Here’s Why I’m Thankful for Hillary Clinton.

Did you watch last night’s Presidential debate?

Another question:  Did you watch it without slinging a never-ending stream of curses and/or sighs at the television screen?

The truth is that whether you lean to the left or lean to the right, you probably had plenty of reasons to go to bed with a higher than normal blood pressure.  This campaign season will do that to you.  Whether we like it or not, our nation is fractured and the rhetoric that supporters on both sides of the aisle are SHOUTING at one another day after day will do little to help us to heal and to move forward together.

But I’m not JUST a voter anymore.  I’m not JUST a citizen and a teacher and a guy who is passionate about the environment and the economy.  I’ve got bigger concerns — even IF Russia and Iran and ISIS and North Korea and drought and famine and refugees and 400 pound hackers are tearing the world apart.

I’m the dad of a daughter.  THAT is what defines me.  THAT is who I am and what I care the most about.  And last night was a huge win for me.

Here’s why:  My daughter — and tens of thousands of girls just like her — had the chance to see a strong, confident, successful, experienced woman standing on the stage making the case that SHE should be the President.  My daughter — and tens of thousands of girls just like her — got to see a strong, confident, successful, experienced woman stand up to a bully who has repeatedly insulted and belittled and degraded and judged women based on nothing more than their looks.

My daughter — and tens of thousands of girls just like her — got to see a strong, confident, successful, experienced woman talking about policy and detailing her meetings with world leaders and proving time and again that she COULD hang “with the big boys.”

In one evening, Hillary — who loudmouthed, loathsome men have been trying to tear down for the better part of 20 years — redefined what’s possible for girls.  No, you DON’T have to sit quietly and smile as the men in your life decide what is important and what’s not.  No, you DON’T have to back down to assertive bosses who try to push you around; and no, you DON’T have to let your looks or your gender define who you are or what you are capable of.  It’s NOT a “man’s world” anymore, thank you very much.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I know that Hillary’s not the perfect candidate.  Anyone who has spent 30 years in politics has undoubtedly made embarrassing choices along the way.  It’s the nature of the beast.

But whether you like her or not doesn’t matter.  

She’s done our nation — and my daughter — a great service because the kids sitting in our classrooms are going to grow up in a world where being a woman CAN mean being a strong, confident, successful, experienced candidate for President of the United States.

Thank you, Hillary.  I owe you one.

From a Dad.  Not a Voter.

Tool Review: Google’s Translate Feature Rules.

Over the last few months, I’ve jumped feet first into using Google Classroom with my students.

It’s something that I haven’t done much of before only because I work in a pretty tech limited environment.  Handing materials out and organizing my course in a digital space when my students rarely have widespread access to technology just felt pointless.

But over the last twelve months, I’ve bought, begged, borrowed and stolen a bunch of devices that I let my students use — and combined with the devices that they bring through our school’s BYOD program, I ALMOST have one device for every student.  At the very least, I have enough devices for every student who WANTS to work digitally.

One of the things that I did first was show the kids on my team how to use the Translate feature in Google Docs to convert all of my digital handouts into the language that they are most comfortable with.  

The process is pretty darn close to seamless.  As soon as a user chooses a language to translate the document into, Google creates a copy of the document in that language.  The only thing that I have to do as a teacher is remember to post every handout in my Google Classroom and remind students that they can translate anything as needed.  When they turn in an assignment written in a different language, all I need to do is follow the same process to translate the document back into English.

While the translations aren’t always perfect — I’ve had several Spanish speakers review the translations made by Google and they’ve told me that about 90-95% of the content has translated correctly and the rest is close enough to understand — they are WAY better than the English only handouts that I’ve been offering for my entire 20 year teaching career.

That’s been a HUGE relief for me this year:  I’ve got lots of students who aren’t comfortable working in English yet — and who have a wide range of language needs that I’ve never been all that good at meeting.  Given the fact that the content is most important to me, I don’t mind if they work in their primary languages.  What matters most to me is that they learn the concepts in my curriculum.

Another interesting side benefit of Google’s translation tool has been the impact that it has had on the parents of my bilingual students.

Often, the KIDS in our community are pretty fluent in English — so they didn’t really need a translated version of every document.  Their PARENTS, however, are often not fluent in English at all — which made it impossible to participate in conversations with their children about class assignments or stay current with the content that we were teaching in class.  One of the most heartfelt reactions I received after showing students how to translate documents was from a girl who said, “I can finally show my parents my schoolwork!”  It was really beautiful — and something I hadn’t ever considered before.

Long story short:  If you are working in a GAFE district and your bilingual students can access devices, providing translated resources has just gotten REALLY easy.

#thanksGoogle

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Related Radical Reads:

 Tool Review:  Quizlet Live

Tool Review:  Blendspace by TES Teach

Tool Review:  Edpuzzle

What are YOUR Watershed Moments of Learning?

A few weeks ago, Dean Shareski — one of my all time favorite thinkers — posted a bit on his blog where he thought through several occasions in his own learning when  “the light bulb came on or something profound was shared or understood.

For Dean, these occasions happened in various contexts — in conferences he’d attended, sessions that he’d sat in on, tools that he’d used, and people that he’d interacted with.  He called these moments “watershed moments of learning” and encouraged others to write about their own.

That’s a neat concept, isn’t it?  

If we carefully think about those moments when we know that deep and meaningful learning happens, maybe we can pinpoint the characteristics of learning experiences that matter the most — and then maybe we can start to incorporate more of those characteristics into our personal and professional practices.

So here’s mine:

PD/Conference:

I don’t get a chance to attend many conferences — it’s the curse of being a classroom teacher in a state that has spent the better part of two decades stripping cash out of the public school budget — but one that I’ve tried to find the cash to attend over the past several years has always been Educon, hosted by the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

What I love the most about Educon is that it brings together really progressive thinkers for three days of conversations — NOT presentations.  I always leave provoked and renewed and energized by people who share the same ideas as I do.  It’s preaching to the #educhoir, but sometimes preaching to the #educhoir matters because it leaves us confident that we aren’t alone in our notions about just what school can be.

Presentation:

Given how important Educon has been in my own learning, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the presentations that have moved my thinking the most were Educon sessions.  Two in particular stand out the most.  The first was a 2012 session on design thinking in education led by David Jakes.  While David is always provocative, what mattered the most to me in the session was the table conversation that I had with Kristen Swanson, Patrick Larkin, Larry Fliegelman.

Together, we wrestled with the notion that schools as they are currently structured promote a culture of knowing instead of a culture of doing.  The resulting thinking — which we whipped into a pretty interesting graphic —  still sits at the core of who I am as an educator.

I was also deeply moved by a session that David did with Scott Glass a few years later on the differences between “engaging” and “empowering learners”.  The entire conversation forced me to think more deeply about the reasons why our learning spaces are irrelevant to our students — and one of those reasons is that we are always trying to trick them into being more interested in OUR content and OUR questions instead of using the time that we have with kids to develop learners with the skills to explore THEIR interests and answer THEIR questions.

Book:

I’m a pretty voracious reader, so choosing one book that has had the deepest impact on my own learning was harder than I thought it was going to be.

But one title — Why School by Will Richardson — kept popping up in my mind as I was thinking about this post.  Will uses Why School to point out all of the reasons that traditional schools are poorly suited to meet the needs and interests of modern learners.  He goes on to make practical suggestions about the changes that need to be made if we are going to truly create more relevant learning spaces for today’s kids.

There’s an urgency in Why School that drove me to rethink my own practices — and themes in my own thinking about closing the knowing/doing gap and empowering instead of engaging learners were reinforced.

Tool:

Dean chose the blog as his Watershed Tool, and that certainly rings true for me, too.  Blogging here on the Radical for the better part of the last decade has given me chances to slow down and think through my own thoughts, feelings and opinions about education.  That consistent reflection is a defining trait of true learning.

But I’m going to name Blog COMMENT SECTIONS as my own watershed learning tool.

Even though blog commenting seems to be dying — thanks, Twitter — I’ve tried to consistently read and react to the thinking of my peers in digital spaces since jumping into networked learning with both feet.  I do that for a ton of different reasons.  Perhaps most importantly, it is a way to acknowledge the time and effort that blog writers put into developing their content — and by acknowledging that time and effort, I am encouraging those peers to continue writing!

Long story short:  I learn a TON from people who are thinking transparently online.  Giving back in the form of sharing a few comments every week is an easy way to protect the overall intellectual health of that learning community.

Person: 

Like Dean, it’s hard to pinpoint just one person who has driven me to watershed moments of learning.  I owe Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach a ton, given that she’s the person who convinced me of the learning and networking potential of both Twitter and blogs.  Scott McLeod was probably the first thinker that I started following closely in social spaces because he was asking provocative questions about educational policy and technology.  Will Richardson, George Couros and John Spencer  have all forced me to rethink elements of my classroom practice.  Some of the most reflective, powerful conversations that I have are with my buddies Brett Clark, Philip Cummings and Paul Cancellieri.

Looking at my current classroom practice, though, I’d have to say that no single person has made a greater impact on what I do with students than Dean himself!  Here’s just one example:  Dean started asking questions about student-involved assessment back in 2012 that set me off on a mission to rethink the role that teachers should play in providing feedback in my classroom.

Just one look through my blog (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) and you can see just what a watershed moment of learning that really was for me.

So what’s the common strand in all of these watershed moments for me?  What are the characteristics of the learning experiences that have served as an intellectual fulcrum, moving me forward as a thinker, a practitioner and a person?

It’s definitely conversations with others who are thinking deeply about ideas that resonate with me.  Whether those conversations happened in person at a conference or a PD session, through a book that I read, or in the comments of a thousand blog posts, opportunities to have my own notions about education challenged by people engaged in open, collaborative dialogue stand at the center of real learning for me.

Now I need to create more of those same opportunities for my kids.

#simpletruthchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Preaching to the #educhoir

The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls

Do We Value People or Just the Content they Share?

@shareski’s Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

 

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

Last week, I made the argument that North Carolina’s decision to assign letter grades to individual schools based on nothing more than test scores on final exams was a form of institutional racism that harms communities of poverty and strips support away from the public school system.  I was writing as an advocate for public schools and poor communities — two causes that I feel are under attack by our state’s super conservative legislature.

But I’m not JUST an advocate for public schools and poor communities any more.  I am also the parent of a second grade daughter who attends a public school.  So crappy choices made by our legislators hurt MY kid.  This issue is personal.

My daughter’s school is nothing short of a remarkable place.  EVERY time that I stop by, I feel a sense of happiness from everyone that I meet.  Students smile and skip and laugh and joke with each other and with their teachers.  Teachers are relaxed and joyful, invested in each other and in their students.  Provocative questions are being asked and answered, positive messages are being shared in conversations and in school-wide displays, and programs that concentrate on developing the whole child — from daily Spanish instruction for every student to rich music and art experiences that are valued equally alongside more traditional content-specific subjects — are a priority.

The community overwhelmingly supports my daughter’s school.  Thousands of parents and children turn out for after school events — whether they be teacher talent shows, campus beautification projects, or annual 5K run walks — to work, to play and to celebrate with one another.  Each of these events is a reminder that our school isn’t just a place of learning — it’s a place to belong.  Lots of schools like to talk about being a family.  My daughter’s school actually FEELS like a family.

#simpletruthchat

But they were rated a C — which means something akin to “decidedly average” — by the State of North Carolina last week.  And that has me worried.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not worried about the current quality of the education that my daughter’s getting.  I’ve seen the impact that the people in her building have had on her.  She is LOVED by darn near everyone and she knows it.  She is learning the kinds of academic and social skills that I want her to learn in a place where learning really IS seen as a joyful act worthy of celebration.   She has role models to look up to who challenge her to be better than who she is — and I am convinced that those role models see her as something much more than just a test score.

What I am worried about is the consequences that a C rating will have on the choices that her teachers make.

My guess is that it has been a stressful beginning of the school year for everyone at my daughter’s school.  In a district that takes a lot of pride from having top “performing” students (read: really high test scores), being rated a C is guaranteed to leave everyone rattled and questioning their practices.  There have probably been some serious conversations about changes that have to be made to get those test scores up for next year — and there is probably external pressure coming from folks in the district office to find solutions so that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

And there’s NO doubt that those “solutions” are going to strip away some of what makes my daughter’s school such an unique place.  Questions will probably be asked about the value of daily Spanish instruction in a building with low test scores.  Wouldn’t that time or those dollars be better spent on another reading interventionist?  There will probably be more benchmark testing and more students pulled out of specials or out of the regular classroom in order to make sure that they are “progressing enough” to “produce better results” on next year’s end of grade exams.

Her teachers — particularly those with the lowest test scores — are less likely to run with moments of inspiration in the classroom.  After all, student curiosity is messy and time consuming.  Increasing test scores depends on efficiency and focus.  Worse yet, her teachers are more likely to see kids like my daughter — who ISN’T a strong reader — as a frustrating liability instead of as a quirky ball of happy energy.  Why would you celebrate uniqueness when standardized outcomes are the only outcomes valued by the people governing your schools?

There’s even a good chance that these changes — increased stress and pressure, fewer opportunities to celebrate curiosity, shifts away from valuing the whole child to valuing the parts of a child that actually impact a school’s “measurable results” — will drive some of the best teachers away from my daughter’s school. Once you’ve had the chance to work in a place where joyful learning is a priority, it’s hard to see that priority erased in favor of chasing higher test scores.

My only hope is that the teachers of my daughter’s school will realize just HOW important — and HOW valued — their work really is.

There is NOTHING “decidedly average” about the learning space that they have created.  Children feel loved, parents feel welcomed, and students are learning WAY more than a single C rating based on nothing more than standardized tests could ever possibly communicate.  In my book — filled with experiences as a teacher and a professional developer in probably close to 100 schools in dozens of states and several different countries — they are a solid A.  I’d work there in a minute.

But more importantly, I’d send my daughter there for the rest of her school career without any reservation, convinced that she’d be a better person as a result of the care and attention of the teachers that she had a chance to learn from.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Learning > Schooling

 

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

All y’all that know me have probably figured out that I find it darn near impossible to hide my disdain for North Carolina’s hard-right legislature.

Since rising to power over the past five to seven years, they’ve spent the majority of their time together pushing through hateful legislation targeting marginalized populations.  The best part:  Pretty darn close to all of their decisions — think banning same sex marriage, creating incredibly gerrymandered voting districts, or forcing transgender citizens to use bathrooms that mirror their biological gender — have been overturned by the court system.  So while simultaneously waving their pocket Constitutions around, they pass law after law that are ruled unconstitutional.

#sheeshchat

That same legislature has also made it their goal to gut public education.

Perhaps most notably, they’ve created a system of “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to take public tax dollars to the charter schools and/or private schools of their choice.  The result are pretty darn amazing:  93 percent of voucher recipients are using public tax dollars to put their students in Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

Worse yet, the bulk of that funding is going to schools that aren’t held accountable for performance at all.  As a parent of a second grader, I support the innovation potential and alternatives that school choice represent — but as a taxpayer I also expect a return on that investment, something that’s hard to prove when millions of dollars are channeled into schools with no real oversight or accountability and where teachers don’t have to be licensed or certified.

What drives me the craziest is that while simultaneously funneling monies into schools that are not held accountable for student performance, the SAME legislature passed a sweeping bill in 2013 — patriotically named the Excellent Public Schools Act — that is specifically designed to HOLD public schools accountable for student performance.

The law was odious all the way around, stripping tenure rights from teachers, putting all teachers on one year contracts, revamping the teacher pay scale to nudge veterans out of the classroom, and instituting rigorous retention policies for students in third grade.  Thankfully — like most of the legislation passed by our ham-handed politicians — much of the law has been reversed by our state court system in subsequent years.

One piece of that legislation remains in place, however:  An A-F grading system for public schools based on scores earned by students on standardized tests given at the end of every school year.

Here’s how it works:  Every public school — and remember, that DOESN’T include private schools taking public dollars — is given a single letter grade that is supposed to make it easy for parents to determine how their child’s school is performing.  Go to a school that is rated an A?  It’s time for a celebration!  Have a child in a school that is rated an F?  It’s time to abandon ship.  Apply for an opportunity scholarship and run to one of those private schools popping up all around you.  Never mind the fact that similar school accountability systems in other states have been abject failures, open to constant revision and manipulation by influential politicians and communities.  Let’s do this!

But it gets worse:  Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is based strictly on performance and only 20 percent is based on actual student growth — and that’s an improvement over the original proposal that didn’t include student growth as a consideration for school ratings at all.

What’s the consequence of emphasizing performance over growth in school ratings?

Schools and systems serving high percentages of students living in poverty are at a real disadvantage.  Need proof?  Then check out this WRAL review of the 2015-2016 School Performance Grades:

“The data show school grades continue to correlate closely with the poverty levels of schools. Among all schools last year that received a D or F, 93 percent had enrollments with at least 50 percent of students from low-income families. Conversely, among schools that received at least a B, 75.7 percent had enrollments with less than 50 percent of students from low-income families, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Simple translation:  Your child is WAY more likely to go to a school labeled as a failure if you live in a poor community than if you live in a middle to upper middle class community — even IF the kids in your child’s classes are moving forward faster than peers in wealthier schools.  After all, growth doesn’t matter much to North Carolina’s legislators.  Final performance does.

Think about the logical consequences of that simple truth.

Year after year, poor communities — which both nationally and here in North Carolina are often disproportionately populated by people of color — are told that their public schools are failing children.  That discourages investment in the community — what business is going to relocate to a region where every school is rated a D or an F — and depresses home values.  Finding high-paying jobs and building long-term wealth both become more difficult, making it even harder to advance as an individual OR as a community.

Then, here in North Carolina, parents from those same poor communities are offered “opportunity scholarships” to take their students to private schools that are NOT REQUIRED to report at all on their performance.  Worse yet, those private schools often spend less than half of what is spent on a student in a public school.  Teachers are underpaid and uncertified, programs like school lunches and athletics aren’t offered, and extra services for students with special needs are not always available.

That feels a heck of a lot like institutional racism to me.  Am I wrong?

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Related Radical Reads:

Want to Fix Education?  Start Addressing Poverty.

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools