cracks.
    Photo: Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.

    The situation is not entirely hopeless. The Department of Defense has set up a task force to inspect the schools on military bases, though of course that doesn't necessarily mean better schools are coming anytime soon.  

    But why has there ever been a question about replacing or repairing schools on military bases in a timely way, when there always seemed to be enough money to fund billion-dollar weapons systems the generals have said they don't even need? 

    Just a month earlier than the Lombardi report, Education Week published "The Need to Support Students from Military Families," by Ron Avi Astor. This commentary outlines the difficulties students from military families of ten face in public schools, where there apparently is little consciousness of their situation and even less understanding.

    According to Astor, the state of California has "created a military-connected school-survey module" to aid in "understanding the experiences of military students and parents in public schools." The fact that other states have not yet "follow[ed] California's lead" gives us a glimpse of the remaining gap.

    Why on earth isn't gaining such background information about all incoming students already standard operating procedure for schools everywhere? Such information is fundamental for any kind of responsive education practice, and essential for helping gauge a child's "starting point."

    Jill Biden and Michelle Obama have
    joined forces with Education Secretary
    Arne Duncan to help military families.
    Last January, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, launched an initiative focused on military-connected schools, which may eventually bear some fruit.

    As an example of the needs they plan to address, according to the US Department of Education it is an issue for some public schools to allow students to be absent so they can greet parents who are returning from deployments.

    I read this and wonder how anyone with an ounce of empathy can possibly question the logic of excusing such an absence. After all, one of the greatest stressors on military children is their parents' absence--so much so, it can seriously affect grades and attendance.

    We've been at war for a solid decade. Why in Heaven's name are any of these issues still a problem?  In the name of decency and our country's honor, how is it possible that they only now are in the the earliest stages of being addressed?

    If ever a situation reeked of misplaced priorities, surely the plight of military families with school children is a prime example.

    PHOTO CREDITS: The combined image of the US flag, the Statue of Liberty, and an eagle is from All Posters, where you can buy this image in several formats.  The 3 photos of dilapidated Pentagon-run schools by Emma Schwartz and Jenny Hoff are from iWatch News. The photo of Jill Biden and Michelle Obama is from Zimbio.

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Pulled away for too long!

    I apologize for the recent lack of posts.  I plead a perfect storm of obligations pulling me in other directions--but you should know I have not forgotten this blog! 

    I've been at work gathering opinions from digital natives about changes they'd like to see in "the way school is done." I think the series that will result from this could be interesting. 

    Until then, however, at least you know I still care.

    PHOTO CREDIT: Many thanks to Bradley William Whitney, and his page!

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Death of a Purple Elephant

    Respect in the Real World: Case Study #2

    Ali Spagnola's Purple Elephant with Flower gives the lie
    to the creativity-crushing words of my friend's teacher.
    "I'm not creative," she said.  "I'm not talented like that."

    She and I talked for a while about the ways in which people develop (or don't) into artists, and she told me about third grade, in the small town where she grew up.

    You see, third grade was where she learned most thoroughly that she was "not talented."  In particular, she remembered the day her third grade teacher scolded her for a drawing she'd made. She'd never be a good artist, the teacher said, because she didn't even know that elephants are not purple!  They are gray.

    The teacher said this to a child who had only seen elephants a few times in pictures, and who had never traveled more than 25 miles from her small-town Midwestern home in her whole life, so far (though she later became an enthusiastic world traveler).

    I had a sudden, powerful wish that I could reach back through time and throttle the teacher.  This woman taught my friend how to multiply and divide, how to write in cursive, how to spell dozens of words--but she also drove a big, heavy spike through the heart of her burgeoning creativity.

    I wished I could go back and tell the teacher that real artists know for sure that elephants might be purple, and here's what one would look like, if you saw it.

    I wished I could tell her that a child's inborn creativity grows from an imagination that learns it's okay to look beyond accepted norms and think outrageous thoughts--and that it shrivels in blighted agony when crushed.

    I wished I could tell her how desperately we need more creative thinkers, if we are to compete as a nation in the 21st century.

    My friend's third-grade teacher later retired and has since died, although her legacy clearly lives on.  Indeed, it is pointless to blame her without acknowledging that she was simply expressing a "truth" that surely she must have learned in the same painful way.  Without doubt, she abused her students' creativity because her own had been just as ruthlessly stomped.

    Nor is she an isolated example.  It's easy to find her sisters and brothers in schools, homes, churches, and many other places, everywhere.  We express respect (or the lack thereof) in all kinds of ways.  One of the most prevalent ways we disrespect students (and in the process hamstring our own society) is by devastating children's early creative efforts.

    It is endemic in our school systems, because of the way they are currently set up to value conformity and submission above all else.  The Paradigm of "Control" kills creativity.  That is its very nature.  Only by bringing in a Paradigm of "Respect" will we and our schools be able to free ourselves from the iron grip of stunted imaginations and conventional thinking that can do nothing more than repeat the past.

    Meanwhile, let's observe a moment of silence for all the purple elephants we never got to see.

    PICTURE CREDIT:  Many thanks to Ali Spagnola, for her painting Purple Elephant with Flower!  It is from her blog, Ali's Art Adventure.

    Friday, April 29, 2011

    Respect in the Real World: A Case Study

    In my last two posts to this blog, I made the argument that we need to replace what I see as a Paradigm of "Control" in our schools with one of "Respect."

    The title of this cartoon by Colby Jones is "Tolerance?"
    "Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect, " I wrote.  "I mean mutual respect--that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers."

    But it's one thing to ask for respect, or discuss it in the abstract.

    It can be quite another in practice, especially when you are being asked to respect someone from another culture who is doing, saying, or wearing something you don't understand.

    I received an example of this via email, just yesterday. It came from a person who often sends me emails that might generously be described as "culturally insensitive."  This one very rudely mocked the young, African-American subjects of several prom photos.

    When I spoke with the sender, the reply was essentially, "Oh, come on. Those outfits are clearly not in good taste!"  Perhaps not, if you are looking at them through the "cultural lens" of a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety.

    But that's not the way the kids looked at them.  I know this, because, I have known many young people from a similar cultural background.  They have very little connection with a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety--but they are very creative.

    So here's a small challenge for you.  Suspend your preconceptions for a moment, and join me on a short photo tour.

    All I ask is that you look at these beautiful young people, arrayed in their best finery, participating in a "milestone" event they'll remember all their lives.  Just to keep you alert, I've included a few photos from a couple of other events that have been in the news lately.
    Young women in extreme dresses
    I think it is likely only one of these young women is wearing a dress she did not design herself (that includes Victoria Beckham in the upper left corner).  

    Young men in unusual outfits
    All of these outfits include interesting or extraordinary accessories, but I couldn't find a single young prom-goer wearing spurs or carrying a sword.

    Young ladies wearing creative hair styles
    I'm guessing the young prom-goer at left could have a future as a hairdresser for Fashion Week.  What do you think?

    You still may not like some of these fashion statements.  But I hope I've made my point that "weird" or "bizarre" is in the eyes of the beholder.  I hope you'll also agree that the young prom-goers truly didn't deserve to have their personal photos and homemade finery turned into the laughingstock of the Internet.

    Educators must never forget respect.  Especially when we are relating to young people who are at an extremely vulnerable moment in their emotional lives, I think it is of absolute importance to ask, "where are they 'coming from'?"  "What is their goal?"  It truly isn't always to "get to us" (surprise: it's not all about us!).  Sometimes it is simply to look their own personal version of fabulous.

    PHOTO CREDITS: This post presented more than the ordinary challenges, when I tried to figure out how to attribute the prom photos.  I used the TinEye site to do a reverse search for them, but encountered a long list of joke sites.  Many of these photos have indeed been made the laughingstock of the Internet, on blog after blog.  I have no intention of boosting the circulation of any of them by adding a link here.
    I do, however, want to thank Colby Jones for his cartoon, "Tolerance?" which I found on his SirColby website.  
    The British Royal Wedding photos are from The Daily Beast. They include the work of photographers Pascal Le Segretain and Odd Anderson, AFP for the Young Women in Extreme Dresses collection, and Peter Macdiarmid and Ben Stansall, AFP for the Young Men in Unusual Outfits collection.  All are associated with Getty Images.  
    Setting aside the girl with the "helicopter hair," whose joke-site source shall remain in nameless shame, the three middle photos in the Young Ladies Wearing Creative Hair Styles collection are from Fashion Week, January 14, 2011, courtesy of the Onjer Hairstyle site (photographers not credited); the Crimped Hair Hat on the right end is the design of John Galliano, from the Christian Dior Show of Paris Fashion Week, Sept. 29, 2008, courtesy of The Frisky (AP photographer not credited).

    Saturday, April 23, 2011

    How do the Paradigms of "Control" and "Respect" Differ?

    19th century factory in Toronto
    In my previous post I said, "if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison."  I went on from there to assert that respect is the key ingredient missing in today's schools.

    But what do I mean by that?  Respect . . . for whom?  And how do the Paradigms of "Control" and "Respect" differ?

    First of all, I mean mutual respect--that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

    There are many contrasts we can draw between the two paradigms.  None of the thoughts I list below is complete: I intend to expand upon each in future posts.  But here are a few "snapshots" of some of the differences, as I see them.

    Traditional school bureaucracies are by their nature "top-down" affairs.
    Traditional school bureaucracy would have to stand on its head.  Years ago, my father told me that in his long education career he had observed an immutable order of things: that administrators set rules to suit their needs, teachers add rules to make their lives easier, and students are at the bottom of the heap.  In the graphic you'll note I've added a few layers to that hierarchy, based on recent trends, but the principle remains sound.

    This system by its nature cannot prioritize the students' or their families' needs first.  No matter how fervently or genuinely the adults in the system may protest that they're "doing it for the kids' benefit," the actual truth is that the system serves its own needs first, and acts upon students--who have no input in the decision-making.

    A master teacher and a student
    from Tufts University work
    together on a challenging problem.
    The answer to "what is a class?" would change.  Public education systems in the U.S. have a long tradition of treating students kind of like standardized production runs, considering each class sort of like a "lot" produced during a specific time frame.

    We all know that people learn at different rates and with different levels of capability, but in traditional classes all students are somehow (magically?) supposed to finish the same material at the same time.  In practice, this means some students "get" it right away, and then have to wait for all the others to come straggling in . . . while some never quite figure it out, but hope they can "fake it" well enough to get by.  This process doesn't respect the students at all, in my opinion.

    A better approach--one that respects the student's time and needs--would take these natural variations into account.  The best motivation for learning is a moderate challenge that can be met with some effort.  Students don't succeed too easily (and therefore get bored), but they also are not completely baffled and defeated by demands too far beyond their skill.  They work at what they're learning until they master it, then move on to the next challenge.

    Anyone who has played a well-crafted video game will recognize this approach.

    It also is similar to the guiding principles of what educators call "standards-based" education.  Some schools have begun to try this idea.  Our own Kansas City (Mo) School District began phasing this approach in during the 2010-11 school year, on a trial basis in a few schools.  I believe this is an approach that should be explored more widely.

    Parents in Tampa FL pick up their kids after
    Schools' daily schedules would become more flexible. You may be surprised to learn that school bus schedules normally dictate when schooldays start and end.  This is an outstanding example of the bureaucracy meeting its own needs first, with little regard to student needs.

    Because of this priority alignment, most school schedules are radically out of sync with many students' natural circadian rhythms, and often create a "latch key" situation for young children whose parents' work schedules are different from the school schedule.

    Under a Paradigm of "Respect," much greater effort would be focused toward scheduling school days and events at times when students are alert, and on schedules that are in harmony with working parents' job demands.

    Passing period can be hectic for older students, and it is a
    poor substitute for a break, in most cases.
    The lengths of activities during school, and the number of distractions and time-wasting interruptions, would change.   Large portions of each school day are wasted on things that have little to do with education and a great deal to do with administrative needs.  Bell schedules enforce an unnatural sequence of work interruptions for students, with no regard for their individual learning processes.  They exist almost entirely for administrative convenience.

    For example, being required to think about algebra for an arbitrary period of time, then abruptly being interrupted, forced to move, and next being required to think about something completely unrelated, such as history or language arts, is an unnatural and impersonal means of ordering students' time that completely disregards their achievement of understanding, need for practice, or experience of "flow" in their work.  No system based on respect would do this to someone.

    Young footballers in Northbook, IL
    get some healthy exercise in a physical
    education class.  Unfortunately, recent
    budget cuts threaten art, music, and P.E.
    most of all, despite their benefits.
    Students' needs would be respected, and recognized as important.  In many schools, preparation for standardized testing eats more and more of the school day, while recess, even for the youngest students, is being systematically cut shorter and shorter.

    For older students there are very few breaks at all, other than passing periods, when they are expected to secure any books they need, get from one classroom to another (even if it's several floors away), take care of restroom needs, and also do a little socializing if there's time--all in 3-5 minutes.  This is scarcely on a par with the mandated break times at many workplaces.

    Budget cutbacks and increased emphasis on subject areas targeted by mandated tests also have contributed to nationwide cutbacks in art, music, and physical education classes--thereby cutting back opportunities for students to switch up their routine, express themselves, and get some exercise.  A system that respected students' needs would never make this tradeoff.

    Students take a math exam at an
    unidentified school.
    Testing would be done for legitimate, learning-related purposes.  Testing doesn't really need to be a high-stress, high-stakes affair that requires massive amounts of money, effort, and time, although a good deal of today's "testing experience" is precisely that.

    The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has mandated sweeping standardized testing programs that (1) are not pedagogically helpful in any way, and that (2) in practice have functioned to penalize ever more schools throughout the US.

    A classic "bell curve" shows a
    normal distribution of results.
    Logic alone should tell us that the NCLB Act's requirement for all children to reach "proficiency" in reading and math by an arbitrary date (the 2013-14 school year) is an impossible goal, a fool's errand.  Unless we can somehow find a way to turn the bell curve into an L shape on the "high" end, or unless we move to Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average," no school with actual children in it can achieve 100% "proficiency" (whatever that is: definitions vary).

    Real testing--respectful testing--focuses on the goal of discovering what the student has already learned, and what s/he still needs to know.  This keeps the teacher from wasting the student's time with things s/he already knows, and helps focus lessons on things the student still needs to know.

    Pedagogically valid tests help teachers evaluate what should be incorporated in the lessons to come, so the student can achieve mastery of the topic under study.  Ideally, the teacher should write his or her "final" first, based on the learning objectives for the class.  All the lessons should be structured to help answer the question, "how can I help the student learn what s/he must know to meet these learning objectives (and, incidentally, ace this test)?" The best test is all about the student, and helping the student learn.

    It's radical, I know.  And the practicality of some of the things I am proposing raises serious questions.  I hope you will continue to read along with me, as I attempt to outline ways that we might just be able to pull this off.

    PHOTO CREDITS: The image of the 19th century Abell Street factory in Toronto, ON is from the Heritage Canada Foundation. The "Top-Down Hierarchy" chart is copyright 2011 by Jan Sherrell Gephardt, created for this post.  The photo of the Tufts University student and her mentor in the STOMP program is from Teachers EFGI.  The photo of the hectic passing period is from the +Plus Magazine . . . Living Mathematics website.  The photo of soccer-playing kids in Northbrook, IL is from the Northbrook School District.  The photo of the math exam is from The Situationist blog.  The graph showing a classic bell curve is from the University of Kansas Medical Center website.  

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    If Not "Control," then What?

    It's enough to make a principal commiserate with Moammar Gaddafi.

    Fires in trashcans
    at SWECC have
    occupied the
    Kansas City Fire
    Dept. many times
    since August.
    All too many of our schools are teetering on the edge of violent anarchy, these days.  In Kansas City, we have kind of a "poster child school" in regard to school chaos. Southwest Early College Campus was conceived as a college-prep magnet, but last fall it was merged with another urban high school during a massive consolidation in the district.

    It is fair to say the merger did not go smoothly.  Since August we've seen multiple fires, countless fights and arrests, and a sad procession of principals who arrive full of plans and leave a few months later in defeat.  They're on their third one now, but he's already announced he's leaving at semester's end.

    So, honestly.  DO I still really think we need to move away from the Paradigm of "Control" that I identified in my April 2 and April 7 posts?

    School can erupt into a place of violence with shocking ease.  L-R: a student is arrested in the library at the University of  Montana; students in India join a revolt against a professor; the aftermath of vandalism in a Wyoming school.
    You bet I do.  I think the Paradigm of "Control" is the taproot feeding this whole contemporary downward spiral of violence and low achievement.  This is because the Paradigm of "Control" was born of fear and loathing, and it continues to be perpetuated by fear and loathing.

    Remember that back at the dawn of US public schooling in the mid-19th century, one of the most compelling reasons why industrialists backed the public education movement was protection.  Rich white people genuinely needed protection from roving gangs of juvenile delinquents.

    19th century gangs of juvenile delinquents in Northeastern cities were possibly even more numerous and dangerous than the gangs we have today.  Because everyone lived near each other in cities then, they also posed a more immediate threat to rich white people.  This inspired influential support for new laws mandating compulsory universal education.
    The uncontrolled bands of young people that vandalized and stole things were offspring of the workers who toiled all day and half the night in the mills and factories of the time.  Their parents couldn't supervise them, because they weren't free to do so.

    Factory owners already controlled the parents' lives.  Confining and controlling the kids probably seemed like a logical extension, and a good idea.  Better yet, it served multiple purposes: it sounded benevolent, it taught children basic skills, and--not incidentally--it kept them off the streets.

    And really--what's wrong with that?  Educating kids while keeping them out of trouble hardly sounds like a Work of Evil.  I'm not saying it is.

    What I am saying is that if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison.

    I believe there's a key ingredient missing, in the Paradigm of "Control"--a vitally important element called RESPECT.  Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect.

    And without feeling respected and affirmed, it's hideously difficult for a child to confidently try new things, expand his/her vision, or explore the fearsomely wonderful world of learning.

    PHOTO CREDITS: Trashcan fire demo by the National Fire Sprinkler Association; University of Montana student arrest from Indy Media; student mob attacking professor from the Times of India Online; vandalized school library in Wyoming from Muskegon News Archive of MLIVE; 19th century street gang from The Young Campaigner blog; 21st century gang members from Gang's Dangerous Life website; "Respect" graphic from Jemima's Journal blog, by Jemima Kameyo.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Of Form and Function: Exploring what the Paradigm of "Control" looks like

    There's an old saying, "Do what I say, not what I do."

    As teachers, we know that  children seldom are fooled when adults' actions do not conform to their words.  In my last post, I discussed the 19th-century connections between schools, child labor, and the juvenile justice system--and the way in which I believe this history predisposes schools to follow a paradigm of "Control."

    We all know the good things that we want to do for children in our schools.  That is the "What I say" part.  Now please suspend your objections for a few moments, and come along with me as we do a purely visual comparison, to see what we do:

    The women at left are seated at punch presses, working sheet metal in a St. Louis factory around the turn of the 20th century.  The images of kids at computers come from a library and a school in California.

    L-R: British child factory workers in the 19th century; a contemporary math class, and a contemporary science class.

    L-R: A 19th century sweatshop; a contemporary civics class, and a contemporary elementary classroom.

    L-R: A minimum-security prison in Oregon; the former Central Junior High in Ames, IA, and a contemporary hallway in an unidentified school.

    Walk-through metal detectors look much the same, whether they are in a school (L) or a prison entrance (center).  And surely the student spread-eagled against the lockers feels his school is a safe place to learn.

    No matter how nice the man wearing the gun in the school library, or the one using the handheld metal detector on the elementary student may be, they, their tools, and their uniforms still look a lot like the prison guard at center.

    L-R:  "Rikky" the Labrador is a member of the security team at Lubbock-Cooper ISD, Lubbock, TX.  At center, an unidentified prison guard and his dog search for bombs.  At right, "Dutch" is the newest drug-sniffing dog for the Nampa School District in Boise, ID.
    Please understand that I am NOT saying our schools are "just like" 19th century factories or prisons.  But perhaps you'll agree with me that some of the visual parallels are a little eerie.

    I think it is certain that many alert students have not failed to notice, as well.

    PHOTO CREDITS: I have a lot of people to thank for these images!  Click the links to get context for each:  "Factory/School #1": Women at punch presses-Northern Illinois University; Library computers-City of Huntington Beach, CA; Classroom computers-Brock University.  "Factory/School #2": British child laborers-South African History Online; Math class-Moving with Math; Science  Factory/School #3: Sweatshop-Fundamentals of Finance; Civics; Elementary classroom-Paladin Post.  "Prison/School": Prison hallway-The Oregonian; Historic Central Junior High-Ames Historical Society; unidentified school hallway-Parent Society.  "Metal Detectors": Walk-through at school-American Studies Wiki; Robben Island Prison entrance-Charles Apple; NYC metal scan-Gothamist.  "Uniformed Officers": SRO Officer Psilopoulos-Johnston Insider; Unidentified British prison guard-The Daily Mail; Unidentified officer with schoolchild-"Snippits and Slappits."  "Police Dogs": Rikki the Lab-Lubbock Online; Prison guard and bomb dog-K9 Pride; Dutch the drug-sniffer-KBOI-TV.