Here’s Why Teaching Today is So Darn Difficult.

Did you guys happen to see the story of JP Krause — the Vero Beach High School Junior whose election as Senior Class President was voided by his high school principal earlier this year? 

To campaign, Krause made a 90 second impromptu speech during his AP History class that was essentially a spoof of every ridiculous claim/proposal that Donald Trump has made over the last few years.  He promised to build a wall between his school and the neighboring high school — and to force the neighboring school to pay for it.  He claimed that his opponent in the election represented Communist ideas.  And he defended his speech as a “complete joke from the beginning and completely satirical.”

And then he won the election.

#sheeshchat

#soundfamiliar

The principal of the school — Shawn O’Keefe — voided the election, arguing that an election had to be based on something more than satire.  He was trying to reinforce the notion that people running for leadership positions should take pertinent issues seriously — and that when a student body refuses to consider pertinent issues when selecting student leadership, the administration should step in and take action.

Now there’s a lot of room for open-minded debate here.

Some might think that JP’s speech was just another example of a “kid being a kid.”  (I do.)  You could argue that the best lessons students at Vero Beach can learn by electing JP is that elections have consequences.  (I might).  Some might believe that because a school’s principal has to work closely with student leadership — particularly the senior class president — that O’Keefe has the right to filter who gets elected and who doesn’t.  (I do — in extreme cases like this).  And others might believe that we ruin our relationship with students when we take heavy-handed actions like voiding an entire student body election (I don’t.)

But open-minded debate isn’t what happened at all.

Instead, JP was invited on Fox and Friends to talk all about how liberal educators were trying to silence a conservative voice who supported Trump.  Then, the Pacific Legal Fund sent a letter to Vero Beach High School claiming that JP’s constitutional rights were violated by O’Keefe’s decision.

What do JP’s parents think of this entire situation?  They are concerned that the school’s actions are going to hurt JP’s college admission chances, believe that “there wasn’t anything wrong” with his actions, and just wish the school handled the situation better.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and he ends up on Fox and Friends as an example of how conservative voices are stifled in America’s public schools?

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and a school system is threatened with legal action for violating his constitutional rights?

A kid gets up, makes a speech in an AP History class that he described as “a complete joke,” and his parents wish the SCHOOL handled the situation better?

Would any of this have happened ten years ago?  Twenty years ago?

What would your parents have done if you had disrupted one of your classes in the same way as JP had?  Would they have argued that the school had handled the situation poorly?  Would they have supported a lawsuit arguing that your constitutional rights had been violated?  Would they have allowed you to go on Fox and Friends to vent about the horrors of the school’s decision?

Those aren’t the decisions that my dad would have made.  

He would have recognized my actions for what they were — a silly prank that had no real place in the classroom.  I don’t think he would have punished me — but he also wouldn’t have bemoaned the school system or suggested to me that I had been wronged in any way.  He would have taken the call from the principal, apologized for my actions, and told me to quit being a goofball in class.

THAT’s why being an educator today is so darn difficult, y’all.

Does This Sound Like YOUR School?

This is the worst time of the school year for me.  

That’s because we are in the middle of the long slog to the End of Grade Exams — a series of high stakes tests that, at least here in North Carolina, are used to rate and evaluate everyone and everything connected with public education.

What’s crazy to me, though, is the VAST majority of the content assessed on our end of grade exams — particularly in social studies and science — is content that can be Googled.

(click here to view image and credits on Flickr)

Slide - Taught In Schools

Need some examples?

My students will need to know the difference between intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks, the difference between longitudinal and transverse waves, and the impact that density has on both light and sound.  They’ll need to be able to name both the male and female parts of plants, explain the difference between atoms and elements, and identify chemical and physical properties of matter.

They’ll be asked about the reasons for the seasons, the reason for eclipses, and the reason for tides.  They’ll have to know the layers of the earth and the characteristics of habitable planets.  They’ll see questions about the focus and epicenter of earthquakes, the compressions and rarefactions in sound waves, and the lens and cornea in your eyes.

Should I keep going?

Now don’t get me wrong:  I understand the importance of having foundational knowledge about essential content.  It’s impossible to make new discoveries when you have no basic understanding of what’s happening in the world around you — and while it’s POSSIBLE to Google darn near everything in our required curriculum, it’s also incredibly inefficient and time consuming.  Fluency with core ideas matters.

But it’s also important to understand that by tying high stakes tests to mastery of basic facts, we are fundamentally changing what happens in the science classroom.

As a teacher, I’m forced into making a decision between spending class time on wondering and investigation and collaboration OR spending class time covering as many basic facts as possible.  Choose the former, and I’ll have students who are better prepared to be the kind of inquisitive scientists who make important discoveries that change the world.  Choose the latter and I’ll have students who are better prepared to pass our state’s standardized exams.

I know what you are thinking, y’all:  Why can’t you do both?  Why can’t you integrate inquiry into classrooms where students ALSO walk away with a solid understanding of basic facts?

The answer is you can — as long as the list of “basic facts” that kids are expected to know is manageable.  And at least now — in North Carolina — that’s not the case.  Our essential curriculum is massive and unmanageable.

That has to change.

#trudatchat


Related Radical Reads:

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

 

Kids Need to Run.

One of my favorite things in life is connecting with old friends who have challenged my thinking.  That happened this week when Carly Albee — a fantastic teacher in Western North Carolina and a part of a cohort of teachers that I traveled to Denmark with almost a decade ago — showed up in the comment section of my recent post on fidget spinners.

Carly dug my notion that kids obsessing over fidget spinners can be a valuable source of formative feedback for teachers, but she pushed my thinking even further when she wrote:

(click here to view image and credits on Flickr)

Slide - Fidget Spinners

Carly’s right, isn’t she.  Our kids DO need to run and play and cover their fingers in sand. They need to feel the sun on their faces and breathe fresh air and stumble through the grass.

They need unstructured opportunities to explore and to wonder and to think.  Better yet, they need a chance to build stronger connections with one another by exploring and wondering and thinking together.  And most importantly — particularly in a week when our President repudiated scientific consensus by walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement —  they need to build stronger connections with our Earth.  It’s hard to appreciate our planet when you spend half of your life looking at it from behind a window.

Are those opportunities a regular part of YOUR school’s bell schedule?  

#theyshouldbe


Related Radical Reads:

Good Teaching > Fidget Spinners

Our Dreams are Simple:  We Want to Go Outside

 

“Glorified Notebooks with Onboard Cameras.”

One of my favorite Radical Readers is Bob Schuetz.  Bob regularly pushes my thinking by leaving provocative comments, and that’s something I really, really dig.

A few weeks back, Bob left a comment arguing that all too often, classroom technology — iPads, Chromebooks, BYOD devices — become nothing more than “glorified notebooks with onboard cameras.”

(click here to view original image and credits on Flickr)

Slide - Glorified Notebooks

That thinking is rolling around in my mind today.  Here’s why:  Outside of the purpose driven learning work that I do during our schoolwide enrichment period, most of the technology work being done in my classroom probably fits into “glorified notebook” status.

My kids take pictures of notes that I write on the board and store those pictures in dedicated folders in their Google Drives.  I hand out and collect digital versions of handouts using Google Classroom.  Videos and still shots of lab experiences are captured and incorporated into final products, replacing the hand-drawn observations that students used to complete in required lab reports.

And while those uses have made life infinitely easier for both me and my students, there’s nothing revolutionary there.

A part of me feels a sense of shame about that.  I’m a pretty progressive teacher who has been experimenting with technology in teaching and learning for almost 15 years.  Why the heck haven’t I figured out something better, right?  How can I be progressive while simultaneously creating learning experiences that are nothing more than digital versions of the same tasks my students were completing a decade ago?

But a part of me wants to remind everyone that nothing has changed about the curriculum that I’m being asked to teach or the outcomes that I’m being held accountable for.

My state standards are still massive, covering more content in one year than is truly reasonable.  Worse yet, the end of grade exam that I am required to give is nothing more than 35 fact-driven multiple choice questions covering isolated details from that massive set of state standards.  Finally, our end of grade exam carries incredibly high stakes:  Student results become a significant part of my annual evaluation.

All of those realities influence the choices that I make as an instructor, y’all.

Of course I’m going to have my kids keep a detailed digital notebook.  Collecting evidence and information (read: completing fill in the blank handouts that are organized by unit and never lost because they are automatically stored in Google Drive) is essential in our state.  Students need something to study from for the end of grade exam.

And there’s no way I’m going to find the time and space for self-direction and investigation in my room.  Self-direction and investigation take time that I don’t have.  Getting through everything that is required is already darn near impossible — and getting through everything that is required becomes a priority when you are held accountable for nothing more than the number of isolated facts that your kids can remember at the end of the year.

So I get it.  Schools really DO need to change.  And technology really CAN help us to transform learning experiences.  

But let’s not pretend that teachers can drive that change in spite of their required curriculum.  Our classrooms and our learning experiences are a reflection of the expectations set by our state standards and end of grade exams.  Until THOSE change, our classrooms are going to look a lot like they always have.

#truth

____________________

Related Radical Reads:

Lessons Learned from an Amazing Group of Student Bloggers

Why Can’t This Be School?

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

 

 

More on My #Hashtag180 Work.

Regular Radical Readers know (see here and here) that I’ve accepted Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 challenge.  That means I’ve been sharing regular content in my Twitterstream highlighting the work that I’m doing in my classroom with specific curriculum standards.

I’m a month into the challenge, so I figured some reflection is in order.  Here are four lessons that I’ve learned so far:

I really HAVE looked at my curriculum more this month than I have in years.

One of Kyle’s central arguments is that #hashtag180 work matters because it makes teachers more familiar with their required curriculum.  That’s definitely been true for me.  Because I know that I am going to make new posts each day and that each of those posts needs to be tagged with a standard from my curriculum, I’ve opened my state standards and unpacking document every work day for almost a month.

And that’s had a huge impact on my instruction.  Specifically, I’ve discovered things that I’ve taught for the better part of a decade that aren’t really emphasized in my curriculum AND things that ARE in my required curriculum that I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be teaching.

I guess I should be embarrassed about that confession — but my guess is that MOST teachers don’t spend a ton of time revisiting their standards after they’ve taught them for a few years.  Participating in #hashtag180 has changed that for me.

Recording video posts and aiming them at my students and parents was a great decision.

Many of the people who are sharing content in the #hashtag180 stream share still shots of students working on projects or evidence of their standards in action spotted in their day-to-day activities.  While I respect those posts and recognize that those teachers are learning just as much about their required curriculum as I am, I decided early on that my #hashtag180 contributions were going to be short (less than two minute) videos aimed at my students.

My reasons were simple:  I knew that if my #hashtag180 efforts were going to be sustainable, I had to get as much value from the time, energy and effort that I was investing in making posts as possible.  By creating videos, I knew that I was also creating interesting content that my students and parents might be interested in watching, too.  That turned each #hashtag180 post into more than just a learning opportunity for me.  Each post is now a learning opportunity for me AND a review tool for my students AND a communication tool for my parents.

And I know it’s making a difference:  First, more than one student has come up to me to share that they are always excited to see the newest video that I post.  In fact, one complained after I missed a day last week.  Then, a parent at our rising sixth grade open house Tuesday night approached me and said, “I follow you on Twitter.  Love your videos.  Made my kid watch every one of them already!”

That’s totally worth the time that I spend working up #hashtag180 posts each day — and my bet is that video content is the reason that my posts are gaining attention.  If I was sharing still shots, I’m not sure that parents or kids would be all that interested.

Adding our school’s hashtag to each #hashtag180 post adds vibrancy to our school’s social presence.

As I mentioned in an earlier bit here on the Radical, I’m working hard to market our school to interested parents in our local community.  To help with those efforts, I’ve started adding our school’s dedicated hashtag (#SalemProud) to each of my #hashtag180 Tweets.

Here’s why that matters:  Now, any parents who follow our school’s hashtag will see MORE than just scheduling information or celebrations of school happenings.  They will ALSO see teachers sharing academic content in an approachable and engaging way.

That SHOULD leave them better prepared to understand just what it is that kids are learning in our school.  More importantly, that SHOULD leave them with the feeling that teachers in our building are passionate about communicating their content to kids — and that’s a feeling I want everyone in our community to have about our school.

And what does it cost me?  Nothing.  I’m making #hashtag180 posts anyway.

That gives me yet another stack of added value for every post that I make.

#notbadright

I love (like seriously LOVE) my growing digital portfolio.

Another great decision that I made was to figure out how to use IFTTT to automatically cross-post each #hashtag180 Tweet to a dedicated blog sorted by standard.

The result:  I’ve got the beginnings of an AWESOME digital portfolio that I can use to PROVE that I know both my content and the kids that I teach.

Check it out here.

Notice how each video is neatly embedded in new posts?  See how every post that I’ve made is sorted by standard in the sidebar?  ALL of that happens automatically every time that I make a new post in Twitter.  IFTTT searches my Tweets, finds posts with standards-based hashtags, and adds them as a new blog entry WITH the correct labels.  The entire process is automated.  It takes me no time at all.

Like zero.  None.  Nada. Absolutely zippo.

Think about how valuable that all is.  Not only can I go back next year and review the questions that I asked and demonstrations that I did, I can prove to my principal — or to anyone that I interview with in the future — that I understand my standards and have developed effective ways to teach those standards to my students.

And better yet, I’m not the only one that benefits from my digital portfolio.  I’ve shared the link with the parents and students of my team again — figuring that most are unlikely to follow me in Twitter or to spot the posts that I’m sharing their regularly.  Now, they don’t have to worry about joining a social space they may not be interested in (or old enough to join) to see the content that I’m creating.  They can bookmark my blog — or subscribe to get new posts delivered to their email inbox — and see everything that I share.

Other teachers who are responsible for teaching similar standards or concepts can also learn from my digital portfolio.  Maybe they will see a demo that they hadn’t considered before.  Maybe they will hear language that they hadn’t considered using to explain individual concepts before.

Either way, by using IFTTT to cross-post content on an outward facing blog, I’ve created opportunities for sharing that cost me absolutely nothing because that sharing is done automatically.

So let’s summarize:  By accepting Kyle’s #hashtag180 challenge, I’ve committed myself to five minutes of extra work every day.  That’s it.  

I am always on the lookout for something that I am doing with students in the classroom that I can turn into a video.  After recording — which I do directly from my phone in the Twitter app — I have to open my standards (which are also downloaded to my phone) to be sure that I am adding the right standard hashtag to my Tweet.

That’s it.  That’s all I do.

The hardest part of the entire process is holding the “record” button on my phone with one hand while trying to conduct a demonstration with my other hand.

#notkidding

#Ineedlongerarms

And in return, I get:

  • A stronger awareness of my required curriculum.
  • Final products that students can use to review important concepts covered in class.
  • Final products that parents can use to better understand what their kids are learning.
  • Final products that add a sense of vibrancy to our school’s social presence.
  • A digital portfolio that demonstrates my mastery of my required curriculum
  • A collection of resources that other teachers can learn from.

Not bad for five extra minutes of work each day, huh?

So when will YOU accept the #hashtag180 challenge?

#doubledogdare

_____________________

Related Radical Reads:

Will You Join Me in the #hashtag180 Challenge?

Turning #hashtag180 Posts into a Digital Portfolio

I’ve Started Using a Dedicated Hashtag to Market My School