It was one of the last days of the school year and Alex, one of our seniors, said it: “I just can’t wait to graduate high school, go to college and finally work on what I want to be in life.” He was so excited. As he talked to his friends it became apparent that he viewed high school graduation as the end of learning the things he was told to know, the end of jumping through pointless hoops, and college was where he could take control and do the things he felt relevant.
While I was happy for him and the rest of the graduates, I felt like a failure. Why can’t we have a school where kids can work on their passions? Where kids know the connections between their courses and the rest of their lives? Sure the state dictates what courses students need to take. But there is really no reason school can’t be a place where kids are preparing for their future, the future they see for themselves.
It has been done before, we have examples of how to do it. There are schools where kids are excited to go to school, where kids are in control of there learning, and it works. It is hard to break the paradigm, but it is not impossible- it’s just difficult. We have the chance for a new beginning with the transition to CCSS. So lets make it so. This year.
For the last several years I have been on a one man campaign to end the use of scissors, glue, and cardboard trifold science fair type project boards in high school. It hasn’t been a very successful campaign. I reasoned that kids in high school should be creating things that look like those they will create in the workplace. I don’t know of any careers that involve printing pictures from the Internet and gluing them to cardboard. It seems to me this might be an appropriate activity in 3rd grade, but by the 9th grade we should have moved on, for sure by the 12th. We should ban glue. We should ban scissors. We should ban cardboard. That was my reasoning.
Along comes #caedchat on Twitter. (Every Sunday night at 8:00 pst) The topic this week was innovation in the classroom. You can imagine my surprise when the topic of scissors and glue came up. Innovation, scissors, and glue are just three things that I never thought of as going together. But this exchange got me to thinking:
I always tell people its not just about the tech. I tell them not to just add tech for the sake of the technology, but to view it as a tool. But I have been dismissing the use of scissors and glue as low tech, and not worthy of high school. When I stop and think of some of the conversations I have recently had with people about entreprenuralism, prototyping, maker faire and the like I realize there may be room for scissors AND glue in the high school classroom.
Its not the tool, its what you do with it that makes innovation.
I just finished the coursework for a Preliminary Administrative Credential at Teachers College of San Joaquin. In California prospective administrators have two options to become credentialed; take a test or take a year long series of courses. The test takes a Saturday and has a relatively small fee. The coursework option is several thousand dollars and is just shy of a masters degree. Seemed like a no brainer to me- I took the coursework!
One of the ideas that kept gnawing at me through all of the coursework was that it is a good thing to stay at a school for a short while and then move on. I was told that I should plan on being an Assistant Principal for three to five years and then move on to something else. And then repeat. It seems like the old football saying, “three and out.” The three and out thing is generally not a good one. Unless you are on defense. I don’t think schools should play defense.
One of the things that make good schools effective learning places is the environment. Effective schools have a positive climate where everyone feels included. Students, staff, teachers, parents and all the stakeholders feel they have an important role in the school. I think of that as a sense of ownership. It is our school. As an administrator I think it would be difficult to accomplish this climate when your tenure is shorter than the tenure of the students. Especially in high school.
I think if we truly want to transform schools we have to be a part of the learning community. We as educators have to be a part of the community as much as the students and their families. We really are in this together. You can’t do that if you are going three and out.
The graduate school I attend has announced they are no longer providing iPads for their students. They gave two reasons; budget cuts, and they have observed students don’t use the iPads.
No one can deny the impact of budget cuts, the school is also no longer going to loan textbooks- students will have to buy their own books like most other schools. I get that choice, books are expensive and it is easy- and logical- to pass that cost on to the students.
The same is true with the iPad decision. They are expensive, and if there is no money in the budget, an expensive iPad would be a logical place to cut. But the observation that the students are not using the iPads is bothersome. I am one of those students who rarely uses the iPad. No one asked me why, but that has never stopped me from sharing before!
Part of the reason I chose this particular school is because they gave out iPads. Not that I needed or wanted another one. But I thought that if the school was progressive enough to provide an iPad they would be using technology in innovative ways, and I wanted to learn more innovative approaches. I was wrong, not much innovation here.
As a student I am expected to turn in papers in APA style. Using an iPad to type a several page APA formatted paper is not the most efficient use of tools or time. In one class papers were required to be done in Microsoft Word! Why would I even look for the iPad if I am required to use Word?
We were expected to create a portfolio to document our learning. I am a huge proponent of portfolios, I have required my students to have portfolios for years. But I was being required to use a binder for my portfolio. Not a Livebinder, a binder. A binder full of word processed, printed, two dimensional pages.
I was required to make PowerPoint presentations. Not just any presentations, PowerPoints. And to print them out. Emailing assignments is frowned upon, they needed to be printed. Once, only once, was I expected to create a video. And I was told to not bother editing it, that was considered a waste of time.
So why did the iPad initiative fail? Because just giving out an innovative tool does not make an innovative program. If you really wanted me to use the iPad ask me, no LET me, do something the iPad is good at! And there is no shortage of things the iPad is good at. Don’t give me the same assignments colleges have been handing out for decades and expect to be innovative. Instead of asking me to make a PowerPoint presentation with handouts on flipped instruction, have me create a flipped staff meeting. The iPads would rock at that. Instead of asking me to make a three ring binder portfolio have me make a multimedia infused online digital portfolio. Again, iPads rock at that. Instead of an APA paper, why not a blog entry. Or a video. Or an animation. Or a Voicethread. Or you get the idea.
So I guess my point is that just handing out an innovative tool doesn’t make something innovative. You have to actually try something different for innovation to happen. But I guess that is not a very new idea either.
Last weekend I was lurking in another Twitter chat. This time it was #CAedchat, a weekly chat that happens Sunday nights at 8:00 PM. Many educators I highly respect participate in it. This particular evening the topic was gaming in the classroom, something I have no experience in, so I didn’t have a lot to say. So I lurked. I really don’t get the whole gaming in the classroom thing. I had Oregon Trail in my first computer lab. Then there was Sim City. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t get it. I am not trying to be critical here of those who do use games. But I think when someone asks me why I am using a tool in the classroom I need to be able to give a good reason why I am using that tool. With games I can’t do that. But I know its just me. On Tuesday our school was doing state testing. I had some of the kids who did not have a test to take, so we had some time. One said to me “Mr. Hall you should get Minecraft up in here.” So I gave him a challenge: convince me why, from an educational perspective, I need to put Minecraft in my class. The next three hours my room was busy with students doing research on the topic. Kids were debating which points were most important and which would not convince me. They had notes. They argued over who should make the case. They found an unblocked way to run Minecraft to give me a demo. They were engaged. At the same time I turned to Twitter to find someone who could convince me. It started a whole new dynamic with my students trying to find things before I found them on Twitter. It was a lot of fun, and the kids made some strong arguments, but it was Stephen Elford ( @eduelfie ) chiming in from Victoria, Australia who won the argument. Once I figure out how to pay for it mine will be among the classrooms using Minecraft for students to create things. Give me a few weeks.
This year I have been spending one day a week at an elementary school as part of my administrative credential program. At first I was a bit apprehensive; I am a high school teacher, I have no interest or knowledge in the k-8 world. I have found the experience to be very interesting. I am learning a lot about elementary schools, and I am learning a lot about younger students. It turns out that they are not so scary after all. Last week a math teacher asked me if I would please come by her room and observe her lesson because she wanted to hear my feedback. So this week the Principal and I dropped by the room for an observation. I realized that in 18 years of teaching I had never sat in another teachers classroom to specifically look at teaching, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was stunned. Not only had I never seen teaching like that, I had never even imagined this level of good teaching! I had a hard time taking notes because I was so fascinated with how she was managing the class. Strategy after strategy being employed without so much as a moments pause. It was like the whole hour was perfectly planned, scripted, and rehearsed. I had never seen such a thing. I left the school that day not feeling very good about myself. In comparing my teaching with what I had seen in the math classroom I could only come to one conclusion; I suck. I consider myself a very reflective teacher. I think about how every lesson goes, and how I can improve the lesson next time. I do a lot of professional development, almost all of it on my own dime. I go to conferences and workshops, I use Twitter and G+, and yes, I read blogs. So how is it I could go this long without ever seeing really really good teaching? When I started teaching (yes, it was actually in the last century) the profession was really one of individuals. We went in our rooms and closed the door. We did not have high standards for our performance. My first Principal told me on my very first day in the classroom “If no one bleeds you are doing good.” We did not collaborate, and we NEVER acknowledged that another teacher was better than oneself. In the last few years we have started to collaborate and we have some levels of accountability. But we don’t have a system of identifying really good teachers, and learning from them. Until this week I didn’t realize we needed one.
At the close of the last school year the decision was made that I would change rooms. The old room I was in was a computer lab with rows offairly new tables designed for computers. It looked really nice for the casual observer; nice straight rows of tables, comfortable rolling chairs with a computer in front of each one. It looked great, but it didn’t work great.
The tables themselves contained conduit for all the cables for the computers. It made managing cables easy, but it meant the tables were locked in place. They couldn’t be moved to make a more convenient layout. When the kid in the far corner had a question, I could not get there to help. Literally. I couldn’t fit down the row with all of the students sitting at their work stations. You can imagine what it means to class management, much less instruction, when the students know the teacher can not get to a particular part of the room! So I jumped at the chance to move to a new room with tables that I can put anywhere I wanted.
I took the first step by sending my students to the new room to decorate it. They sorted through mountains of student work to come up with good exemplars, and arranged them on the walls to their liking. I kept authority over where the tables went, but the kids did everything else. They wanted me to tell them where the teacher desk needed to be. “Over by the phone” some said. “No, by the window would be better” said others. Finally I said to put it right where it is, in the old room.
I left the desk in the old room because I found that I spent too much time sitting at it. If I am sitting at my desk I am not helping kids with their work. To do that I need to be near their work, at the students’ work stations, not mine. It has been 7 weeks of being desk-less, and I can say my classes are much better. Kids are more engaged, in part I think, because I am more engaged. I do not have a desk to retreat to, so I am teaching by wandering around. I don’t miss the desk, but my feet are sure more tired!