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

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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

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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

Good Teaching > Fidget Spinners

Over the weekend, I lost a bit of my patience with practitioners, y’all.  I’d just finished listening to a teacher rant and rave about “today’s kids being lazy” and “those damned fidget spinners.”  What I kept thinking during her rant came to life in the form of this Tweet:

 

I must have touched on a nerve because the Tweet took off — and not everyone was buying my central notion that good lesson planning is the best classroom management strategy.

People called my opinion “ridiculous” and “insulting.”  They said that I had “deprofessionalized and dehumanized” teachers.  They described my Tweet as “sententious BS” and called out my “neoliberalism,” whatever that means.

#goodtimes

So I figured I’d articulate a bit on my central argument here in a series of “I Believe” statements.  Choose one and tell me where I’m wrong:

I believe that it is the teacher’s job to create lessons that are so engaging, kids aren’t interested in their distractions.  Plain and simple.  Bored kids fidget with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies.  Kids who are engaged by challenging thoughts or provocative questions or tasks that are developmentally appropriate fidget with ideas.  If we know our kids and know our content, we OUGHT to be able to fill MOST of our lessons with MORE of those challenging thoughts and provocative questions and developmentally appropriate tasks.

Is that an easy task?  Nope.

But you can’t tell me that it’s an IMPOSSIBLE task.  All of you have taught lessons that left kids completely riveted.  Those are the moments that we live for, right?  And in those lessons, your kids aren’t flipping spinners or texting their girlfriends.  They are following your lead and listening to your every word and tackling whatever challenge you drop in front of them.

Can you create a riveting lesson every single day?  Probably not.  After 24 years of teaching, if I can wrap my kids in the perfect lesson two or three times every week, I feel like I’m doing pretty good.

But I also won’t be satisfied knowing that forty to sixty percent of my instruction is engaging, either.  And neither should you.

I believe that fidgeting kids are a GREAT source of feedback for classroom teachers.  I’m no expert at this teaching stuff, but one of the things I’m good at is being honest with myself.  In fact, I’m constantly trying to figure out whether or not my instructional practices are working for the kids in my classroom — and when I see kids fidgeting with spinners and phones and pencils and their bodies, I don’t get angry with the kids OR disappointed with myself.

Instead, I make a mental note that the lesson I am teaching needs improvement.  Maybe there aren’t enough opportunities for kids to interact with one another.  Maybe the content I’m presenting is too challenging — or not challenging enough.  Maybe my questions aren’t terribly provocative.  Maybe I haven’t worked hard enough to help my kids see the connection between the topic we are studying and their own needs and interests.

Whatever the issue, fidgeting is the symptom.  My job is to recognize it, diagnose the reason for it, and rethink my plans.

I believe that together, my peers and I can make ANYTHING more interesting.  Over and over again, teachers chirped at me that it’s unrealistic to believe that a teacher can make EVERY topic interesting to kids.  “What about punctuation?” they’d say.  “How do you make kids pay attention when you are teaching THAT?”  Or, “Some lessons are valuable but not interesting.  Like feminisim.”  Or, “Some lessons are just boring. That’s the way it is.  Life is boring.  Kids should get used to it.”

Those comments drove me nuts simply because I really AM convinced that there are ways to capture the attention of kids regardless of the topic — and while I may not always have the best ideas on my own, I teach with brilliant peers and I’ve got a digital network filled with thousands of like-minded colleagues who are willing to brainstorm with me at any hour of the day.  If I’m willing to reach out and tell other people when I know that my lessons don’t resonate with my kids, I’m GOING to find a better solution worth trying.

And if I’m NOT willing to reach out for help, I’m failing my kids by holding on to instructional practices that I KNOW aren’t working.

I believe that teachers face a thousand limitations that make high quality instruction challenging — but those limitations can’t become excuses:  I think the strong reactions that people had to my original Tweet stems from the fact that teachers really DO work hard on behalf of their kids.  We aren’t intentionally TRYING to create boring lessons for students to sit through.  Instead, we are slammed for time and slammed for resources and slammed for ideas.  Coming up with dozens of engaging, differentiated lessons for increasingly diverse student populations IS a darn near impossible challenge — particularly when your 25 minute planning period is spent arm-deep in a broken photocopier or answering YET another email from YET another aggravated parent.

And some of the crap in our required curriculum IS pretty boring.  And nothing meaningful ever seems to show up on the standardized tests that we’re held accountable for anyway.  And our bosses have stuff they are making us do.  And we teach kids who have grown up in a world where paying attention for fifteen minutes is required just about as often as juggling fourteen chainsaws to raise money for dinner.  And did I mention those damned end of grade exams yet?  They matter, you know!

I get it.  Remember: I’m a teacher, too.  I have all of those same challenges.

But the minute those challenges become an excuse to avoid reflection and continuous growth, we are failing the kids in our classroom.

#trudatchat

#steppingoffsoapbox

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