Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Moving Beyond the Industrial Classroom

The TIE Technology and Innovation in Education, organization that I now work for is a cooperative that provides services: professional development, curriculum directors, special ed teachers, psychologists, reading coaches, etc. to school districts that cannot afford to hire a whole staff member(s). It has been in business for 25 years and in the last 15 years, have created partnerships with the Department of Education to build statewide trainings. Partnerships in the last 5 years or so have also grown beyond just South Dakota; we are now doing trainings in Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota, and at national conferences. The latest partnership has sprung into a new vision for the organization; moving education entities beyond the industrial classroom. This work has taken our director to 12 different states.  

Why are schools stuck in a system built in the late 1800's? To change the system, it helpful to understand why the system came to be; Peter Senge (2012) explains the rationale to use the machine-age system for schools in his book A Fifth Discipline Resource: Schools that Learn "It is little surprise that educators of the mid-nineteenth explicitly borrowed their new designs from the factory-builders they admired. The result was an industrial-age school system fashioned in the image of the assembly line, the icon of the booming industrial age" (p. 30). Senge (2012) continues explaining "The industrial model of schools didn't just change how students learned: it also changed what was taught" (p. 31). Senge (2012) quickly moves from history to exploiting the problem with this structure still in use today; it creates a system that seems almost impossible to change (p. 31). Bell schedules, GPA's, labels for "smart" and "dumb" students, 9 month schools, and a system that advocates for one size fits all. Senge shares business people's view that educational systems fail to change because there is a lack of competition; Senge (2012) explains their thought: "Feeling pressed themselves to innate or die, they see a sense of urgency missing in education" (p. 33). While Senge (2012) feels this is a part of the issue, it seems too simple. The system itself, designed for the industrial age embeds structure that is so difficult to break. Until schools and communities face the structure and try to figure out what are the Great Wall components, schools will fail to change (p. 33). 

TIE is helping schools rethink the current system and discuss what can be done to make change happen. Working with Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwan (2010), authors of Invititable: mass customized learning, TIE wrote a fieldbook to guide key players: teachers, administrators, community members, school board, etc. and wrote chapters specific to the audience on how to start asking questions, analyzing what is working and what is not, looking at the global perspective. From book studies to pilot schools, this partnership has created a new vision for our organization, one that promotes customization for students and plays on strengths to attend to 21st century needs. This perspective fits Senge's (2012) discussion throughout the Orientation chapter, explaining the beliefs of the industrial-age school. One example is "Knowledge is inherently fragmented"separately classes by subjects. Students do not mix math with literature or science with history. They sit separate and lack cohesion. Tim Lucas (as quoted in Senge's Fifth Discpline (2012)) states "The fragmentation of knowledge is the saddest irony of our business. Here we have all of this incredible life-nourishing material--literature, mathematics, and on and on. It's unending. Kids recognize its vitality when they start out, and yet, somewhere along the line, it becomes dead for so many of them. And the institutions are often dead too. There may be little spots of light, but it is so sad, because what could be more exciting than the knowledge of civilization?" (p. 46). What is challenging for TIE is true for educators stuck in the industrial age. For many students, they learn the game and succeed. Why should be completely change? TIE gets money from the schools it supports and thus, if a school is working within the industrial age system, we do not buck their system, but fulfill their needs elsewhere. 

Senge (2012) helps the educational "players" understand how systems work as he wrote his first book researching and noting business systems that were successful. He applied the same principles to education and found a huge need for the understanding and discussion. Breaking the disciplines out and identifying how they work, why they work (or don't), and how to truly understand the forces in play in order to change is key to making a systematic change. System-wide thinking is one of the disciplines discussed, "efforts to enact change throughout an organization (like a school system) instead of in one narrow domain" (Senge, 2012, p. 79), provides a challenge for an organization like TIE. It is run by soft money, money generated from year to year, simply driven by the changing needs of schools. There are only a few large grant projects, but most of the 35-trainer projects are driven by schools' needs. TIE can suggest and infuse paradigm-changing discussions into the work, but the way the leadership makes decisions, TIE must meet their models and not its own systems-wide thinking regarding customizing learning. 

TIE's strength that meets Senge's (2012) discussion of Systems Thinking is providing opportunities for simulations, modeling, project-based learning, all while helping teachers think about meeting the students' individual needs. In allowing students these opportunities, as well as teachers becoming facilitators and less lecturers, Senge (2012) argues that "system dynamics gives students a more effective way of interpreting the complexities of the world around them" (p. 233). The challenge for an organization like TIE will be to offer more and more of these opportunities and to customize the training and coaching in an industrial-age school to show how educational systems can change and meet learners' needs better by personalizing.

Finding ways to personalize, differentiate, so our learners play on their strengths instead of trying to fit into an old system seems daunting for a whole staff. Senge (2000) explains "So our goal is now to connect, to close the gap. Change doesn’t start in the majority. Find the passionate few and work with them, and the rest will come" This is highly positive for me and something that is easy to promote to other teachers. If we realize that change can start with a few change agents, the passion will be contagious. I worked in a high school in Littleton, CO, Arapahoe High School, 2200 students, high-achieving students, educated parents and we had about 20 of us teachers (out of 150) that decided to study different components of 21st century learning needs---changing grades, constructivism, etc. Karl Fisch was a key proponent of making a systematic change and the discussions and paradigm shifts that occurred were so fruitful. It was amazing how our studies, changes, etc. did in fact become contagious. We quickly went from a small group making changes just in our own classrooms to a whole school sharing ideas, strengths, etc. to make school current, personal, and global. It's exciting and difficult work, but so worth it!

Senge, P., McCabe, N. C., Lucas, T., Kleiner, A., Dutton, J., & Smith, B. (2012). Schools  that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Revised Ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group.     

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mass Customized Learning…Curve

Living in a world where
...Amazon can send me books I might be interested in before I even know about the books themselves…
…Pandora preloads the ads to match recent searches I've done---and I'm actually interesting in the ads they show…
…products from our phones, our computers, our TV's to our experience before and after a heart surgery are customized…just for us…
makes me hear presentations from Bea McGarvey or Will Richardson and sit up. I take notes on my iPad, save them in my Dropbox, open them at a stoplight, and email them to a colleague. I pick up my daughter Greta from preschool and get a call from my doctoral admissions advisor saying I need a 500 or less essay on my experiences in literacy; I pull over and have Siri, the voice recorder on my iPhone, record my thoughts as I craft my essay for the admissions committee. This is 21st century. This is not quiet rows and uninspired worksheets. This is not memorizing dates of wars or completing packets of vocabulary. This is not jump-through-this-hoop because the teacher requires 45 blogs or jump-through-this-hoop because the teacher requires 5 pages not six. This is today, 2013, not 2003, and certainly not 1913.

We do not need to sort out the top 10% of our students, so that they are the college-bound students and the rest become skilled workers---for those top 10%. No, today we need to hone talent. We need to push our students to be poised for creative, critical, and collaborative thinking.

Educational talk revolves much around terms like personalized learning and customization. I've heard presenters like Rushton Hurley say that our students are plugged in today---phones, computers, internet, etc., but have to power down for school. Why is that? Why are we as educators stuck perpetuating an antiquated system? Change is hard and breaking down walls, like Chuck Schwahn states--the "weight-bearing walls"--feels impossible. How do you change grades, so they reflect student learning…not compliance? How do you change the school schedule, so it's not decided by bells, but by the length needed to complete tasks? How do you change grade levels, so a child moves onto the next level when proficiency is reached, not because it's September? How do you change feedback from A's and F's to levels of proficiencies of specific skills?

Many educators say mass customized learning is the answer. It is necessary. It is essential. It is time.

But what a huge learning curve…not for students, but for us, the educators.

At Arapahoe High School in Littleton, CO there were a group of us teachers and one technology specialist/math teacher, Karl Fisch leading us to rethink how we "do school. Karl created a PPT to get us to think about the 21st century in new ways because as he so cleverly stated at the end: Shift Happens. And it does…whether we help our students to be ready for board meetings in Chicago, yet with colleagues in India and China. Shift does happen. Together, this group of teachers studied ways to change grades; it empowered many of us. We studied constructivism to change the classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered; it empowered our classrooms to grow beyond just our four walls.

And now, sitting in a brown-bag lunch conversation with 20 other Educational Specialists at TIE in SD, we're debriefing about a training we had with Bea McGarvey about mass-customized learning and how we can grow our own capacity for such events like our TIE Conference to individual coaching and trainings we do throughout SD, WY, and MN. I am struck by my experiences and how we embraced the learning curve and didn't worry about the "weight-bearing walls", but changed our own paradigms. We read research-based findings and shared our thinking, we modeled new teaching strategies and shared feedback on how to improve. We shared the burden of re-thinking education. I am so inspired to help teachers find inspiration to change the classroom as we know it. I don't know what my role will be or how I can help, but I do know that living in this world requires students to be flexible, creative, collaborative, persuasive, communicative, and technologically savvy. I know, together, we can "share the load" as Bea and Chuck state, so that we face this seemingly giant learning curve head on.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Data-Driven Teaching, Part 2

Ok, so yes, I have learned that data can be my friend. I can see if students are increasing with a certain set of skills---academic skills aligned with a test.

Although I am proud of my students' growth, proud of how I've built relationships amidst worksheets and tests, I long for constructivism. I want to give students a project idea and again see their strengths burst with creativity. However, I must wait.

"Teachers, you can do your 'pet projects' the last 4 weeks of school. You can do that novel the kids have been begging to read. You can write poetry and do artwork. But for the last 4 days before the test next week, nothing but CRCT practice."

We have been mandated to do after school tutorials and just 3 weeks ago, I was told that I could not have students in my classroom visiting before school without them working on CRCT practice. Relationship-building? Wait until the last 4 weeks. Creativity? Last 4 weeks. Critical thinking? Ha! What could they possibly think critically about? (sarcasm is thick, now!)

Funny how Georgia graduates only 51% of its students, yet the focus in my particular school is on "the" test---a state standardized test where students only have to get a 50% to pass! Now, I have been in Georgia for only 1 year. But the 1 year I have been here, I have had data conversations with administrators every other month to discuss who I am focusing on, how their scores are growing (or not) and why, and what extra tutorials I am offering.

I understand why students are not making it to graduation; I can hardly stomach "making it" until May 25th. Luckily, my kids enjoy my classes, think I'm funny, and feel like their English class flies by! Somehow I've made compound-complex sentences entertaining. But, are they ready for high school class discussions? Can they debate a topic? Can they explain a hypothesis? Sadly, only 51% will need to.

Maybe it is my exhaustion that speaks and not the value of hard work and focus. After all, our top students study for AP exams. But, they also debate, judge, analyze, and synthesize.

I must need a good night's sleep, drink lots of water, find a good number 2 pencil and a pink eraser... and all will be much better.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reflection on Data-Driven Teaching

Taking this job in Atlanta, GA, I was given an opportunity to teach English Learners...without any certification, training, or assistance. I knew that if I used effective, best practices, I could reach students and create a rapport that was conducive to learning. However, could I impact their learning? Could I help students pass their state standardized test to advance to high school? Would individual growth be enough or would the bar...the percentage needed to pass...be the only way to assess success?

It is March and we are 15 days away from the state test. Are the students ready? No....only 69% are in English Language Arts (ELA) and 61% in Reading.

How do I know?

The district requires teachers to give common assessments every two weeks on the same day. We all can see our scores and know how each individual student did and what questions they missed related to the standard. Then, at the end of every unit, students take a benchmark to see how many were proficient at the end of the unit.

The success of the scores are not in the 69% or 61%, but the fact that students moved from 9% to 27% to the 69% and 61%. Growth rates of 60% and 34% are something I celebrated with the students. I wanted them to be so proud of their efforts, so we discuss their scores often and I help the students track their progress. We watch their writing grow and see their understandings of literature, poetry, non-fiction, and progress in reading comprehension improve.

I have seen the benefit of data-driven conversations. It helps me rework lessons and reteach skills that many missed. I could give extra help to students and push students that already exhibit the skills needed for the unit benchmark.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can personal narrative find a place in academic writing?

In this week's study of my grad program at University of New England, we had to research something that we wonder, question, consider...and consider ways to implement our findings into our classes. I decided to look at writing and emotions. Transformative learning was a key term that came up time and time again. Researchers state how kids need to be motivated to write; they must care and connect to the subject in order for the writing to be authentic. Is this "allowed" in the era of high-stakes testing? Can we have kids focus on writing they care about, but push them to fix conventions? How can we marry both authenticity and explicitness?

One article "Individual Goals and Academic Literacy: Integrating Authenticity and Explicitness" (2009) Sarah Beck (2009) researched for a year a struggling student and a teacher, Mr. Redding that focused both the study of voice and conventions into his English classroom. This student struggled all year, but did succeed to do all assignments, even though they contained many grammatical mistakes. Her connections to the text, particularly the piece she wrote about Raisin in the Sun, made personal and moving connections. And, she was able to pass the state graduation test.

Just completing the position paper with my 9th graders, I ask: would their writing be more engaging if they chose a topic they had personal experience with? Or because they chose the topic, does that provide enough engagement?

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Exploring Google Sites

I am enrolled in University of New England Masters online program. One of the requirements is to create a Google Site to use throughout the program. I have used Wikispaces.com and have been pleased with their product and service, so I was feeling a little hestitant about exploring the Google online version. So far, it seems very user-friendly. It customizes quickly, in terms of theme and layout and it is easy to add pages, as well as rearrange where they go. I could not add a Word document as easily as Wikispaces, unless it's an attachment; I like having the opportunity to place the document in the body of the page instead of at the bottom, especially when used as a writing portfolio. However, I pasted the whole text on a new page and loved that Google keeps the formatting exactly how it was originally saved. This has always been frustrating for me and my students, particularly when they are writing poetry. I look forward to becoming more familiar with Google Sites and what it has to offer. My graduate portfolio will slowly build and so will my understanding of what seems to be another great product by Google.


Monday, December 15, 2008

To Be the Best in the Field of Literature is Analysis?

After my senior essays' lack of interest: no "hooks", bland discussions of their novel, dry language throughout, I wondered not only about their writing skills, but what we ask our students to do their junior and senior years. We want students to use critical thinking, outside sources, and literary criticism to make an argument, a claim, for a new way of looking at a piece of writing. We uphold literary analysis as the creme de la creme of writing. Or do we?

When we nominate a senior student every year that represents the best English student, our conversations are about his or her incredible writing: rich descriptions, memorable word choices, and tone that stings or coddles. We love to hear about Mrs. Ferrill's students that win the NCTE awards each year realizing that it's their narrative and poetry writing that gets them noticed. We do not talk about a student that 'wow-ed' us with their deconstructivist analysis of Hamlet; we usually remember the student who turned in an art project that showed symbolism of Brave New World. We remember the mock epic the student wrote about procrastinating on homework fashioned after Pope's "The Rape of the Lock". Students that leave their mark on the English faculty touch us with poetic devices and narrative whether in writing, art, or poetry.

Do we, lead our students astray each year forcing students to analyze novel after novel?

Their freshmen composition class in college will write narratives, place essays, and biographies, not literary analysis. Many presitigious MBA programs are going to a portfolio format for their culminating project. These are described as a combination of 1st person reflections on internships, classes, and projects as well as persuasive writings that attempt to showcase a student's financial prowess.

Should we add more focus to the narrative writing?

I do not think that we need to let go of the rigor required in writing literary analysis, but if we truly think about the leaders in every field, it is someone who can communicate beautifully about their field. If it's environmental law, we view the mountains in North Carolina that are shaved and stripped, leaving sledge in its rivers. If it's Wall Street, we hear the bells cling, see the brokers waving arms wildly indicating, "Sell! Sell!" and can feel the immense pressure of our changing economy.

Do we read about the feminist's critique of Secret Life of Bees?

I come back to my earlier post: are we turning out illiterate writers? And if our students can write, can they persuade me to believe that the human story was the true story in Life of Pi, can they convince me it's the better story? The one rich with life, love, and struggle? Will I see that in his or her writing?

I propose that we do think narrative writing is needed, but we fear its too fluffy, too much like creative writing to give it much time in our rigorous classrooms. I propose we relook at storytelling as an artform that we must hone; Daniel Pink claims that it's those that are creative that will rule the world in the next century. It's those that can weave poetry into advertisement that will land the proposal. I will bring it back into my classroom, giving credence to details.

Illiterate Writers?

Collecting my senior essays last week, I was so sad to see their writing. Frankly it was dismal and certainly not at a senior level of writing. I wonder if we're sending kids into college being illiterate writers.

We have this conversation often in the English department:

"I know I taught my 9th graders how to write thesis statements. They write them again and again! And yet, on the final, they just can't generate one!"

"My sophomore students say they don't know what one is!"

"Juniors say the same thing. Or they stare at me blankly. Thesis? I can't write one."

"Why can't kids keep this information?"

We discuss this problem and are addressing this slowly in our PLC groups, but it continues to amaze me year after year. I wonder if the "one shot writing" is a culprit. That's where we assign a type of writing and even if they are allowed to rewrite it, it is a one-time thing. We then go onto another type of essay, explication, or response. Maybe our kids cannot hold onto information that's given in such isolated events. It makes sense; we don't learn to play baseball with only 1 practice. ...Not even 4 practices, or even 8. In order to be proficient, students need practice again and again and again.

I fear our rigor with literary analysis gets over their head so quickly, they feel unattached to their writing and simply try to fulfill the writing requirement without real ownership in their own thoughts and analysis.

It could be that kids are lazy, unwilling to use what a teacher has taught them from the year before; this is what we conclude every year. However, I'm afraid that there's enough grade-grubbers, people pleasers in the world of students that to see this trend year in and out, seems naive. I think we need to considerate the age, the assignment's purpose, and begin to figure out how to practice writing like coaches have their little leaguers practice a level swing at home plate.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Return of the Wiki--Part 1

I have to say, I love wikis. The love of a to-do list that is organized with its details, chronological agenda, focused with its goals, and aesthetically pleasing, flowers scroll along its top. Every year I return to the wiki, for my own writing, adding in new pieces from my summer journeys and also to find ways for students to share their writing with each other...and others beyond the classroom walls.

This year I have decided to use the wiki as a place to practice their writing as always, but to do so as a group. Group writing offers a less stressful way to practice craft, but with help from other students. I will do this is varying forms, but the first way I did this was to create separate pages on my creative writing class wiki. Today students worked on descriptive writing with objectivity vs. subjectivity. I gave students various objects and they wrote a thorough description of each object. The paragraphs were very diverse and are excellent examples of the 2 types of description.

Click here to get a free wiki for teachers.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Retake a Quiz? No problem!

I don't know why, but I changed the way I test for understanding with quizzes this year. In doing so, I found an easy way to get seniors to reread. I know, seniors, going back to the text and actually reading it again?!

We're reading Beowulf right now outside of class. Students annotate while they read and then I give them a pretty specific quiz the following class period. I tell them what to look for, give them focus questions, and share my notes that I took when I read it. Kids get frustrated every year with their low scores. They read the text, but because it's an epic poem, the students often miss much of the meaning...and certainly many of the details.

As every year, I put the reading quizzes in my Reading Applications and Analysis section, but have decided that they can retake a quiz anytime however many times they need to. It's amazing how interested they are because they know they can very quickly affect their grade. But, what I love is that they go back through the text, reread their annotations, and recount plot details as well as theme, symbols, etc. How cool!

Instead of the reading check being an 'I gotcha!' quiz, it becomes a tool for observing details and an exercise in close reading. So, when asked: May I retake the quiz again? I respond: No problem!