Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The More I Know

The more I know, the less certain I am of anything. This holds true for school, politics, work, relationships, teaching, and learning. As a young progressive teacher in my mid-20s circa 1995, I held great zeal and hope for a revolution in education that I was certain was just around the corner. I remember being annoyed with a co-teacher, then in her 60s, who saw me and my fellow zealots as simply a "swing of the pendulum".  Didn't she see the future!?

I don't think the pendulum ever really swung. Dewey's really never had his day. We've been doubling and tripling down on traditional methods in this society my entire career. As ed-tech took its baby steps, I again grew excited. But so much/ most of ed-tech now simply seems to support traditional, teacher-centered, teaching.

We want to monitor and control what kids see on their screens. It's what teachers most want.
We want self-grading quizzes. We use Kahoot so we can spice up recall based lessons.
The tools we've adapted are teacher-centered tools. Ed-tech isn't leading the revolution, it is supporting the status quo.

We ed-tech folks have awesome jargon. 21st century ed! Personalized Instruction! Skills-based!
Take a look at this book-trailer for Alan November. It still asks all the right questions. But I don't know how we begin to answer them in the USA in 2018.

I once thought I had the answers. Maybe I still do. But maybe I don't.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Stand and Deliver

I've been working with the terrific Godfrey Lee School District in Grand Rapids, Michigan as they work on incorporating the 6c's and themed based teaching into their K-12 instruction. This work has had me reading the works of a lot of different folks but also had me reflecting on the praxis of teaching. 
This teaching business is hard, and it's especially hard if you want to do a bit differently.  Though firmly in the constructivist camp, I’ve always taught in a traditional school that has a slightly progressive flavor around its edges.  I’ve taught enough in the traditional method to know it and I’ve been told I did it well. I once prided on being a very good lecturer. At least that’s what my students told me.  As I've moved away from the model, at times I still feel its pull.  I sometimes feel that I am not teaching and that’s despite a firm progressive philosophy and years of teaching experience telling me my way is better for most kids.
What Teaching is Supposed to Look Like? 
In our culture, good teaching is Mr. Chips. It is Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. It is Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. These dynamic teachers are the show! The movie and the class narrative is always about them! We celebrate these cults of personality- some rife with boundary violations. I reject this while being seduced by it at the same time.
I know a teacher with years of experience in the Maker Movement who was worried about not being seen as a teacher if he didn’t teach via direct instruction from the front of the class in his computer science class. I have no easy answers to combating these feelings. I urged this teacher to continue to do what his Maker training has taught him.
One must also acknowledge that progressive pedagogy and themed based learning is an easy target for parents who were raised with grades and homework and standards and lecture and RIGOR and they equate all of that stuff with learning. Years ago, one boy’s parents blamed my lack of giving grades for their son’s refusal to do any schoolwork. Of course, this boy wasn’t doing any schoolwork in any other teachers’ classes either and these teachers all graded him. My teaching was singled out.
I will encourage the great folks at Godfrey to celebrate and learn from their failures and to acknowledge what they are trying to do is brave. Constant reflection and self evaluation will be important for them.  To anyone thinking about trying to do this teaching thing a little bit differently, hang in there. I know it isn’t easy. But your students will learn more in all sorts of ways. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Google Forms Update

Yesterday, Google announced  updates allowing users to customize Google Forms to a greater degree than previously allowed. Besides uploading pictures and colors as background, there wasn't much to customize within Forms.

It's not earth-shattering. And I'll probably waste time finding the perfect font instead of just sending out a form. But it's a nice touch.

Monday, June 11, 2018


A colleague and I were speaking recently and in the midst of our discussion she referred to teaching as a vocation. I've heard this term more than a few times before, but she had me thinking about it again as I close out my 27th year of teaching.

A vocation is a calling. For many, the term evokes religious overtones. Is teaching sacred work? It gets at something very essential and very very important. There's not much work in the world that is more important- though I cede that other work may be equally important.

As I said goodbye to a woman who taught me and my son and with whom I've taught with for now 27 years, it is clear that teaching is, in some ways, sacerdotal. There are rituals, there's a sense of self-sacrifice, and we can when we're lucky affect profound and seemingly miraculous changes. This woman helped do that for me. She made me feel I belonged at a school where I was struggling terribly as a young 9th grader.

But before I get so high-falutin, I also should state it plainly that I don't always do this job for such noble reasons because for me there is no rush quite like it. I had classes this year that were simply exhilarating and I know that I had both everything and nothing to do with it. I'll admit that as a younger teacher, my ego was also very wrapped up in being seen as an excellent teacher. It's less about that for me now as I purposely try to keep my ego deflated. But the rush, ah... it definitely keeps me coming back.

The pay ain't great. The hours are lousy- any teacher worth their salt knows this job takes hours and hours of work beyond the school day. We're not especially respected by society and my fellow teachers in public education are punching bags for the politicians. I'm still waiting for the day when they put a committee of teachers together to solve the problems of business instead of the reverse. 

I'm the dad of triplets who graduated from high school on Saturday and I'm so very grateful to their many teachers who felt vocations to enter this profession despite these downsides. They've helped shape my kids in profound ways.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Sitting by/ in council/ as assessor


I've had the privilege of being taught by classicist, Dr. Erika Harnett every year of my high school career. This year, 30 years later, she taught my youngest child in her final year of teaching at the school in which I now work. Erika made me feel like I could " do it" at a time in my life when school was difficult. She was and is a no nonsense, but she also makes her students laugh and they know how much she cares for them. We will really miss "Doc". 

 It's also exam time at my school. I've shared my frustrations with one size fits all traditional assessments before, I'm not really going to do that here, at least not directly.

Doc's classroom is next to my office. In these last weeks of school, I've been thinking about her Latin class and the Latin I've mostly forgotten. I do remember one of my favorite activities in her class was when she would put a Latin word on the board and our task was to figure out the many English words came from that Latin root. I was and still am fascinated by the journey of language. I thought it so cool that the Latin word for room, camera gave us the words "chamber" via the French which retained its original meaning and our word camera because the original cameras of the 19th century were little rooms. I still like to look at the roots of a word.

The word assideo is the root for our word "assessment". The third definition as seen above is where we get our word. And yet, as I sit here at exam time I wonder if the first definition, "besiege" isn't really what we are doing.

One can never assess fairly because assessment is fundamentally a human activity. How do we really know how well a student understands history or literature? We can't. I know some will answer that we are really assessing a students ability to express that understanding, not if they have an understanding. This is true. But still, can one really distinguish an A- music composition from a B+ composition? The same holds true for a art project and yes, an essay. I propose to bring our assessments back to the root. Let's "sit by/in council/as assessor". Let's find ways to really bring assessment back to one of being in council with the learner. Let's move assments from being sorting exercises to learning exercises.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Awesome Videos in Seconds.

We've all seen short videos accompanying articles on the web that combine images, text. I've run a across a free tool called Lumen5 that does this while pretty much doing all the work.
Either cut and paste text or a url onto the FREE website, pick a few images and Lumen5 creates a video in moments. Viola!
It's an easy way to make student work pop. Imagine this accompanying a poster project or journal entry. 

Here's one I "made" about the Eagles. Lumen did most of the work. I just cut and pasted the url of this article  and it made my video in moments.  (Only quibble I have with Lumen is that it takes longer than I would have expected for it to render the videos) Go Birds. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Whoa. Amazing, Amazing Tools.

I've written quite a bit about using digital tools to enhance student reports, projects and publications. While an exciting visual element is always important, I especially like it when digital tools help a student tell the story more effectively.

Knightlab is Northwestern University's community of designers, students, and teachers who collaborate finding new,  dynamic ways to tell stories. Though meant for journalists, Knightlab's tools are exceptionally useful in the classroom.

The Juxtapose tool creates compare and contrast images with a slider feature. Soundcite embeds audio into text. Storymap creates a power visual story and my favorite, Timeline creates impressive looking interactive time lines.
Juxtapose, Soundcite, StoryMap and Timeline comprise Knightlab's main tools

Here's an example of StoryMap, my favorite of these four tools. Students can use Storymap to create their own story or to show understanding of a book they've read or historical era they've studied. Here's a sample storyMap made about Game of Thrones. It's stunning. 

Soundcite is another nice tool. Imagine teaching a music class and being able to do this:

" The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army is a relatively new song but this riff is so memorable and immediate that it became an instant classic. It is hard to find anybody who hasn’t heard this famous melody, who has been translated into so many things, from dance floor anthem to football stadium chants."
 However, as nice as the feature is, it seems much easier to just link to the audio. So I'm not convinced there is a significant value-add, at least not comparable to the other three tools. That said, I still like it.

Timeline is becoming a standard tool in the news industry. You can use the exact same tool in your classroom that prominent news outlets use in their electronic publications. Below is an example from Time Magazine about the life of Nelson Mandela. Any history teacher should see immediate use for this tool. I also like that it leverages Google Spreadsheets to make the timelines. This means that Timeline is a collaborative tool. An entire class can build one timeline using a shared spreadsheet. Here's a look.

The final tool, Juxtapose, has a wow factor. I have a colleague who teaches an architecture history class. This would be a useful tool for him. Here's a decent one I made of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It would be better if I found images that were taken from the exact same spot. 

I am very excited to try these tools, particularly TimeLine and StoryMap with my students.

Featured Post

The More I Know

The more I know, the less certain I am of anything. This holds true for school, politics, work, relationships, teaching, and learning. As a ...