Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I am thinking about writing a book....

I am thinking about writing a book but am not sure of a few things.

  1. Do I have enough great ideas to fill a couple hundred pages? 
  2. Would people want to know about the aforementioned great ideas?
  3. Can I write a book on STEM education that doesn't put readers to sleep after 5 pages?
  4. Can I get anyone to read 5 pages?
Anyway, my thought is to try to put something together on what it means to teach STEM through solid instructional practices and coherent content. Kind of a STEM teaching 101 in terms of what is out there right now. What are teachers talking about in science teaching, math teaching, technology teaching, engineering? I am thinking of something along the lines of what would happen if an industrial arts teacher talked with a math teacher, who talked with a science or technology teacher. I think the pedagogy they have are defined as different, but fundamentally similar. I have a brief outline and have started on the prologue. I am not sure if my tone would be accepted by publishers of educational texts, but I really believe that I can put some useful facts and ideas between well-placed puns and admin jokes. 

I would really appreciate some comments on this one as I could be on to something, or just thinking of putting in a lot of time for nothing. Here is some of what I have so far in a very rough draft form. I would be expanding on may of these ideas with some research to back up my ravings.  If you are saying, "Hell that needs a LOT of work to be published" you are right it does. This was written in a single sitting and needs some serious re-writes. My hope is that you read it and say. "Hell, that needs a LOT of work to be published, but with that work, I would like to read more."

(working title, duh)

I have a vision of the year 1500, where a young 17 year old Copernicus comes home late for dinner. I imagine him wanting terribly to see what was outside Prussia, asking his parents repeatedly for a vacation to the Mediterranean. I see him, a normal teenager, fighting pimples, getting in trouble with his brothers and sisters, and begging his merchant father for that ornate codpiece to impress that blonde in his morning arithmetic class. I wonder if his parents ever had enough of his questioning? I can see them exclaiming, “Copernicus, you need to realize that the Earth does NOT revolve around you!”
I am pretty sure that is how the renaissance started, even though I have no evidence to support it. Regardless of it’s origins, the renaissance did gave us some great characters to admire and emulate. It gave us Galileo and Descartes, live-action role playing (LARPing) and names for our ninja turtles. It gave us paintings of naked angels, sculptures of naked men, the demotion of our own planet (sorry Pluto, your time was coming), and a method for systematically doing science.
Before the Renaissance, it was Aristotle’s world. As far as “natural philosophy” was concerned, if Aristotle didn’t say it, it wasn’t true. For a couple thousand years our world ran on the ideas of the man who created logic. He was Einstein, Hawking, Brad Pitt, and Jesus wrapped into one. If you dared have an ideas that was contrary to his ancient Greek philosophy, you might as well pencil yourself in for a Saturday with the Inquisition....and don’t plan anything for Sunday. If you don’t believe me, ask Galileo how it turned out for him.
Fortunately the noble and courageous efforts of the people of the Renaissance developed a method for dealing with Aristotle’s logic. Premises of arguments were renamed “data” and inferences were labeled “hypotheses”. The last natural philosophers developed and refined a process they called the scientific method. It outlined a step-by-step process for solving problems that people observed around them. It has given us cures for diseases, trips to the moon, and an understanding of the fundamental pieces of the universe.
The world has run on the principles of these dead white men for 600 years. It is time to rethink our understanding of what science is and how it is done? Today we have new technologies, engineering and mathematical understandings, and teaching techniques that fit together with science principles like the Mendel’s peas in a pod. It may be time to throw back the curtain and examine what science has turned into and how it is being taught.

How you should read this book.
First off, realize this soon to be classic literature you have in your hand was not intended as a judgement on what is currently understood or taught in science classrooms across the nation. It is offered as a frank look at what is currently happening in our scientific culture and schools, coupled with some fifty-cent jokes and puns I got off Twitter (#notreally). It is my hope that first and foremost, the quips are interesting enough so as to grab your attention long enough for you to get a hold of some information that will alter or reinforce an opinion you have about teaching and learning science in our schools. I am not offering this as gospel, simply some observations where you can draw your own conclusions.
In preparing for this book, I of course, did a comprehensive study of the relevant literature. In fact, I typed “science STEM teaching” into Amazon and read a lot of summaries… okay a few summaries…. okay I looked at some titles and decided that people may want to read a book that doesn’t put them to sleep. I have lot of books, or really a lot of pages in books that I haven’t read. I usually get through the first couple of chapters and realize that the twenty minutes I just devoted to this read was really a waste of time. I want to right the wrongs of the dozens of pristine, yet dust covered pedagogical texts that line my office. I have decided that if I am going to put my time into writing this, it should be something that you may enjoy reading. I know it is a novel idea.
I offer to you the 10 Commandments I am putting forward to myself in writing the next two hundred odd pages.
  1. Thou shalt back up any claims with evidence
  2. Thou shalt not rely heavily on research that has not been tested and peer-reviewed
  3. Thou shalt not covet another Acronym other than STEM (it’s in the title)
  4. Thou shalt not create a new pedagogy that is really just renaming someone else’s work and calling it thy own to sell a book
  5. Thou shalt not be boring or tedious
  6. Thou shalt give teachers ideas they can use in their classroom tomorrow
  7. Thou shalt think of three other commandments before I finish this book.

Making an Acronym
Scientific advancements alter history; it comes with the job, like lifeguarding and skin cancer. In 1957, a group of Russian scientists (many captured from Germany after WWII) shocked the world by designing a large ball that beeps and placing it on a rocket. Sputnik changed the world by metaphorically sticking up it’s large metallic middle  finger at the United States. That doesn’t sit well in the land of the free. Up to that point, the US had been the leader of the world in science and technology, punctuated with two atomic bombs to remind the last country that messed with us who was on top.  
America does not play second fiddle to anyone, our ego is too large for that. The flags rose, trumpets blared, and the battle cry was again sounded for America’s scientists to answer our collective id’s call for vindication and the space race was on. President Eisenhower led the charge with a radio address where he heralded,
Of course, free men are meeting and will meet this challenge. Up to a point, this must be done on the Communists' own terms--outmatching them in military power, general technological advance, and specialized education and research.”
President Kennedy took the reins of the scientific stampede and put a man on the moon in the 60’s, a feat that would have never been possible without the Russians throwing down the space gauntlet. America’s workforce was again churning out scientists and engineers at an alarming rate.
Wow, look at the early 80’s! It is no wonder there were so many advances in areas like  walkable music and nylon pants. Many of the engineers and teachers in those times were getting their degrees paid for through programs funded by the government, special interest groups, or industries trying to keep up with rising tide of American scientists.
Then the floor fell out. We won the space race, flew the Voyager probes, and were left twiddling our really smart thumbs. Schools began to realize that by supporting teachers getting advanced degrees in sciences brought with it a very big problem. Teachers got advanced degrees in science! They were leaving teaching and taking jobs in industry, leaving schools back at square one. Colleges stopped offering programs in hard core science disciplines in favor of advanced degrees in ‘science teaching’ and ‘instructional technology’. It was virtually impossible for a teacher to get an advanced degree in science in the early 21st century. Lab classes were not offered during the evenings, and core classes were not offered during the summers. Professors were doing their own research during this time and could not be bothered by people who already had their own jobs.
Then the information age hit our world like a dino-killing asteroid. Jobs were being created that no one could predict would exist, let alone prepare students. Isaac Asimov could not predict the number of web designers and dot com companies that were popping up across the country. Money was being made, technical skills were being awarded, and schools were again trying to crystal ball what they should be teaching. They tried new approaches, innovative lessons, and teaching pedagogy, all restrained in their model of schooling that had proven itself worthy through the last two hundred years. 

What are schools to do when there is a demand for scientific and technological skills tied to math and engineering practices? Schools were asked to help shape the world again, so they sharpened their pencils, laced up their gym shoes, and accepted the challenge. When faced with such a demanding problem, the National Science Foundation in the 1990’s responded with a method that they had formulated refined for over three decades. They created an acronym!
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. That is a large order for a simple set of letters.........

Imagine then a long dialog into defining what STEM is fundamentally, etc, etc, etc. What do you think? Give it up or keep writing? Are you intrigued enough to read more of my blabber for a hundred or so pages? I am open to all feedback, constructive or the kind that rips a man's heart out and steps on his hopes and dreams;)


Friday, September 19, 2014

10 Things High School Teachers Could Learn from Elementary Teachers

In my new position as our district's STEAM coordinator, I have had the opportunity to visit over 50 elementary classrooms in the last two weeks. Let me preface this by saying that I consider myself a highly trained and practiced physics teacher. I have dealt mainly with high school juniors and seniors for over fifteen years. The skills I have learned over the lat decade and a half have served me very well in working to prepare my students for the next step in their journey.

That being said...

I have learned more about teaching in the last two weeks than I had in the last 15 years! Please allow me to share some my new insights with my high school colleagues.

1) Energy is conserved!

I am convinced that the energy that a teacher brings to a lesson is transferred directly to their students. We can not create enthusiasm in our students, it has to come from somewhere, that somewhere is many times the teacher! Elementary teachers are some of the most energetic, wonderfully crazy people I have met. I could not believe the amount of effort they were putting into keeping their kids engaged. It was every minute of the day, and focused on every student.

I witnessed teachers dancing with kids when their reading character's danced. I heard them sing directions and content to their kids. I saw them use therapy dogs with special needs kids, hug crying girls who were asked to work with mean boys, talk to kids about farting, and run after kids at recess.

2) It's All About Moose Ears!

"Thumbs up if you understand the directions for the activity we are going to do.... Johnny, your thumb is not up, do you have a question?"  "Yeah, Mrs. Thompson, I want to know if it is okay to change crayons to another color." "That is a very great question, Johnny. I think you and your partner can decide that on your own... Okay 1A, Moose Ears if you understand the directions!"

We talk a lot about formative assessment at the high school. We talk about checking for understanding with our students before we move on, we have strategies that are employed sporadically when our students are really struggling. I think back to how many times we move on with our curriculum before the kids are ready. We have to get to three more problems before the end of the block... we have to kill Hitler by Christmas! Primary teachers do not move on unless EVERY ONE of their kids is ready and focused on the task. Procedure, procedure, procedure.

3) My Class Is The Best Class Ever!

Imagine my confusion when I walked into one of our elementary schools and heard a teacher tell her class that "3A is the best class ever" when just 5 minutes ago I walked out of 2B, which apparently held the title as well. Even spending a quick 15 minutes or so in each classroom, I came to realize that there were no less than 13 "best classes ever!"

Elementary teachers are blessed with the same group of kids for eight hours a day for an entire year. (I said blessed... you can substitute your own word if applicable). There is no fresh start with a new group of kids every 85 minutes, or even a brand new group every 9 weeks. They have to make the personalities in their room work together. There is no other option. They HAVE to know their kids like a family. High school teachers can get caught looking forward to 9:30 where this group of thugs will leave and be replaced by our nice, friendly second block. It is hard to develop a close relationship with 150 kids a year, so too often we don't see the value in it. Those kids will be gone in a bit, demoted to nods and an occasional fist bump when we see them in the hallway between classes. I am not saying that high school teachers don't develop great relationships with kids, they do. I challenge them to develop relationships with every kid, a necessity in our primary schools.

4) Differentiation is Possible

Imagine my surprise when I witnessed a teacher begin a math activity by asking her students to work through some problems in their notebooks. Then, without missing a beat, she pointed to three students and asked them to join her at her desk. I was taken aback. She just called out the kids who struggle in math in front of the entire class. In my mind I was thinking, what about their self-esteem? What will the other kids think of them being singled out? I looked at the rest of the class closely.... no one noticed a bit! The kids who were called forward actually looked excited to work with the teacher, and everyone else was a bit jealous. After about three minutes, Johnny was done with his work, so she gave him an activity from a book in the back that worked through some higher level math problems. She had three levels of skill working on the same concept at the same time and she did it flawlessly! Color me impressed.

5) You can still teach using a canned curriculum

I hate textbooks. As a high school teacher, I want the ability to develop  my curriculum to fit my teaching style and the learning styles of my students. I get really edgy when departments or states try to push a boxed package curriculum on a teacher. I think it stifles creativity and the ability for a teacher to tailor their lesson to the students in their class. Respect the craft is my rallying cry.

Elementary teachers make them work for them. This year, our district bought a new literacy and math curricula that comes in a lot of colorful packages. We have been using FOSS kits for the majority of our science lessons which literally has a slogan that brags about it having all you need to teach science in a nice closed box. Elementary teachers seem to enjoy having the planning of their lessons taken off their plate. They don't have time to develop lessons for all the subjects they have to teach. How can anyone create something new for literacy, math, science, social studies, and health in the 15 minutes of prep time they have while their kids are at recess? That is not to say that they can not and do not do a wonderful job being creative with the curriculum. They mold it and shape it to fit the needs they have that year.

I sat in three 3rd grade classes that were all reading about folk tales with the same story about a Hawaiian shark. Each teacher had their teachers guide in their lap and basically led the kids through the lesson. The teacher's edition told them what questions to ask, where to lead the discussion, and that this part of the lesson should take 12 minutes. What I found interesting was that each of the classrooms did the same exact lesson, but each room was different. Teachers had their content scripted, but not their reactions to it. They answered questions, put examples into students' own experiences, and made it their own. Having a position where I could compare identical lessons was intriguing.

6) Invest in good shoes!

I started wearing a pedometer on my wrist to see how much I actually walk in a day. After two weeks of data, I still have to reach my goal of 10,000 steps. I am pretty sure the primary teachers I saw would wear my wristband out. These teachers were buzzing around their desks at Mach 3 looking over shoulders, pointing to mistakes, giving high fives, fixing chairs, picking up books, and overall making damn sure their kids were on task. It was exhausting just watching them move so fast. It seemed to me that they wanted to check each and every student a couple of times a minute to keep them on task. Looking back, I don't even think they were doing it for my benefit! The students treated the whirling dervish behavior as par for the course.

7) There is a lot of thinking that goes into playing blocks!

I sat on a carpeted floor for 10 minutes and played blocks with a kindergartner named Max. He was explaining to me how he was putting together monsters with his blocks. You see, his monsters only came out at night, and Joe across the table was creating his heroes that only came out during the day. With snaps and fasteners, they gave their monsters and heroes eyes, ears, hands, blasters, and bodies. It was hard for me to see the picture they had in their head, but believe me, they had one. They carried on conversations about the creatures, correcting me when I mistook the red block to be the being's eyes when in fact it was it's butt.

Imagination is a powerful thing. Somewhere along the road to graduation, kids tend to lose this a bit. I don't know if it is due to social pressures, classroom assignment restrictions, or just a loss of wonder, but it is different at their level. Girls were playing house across the room. Another young man was drawing a picture of his dog catching a frisbee.

I just left our high school drawing 1 class where the instructor asked the students to bring in three objects for a still life drawing that told him something about themselves. He almost had to beg them to use their imagination to find things around the house that depict parts of their personality. He told me that without a doubt, the next day half the class will just bring in anything they find in the hallway, or their locker. Even when given the opportunity to improvise, our high school students are not comfortable with doing so. Many would rather not show that they can be creative, just get the job done and move on. How can we get them dreaming again?

8) Rewards can come in many forms

Remember behaviorism? Pavlov's dogs? I always found it hard to incorporate operant conditioning into a lesson that didn't involve grades. As high school teachers, we use grades as our reward and our punishment. Elementary doesn't have that luxury. They need to assess, then reward or restrict on a minute by minute basis to survive the day. I saw badges, line leader privileges, verbal praise, extra recesses, extra free reading time, fun video time, and about three hundred different ways to motivate kids. One kindergarten teacher took clothes pins off her lanyard with kids names on it and hung them from the ceiling fan because the kid was being "FANtastic" that day. Elementary teachers are masters of operant conditioning. I found myself wanting to be line leader or hoping that she would tell my table that we were being the quietest, nicest kids in class.  How often do we high school teachers formally or even informally congratulate a student on a test score? We talk to the kids who are struggling, but often find that the kids who do well don't need our extra attention. Actually they do! Teenagers strive for attention, often times acting out when they don't get it. Elementary teachers have behavior figured out.

9) When was the last time you saw this in your class?

Nuff Said!

10) Rinse and Repeat!

"Today is the 4th day of school. Can we count to 4?"  "Great! Lets see where 4 is on our calendar." "Can we get to 4 on our number line?" "How many pennies is 4 pennies?" "How do we write 4 cents? Can we write 4 cents in dollar form?"

If those kindergartners didn't know how to count to four after all of those examples, I can't imagine how 6 will treat them. This teacher repeated, sung, and danced the number four for over five minutes. She showed them so many examples of the number four in their lives, that the students were counting to four on fingers, toes, teeth, whatever! She wouldn't let it go, she wouldn't stop, and the kids learned.

We can't assume our kids get it the first time. Doing one example of a type of math problem is not sufficient to give our students mastery of a topic. They need practice, they need repetition. I worry about lessening homework in our middle and high schools. I worry about such a wide swath of content in a course that students become masters of none.

After I finished my parade of classes, I came back to our instructional leaders and talked about my amazing discoveries. I challenged them to pair up with a teacher at another level and visit their building. Next week I await their stories. What did they see in the elementary buildings? What insights will the former 4th grade teacher I am showing through the high school have? Will there be another post about what primary teachers can learn from secondary?

This document took me about 25 minutes to write. There was so much there to talk about, it was easy. I limited it to 10 because I am pretty sure you are bored by now. Please comment below with anything else that comes to your mind on the topic.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

STEAM- New Buzzword, or Game Changer

In the fall of 2014, I was hired as our district’s STEAM coordinator. As May of the previous school year comes to a close, I find myself in front of my science classroom for the last time. I was trying to explain to them that they would have someone else teaching them AP Physics next year as I was taking on curriculum duties as our STEAM coordinator. I will never forget that look of confusion on their faces in part because after I tried to explain the acronym, I found that same look painted across my face.

I got nervous fast. While I was jacked to be starting this new journey as our district’s STEAM expert, I couldn't deny that a part of me had no clue what I was getting into.

I had a problem. What exactly is STEM? And where the hell did this A come from?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, that is STEM, or at least was my definition at the time. I was a physics teacher, highly respected in my field, and very successful with students. I had to be doing this already, didn't I? Science is in fact the first letter, that had to mean something…. there was math in physics, and engineering and technology too! I had this locked, no problem.

Then I started to think about it some more. What exactly is science? The running definition in my head was that it was a method for understanding the world around us. It began with a research question then utilized data to find relationships between variables. There were graphs, equations, definitions, and statistical significance that led us to understanding how we evolve, or how stars blow themselves up. Science was my bread and butter. Toss me a scientific law and BAM I am there with a fifteen minute lecture... Dalton's Laws- no problem, Newton's equation- cake walk, anthropic principle- I can dig it. If it is one thing I am comfortable with, it's science. Bring it on, STEM, I got your first letter locked!


I had a professor once tell me that a chalkboard is technology. It is a device used to help us. So is a broom, and a telescope, and a computer. Everyone gets so caught up in tablets, apps, presentation software, and smartphones, that they seem to miss out on what technology really is. A rock was technology a couple million years ago when you wanted to open a coconut. Learning technology is about troubleshooting a device to make it work for you better or more efficiently. It is not only computers, it is about sharpening that rock.

If the rock doesn't work, bash the coconut against a tree. Now you are talking like an engineer. If science starts with a research question, engineering starts with a need to be addressed. How similar is that?! Engineers solve problems, they make our lives better. They develop technology, sometimes to answer a scientific question (oh the connections). There are construction engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, aerospace engineers, and even food engineers. They see problems and they solve them. They may be putting men on the moon, or just giving them something to drink while up there (I am looking at you Tang).

A friend of mine from a close university, a physicist no doubt, once told me that we should not bother teaching high school students science. He said that is easy. We should be teaching them more math and some computer coding. Those, he said, were the language of science. If a student came to him at University not understanding the Law of Partial Pressures, he could probably talk them through it. However, without math skills, and to an extent coding, he couldn't even hold a conversation with them. Math was the language of science. Graphing, equations, statistics, and probability were essential in all disciplines of science. Without a firm understanding of math, a science lecture may as well be spoken in Greek.

So what is STEM? I think it depends on who you are talking too. To an educator, we are looking to mold students into thinkers, innovators…. the superhero leaders of tomorrow’s industry. We are striving for another (or first) Tony Stark, or would even settle for a genius super villain engineer. We know that technological innovation and advancing science will drive our nation’s economic growth and keep us competitive globally. We want to prepare students for fields that are not even invented yet. We crystal ball a future where workers use the letters in our acronym consistently and interchangeably to solve our world's problems. We have growing problems of not enough space on this rock, fewer and fewer resources and energy. We know in the back of our minds that the human race can not continue to expand at the rate we are making babies without altering the ways in which we do things. The problems will be there, we just don't know what they are right now.

Industry has a different definition. They could care less about the future; they need workers right now. They need problem solvers in jobs they can’t fill today. They need workers with technical skills, math ability, troubleshooting experience, and work ethic. They need employees who can work in a team, towards a goal. They need a workforce with STEM skills.

Surprisingly, politicians and lawmakers actually find themselves more in line with educators on this, at least to the extent of agreeing on the goal of STEM. They see it as a pathway to economic growth and global competitiveness. Sometimes their policies don’t quite match with an educator’s goals, but their intentions are at least blatant.  

Then there is the A…. Where did the A come from? If STEM was not enough, we are adding the Arts into the soup. Pushed by the Rhode Island School of design, this capital A is probably the my biggest worry. I sat in a lecture last year at our state science conference where a professor did a study of Nobel Prize winners and other various intellectuals. As it turns out most of the great thinkers of our age were very vested in some kind of art or design field. It was the first time I had heard of STEAM. To me, the fact that Einstein played a violin doesn't hold a lot of validity in an argument for including the arts in STEM. Then a few weeks ago I was introduced to the Wallet Project out of Stanford’s college of design. First off, I didn't even realize that any college of design actually exist. Once I left the workshop, my perfectly designed foam wallet in pocket, there was no doubt in my mind that design and the arts are an integral part of innovation.

So here I sit, trying to piece all this together into what STEAM means to me, to my district, the teachers I work with, and the students I work for. Putting the pieces together reveals a picture that is both grand and awe-inspiring. The theme of innovation is interwoven through problem solving by design. Using complex skills, content, and processes our students will someday move this world forward. It is our job to prepare them for what is out there for them right now as well as what has not been thought of yet.

STEAM is a buzzword. It's a pathway toward funding, resources, and a link from schools to industry. It is all-encompassing, and yet strictly defined by a set of principles. Many I speak with say we are already doing these things; we just have not labeled it with this decade's lingo. I believe that is true to an extent, but the doors an acronym can open are extensive.

Please share your comments below.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Leaving the Classroom

I am leaving the classroom.

I am currently teaching my last set of students.

Today I am giving my Unit 2 Astronomy exam for the last time, tomorrow I will be introducing my Galaxy Fleet Gamification for the last time.

Dennis asked me for a pencil to take the test... that is probably not the last time.

It may sound as if I am leaving with a heavy heart and I can not deny that that is true. I will miss the kids, I will miss their stories, their worries, their struggles, the relationships I have not yet built. There is something special about having a classroom full of students to help guide through exciting times in their lives. I would not have gotten into this profession if I didn't believe in kids. I know I have made a difference in specific student's lives. They have told me and that is probably the most endearing compliment a teacher can get.

I am not asking for sympathy, I chose to leave.

My district was awarded a grant to develop a system for teacher leadership. I have accepted a position as our district's STEAM coordinator and I can't be more excited about the possibilities this holds. Unfortunately this position has pulled me completely out of the classroom, to which I regret, but the work ahead of me is both exciting and new.

I will be working with teachers, not directly with students. Can I develop the same kind of relationships with adults that I have had with kids? Probably not, but I plan on giving it the old college try!

What does a STEAM coordinator do? I am asking myself the same question. As this is a new position, I have the daunting and exciting task of defining the job. Having not worked a day in the position, it is hard for me to say what can be done, but I have some goals.

  1. I plan on coordinating curriculum K12 in all aspects of STEAM. Not only making sure that the levels (elementary, middle, and high) are sequenced, but set to standards and measured appropriately. I believe I will have a unique perspective in being able to see more cross-curricular connections between all aspects of STEAM. (I have some ideas about having our elementary gym teachers measuring times for runs and then kids calculating their speeds. Can you imagine that, doing math and science in gym class?)
  2. I plan on bringing the community into our schools. We have very strong community support for our school and I plan on capitalizing on that. Lets bring in some engineers to work with some of our classes or clubs. Lets get students networking with industry through internships and job shadowing. 
  3. I want to increase the participation and availability of STEAM activities after school. We have a strong commitment at the high school to our science club competitions. I would like to see that expanded to our other levels. We have a respected team at middle levels in lego robotics. How can I help bring that the to high school? What can we do at the elementary level?
  4. I plan on training our teachers in both content and pedagogy to help them meet the standards set by the district. Some of our elementary teachers are not comfortable teaching science. I plan on showing them that science is fun, engaging, and an avenue to teach reading, math, and thinking skills. Teachers at all levels need exposed to what is new in teaching methods. We have flipped classrooms, modelling, learning cycles, 1:1, and a myriad of other models to put in our teaching toolbox. I plan on giving them exposure to what works for them individually. 
  5. Technology at all levels is ever changing and teachers need to be brought up to speed on its best use. 
If there is one thing that I don't lack, it's ambition. (In my spare time I plan on curing cancer and working on world peace) These are the goals I have set for myself. They are lofty, but they are important. I can not accomplish these alone. I will need help from the great teachers around me, and you, whoever you are that took the time to read this. If you are a teacher, please share your thoughts on what you would like from a STEAM coordinator. If you are already in this position, please contact me and we can share ideas. 

It is an exciting time for my district and me personally. To accomplish these goals will take time, patience, and a lot of endurance. However I will have 8 hours a day, every day to work on this. When I look at all that I do in the classroom in terms of planning, grading, delivering, and collaborating on instruction, these 5 seem more than workable. Perhaps I will have to add a few more goals:)


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Educational Reform: Who Is Driving The Bus?

Buckle up, kids. This may be a long one.

As you know, I write when something sparks my interest. It has been a while since I put fingers to keys on this blog, but recently I have had the opportunity to discuss our chosen field with some differing interest groups. I can't spit without hitting a half dozen people who want to talk about education and what we are going to do to change our system. They find me at parties, after school, on email, twitter, or in the hallway.

And I love it!

What happens in our schools matters to everyone. In the short term, our individual students get the most benefit. They are the ones gaining knowledge, skills, and experiences that will shape their lives on a daily basis. We, the teachers, are also growing on a daily basis with the real experiences we are having with students, peers, administrators, and curriculum. Ultimately businesses are supposed to see benefits from these day to day happenings in a more viable work force. From this, our state and nation is supposed to see revenues from increased production and this a growing GDP.

We are all on a this bus riding towards our short term and long term goals. Who is behind the wheel? Who drives educational reform? I started brainstorming some candidates and the list got longer and longer. Everyone seems to know the best way to do things in a classroom.

1) The US Government:
This is probably the most publicized, as it doesn't matter where you live in the great USA, you can always complain about the government. But how much is "the man" bringing us down? It surprises me how hard it is for Washington to push real educational reform. They can tie incentives to dollars, but in reality most of a school's funding comes from the states. Probably the most controversial attempt at changing education came in the form of No Child Left Behind. In my educational circles, NCLB is treated like the kid who farts in church. We all know it is there, but if we feel that if we ignore and never bring it up to each other, it will eventually go away. Here is my take on NCLB. The only problem with the law is that teachers didn't think of it first! We took it for granted that we want every kid to succeed. The problem we have it that it came from politicians who negotiated it into nothing but a nuisance. I wonder, if given the premise of the law (which is a great goal) if teachers could do it right.

2) The Market

I read an interesting article the other day on how capitalism should drive our educational initiatives. It follows that if we are going to compete in a global economy, we are going to need a workforce that is prepared to work in it. After all, what is the world but a giant system of checks and balances, policies, and goods to be bartered. Our students, and we ourselves could be seen as just cogs in this wheel of consumerism and free capitalism. The market determines what type of workers it needs, what type of skill and knowledge they must have, and thus how we should teach. This is fine except for the fact that it is too slow. The market changes every day, people's lives change every year. It is almost impossible for us to train a fifth grader for what the global economy will need in fifteen years.

So we make projections, we look at data, and try to determine the best avenue. When you look at data for the economy, you are looking at aggregate data, with millions of data points, averages of consumer feedback and voter patterns. Some may say that even with all the statisticians we have looking at this data, it is never right. If it was true, and not subject to change, most of those morning talk-radio guys would be out of a job.

And how does this aggregate data compare to data taken in a classroom? Can I compare the 25 students sitting in front of me to the average across the nation? All of those factors that are brushed over with millions of data points are now staring me in the face. Fifteen of the kids come from single-parent homes, eight have learning disabilities, four can't afford breakfast, and one of them had a parent get arrested last night. Aggregate data means nothing to me when I have individuals in front of me.

3) Billionaires

Bill Gates is a humanitarian. There are a lot of billionaires who have cared about education and sought change. We appreciate the money, we appreciate the intentions, but many times we need to look at how much influence they are buying. It seems that a lot of the money from donors like the Walmart Waltons (see below) goes to special programs, charter schools, and reform institutes. All of this money is going outside our schools, to auxiliary programs that may or may not have our students' best interest in mind.

infographic showing nearly $6 million in Walton Family Foundation donations to StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Education Reform Now

Donors who have money made that money by being successful in business, or a trade that paid them dividends. They make these donations as tax incentives to help in their businesses. I can't blame them, and really do thank them for being so generous as to choose education to invest their money. However they are still businessmen trying to make money. Their belief system, their values, and their expectations are still in place. They support their goals, or their beliefs. Does the Goldman Sachs Corporation have the same values as the kid in the back row of my class who spent twenty five minutes trying to secretly glue a girl to her chair?

4) Data


Getting a bit closer to home, I can tell you that if you want to see eyes roll in unison, mention data in a staff meeting. Businesses love data. Target can tell how many bottle of Listerine they sold next week in the last three years in order to extrapolate how many to order. They are very good at it. It is efficient, cheap, and technology driven. Things don't work like that in schools.

I am a scientist. I love data! If I believe in its validity, I can make some amazing predictions with it. However it is so easy to disregard any educational data as weak, varied, and invalid. It is very unlikely I can link how my kids did on a test to what I did in class. Sample size is probably the biggest factor. 25 kids is not enough to negate the variety of incoming levels, socio-economic class, or a multitude of other factors that could affect how they preformed on that Friday. Besides apples and oranges, I change so many aspects of my class each year it is impossible to see which change helped and which one hurt. Did they do better/worse this year because of the iPad initiative, the altering of some of the test questions, the fact that we had a speaker on Thursday, or the three snow days in the middle of the unit? Longitudinal data is impossible because I do change, and I should change things every year. I teach to kids, for kids. When the kids change, I change to accommodate.

5) Parents

I am somewhat in awe of the power parents have in a school district. If you want to talk about local control, here is the real deal. I can complain about my class size, the amount of materials needed for a science lab, or the need for a gifted program in my district until my eyes bleed, but once a parent speaks up, people listen. Get a couple of parents on board and you can damn near get a revolution in a school system. I think some would be surprised how a comment at a party to a school board member can lead to new math curriculum, or revamped band programs. Parents have a lot of power, and they should. It is their kids we are working with. They know their kids, they love their kids, and they want the best for them. However, parents are never unified. Never does a parent speak for an entire district. Parents are looking from the outside in, judging based on their past schooling experience. Does how they learned 30 years ago still apply today? If education is broken today, it was definitely broken back then. Also, not all parents had a good educational experience. Some still see teachers and administrators as "the man". So which parents do we listen too?

5) Administrators

This is my boss, so I had better play nice. I believe, and correct me if I am wrong, but teachers lose their "street cred" with other teachers once they leave the classroom. Some of the administrators I know were great teachers, worked very well with kids, and knew their stuff. They do a great job as facilitators of our school and at times can enact some good changes to our school culture. However, even being out of a classroom for a year, other teachers begin to feel that they lose the feeling of what it is like to face kids in desks. In a better world, admin would be free to visit classrooms on a daily basis to see what is going on, interact with all students, and be involved with classrooms. In a perfect world I think administrator should teach a section during the day. How would other staff view them, how would students view them if they were teacher-administrators? Sadly their job drowns them in discipline, meetings, money shuffling, and fires that they can't seem to ever get put out.

6) Colleges

Why am I doing all these projects, individualized learning outcomes, inquiry based labs, collaborative writing projects, and technological innovations in high school when in college they will be asked to sit in a 3 hour lecture hall with 650 other students listening to a woman read through a power point presentation? Too often universities hire researchers, not teachers. Nuff said.

7) Teachers
I bet you all are thinking I saved the answer for last. If you have read this far you can probably tell that I am very pro-teacher. Well I am, however if you think teachers can solve our problems you haven't ever been at a staff meeting.I have a lot of friends in the 'bizz' of education and I we rarely agree on anything! With so many initiatives thrown at us, we have had to pick and choose what we believe works and what doesn't. Most of the time the success of a class has very little to do with teaching methods, curriculum, or content. It comes down to one thing, and one thing only. The relationship the teacher has to the student! You can't quantify that, you can't teach it, you can't test it, but it is real. Teachers can't change the world alone. We don't have time, resources, or enough left in us after a day in class to do the things that need to be done. What we do is personal, it's individual, it's full of motivation, compassion, and care. We may not be able to change the world, so we just change one kid at a time.

Bonus Answer: Students!!??

There is a big push for student-led investigations. These can be very good, in small doses. I can't believe that we can run a curriculum on just what the students are interested in. If that was the case, I would have never learned to read. My kindergarten world revolved around which girl to chase at recess, not how how well Dick and Jane could jump and bike. My parents and teachers knew what I needed to be a well rounded adult and I trusted them to sculpt me. There were times when they failed, but overall I am sure that if I had more of a say in what and how I learned, I would not have interests in a tenth of what I am interested in today.

So what is the answer? EVERYONE and thus NO ONE! We all have our interests, but there is no one out in the forefront of this thing. We do our best with a system that is based on money, politics, and historical tradition. What should drive our change?

Just my ramblings. Take them as you will but feel free to comment before. Please add to my list as I know it is not comprehensive.