Wednesday, July 19, 2017


I'm taking a terrific course from the Change.School folks. I'm learning some things and relearning other things. It is increasingly clear to me the power of inertia. It is hard to shake up the status quo- even if a majority of folks say they want to. Look at the Republicans in Congress right now. It was so easy to vote 62 times to repeal the ACA when they knew President Obama would veto the repeal. But when things get real.... Look, school change and the ACA aren't the same thing and I won't go out of my way to conflate them further beyond saying that powerful forces get in the way of change. (In hindsight, Obama's effort to get the ACA is more impressive than it was seen at the time- whether or not you think it good policy, it was impressive politics.) In the case of school, I also think simple weariness gets in the way. Teaching and administrative jobs can be so all consuming. Time to think long-term in the midst of the year needs to be intentionally carved out, and often it isn't.

When plans are made in the summer, often they aren't realized once school starts in the Fall because we revert to old patterns. The patterns of school are deeply ingrained throughout the entire education establishment and infrastructure.

Change agents must be clear in messaging and consistent in promoting change. Otherwise, reversion to the status quo is almost inevitable. That's why schools have largely stayed the same despite decades of "reform".

Monday, July 3, 2017

If we started with a totally blank slate, what would schools look like?

As Russell Ackoff says: “If you don’t know what you would do if you could do whatever you wanted, then how on earth can you know what you would do under constraints?”
The Tom Carroll essay  “If We Didn’t Have the Schools We Have Today, Would We Create the Schools We Have Today? helps me frame my thinking. As the US sits in the middle of a healthcare debate,  and substituting schools for healthcare, the obvious answer is “No!” I think it is safe to say the same is true for schools.
Carroll points out that an 1880s surgeon walking into a an operating room today would be almost totally lost whereas an 1880s teacher might be perfectly capable of leading a 2017 classroom. The surgeon likely wouldn’t understand the procedure or instruments. Not so for the teacher. Yet, I do not think change is inevitable. The current model is remarkably resistant to change.
So, how do we get there if change is not inevitable? Culture matters. Leadership matters and yet a larger societal change also needs to happen.
ExDee Hock, first CEO of Visa and author of Birth of the Chaordic (chaotic and orderly) Age asks this powerful question of all of us: “And what if those with the greatest power, wealth, and position were to open their minds to new possibilities, loosen their tenacious grasp on the old order of things, abandon the palliative of cosmetic change, open their eyes to new forms of organization, seriously question their internal model of reality?”
What modes of realities to I struggle to let go of? I have to be less cynical with the Luddites and skeptics among us. I then might be better able to help guide change.
This Grant Lichtman video tells us rather ominously that schools such as mine shouldn’t be thinking in 5 year windows for long-term planning. Instead we should be worried if we will be around 20 years from now. Lichtman says change IS coming. The question is, will we prepare for it? Or will we be shuttered shut?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Money, That's What I Want.

The best things in life are free
 But you can keep them for the birds and bees 
Now give me money 
That's what I want-The Beatles

"6. The purpose of education, from a policy perspective, is predominantly or purely financial/vocational; civic education, humanistic inquiry, socialization, aesthetic appreciation, cultivation of emotional intelligence or compassion, or similar are presumed to be of secondary importance if they are deemed important at all."
For my Bruce Dixon's and Will Richardson's Change School cohort, I was assigned the reading I link to above from which I share the excerpt. In his post, deBoer challenges the unquestioned assumptions about schooling in America. These assumptions are so unquestioned that he calls them "dogma". 
The entire reading is profoundly counter-cultural. It challenges many unquestioned assumptions. And this particular point that I highlight above is central to his argument because our culture defines "success" as being wealthy or at the very least working in an esteemed field.  Politics aside, or at least partly aside, Donald Trump was perceived as successful despite his many, many faults. It is why he is president.  One's happiness, one's dedication to family and to spouse, one's contributions to arts, science and the humanities all are considered less important than wealth and a great teacher, artist, or social worker is not esteemed the way folks such as Donald Trump, Jamie Dimon and Steve Jobs are esteemed. Remember the scorn heaped upon "community organizers" in the 2008 election? Is it really any wonder that "the purpose of education, from a policy perspective, is predominantly or purely financial/vocational?"
I'm guilty of this kind of thinking even though I'm cautioning against it.  Let me tell you that I've worried that my daughter, an English major, will have a hard time upon graduating. At least I've had the grace not to tell her that and have had the wisdom to keep my mouth shut. I too am guilty of defining success, under the guise of "wanting what is best for her" by how much money she WON'T make!
Of course, I know the race for "success" is indeed a race to nowhere. It truly is fools gold. Did anyone see the Silicon Valley start up owner who decided to pay himself and everyone who worked for him $70,000? He read studies that show there is a close correlation between happiness and money up to that point. It makes sense. At that salary- in most places in the USA- one will have a house, car if wanted, enough to eat, enough to buy clothing, enough to have most creature comforts and enough to go on a vacation. After $75,000, more income does very little to make someone happier. Many in America, though thought him a fool, including his brother who is suing him. 
DeBoer gets it right. The primary purpose of schooling in the United States is financial and vocational. Everything else is secondary- even if the schools themselves don't fully buy in or claim to not fully buy in. I teach at a religious school where we proclaim morals and values are primary. Yet at my school, the bottom line is still the bottom line. 
Consider this: every time schools are seen to be in crisis, mayors, governors and presidents empanel blue ribbon commissions of business leaders to fix schools. You know what we should have done after the financial crisis of 2008? We should have convened a panel of teachers to fix the mess! (I'm only half joking.) Have you noticed that we don't ask teachers their thoughts on how to improve schools and that instead we ask business people?  Y'know why? We aren't "successful". 
About my daughter, I want her to have enough and so I worry. She's the eldest of 5 and though she will leave her undergrad years debt free, we can't afford to help her at all for graduate school. I fear the debt she will carry and so I start playing that mental game and think about "success" even while recognizing that our traditional measures of success are sorely lacking.  This argument is implicit, I believe, throughout deBoer's post. Americans are miserable. Our happiness index is falling in comparison with other countries. Some of us may be wealthier, but we aren't healthier or happier. As we define success in terms of wealth and career achievement we create unhappy people. Rich folks always want more money. Successful people chase more successes and neither of these paths will lead to happiness and well-being. They may increase pleasure, but they won't increase, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. I'm not against money or success. I wish I had more of both myself. 

Schools mirror broader societal values. And these values have many of us pretty messed up right now and yet to challenge the broadly accepted dogma is all but impossible.  It's sad. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Google Shortcuts! /create

Want to make a start a google slides presentation faster than you ever have before or speedily open a new google doc, form or spreadsheet? Simply add a /create to the end of your url.

For instance by adding /create you get or try out It'll save you a few clicks. 

OR even better yet, get Google Docs Quick Create Chrome extension. And it'll be even faster still. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Oceania is at war with Eurasia and the Earth isn't Getting Warmer

"Oceana is at war with Eurasia. Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia." In this world where facts are optional and "alternative facts" is now a term central to our political discourse, it seems we are living in a society against which Orwell warned us. In this era, it is ever more important that we teach students to be critical consumers of media. The fact that almost half of American citizens believe climate change is a lie is due to years of disinformation from oil companies who took a page out of the tobacco industry's book. It's been a big con. 

To make our students critical and careful consumers, we have to teach and we must let them practice! Digital and media literacy are important skills that are largely ignored in schools and clearly it shows. Stanford's study showing that students are easily fooled by fake information online received a lot of media attention after the US presidential election. It is clearly concerning. Indeed, it's so easy to bemoan the flaws of "the kids today". But adults aren't really any better at this and are frequently duped as well

KQED and Common Sense Media both have great resources for teachers. Click around on both sites to see lesson plans and units about media literacy. We as teachers do not need to create good lessons and units from scratch. There is a lot of good stuff out there. But we do need to take time and teach it and let students practice.

Can we once and for all drop the notion of "digital native"? It means very little. Our students may be frequent but passive consumers of media, but they need to be taught how to engage with media and become facile with tech tools.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Final Exam?

One of the charged topics within my school and within broader education is the final exam. Its proponents usually make two main arguments as to why exams are a good thing. The first argument is that a final exam forces students to look back and relearn and consolidate knowledge from the course. The second, at least at the secondary level, is that it prepares kids for the exams they will have in college. If my department chair was writing this post, this is what he would say.

I'm not a fan of finals; but I'm not terribly opposed to them either inside the current paradigm. I do think there are better summative assessments but I do believe a well-crafted final that emphasizes themes, ideas and big picture thinking isn't the worst thing in the world. Yet, I am giving a final project, not a final exam for my course.

My problem, as I said, really isn't with the exam. It is the paradigm it is embedded within. It is the teacher-centered, content coverage model that bothers me. Little agency lies with the student and ultimately very little of the knowledge the student is responsible for "sticks" anyway. It gets into short term memory and is forgotten within weeks.

Good PBL assignments and assessments are "stickier" because they put the learner in control. The best "final" at my school is a project for a the traditional and very demanding science course. But to my mind, the final is brilliant. It is a a project, not an exam. Students are tasked with finding connections to themes discussed in this integrated science course in pieces of art and famous pictures. It challenges kids to go deeply and there is no silly "guess what's in my head" that too many teachers play with the final exam.

Further than this, what should good finals look like? In my International Relations class, I gave students a choice of options- choice is always important- and while most students are going to do a more traditional, though tech-based assignment (they will use Adobe Spark Page to embed video, text and visuals) a couple of students are doing more open ended project. One student is reviving Amnesty International at my school and serving as the leader of the club as a final project. You know what? This student may not be forced to remember some of the concepts she learned this year, but she will be applying those concepts as she writes letters next year.

Finally, a plea: As you give your finals, please don't try to trick kids. Too many teachers think they are being clever when they try to fool their students. That's educational malpractice. Make it about thinking and not memorization, except when absolutely necessary. And yes, I do think there are some things that a student just has to memorize- such as irregular verbs in Spanish.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rules of Great Teaching

Again I have come across Sylvia Duckworth's rules of teaching. I like all of them. My five favorites are rules 2, 5, 7, 9 and 13. Both pedagogy and content knowledge are important. I'd add a couple more to her list.
16.  Collect feedback constantly. A good teacher should constantly be gauging both formally and informally how it is going in the class.  
17. Let students play expert. The most authentic tasks asks students to be expert and share that expertise. 

What are your favorites on her list and what would you add to the list? 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Kids Are Alright

I'm trying to get a student-led tech team up and running at my school. Though inspired by the students at Burlington High School and the amazing work done by their teachers, unlike the students at Burlington where the Genius Bar is actually a class for credit, my goal is to eventually make my group a club.
We met last week for a couple of days- more explanation below- and I gave them quite an ambitious list of tasks:

  • Paint a Green Screen- check.
  • Build an awesometable -check
  • Make video for teachers of tech tip kids wish their teachers knew-check.
  • build a survey for the student body. check
  • Create a how to video for DoInk Green Screen. Check
  • Test run Time-Line tool maker. check
  • Test run a word press blog vs. a blogger blog to help me, the tech integration specialist decide the blogging platform for next year. Check. Here is the wordpress blog they made for themselves and that we hope to share with the student community. Embedded within the Blog is a terrific awesometbable. 
These tasks among several others took most of the day last Thursday and Friday at my school. At the school I teach at, students spend a week a year of giving service. Almost every student goes off campus to help at places such as food pantries, nursing homes, schools, parks and the like. I kept 13 kids back on campus with me as a tech intern service group.

These 13 boys (sigh, I couldn't get a few girls) worked diligently for the two days and they got quite a bit accomplished.

It is amazing how much work motivated students accomplish. Thanks to Naim, Devin, Jerry, Wexler, Kai, Sylvan, Timin, Josh, Teo, Ian, Hugh, Pierce and Jack. You got a lot done.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Power and Privilege

I'm a mid-career teacher and truth be told, at 26 years in the field, I'm closer to being finished than I am to my start. At the start of my career, I planned to teach for a few years and then pursue a law degree. I wasn't gung-ho on being a lawyer, but I figured that's what I was supposed to do with the degree from the college I went to.